Grayson Bowler

Head of Infrastructure and Operations Transition,
John Lewis Partnership
23 March 2016

Can you tell us about yourself and how you got involved with your current role at the John Lewis Partnership?

I’ve been with the John Lewis Partnership for 21 years now. Starting out on the shop floor, I then moved in to technology; initially working on the PC side then, over time that morphed in to some of the larger mainframe UNIX boxes, where I managed teams and later began managing a service desk at John Lewis. After that, I came to work in Architecture. Currently, my role is Head of Infrastructure which includes both the engineer resourcing and architecture – some of the portfolio and some of the training side.

What's your department's role in the business and how does it support meeting overall objectives? What would you say are the key priorities for the next 12 months?

We provide the underpinning technology and infrastructure for the Partnership and its systems. It’s pretty vital that what we’ve got works and is cost effective. One of the core priorities for this year is productivity and ensuring we’re running as productively as we can be. Within that is considering how we can run-out better automation, how we drive-out better building blocks and what the roadmaps are for our areas of accountability (data centres, elements of the network, storage and compute). The other thing that’s a huge priority for us right now, as a retailer, is security and ensuring that our systems are fit for purpose and secure. Our web presence is very large, and so we need to make sure that it is as secure and resilient as it can be.

The John Lewis Partnership (JLP) is famous for being owned by its employees; how does this affect the IT Department?

Many of our partners have been working for the Partnership for over 40 years and there is an ethos around ‘what being a partner means’. As we effectively own the Partnership, I think that this encourages a greater drive and desire to do the right thing and make the correct long-term investment decisions. I believe that this permeates through to the IT department; we’re not always worrying about tomorrow and can actually take a slightly longer-term view of what the right investments are. The other thing about owning the business is that we all feel responsible; Partners are prepared to put in more effort as it feels like you’re getting more out at the end, the annual Bonus is one example of this. We have a set of very dedicated partners, who care deeply about the Partnership and its wellbeing – I think we’re very lucky to have that.

The JLP has one of the most successful websites of the major high street players. What has been the key to getting the "best of the High Street" working well online?

I think that the key is ensuring that the website is stable. We must make sure that what we offer to the customer is clean and precise, but also stable and available - availability is critical to us. User experience is an area we focus hard on. We recognised early on how important online would be to us and made the investments 10-15 years ago to get some of the core building blocks in place. As time has gone by, we have been able to simply build upon and replace these blocks.

How does the JLP scale up their systems to deal with an occasion like Black Friday, without incurring large additional costs?

The reality is that there will always be additional costs. I think what’s critical for us is that we look across the whole of the Black Friday peak. We start our work thinking about what the peaks should look like for us and what we believe growth should be, over that period of time. We’ll then do an assessment of our Infrastructure, with a view as to whether it will be fit for purpose. If not, we’ll look at the best way of replacing that technology stack or augmenting it.
I think a few years ago, what caught everyone by surprise was how big Black Friday was. We were lucky in the fact that we recognised this and got some headroom in. As we currently exist in a business which is still growing, some of the capacity that we bring in for Black Friday will then be used throughout the rest of the year, on other projects and pieces of work that we’re implementing. We can then effectively smooth out some of that purchasing over the course of the year, with the understanding and knowledge that we might have to do more.

In your opinion, what has been the best technical innovation that the JLP has implemented in the last five years?

Whilst it’s not necessarily an innovation, I think some of the work that we’ve done in understanding our capacity and those peaks for Black Friday has been quite extraordinary. The work that we’ve done to ensure that we got it over the line, by each Black Friday, has been critical to us.

We had a piece of work 2 years ago (we called it SPINE). This was very much about making the infrastructure fit for purpose for Black Friday and it took everyone by surprise. I think the fact that we’ve taken a view around what our end-to-end infrastructure is, where the investments need to be made, and then invested in the back-end has been one of the biggest achievements.

That’s not just from an Infrastructure point of view, but all the way across the stack. We made heavy investments in supply chain as, from a practical point of view, the number of packages that we have to push through our warehouses during Black Friday is substantial. There has been huge innovation and huge investment in Magna Park, which effectively does most of our online deliveries. They have to scale-up hugely; some of the kit we have there, and a lot of the automation of that kit, is really quite innovative and very smart. We wouldn’t be able to fulfil the orders, without some of that investment.

Why do you think working in Infrastructure should be considered as an attractive career option? What skills and attributes do you need for your type of role?

I think Infrastructure is fascinating. It’s constantly evolving and always looks different from yesterday to today. You’ll see similar patterns come in to Infrastructure, recognise it, and realise what you have learnt from 10 years ago. It’ll come round full circle and you can see how it’s improved and developed over time.

Infrastructure has provided me with a wide variety of things to work on – PCs, Networks, Middleware, Mainframe, Storage etc – but I have also found that, over the years, the work itself has evolved. What was once a piece of work where you’d get your hands very dirty, is actually almost fully automated. Roles are becoming more about what the future direction is, and what the future strategy looks like.

We’re trying to think less and less of things as Infrastructure, and more and more of those end-to-end services, down to the point of our data centres. For instance, we are currently considering how we make our data centres enterprise-defined, so that they’re invisible to our business units; whether we’re serving those out of the data centre, out of a co-location data centre, or from the cloud. What fascinates me is the way that Infrastructure is always changing and the variety it provides to what we do.

In terms of skills and attributes, I think you need to be logical, thoughtful, strategic and always conscious of what the next step will be. Infrastructure changes so much that it’s very easy to make investments in dead-end technologies or technologies that, in 18 months time, don’t look very smart. The ability to foresee what the future will look like and where you will need to be at that point is essential. One of the key things is being inquisitive and understanding what’s available; you often have every supplier telling you that their technology is the best thing since sliced bread. An inquisitive mind is critical here, as this will help you to understand the technology, how it is different and how this will affect you, compared to other industries. Working in retail, I think there are still an awful lot of things that we can learn from other industries, pick up their best practices and make them work for us.

Are there any particular resources that you find valuable for your own personal development (white papers, reports, articles, etc.)?

For me it’s all about books and articles. I will religiously read the Economist Technology Quarterly, which always provides a good view of things that are happening in technology that you wouldn’t normally hear about or understand; I find that fascinating.

There are always plenty of books out there that are very stimulating. There’s a fascinating book by Jaron Lanier, who speaks about the value of data that we provide for free to companies like Facebook or Google. There’s another interesting book from Alec Ross (previous Senior Advisor for Innovation to Hillary Clinton), which I’m half way through. It addresses how he sees innovation impacting different industries, as well as the influence of robotics. This may seem a million miles away when standing on the John Lewis shop floor, but we need to be aware of how some of those trends may take off, and what they’ll look like for us.

Take something like mobile for example. Even I was a sceptic up to 6 or 7 years ago, but there were those who did realise how mobile commerce can take off and now look at us; It’s all about trying to anticipate some of those trends.

Any final thoughts or messages to our membership?

I think one of the biggest problems we have today is around sharing information in an honest and safe environment. We’re all aware of some of the publicly listed security incidents that have happened in recent times, but we now need to work out how best to learn from those lessons; how can we share information and learn from each other in a safe environment, where it would be to the benefit of all of us to be as strong as possible?

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