CTO interview: Milena Nikolic, CTO, Trainline

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Filling the shoes of someone who has led the tech strategy for six years is a tall order, but this is exactly what Milena Nikolic hopes to achieve in her role as Trainline’s new chief technology officer (CTO).

Nikolic’s previous employer was Google. “So much of my experience was at Google,” she says. “Running tech and tech teams at scale is a big thing Google had to learn.” Her key takeaway was being very data-driven and empowering tech teams.

When asked about her move to the train app developer, Nikolic says: “What resonated with me about Trainline is enabling greener travel choices. It’s very meaningful for me. I could see quite a lot of commitment, making more people use rail and switch from cars. That’s what I want to be part of.”

Nikolic says she has used the Trainline app for many years, and was drawn in by its innovations in the train industry and building delightful customer experiences.

At Google, she led the engineering teams in charge of app distribution and developer experience, but Nikolic is ready for a new challenge and wants to try something else. “The initial part of learning is very exciting,” she says. “I couldn’t wait to get stuck in, figuring out our product surfaces.”

The role of tech culture

Without doubt, Google has pioneered many of the best practices that IT and operations teams now regard as a blueprint for developing functionality at pace and scale. At Trainline, Nikolic sees her role as driving tech innovation, the technology stack, and the ways technology powers the services the company provides.

This involves having a great team to drive forward and deliver on the vision. “Tech companies live or die on the strength of their tech teams,” she says. “As part of my role, I want to build a dynamic tech culture so people really enjoy working here. A dynamic tech culture is not something you can come in and measure.”

In other words, there is no simple way for an IT leader to be confident their team measures nine out of 10 on a scale of dynamicity. Instead, she says: “You draw on your experiences. There are a lot of trade-offs such as your current goals and ambition, and the goals of the company.”

Nikolic says there are lots of things staff can be very proud of at Trainline, and the “next stage is to change the way we work to move even faster and be more engaged” with the business. Her goal is to have the tech teams aligned with business outcomes, across the software stack, supported by design, research and data science.

This will require a strong horizontal platform on which Trainline can develop products and services.

“The world that underpins Trainline is always moving. There is innovation in the cloud space and on mobile platforms”

Milena Nikolic, Trainline

A common issue IT leaders encounter is that the output of teams working on the front end and customer experience (CX) side is highly visible and it is easy for everyone to see the business benefits, but motivating the back-end team that develops and maintains a horizontal platform is a different story.

“There are some things that are very relevant to horizontal teams. These appeal to a certain type of team member,” she says. “Some people are very CX-focused, but there are also people who build excellent architectures and love building things that can help others build applications.”

While a front-end developer is likely to prioritise a consistent and modular user interface, Nikolic sees “enablement” as one of the big drivers for people with an aptitude for back-end, horizontal platform work. “They take pride in building really good APIs [application programming interfaces] focused on tech guardianship, and take issues like latency and error rates seriously.”

A stable platform provides a business with a technology foundation to innovate. “The world that underpins Trainline is always moving. There is innovation in the cloud space and on mobile platforms,” says Nikolic.

She believes that technology refreshes can be extremely exciting: “You can learn more when you redesign and reimplement a system.” 

Skills development and well-being

When asked about what she is hearing from her peers in IT leadership roles, Nikolic says: “Common themes are the return to the office and flexible work, tech budgets, cross-functional collaboration, and how to get to a place where you can move fast and not break things and keep everyone happy.”

In terms of the post-Covid return to normal work, Nikolic says the company is growing its teams. “We are hiring more people. In fact, much of the industry is hiring.”

The company has adopted a flexible approach to hybrid work. “We encourage Trainliners to get into the office,” she says. “I’d love to see as many people as possible in, but over the past two years people have got very effective at working remotely and we have to figure out what works for them.”

To support the hybrid approach to work, Trainline has refurbished its office with a focus on collaborative spaces. Engineering teams are being  organised around the concept of each team having a permanent space, known as a “neighbourhood”. 

Along with company-wide initiatives like well-being weeks and yoga, Nikolic believes companies should invest in educating people managers to think about mindfulness and supporting the well-being of their staff and make it a core part of their job. “It’s about alignment,” she says. “How to make the best use of people’s time and productivity tied to their own happiness.”

Recalling her first six months at Trainline and what motivates her, Nikolic says: “I love to see my team make a difference. I draw a lot of joy out of seeing us, as a team, creating value for our customers, such as rail operators and passengers, and seeing people grow and develop as professionals. We have a diverse workforce. Seeing everyone thrive is super important to me.”

 



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