CIO50 2022 #2 Jason Blackman, Carsales
In 2016, a small team at Australian online vehicle seller, Carsales, was given the task of building artificial intelligence capabilities to improve the service the organisation provides to vehicle buyers and sellers across several countries.
Carsales had become increasingly reliant on AI and machine learning (ML) technologies to deliver innovations to customers. This meant that this small group of AI specialists needed to be expanded so anyone in the organisation’s technology and data science teams could support the experimentation and delivery to production of AI technologies. It was a big ask in a technology market where these specialised skills can be quite difficult to source.
Last year, Jason Blackman, chief information officer at Carsales worked with his team to explore how this problem could be solved. As a result, they created the Carsales Intelligence Academy or CIA.
CIA is a thin layer ML platform that Blackman and his team have built on top of Metaflow and Amazon Sagemaker Pipelines. CIA relieves teams of the ‘boilerplate and hygiene’ effort required to manage the infrastructure that supports AI.
“It was important to us that we built this platform ourselves so that we have the flexibility to continuously adapt it as our needs changed. While there are some services available that enable rapid adoption of AI and ML, there are very few that deliver the same sort of repeatable capability that we have been able to achieve, so it made sense for us to invest in this tech ourselves,” Blackman says.
Blackman and his team have spent time training staff on how to use CIA, an investment that has made AI and MLOps development available to all software engineers and data scientists. This means Carsales can deliver AI and ML innovations faster while upskilling team members in new areas.
AI drives better CX
Blackman says AI’s ability to think like a human and assess the threat or opportunity to deliver a decision with minimal fuss means that the technologies have permeated into almost all corners of the Carsales customer experience.
“We can use it in our chatbots, for fraud detection, to identify vehicle damage in photographs, to assess current market conditions and the impact this may have on vehicle prices. All historical use of AI within Carsales has now been migrated to the new platform,” he explains.
This includes Carsales’ AI technology, Mystique, which automatically blurs the number plate of vehicles listed on the website for sale, reducing the chance of the plates being cloned and used by criminals. First created from a hackathon project, Mystique can now process more than 150,000 high resolution images daily.
Another technology, Cyclops, has also been migrated to the platform. Cyclops is an AI-assisted image recognition tool that automatically recognises and organises photos uploaded to the Carsales website or app by people who are selling a car. This improves the identification process for these customers.
“Both Mystique and Cyclops have created huge efficiencies for us, saving our teams thousands of hours of manually processing images each year,” says Blackman, while stressing the company is aware of the ethical challenges that can arise from the use of AI.
“Given the wider adoption of AI and the ever-increasing volume of use cases where it is a clear option to solve a problem, we now have an AI and data governance committee to ensure that we continue to only use our platform for ethical purposes,” he says.
Technology is one of the three key drivers of Carsales’ organisational strategy; it’s front of mind for everyone, Blackman says.
“The strategy around how we continue to grow, innovative and maintain competitive advantage with our technology solutions is key for us and requires influence to ensure we are always making strategically sound decisions".
Blackman has a seat at the boardroom table and influences through his ability to translate technical solutions or complex problems into simple language that people can digest.
“This allows them to come on journey and decision-making processes with me whenever we are looking to pivot an element of our strategy or implement a new solution,” he says.
Blackman also ensures that he supports any business case with a clear list of positive impacts that the solution will have on the business. This could include benefits around speed, scale, information security, mobility, financial or other general business efficiencies.
“Remaining factual during this process and backing up my ask with data and metrics that support the demonstrated benefits allows us as a group to make logical and data-driven decisions on future strategic directions.”
Carsales’ move to the cloud is an example of this, he says.
When Blackman first joined Carsales in 2012, all its hardware was running from internal server rooms. He demonstrated to the executive team and board that moving to the cloud had real benefits, which resulted in a five-year commitment from the organisation to become cloud-native.
Blackman also meets with the Carsales’ board at least quarterly to discuss risks around cyber security, business continuity and maintaining competitive advantage.
“During these ongoing conversations, we were able to pivot quickly to a fully remote working environment when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. We had been working on a business continuity plan for quite some time and having conversations around how we would continue to operate with minimal downtime if one of our global offices was no longer available at any point.”
Supporting an international growth strategy
Blackman has helped steer Carsales’ international growth. He sits on the boards and management advisory committees across several of the organisation’s domestic and international businesses.
“Where I don’t sit on a board, I attend board meetings so that I can continue to offer advice and support. All commercial decisions made by the business have a technology lens applied. During any M&A due diligence process, I play a key role in ensuring that the acquisitions we are looking at are thoroughly assessed and understood in terms of the key opportunities and risks.
“This ensures that we start thinking about integration planning early so those businesses are as ‘technology ready’ as possible once an acquisition is completed,” he says.
Blackman adds that the benefits of technology also need to be highlighted to everyone across the organisation, particularly people in non-technical roles.
“Innovation is at the core of our culture and hackathons are some of our biggest internal events of the year. A hack is about giving our talented team the creative freedom to spend time generating concepts and working prototypes to benefit our customers and consumers".
Carsales’ entire executive leadership team supports the organisation’s global hackathons and every staff member is encouraged to participate.
“We’re passionate about hackathons because they bring our people together to collaborate, to invent, innovate and experiment with new ideas, many of which develop into tangible product innovation for our customers,” Blackman says.