Driven by Passion

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A Journey of Transformation in the Tech World: From Academia to Innovation

Reflecting on personal career trajectories and discussing the evolving tech industry isn’t unusual. But when an intellectual history scholar ends up as a vice president at a leading automotive company, things get extraordinarily fascinating. I am fortunate to be given the opportunity to share a stage with women making significant strides in the technological realm. I'm here to discuss transformation and innovation within the digital world, beginning with my own unexpected journey.

Tracing My Story

If you had spoken to my high school or college friends, they'd have last expected Kelly to be leading large product and engineering organizations, especially in the sphere of digital commerce and financing software. My love for languages, literature, philosophy, and history led me to pursue a PhD in intellectual history. As the internet took off, however, I found myself intrigued by its potentialities and embarked on a drastic career shift—from academic training to information architect in a startup. This transition involved applying skills like research, analysis, systems thinking, and instructional design in a revelatory new context.

Switching Tracks: From Academia to UX

Innovative and transformative work isn't always planned. For me, it entailed venturing from user experience to product management and business operations. After digitalizing travel, I was instructed at a coffee meeting with an executive from DealerTrack, "Help us revolutionize car buying. Try to make it less intimidating for new buyers. Take up this challenge." And so I did, leading me to my most significant transformation experience in the automotive ecommerce industry.

Key Principles for Leading Transformation

My career has been anything but predictable, marked by economic shifts and the emergence of new technologies. But they have taught me key principles for leading transformations

  1. Build lasting and authentic relationships, they'll support you through highs and lows.
  2. Stay aware and be curious about the world around you. Listen, observe, and engage.
  3. Cast a bold and inspiring vision, and ensure your colleagues and teams understand and connect to it.
  4. Recognize success, especially when it's not your own. Share your successes with others when you achieve something.

About Cox Automotive: A Pioneering Role in the Automotive Industry

Cox Automotive, a division of Cox Enterprises, leads the field in providing technology and services to the automotive industry. Besides serving consumers, we also work with car dealers, lenders, and manufacturers. Our consumer brands include Autotrader and Kelly Blue Book, and we also host Manheim auctions worldwide.

Embracing Digital Transformation

Managing all these services and technology is not a walk in the park. With numerous complex and aging tech stacks plus multiple data centers, innovation requires strategic planning. However, we view these circumstances as an opportunity for growth. To ensure our future success amid this complexity, we execute four critical plans.

  1. Cloud migration: We transitioned from operating 50 data centers down to just 3 within five years.
  2. Core practices transformation: This involves evolving engineering practices and breaking down traditional organizational separation between product and engineering.
  3. Data utilization: We harnessed our data to power our next wave of digital transformation by investing in enterprise data solutions.
  4. Re-use over rebuild: We learned the value of reusing existing assets by starting to decouple our legacy systems once we moved to the cloud.

A Constant Learning Process

Transformative moments like the implementation of AI and generative AI have the potential to revolutionize the way we live and work. Embracing these opportunities requires continuous learning and action. Stay client-focused, adapt to new technology, and never stop learning—this has been a pillar of success in my journey at Cox.

Inclusion and Diversity: The Power of Women in Tech

Cox Automotive’s success reflects the power of diverse and inclusive work cultures. With 40% of our executive leadership team being women, we recognize that diverse teams, inclusive cultures, and high learning agility foster innovation. We continually seek to inspire and urge women to venture into STEM careers. The path may be challenging, but the outcome is rewarding.

The journey to transforming industries and fostering a tech-forward outlook is available to all of us. By remaining curious, open to learning, and driven, you too can leave a mark in the tech world—a mark as unique and inspiring as that of a former history student transforming the car buying experience!

Visit our booth to learn more about Cox Automotive’s journey and opportunities.

Video Transcription

Hello, everyone. And thank you for joining today. My I'm Senior Vice President of Product And Engineering at Cox Automotive.And honestly, I feel honored and humbled to share the virtual stage with so many exceptional women in technology. We've gathered to talk about leading innovation and digital transformation. But I'll start first with a little bit about my own story. Now if you asked my friends from high school or college, the very last thing they'd have said is, oh, yeah. Kelly will be leading large product and engineering organizations, bid building digital commerce and financing software. Why you might ask? Well, first, I loved languages, literature, philosophy, and history, and I loved them so much that I got a PhD in intellectual history and what was on my way to become a college professor.

2nd, the internet as we know it today just wasn't publicly available. The French absolutely had minitel, but the rest of us had telephones and libraries. It was only as I was finishing grad school that the internet's broad application really started to take off. And intrigued by the potential of the early web and the energy of just about everybody I knew working in startups, I decided to take a huge and risky leap away from the career I had trained in for nearly a decade. My first job outside of academia was as an information architect where I applied the skills I learned in graduate school, research, analysis, systems thinking, organizing massive amounts of data, and instructional design in a dramatically new way. I then went on to form UX practices at places like Now none of these disciplines, as we know them today, really existed at the time. We were just learning and inventing new ways to work.

Now, the rest of my story from there may feel a little bit more familiar From user experience, I went on to various roles in product management and business operations. Until one day, an executive from dealer track, which was later acquired by Cox Automotive persuaded me to have coffee with him, and I'll never forget what he said. You know, he said, look, help. You you've had some really nice success digitizing travel. And, hey, you know what? You could do the same thing and stay where you are optimizing conversion. Or you could do the harder but way more rewarding thing and join us while we revolutionize car buying. Let's face it. Car buying is something most of us dread, and the industry has been irritatingly resistant to change.

But, you know, let's dare to make it easier and less intimidating for your nieces and nephews when they are ready to buy their first car. Well, you know, when he put it like that, how could I not take that dare? So I left a long established career in travel and ecommerce to learn a new industry, build new networks and alliances, and take on what would be the biggest and, honestly, most fun transformation challenge in my career. Now my path, has not been linear or predictable in any way, and I definitely experience setbacks along the way. But I've also had a great experience helping to transform industries and teams, and I've been inspired and helped by teachers, colleagues and leaders who practice some of the principles that I now hold dear. Build lasting and authentic relationships, They will help you in the good times and the tough times. Be aware and curious about what's happening around you Listen, observe, and engage.

Cast a bold and inspiring vision and help your friends colleagues and teams really understand it and connect to it. Achieving success is hard and is rarely achieved alone. So recognize success, especially when it's not your own, and share your successes with others when it is something you've accomplished. My story is also a little bit of a micro history about how transformation really happens. Changing your company's systems, laying the groundwork for innovation, persuading your leaders and teams to come on the journey with you is not linear not without challenge, risk, or even moments of failure, but success is within reach for the driven And for those open and aware of what's happening around them, with resilience to persist and for leaders who foster an inclusive culture.

But enough about me, I think it might be helpful if you understood a little bit more about Cox Automotive, which is a division of Cox Enterprises. Kontz Enterprises is a family owned company with businesses in broadband cable and internet, cloud and security services, clean tech, sustainable farming, print and digital news and media, and of course, automotive. Cox Automotive is the leading provider of services and technology to the automotive industry. We serve consumers, car dealers, lenders, and vehicle manufacturers. Now some of you might know us by our consumer brands like Autotrader or Kelly Blue Book. Maybe others have heard of our Manheim auctions, which are located in the US and 7 other countries worldwide, where we provide wholesale services that help dealers acquire, repair, and dispose of vehicles. Our software provides or powers everything from dealer websites, marketing and advertising, inventory merchandising, and CRM to the intricacies of vehicle financing, servicing, title management, and accounting.

And that, let me tell you is a mouthful. We cover a lot of ground. Now you'll please have to be patient with me. You know, my inner historian periodically escapes into the wild so before I talk about Cox Automotive's present focus on enabling sustainable innovation and digital transformation, I wanna take you back in time to our origin story. So humor me for a couple minutes because our past really does inform our present and future. Now Cox traces its roots to a family farm in Dayton, Ohio, and a young school teacher, James M Cox, who in an amazing act of personal reinvention purchased a struggling newspaper at the dawn of the 20th century. Fueled by a passion to serve his community, Cox built his readership by broadening the paper's audience, diversifying coverage, to include local, national, and international news. He even added a female editor to his staff, which was really, really unusual in its day.

From this one bold personal leap came a series of other creative steps forward. The company moved from newspapers to radio, TV, and then to cable. And although today, you know, these seem like obvious moves for a newspaper company, they were pretty audacious choices to invest in new technology and unproven business models. Other steps the company took were a little more disruptive, like the very first step into automotive, with the decision to acquire the vehicle auction, which became our Manheim vehicle wholesale business. But as we trace the themes from past to present, We see a business driven by passion for investing in human connectivity, awareness of emerging trends like mass communication and transport, and attentive to the needs entrepreneurs, leaders, and teams who share that same passion for their audience and for engaging with the changes happening around them.

Cox and the companies it acquired have been on the cutting edge of transformation with numerous first and breakthroughs over the years. We've digitized car listings, vehicle valuations, and brought vehicle auctions online with simulcast technology. We took a paper and fax based credit application process and digitized it. Now consumers needing financing for a car purchase can get credit decisions in seconds at home or in a dealership. And we were among the first to offer the consumers, to the ability to start their car deal online and now buy that new or used car 100% online in just minutes. To give you a sense of Cox Automotive Scale, over 70% of US car buyers begin their journey on one of the websites we power. With more than 40,000 dealer clients, we touch 34 vehicle transactions in the US. Each year, Coxys an astounding amount of consumer vehicle and transactional data.

Our consumer digital properties get over 2,000,000,000 visits annually And we process millions of credit applications and vehicle valuations, mid millions of vehicles are listed online or held in our auctions. All of that generates trillions of data points and insights into consumer behavior and vehicles in the market. And believe me, when I tell you, That is a lot to manage and protect. And this is also where the triumphant and seamless story I just told you about transformation and innovation gets way messier and much, much harder. Now Cox has grown through both organic innovation and strategic acquisition. Any company going through rapid growth or acquisition will inevitably face seemingly insurmountable complexity. And so by the mid 2010s, with over 65 acquisitions under our belt, we were in just that situation with numerous complex and aging tech stacks and honestly far too many data centers.

Innovation was happening, but becoming much more challenging. We were improving our processes, but we were still in the early days of adopting ScaleDanchel. Many of us looked at our systems, and we had trouble seeing beyond the monolithic applications and technical debt that had built up over the years. Our product development teams followed very different approaches to discovery, planning, and development that made shared or joint innovation really, really difficult. And we could clearly see the things now that we're impeding our path to transforming how the world buys sells, owns and uses transportation. Signs of eroding application availability and performance were popping up around us. And some of our most loyal and engaged clients were noticing. We decided to act. Now on a positive note, we had assembled really world class talent, including a 150 data scientists, over 25100 engineers, over 500 agile teams, and 100 of architects product managers, and data analysts.

So how then do you enable continued future success in a state of such complexity? I'd like to share 4 critical plays, from our sustainable innovation and digital transformation playbook. First, get yourself into the cloud if you are not there yet. Now as we'll discuss in a minute, thi this first move to the cloud will eventually call for you to do far more than lift and shift your applications, but lift and shift is a great start. Plan it carefully, but don't overthink it. It may seem daunting, but it's eminently doable, and your cloud partners will be there to help you. Within 5 years, Cox went from operating 50 data centers to operating only 3 and, of course, our cloud implementation. We drove a focus on operating with excellence in the cloud, which has led us to elevate the skills of our team and has dramatically improved the resilience of our technology.

And our clients have benefited with higher availability and application performance, we've seen our satisfaction scores steadily increase year upon year. 2nd, transform your core practices You will need to evolve your engineering practices and teach your teams how to build, run, and cost optimize your technology in the cloud. You may need to break down the traditional organizational separation between product and engineering to ensure the right balance of investments in market leading capabilities and the evolution of your core platforms and systems. You will need to help your product and engineering leaders, make the transition to metrics based management, coupled by strong shared discovery and user experience practices. Now if you're looking for some really hands on advice on how to help your engineering teams, take a look at a book called Accelerate. Building and scaling high performing technology organizations. It's widely available, and it's on Amazon. We used it with our teams to kick off our journey.

For hands on help to with your product and UX teams, there are honestly just a ton of great books out there. We really like inspired and continuous discovery habits and also the Google Design sprint approach. We've used these books as well as training and design thinking to put our own product and UX curriculum together. We also changed our organizational structure. At Cox, each of our portfolios is run by one leader who is responsible for product management, user experience, and engineering. Our portfolios deemphasize our original brands or business units and elevate enterprise capabilities. We all manage to shared metrics, approaches, and standards, but we don't micromanage innovation. And our portfolio teams are supported by enterprise centers of excellence in architecture, product, engineering operations and agile delivery that help establish and operationalize common standards, shared tooling, and skills development.

3rd, harness your data. Data is now powering our next wave of innovation and digital transformation. We invested in an enterprise data solutions team led by our chief data officer. We established data stewardship governance and syndication policies. And our first our cloud first data marketplace and drive q data intelligence engine uses state of the art machine learning technologies to accelerate much of our current innovation. 4th, reuse rather than rebuild the assets you have. Start decoupling your legacy or monolithic systems once you're in the cloud. There are many frameworks out there for how you could approach this. At Cox, we developed our own composable enterprise framework informed by lessons we gleaned from Gartner and our cloud providers. Sharing services and components will bring new forms of complexity.

So do invest in key platform enablers, like an API gateway, shared entity management, authentication, and authorization systems. Strong knowledge management, common standards, and practices will be really critical. But by decomposing your current systems, into capabilities, you will be able to reuse them to create new and innovative solutions much faster than rebuilding greenfield. The combined impact of these four plays in our playbook is accelerating our time to market once again. And last year alone, we launched 46 new products. Now we've made a lot of progress on our journey at Cox, but, you know, we know we too have more to do to ensure our continued success. The best advice that I can give you and I and my own teams is the guidance that I take from Cox's longevity and his of innovation. Keep your clients, be they, businesses, governments, NGOs, or consumers top of mind. If you really understand and care about their needs, only good will follow.

Pay attention to what's happening around you. Never stop learning and adapting, embrace new technologies, but not as an end in and of themselves, but for their relevant application to our working and personal lives. Client focus combined with a real awareness of emerging trends and technologies and a willingness to experiment will fuel the creative transformation of your products. As I look back on the long history of Cox, the company engaged with emerging trends and technologies at all the right moments. The ability to see the relevant application of those technologies to the communities businesses and consumers the company served has been one pillar of its success. Now this week, you will no doubt hear about the increasing importance and growth of artificial intelligence and machine learning.

And we are, I think, in one of those transformative disruptive moments where AI and generative AI in particular has great potential to change the way we work and live. Learn as much as you can. Think deeply about your clients and the relevant constructive application of AI systems to their lives. And finally, take action. One bold step, one experiment will lead you eventually to the right next move. As our time together draws to a close, I'll leave you with one last thought. That is the impact of you women in tech. There is a clear business case for inclusion and diversity. Inclusive cultures are better positioned to attract talent and innovate. In a time of rapid change and disruption, the ability to hear many voices is crucial. Teams with diverse skills, ways of thinking and high learning agility are what you should be seeking.

At Cox, we see how our diverse and inclusive culture fuels a positive workplace. It helps us attract great talent and supports the company's success and longevity. At Conx Automotive, more than 40% of our executive leadership team are women. Our product and engineering teams are filled with diverse talent, and and many women among them, including a lot of the leaders you see here. If you are a leader, work to inspire and encourage the women on your team, reach out and encourage women and girls to pursue STEM careers. For those of you at the beginning of your career journey, there's never been a better time to be in technology. Continue to be courageous and bold, and I hope to see you soon at Cox Automotive.

I'm I'm truly grateful to be part of this event and a huge thanks to the conference organizers and the teams working behind the scenes to make this conference happen. If you wanna learn more about Cox Auto, check out our virtual booth, and please do join the sessions we have later today and Wednesday hosted by some of our leaders. You can find those links, to those sessions in our booth. And, you know, not to be too cheeky. We are hiring, and we have internship programs. So thank you all for joining me today. I wish everyone a successful and inspired conference.