The five-minute CIO: Peter Mitchell

19 Apr 2013

Peter Mitchell, CTO, Fleetmatics

Peter Mitchell, the chief technology officer of fleet management software provider Fleetmatics, shares his insights on why product development teams need to work with sales and operations to ensure success.

Can you give me a sense of the scale of Fleetmatics as an organisation – how big is it, across how many territories?

Fleetmatics is an Irish company; we were founded in November 2004, and we started in a small office over an off-licence in Templeogue, Dublin. We had around 10 people, and now we have over 480. We sell here, in the UK and in Canada, but our largest market is the US.

We supply the software to over 18,000 customers and we track over 330,000 vehicles. That figure is from December 31. We’re very proud to have taken the company public on the New York Stock Exchange in October of last year – we were the first Irish company to do that in seven years.

What are the main IT applications that you use in the company?

We’ve a large geographical reach and we have a lot of offices for a company of our size. For that reason, we use the cloud as much as we can. From a CRM point of view, we use Salesforce, and we’re deploying NetSuite for our financial applications. We sell an awful lot over the web, and to do that we would use Webex: for example, we use it to conduct demos over the web.

From a software point of view, we’d be predominantly a Microsoft shop: SQL Server at the backend and .Net at the front end. From a collaboration point of view, on the software side we use Jira. We use LifeSize videoconferencing and we use Skype.

Can you describe a little more about how you’re using the cloud?

The internal applications are truly in the cloud … there’s a central function that dictates how we’re going and makes sure everyone is on the same version.

How we deliver the product is through data centres – we have one in Blanchardstown for our European customers and one in Colorado for our US customers, and both centres act as DR [disaster recovery] for each other.

What does your own day-to-day role involve?

My role involves the overall strategy of the company from a products standpoint. That covers planning, developing and delivering our end-user applications.

There are two groups under my remit: product management and product development. In the product management function, we do all of the competitor analysis, we do market research, we design the look and feel of the products and we do some research on that side, as well.

Once [a product] goes through the development lifecycle, we help position that within the sales team, and how it should get included in the sales process. And obviously we are gathering all the trends that come in through various functions: sales, customer support or external trends, such as mobile adoption among our users.

Was the growth of smart mobile devices a trend that made you sit up and take notice?

Part of my role is to try and get ahead of those trends and we did notice a few years ago that smartphone adoption was really going to be very high amongst our users. A lot of our customers are owners of small-to-medium-sized businesses. These guys won’t have a lot of time; usually they have at some point taken quite a gamble on their own company, so they’ve a vested interest in knowing – even in evenings or at weekends – what’s going on in their fleet.

In 2011, we released our mobile apps and to date, they’ve been very successful. We’ve 55,000 active users on smartphones and we have noticed that over time, logging through the mobile app versus through the web has increased dramatically. As recently as February, they’re almost at the same level.

There’s a big difference between looking at a laptop screen versus a mobile: did you have to go back to the drawing board, in a way, to provide a mobile-ready product?

We did, of course. Obviously through a web browser there’s more real estate and people have more patience to sit through steps. With the mobile app, we wanted to help people to be able to get the most amount of information with the fewest amount of clicks.

With mobile apps, there’s a period at the very beginning, that if someone finds it easy to use, they’ll keep using it but if they don’t, they are more likely to abandon it. So we really had to put an awful lot of effort into the user experience. I think our mobile usage would attest to the fact that we got it right.

How much of your role has a business focus and how much involves working directly with the technology?

Given the size of the company, I have to be very involved with the business side but I also have to steer the technology and product direction. They key is to have as many talented people in charge of product development and we’re very lucky in that regard. The standard of our staff is very high. We interview a lot!

I think you have to create a culture where people can make decisions but also where there’s accountability.

Has the ratio of commercial versus technology focus changed over time for you, or do you expect it to do so in the future?

It’s hard to put a ratio on it. Obviously, at the very beginning, I was very involved on the technology side. Every year my role has been different and I expect it to continue to change as we go into new territories and acquire and deploy new technologies. My peer group is the executive team and I have to work with those guys. I expect my role to continue to evolve.

Your own background is in engineering and mathematics, so how do you map that to the commercial awareness that someone in a senior business role needs? Did it come naturally to you, or did you need to work at it or study to achieve it?

I’ve always had to be mindful of the business side and I’m a firm believer that if the product is developed in a bubble, then you’re going to be in trouble.

Even when I was up to my neck in the product side of things, I was going out to see customers and participating in sales calls so I think it was a good grounding.

From my perspective – and I’m not alone in this viewpoint – the success of Fleetmatics comes down to the sales culture and part of that is the relationship between the product and sales.

In everything we do, we have to be mindful of the end user, and what we are selling to them.

My own education on the business side has been on the job but I work very closely with the heads of sales and operations. Anyone who’s not doing that, in my role, is going to have trouble down the line.

It’s been said that a lot of computer science courses are emphasising the technical discipline but ignoring the business aspect. Given that you see a lot of graduates when you’re hiring, is this something you’ve seen, too?

Really bright coders tend to have a certain aspect: they’re fiercely intelligent and very logical. If you don’t expose them to the other side of the business, their thinking can become isolated. As you come out of college, that’s a default state.

We have an annual developers conference and it’s not about development, it’s about the rest of the business coming in and relating stories to the developers, to keep them aware that at the end of a project, there’s someone who will sell the product, someone you know who will buy it and someone who will continue to use it.

What are some of the major projects you’re working on right now for Fleetmatics – what can we expect to see?

I can’t really divulge much on our active projects. But we believe that once we get through them, our product will stand out even more in the industry, especially with the user interface, where we’ll make the information even more powerful and get it to users much more efficiently.

Gordon Smith was a contributor to Silicon Republic