In the 12 years that Carl Phillips has been at AO, he’s risen through the ranks from developer to Group IT Director. We sat down with Carl for a trip through memory lane, looking at what AO was like back in the day, what the future holds for AO Tech and his insightful advice to his younger self.
What was AO and the IT department like when you started?
Back then, AO was still Appliances Online and it was actually only about 10% of the business, with a lot of our work coming from third party contracts. In terms of the IT department, there was only around 30 people, with two very small software development teams. One looked after our websites, while my team worked on everything else, like the contact centre systems and product information management.
There was still a good culture then as well. The transparency about how the business worked was something I found fascinating and even from a tech point of view, we were switched on. So I learnt a lot right from the beginning.
How did you go from developer to director in this time?
It’s been an interesting journey, and not one I had planned if I’m honest. I think whatever role I’ve been given, I’ve just tried to do it to the best of my ability. I’m pretty self-motivating, so I’ve always tried to figure out for myself what we need to do to get better and go make it happen before someone asks me to.
It’s fair to say there’s been luck in my career. I’ve been in the right place at the right time, but I think I’m always ready for the next role and seeing how I can help out and go above and beyond. That’s put me in a really good position for when opportunities have come along.
When I can, I’ve made some leaps of faith for those opportunities and I’ve always backed myself to succeed, even if I haven’t worked out how I’m going to do it.
You mentioned about having the confidence to take those opportunities, how would you encourage those who might not feel like that and support them?
When I have a role and I’m looking to hire one of my people into it, it’s all about supporting them to be confident enough to apply. If someone’s a viable candidate and they don’t feel ready themselves, I’d want to support them a bit more and encourage them to make that next step because I know they can do it.
Since you’ve been a director, how has AO Tech changed?
It’s changed a lot, but it’s kind of changed a little too. In my two years in this role, I see the changes as the next step in our evolution – I didn’t want to rip everything up and start again. Since I was already with the business, I knew what direction we were headed in and it gave us a great sense of continuity.
When I look at where we’ve changed, I like to think we’ve levelled up across the board. We’re a lot more considered and mature when it comes to choosing certain systems and suppliers we buy from, which really helps us as a tech organisation.
In terms of software and what we do day to day, our agile transformation has been key. We started bottom up, about 10 years ago now, and my team was the first team to start trying it out at AO. Real change can take a long time to stick but the more you have to work at something, the safer it becomes. We’re fully committed to product-based teams now and this year we’ve even started to see this affect other areas of the business and everyone’s really excited about it.
Now that we’ve committed to a product-based approach, what are the next steps for AO Tech?
I think the beauty of doing things this way is that I don’t have to have all the answers. I’ve got some ideas, but it’s the people on the frontlines that have the power to make the the proper decisions and trialling where we go next.
We’ve recognised that product development and an agile way of working is the way forward, so it’s about implementing this to its full potential across all of our systems.
What is the culture like in AOTech?
I think it’s a complex thing because you can’t steer it from the top, culture happens between people. We’ve got a big team now, so we don’t just have one culture. The whole of AO does have a set of values, and we try and live those and interpret those for AO Tech as much as possible.
In terms of what I try and do to create a good culture for us, it’s all about highlighting the good things around the place and praising the good work that our team has been doing.
We also want to be as inclusive as possible and open to all walks of life. I think it’s the smart thing for the business too, as we want to represent our diverse customer base and I think our workforce has to represent that.
If you could go back and visit yourself when you were a developer what words of wisdom would you share with him?
Right now, I’d say it’s to make sure you can see things from a different perspective. I see a lot of friction, tension or miscommunication because you can only see your side of the story. I think of it a bit like a beach ball, where each side has a different colour. My side is blue, but yours could be red. We’re looking at the same thing, just from a different angle. If I think about my interactions back then, everything looked really simple, but I don’t think I was seeing the whole picture.