Category Archives: software acumen

Innovative. Bold. Unique! How Auto Trader’s new office supports agile working

Auto Trader first adopted agile ways of working in 2008. The following year it launched its mobile website, developing iPad and Android apps a couple of years after that. By 2013, the final edition of its printed magazine was published, and Auto Trader became a fully digital business. It’s now the biggest motoring digital marketplace in the UK, with over 11 million unique visitors a month.

It wanted an office to support all this so, in 2014, 600 staff working across 5 different locations moved to a state-of-the-art new office in Manchester.

The move would help the company – which had fallen into the trap of working in silos – collaborate more effectively. Existing offices were old and run down (customers were rarely invited there); the biggest site had 3 buildings across 7 floors and working across them was difficult.

Auto Trader wanted its new office to:

  • be fitted out with agile in mind
  • have a good image to support recruitment (unlike previous sites)
  • provide a flexible working space (e.g. for different types and sizes of meetings)

The move was planned quickly and took place within 9 months (often, projects like this can take a couple of years). One person – a senior project manager – had full-time responsibility. Auto Trader wanted to make sure staff felt listened to, so there was a lot of consultation and opportunities for people to get involved. This included:

  • checking mobile phone coverage at the new location to make sure it met people’s needs
  • involving representatives from each team in planning the move
  • equipment trials in a mock office at old locations
  • giving each team the chance to spend a week in the mock office, testing layout, furniture etc. – and then letting people vote on what they liked best
  • moving to hot desking, with directors losing their offices

Some people decided to leave rather than relocate, but the percentage was much lower than expected because of the way the move had been managed: staff felt involved and valued.

Claremont Group Interiors were chosen from an initial shortlist of 7 office outfitters that tendered for the project. They managed the design and fitting of the 60,000 sq ft new office over a 16-week period.

The new office includes hot desking spaces, informal breakout areas, walls that can be written on and ‘war rooms’ for bringing teams together to ‘swarm’ on big problems. Touchscreen media has also been used, and some walls are decorated with graphics from the iconic Haynes manuals, which can be coloured in.

Meeting rooms are named after vehicles:

Meeting rooms are named after vehicles:

The 6th floor of the building is a flexible space used for hosting events (it’s so far been used for hackathons, science fairs, all-staff broadcasts, brown bags and dealer days, as well as various meetups – and can be configured in different ways).

But perhaps the most eye-catching element is a series of 6 iconic vehicles that were chosen to represent different decades in Auto Trader’s 38-year history. Before these were craned into the building, staff were given the chance to drive the vehicles around the old offices as a tribute. Then the engines were removed and the vehicles were coated with special paint allowing them to be written on making them adaptable meeting spaces – both inside and out. 

One of the specially craned-in vehicles

One of the specially craned-in vehicles

The Manchester office design also helped inform the design of the new London office, which is next to Kings Cross station. It’s easy to get to from Manchester, and staff regularly spend time at both locations.

Work friendships have now sprung up across the organisation – teams socialise much more than they did before, and departments are less siloed. There are user research labs where teams can test new product versions, and observe the people using them. Dealers are regularly invited to the office now, too.

The benefits of the move are easy to see: it’s increased the amount of collaboration and interaction between different parts of the company and emphasised that Auto Trader can do things at pace – and in new and different ways.

The Worst PA

How to be the worst PA in the world

I walked into my interview with Mark and Ryan of Software Acumen having done all my interview preparation, researched the company, studied my CV, prepared questions for them and felt quite confident.  The interview was going well and then suddenly there it was – The Killer Question:

“What would make you the worst PA in the world for Mark?”

Well I hadn’t prepared for that one and it wasn’t just a question; I was given a pack of post it notes and a sharpie pen and told that I had 5 minutes to sit in the interview room on my own and come up with as many things as possible that would make me the “worst PA in the world”.

Was this a trick?  What was the reasoning behind this?  Surely I should be selling myself as a great PA and presenting my positive attributes, not showing my interviewers that I know how to be a bad PA.

Coming to work drunk

So off they went and left me too it.  I started writing the obvious things, coming to work drunk, ignoring all my emails,  trawling social media (although now this is a big part of my job so actually that one shouldn’t really count) etc.  The ideas kept on coming and actually I found myself filling 17 post-it notes with things that would make me a bad PA.  So that got me thinking, was that a good thing that I came up with so many in such a short space of time or a bad thing that at a job interview I came up so quickly with 17 ways that made me a bad PA.

The Anti-Problem

Well it turns out that I just got to play a game in my interview!  This was actually an innovation game called the Anti-Problem. The purpose of this generally is to help people look at a problem differently. By turning the problem around and trying to work out how to solve its opposite, this in turn will help you look at the situation with a new approach and hopefully give you some sort of solution.

This of course gave me an insight into how my boss and the rest of Software Acumen works and a new idea and creative ways to come up with lots of excuses for being the worst PA in the world.

The New Job

So not only did I get to play a game in my interview, show that I know how to be really bad PA, I also got the job. So either Mark wants a really bad PA or he thinks I have what it takes to be a good one… I’ll let you know. Or he will…

The Worst Lightning Talk in the World

It turns out that Mark is a big fan of the anti-problem and uses it in many of the workshops that he facilitates. In fact, he gave a short talk on the technique and how he’s used it, at UX Bristol 2013. For the talk he used the format of the anti-problem to generate ideas for a great lightning talk by, you guessed it, turning that problem around to think about how to give the worst lightning talk in the world.

Mark Dalgarno – The Worst Lightning Talk in the World from Bristol Usability Group on Vimeo.

Hello from Software Acumen


Welcome to our blog! We are going to use this blog to capture information and provide resources that relate to our conferences.

What conferences? We run a bunch of awesome little conferences in Cambridge and Edinburgh (and who knows where next) in the UK. We want to run great conferences rather than big conferences that give participants and exceptional learning experience that they will want to repeat every year. But you still don’t know ‘what conferences’. We run:

  • Code Generation
  • Agile Cambridge
  • UX Cambridge
  • UX Scotland
  • FP Days
  • Cloud East

to name but a few…

So we will use this blog to upload all sorts of information from generic information pertaining to how we work, links to documents we want to make available, little thoughts, big thoughts, thoughts from other people we have invited to join the fun, how to info, where to info, all sorts of information.