CIO50 2018 #10: Jason Blackman, Carsales
Carsales’ chief information officer Jason Blackman, through the actions of one of his previous leaders, learnt one crucial lesson: to actively listen.
“It is common knowledge the level of distraction the smartphone can generate,” says Blackman. “A previous manager was listening to a proposal that another team member was making and, and although it was a relatively dry presentation it still required one’s complete attention,” says Blackman.
“The person presenting asking a question of the leader with no immediate response. The thing was that the presenter just sat quiet and waited patiently. It felt like it was almost 5 minutes before the leader realised and the gig was up.”
Blackman says his observation of this interaction was an epiphany.
“The power of active listening still rings true for me to this day,” Blackman says. “It is so important that as a leader you give your team your full attention. Not only is it a sign of respect and builds trust, you could well miss out on learning something new that day, which is another big lesson.
“Always be open to learning something new every day and be open to being educated from anyone no matter who they are,” he says.
Carsales, an online marketplace specialising in automotive, motorcycle and marine classifieds, has an entrenched innovation culture. Blackman and his team have driven a handful of innovations over the past two years that have delivered real results for the organisation.
A blockchain concept presented to government, originally developed by Carsales but planned to be released to the public domain, should democratise the vehicle ownership proof problem, says Blackman.
Transferring vehicle ownership is a time-consuming process for the consumer and government. The new system uses a blockchain and user identification to record ownership.
“The data on the chain can then be augmented with additional information, providing monetisation opportunities for existing businesses and startups alike. It is anticipated that the proof of concept, government support willing, and could move into the mainstream within 12 months," he says.
Blackman says the ownership blockchain concept was a potential solution looking for a problem - the problem being determining vehicle ownership exists. The blockchain will allow for the speedy transfer of ownership records, remove the requirement for significant paperwork and delays, and improve the ability to accurately collect stamp duty on transfer. It will allow for an ecosystem to be build around the technology, he says.
The blockchain is new within Carsales and as such, it has very limited exposure or expertise, he adds.
"Running the project as a sort of 'blackops' activity gave it an air of mystique that attracted a number of passionate volunteers to put their hands up for involvement," he says. "These individuals were so passionate about the success of the initiative that despite having plenty of working day time allocated to the project they also gave up considerable amounts of their own time to study the technologies involved and bring themselves up to speed so they could ensure its success."
Blackman says that sometimes there is an opportunity for an organisation to do something profound and he genuinely believes that the blockchain project it is.
"In order for it to get started, Carsales is looking to seed this into the industry and for it to remain an open endeavour. We are not looking to monopolise it and it is for this reason we believe it will be a success ... we will look to add value in various forms around the data in the chain. There is a lot of opportunity for us and others in the industry in this regard."
AI to improve the user experience
Blackman and his team have also developed Cyclops AI-based image recognition software, originally developed from one of the organisation's hackathons. The engine is trained using many millions of photos that the organisation has accumulated over years.
"It [the software] can do two main things to improve our user and employee experience: it can detect the part of the car (the angle) in the image, and the make, model, badge, series and year of the vehicle in question," he says.
This automation has saved more than 9,000 hours of effort each year for the organisation's photographers manually classifying the images. It also introduced the the ability to classify those images that other users upload - something that would have been impossible to do manually, he says.
"Cyclops came about from the passion of the team for trying something in AI. The hackathon proof of concept quickly identified the potential for business efficiency and improving customer experience," he says.
"From there, it was relatively easy to simply invest further; we deployed it into production for our users within six months of inception," he says.
A third innovation is the award-winning video advertising campaign, AutoAds. The campaign, created with CHE Prioximity, allowed automatically generated videos to be uploaded onto Facebook and to the sellers listings on carsales.com. This proved the scalability of the cloud for Carsales and the video platform that Carsales developed internally to be able to play terabytes of video.
"The MyAds solution came about due to the desire to create something for our customers that they could share on social media ... that would amplify their listings - giving them an additional tool to assist in selling their vehicle faster," he says.
"The biggest problem was the sheer number of snippets and bringing it all together to give the 7 trillion possible combinations to make the videos as unique as possible and removing repetition."
In the past, Carsales had done much of its innovation in-house. The MyAds solution was a significant first where the company worked with an agency to develop the product due to resource constraints and the desire to hit the market fast.
"This posed a small difficulty in existing teams being able to work with an external provider. Having the provider work periodically and consistently from within the Carsales office helped overcome the communication and collaboration issues. This tactic is now being used more widely to improve speed to market and adoption of new technologies more quickly," he says.
An important role
The CIO role at Carsales is to develop and then deliver on the product and technology roadmap globally, says Blackman. It is seen as a key to the continued success of the business by enabling the growth that has been experienced in Australia to be achieved on a global scale.
"The role has responsibility to bring product and technology issues and opportunities to the boardroom table, deliver appropriate business cases for those opportunities, and to also perform due diligence in the pursuit of acquisitions," he says.
"The position at the executive, and periodically at the board is such that the role is seen as a valid contributor to the commercial success of the organisation and not just a cost centre."