As CIO at The Hut Group (THG), the UK e-commerce company behind brands like Lookfantastic and Myprotein, Joanna Drake faces some headwinds.
Drake is responsible for global operations and technology services for THG Ingenuity’s corporate and client websites, people technology and direct-to-consumer services and hosting business and has sought to leverage the Manchester-based company’s rapid growth by going public, a global pandemic. Supply chain instability and the start of a recession.
Speaking at the CIO UK 100 awards ceremony at the St. Pancras Renaissance Hotel in London, Drake explained what it means to be ranked the UK’s top CIO, how her tennis background shaped her leadership, why automation is taking the pressure off her IT team, and how THG supports engineers relocating from war-torn Ukraine.
CIO 100 Winner, Sports Leadership and Being “Too Kind”.
Drake was on the CIO 100 in 2021 and 2020 before topping this year’s list and says the award is for her team, not just her.
“If it were about me as an individual, I would struggle to do one [CIO 100] submission,” she said. “So it’s about the team and I’m blessed and honored to work with so many amazing people every day, with so much courage, determination and creativity.” She added that it was also an opportunity to stop and reflect, how far they’ve come over the last year and how she got into IT after a tennis career didn’t materialize, first in helpdesk support before moving on to service management and engineering positions.
As she climbed the ranks and held senior technology roles at Diageo, Accenture, Yahoo, Betfair, BBC and Skyscanner before joining The Hut Group in 2018, she realized her sporting background could inform her leadership style.
“The sport has taught me a lot about teamwork, putting players in the right positions, team building, understanding your strengths and weaknesses, practice, hard work, discipline and how and when to use coaching or mentoring,” she says, adding, that they use their team’s ‘ingredients’ to find details that can make big differences.
That’s not to say that Drake’s rise to the higher echelons of corporate leadership has been smooth. In particular, throughout her 20-year career, Drake has often been reprimanded for being overly friendly, a perhaps unfamiliar trait in a results-oriented business world.
“Throughout my career, I’ve been told many times that I wouldn’t make it as a senior engineer,” she said. “Actually, I think it’s about being the real, authentic me because it’s exhausting when you can’t be yourself. I’ve learned by being myself that that’s actually okay.”
Digital workplace, automation and “IT as a consultant”
Drake highlights THG’s Digital Workplace and automation initiatives as her team’s most notable achievements over the past year, alongside the Ingenuity Compute Engine (ICE), which THG hopes to use to create “hyperscaler experiences” out of its 50 data centers.
As part of the Infrastructure Reimagined program, ICE provides a software-defined Infrastructure-as-Code (IaC) platform that enables teams to run containerized applications on top of Kubernetes, ultimately accelerating infrastructure procurement and deployment. According to Drake, THG has built the platform in four of its data centers so far, allowing developers to build new platforms on top of ICE and migrate existing THG workloads onto it.
Speed and simplicity were also the essence behind THG’s Digital Workplace initiatives.
The e-commerce company has also introduced zero-touch device provisioning, built app stores for Microsoft and Mac-based devices, offered technology drive-through and click-and-collect services, and numerous digital enhancements to the office environment Signage, wayfinding screens and universal table setup for hot desking to meeting room technology, video editing stations, equipment lockers and digital packing benches in warehouses.
Automation has since been introduced to enable IT team members to become advisors to the business, removing their operational drudgery while freeing their industry peers to focus on more strategic work.
By leveraging a combination of RPA, low-code, and no-code technologies, THG has attempted to streamline processes, particularly in HR, such as:
“The automation was in full swing [IT] they almost automate themselves out of their jobs so they can fill more interesting roles,” says Drake. “Where they’ve taken a lot of operational effort off, we’ve had to re-skill our engineers, and that’s great for retaining talent.” Instead of moving or making tickets, engineers go into the company as consultants and talk to different departments about processes. “They’re tracking things that are holding them back on how they could do more so they can actually eliminate their operational toil,” she adds.
Stalking talent and supporting Ukrainian employees
Despite this technological innovation, Drake insists that people remain her top priority, and she resorts to covert methods to find potential talent.
“I stalk a lot on LinkedIn,” she says. “I think about the kind of people and skills I want and I go and chase them. I have to build the team and I want the best players so I have to go out and find them. And when I have them, I have to make sure they succeed and make a difference. And when they succeed, we are all happy.”
However, she recognizes that ongoing recruitment challenges, pressure on the cost of living and rising mental health concerns mean there must be an equal focus on retaining and attracting talent.
To further help with the former, Drake oversees a series of stand-ups throughout the week to keep the team busy. There’s a Monday session dedicated to how the IT team intends to “win” that week, a Tuesday session is called Takeover Tuesday, Wednesday session focuses on wellness and development, and Friday is an opportunity for team shout-outs and general updates.
Drake has also tried to help engineers flee Ukraine at the start of the war with Russia, evacuating them and their families to Poland, paying for housing and providing household goods, toys and jobs at a local warehouse.
“The work has helped many of our employees in Ukraine to lead as normal a life as possible under these circumstances,” she says. “Ensuring that they are very actively involved and heard every day is a really important part of their support.”
Financial crises shift the CIO’s focus to efficiency
Much of the progress made over the past year has been laying the technological foundations for the next 10 years, but Drake acknowledges the next 12 months could be a bumpy ride.
Hut Group’s growth has been slowed of late by rising raw material costs, cost of living pressures on customers, falling shares (down 86% yoy) and a market valuation which has recently shrunk from £5bn to £600m headwind in the market.
In October, Japanese investor SoftBank announced it had sold its 6.4% stake in company founder Matthew Molding and Qatari investors for just $31 million.
Because of this uncertainty, Drake is now focusing on efficiency.
“[My priority is] We’re continuing all this efficiency stuff – ICE, Composable Compute, which means we can deliver more and faster.”
Drake also leads THG’s “Match Fit programs” and looks at ways the group can improve customer service, operational efficiency and team development as some semblance of normality returns.
She says THG consolidates toolsets, decommissions legacy technology and migrates customers to the latest platforms, and ensures the company gets the best bang for its buck when working with suppliers.
“We thought of using it as an opportunity to get in really good shape and be ready to fight when the world starts to turn in the right direction again.”