Jessica Twentyman meets: Ocado's guerrilla recruiter

Jessica Twentyman Profile picture for user jtwentyman January 8, 2014
In the first of her weekly profiles, Jessica Twentyman talks to Paul Clarke, CTO at online grocery store Ocado, about the challenges of recruiting the right team to support the company's growth plans.

Paul Clarke

“Allowed to pitch ideas to your CEO? Then implement code in 2 hours? Thought not.”

That’s just one of the messages that appeared overnight last October on the doorsteps of major technology employers in the City of London, left by a team of workers armed with high-powered water jets and stencils.

“Fed up of being a drone? Try programming one instead,” read another.

These pavement messages, sprayed outside the premises of companies including UBS, Amazon and Skype, went on to urge intrigued techies to drop by a recruitment van, located in nearby Leather Lane, to find out more about working for Ocado, the online grocery company.

It was an unusual kick-off to a recruitment campaign that will see Ocado fill 100 vacancies in its UK operations and a further 50 in its development office in Krakow, Poland. Successful candidates will join an existing IT team of around 350, working under Paul Clarke, Ocado’s chief technology officer.

“I’m perfectly happy to be unconventional in how we go about hiring top talent,” says Clarke, with evident satisfaction. “We’re taking the fight out there, onto the streets. We’re using guerrilla tactics.”

Guerrilla tactics could be what it takes for Clarke to hammer his point home to would-be recruits. He’s looking, he says, for talented technologists with proven Java skills to drive innovation in areas such as robotics, machine learning and cloud development - but so are many other employers. In other words, Ocado must beat a bunch of rivals to the punch.

Clarke acknowledges the challenges faced by Ocado Technology, the division he heads: “If you stop someone in the street, it’s likely they’ll know our brand, but they may not see us as a technology company,” he says. “But Ocado is absolutely a technology company, as well as a retailer, and we need to get that message out there.” The bulk of the software that runs Ocado’s web presence, its vast warehouses and its fleet of delivery vans is developed in-house, he points out.

Corporate turnaround

The IT recruitment drive follows a remarkable turnaround in fourteen-year-old Ocado’s fortunes. Back in 2012, the debt-laden company seemed to be staring into the abyss, with its shares languishing at an all-time low of 56p and financial analysts murmuring darkly that bankruptcy was in the offing.

But in May 2013, it blindsided the retail industry with the announcement of a £216 million, 25-year deal with Morrisons, the UK’s fourth largest grocery chain and the only one of the four, at that point, not to offer its customers an Internet shopping service.

Under the terms of the deal, Ocado now runs the website and delivers the orders placed there, in a tie-up that runs alongside its longstanding partnership with another British supermarket, Waitrose.

Now, there are high hopes that Ocado has got what it takes, in terms of intellectual property and software development savvy, to strike new deals with other retailers, both at home and abroad. Financial analysts and investors are inclined to agree: in 2013, Ocado’s stock was the highest performing in the FTSE 250 mid-cap index.

The overriding goal is to get new retail partners to pay to use Ocado’s technology platform and expertise, as Morrisons has done. As Ocado CEO Tim Steiner told attendees at the World Retail Congress, held in Paris in October 2013, “Tech is a global asset. You don’t want to invest in a platform and then just deploy it on a little island.”

The upshot is that Clarke will need a load more hands on deck in 2014 and he intends to take a hands-on role in signing them up, he says, including some of the more unorthodox candidates he encounters.

“We’re willing to take risks with people,” he says. “When it comes to recruitment, I like to think in terms of dry-stone walling. There are organisations that like to build themselves out of regular sized bricks, but we’re not one of them. What we’re good at is being able to accommodate talented people who maybe wouldn’t thrive at a more regimented organisation.”

“Often, you’ll find the most exceptional talent in the most unusual applicants. You’ll agonise over whether you can see them fitting in or not, and they’ll turn out to be some of your real superstars.”

Outside London

Whether they’re unusual or not, he’ll still need to convince applicants of the attractions of working in Hatfield, a market town situated 20 miles north of London. While supermarket chain Tesco and betting firm William Hill have recently established software development labs in central London, that’s not in Ocado’s plans, at least not for now.

Instead, it has begun work on a new floor at an existing building at Hatfield for technology staff, designed according to the latest thinking on office layouts. As advocates of the Scrum approach to software development, for example, they’ll have designated areas for stand-up meetings, along with hot desks and break-out zones. “We’re not just creating a nice space. We’re creating one where agile working practices are woven into the plans to support the ways our developers work,” says Clarke.

With the busy Christmas season out of the way, Clarke’s recruitment plans are gathering momentum. The start of a new year, after all, often prompts dissatisfied workers to reconsider their career plans, “but we’re not looking to take the crumbs from other employers’ tables. We certainly won’t drop our quality bar,” he insists.

Rather, he has a clear view of exactly the kind of person he doesn’t want to attract to Ocado: “If you’re the kind of person who wants to know what they’ll be doing in nine months’ time, then go and join the Civil Service. If you want certainty, try applying to a more traditional company.”

“Here, new opportunities come along regularly, plans change quickly. Our employees can pitch an idea in the morning, start working on the code in the afternoon and, before they know it, that code’s been approved and uploaded,” he says.

That kind of business and technical agility is critical to Ocado’s success, according to Clarke. And it might be what it takes for the company to finally achieve profitability in 2014, a milestone that, if reached, will put its darker days firmly behind it.

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