Empowering innovation: Manuela Locarno Ajayi builds apps and services on the world’s most useful map
Mehdi Comeau·Jan 19, 2024

Empowering innovation: Manuela Locarno Ajayi builds apps and services on the world’s most useful map

Mehdi Comeau blogjpeg
Mehdi Comeau
Jan 19, 2024 · 5 min read
Manuela Locarno Ajayi: Building products on our smartest map yet | TomTom Newsroom

Find the cutting edge, and you’ll find Manuela Locarno Ajayi. With extensive experience at companies like Microsoft and Amazon, she’s now a leader in TomTom’s mission to build the smartest, most useful map on the planet – creating the apps and services that support users across a variety of industries and use cases around the world. We spoke to Manuela to delve into her journey as a leader in software engineering, her decision to join TomTom and the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead in her role.

From a dancer's dream to software engineering

Manuela is now SVP Product Engineering and an Extended Management Board Member at TomTom, where she leads about 1,000 people across the company’s core product teams. Her journey getting to this point is a testament to her versatility and determination in whatever she puts her mind to. Growing up in the north of Italy, Manuela dreamed of becoming a professional dancer, dedicating countless hours to practicing ballet, modern and jazz dance. She was close to fulfilling that dream when the allure of software engineering won her over.

She’d always had a knack for math and, at the time in the early ‘90s, the Politecnico di Milano had just started to offer a new software engineering master’s degree as a part of the electronic engineering department. “It was the cutting edge of what was happening,” Manuela says. Inspired by the rapid growth and unknown possibilities of personal computing, she jumped into software engineering and quickly landed at Microsoft.

Building products that matter

Manuela chose Microsoft because she saw they were making a difference by “building the product that sells, meaning that it solves a customer problem and people have an interest in using it,” she says. Having moved to the US in her 10+ years at Microsoft, a pivotal moment in her personal life led Manuela back across the Atlantic, where she helped power a digital transformation at the World Economic Forum. She then joined Amazon, where she became responsible for Amazon Flex, the company’s ultra-fast delivery program in their last-mile operations. 

Joining TomTom: Coming full circle in mapping

Joining TomTom was a strategic move for Manuela, aligning her extensive experience with the company's focus on maps that matter to people. She says herself, “it’s like coming full circle, bringing together all the engineering experience that I've had in 25+ years.”

At Amazon Flex, for example, mapping played a central role. She realized: “What ultimately makes or breaks the experience of online purchasing is the delivery, and delivery hinges on having a great mapping and navigation experience for the driver who drops the package at your front door.”

Yet many people don’t realize how important maps are to so many aspects of our lives, embedded as a key functionality in all kinds of products and services. This kind of unassuming opportunity for high-impact innovation excites Manuela. She’s now putting that energy into building apps and services on TomTom Orbis Maps, making sure that the company’s most powerful mapping solution gives every user what they need, for the use cases of today and tomorrow.

The future of mapping: Pushing the boundaries with TomTom Orbis Maps

TomTom envisions a future where Orbis Maps becomes the heartbeat of the world, as the first real-time mapping solution. The company is already making great strides, helping developers, automakers, governments and businesses big and small advance use cases such as ride-hailing, fleet logistics and AI-powered digital cockpits.

“I'm challenging my teams to think big,” says Manuela. She’s pushing what’s possible to “make sure we build these real-time mapping capabilities in a way that enables any type of application, for any type of user in any industry.”

One of the challenges is aligning innovation with the ever-evolving regulatory and compliance requirements. Manuela notes, however, that this is a part of the process that she doesn’t necessarily see as a hurdle. “We take compliance and safety very seriously, especially when it comes to leveraging digital mapping in real-life scenarios.”

In her eyes, this challenge is an opportunity to deliver responsible innovation. “We work very closely with local regulators in the regions where we operate, and it’s built into our DNA to bring solutions to market that are compliant and safe for the end user,” she says.

Where people, culture and innovation thrive

Manuela highlights TomTom’s culture as a driver of innovation. “There’s this culture of trying something out and seeing if it sticks, with such a great focus on the work, the desire to contribute, seeing progress and making customers happy. Politics just don't make their way in.”

She believes in healthy debates, noting that, “Teams find debates intellectually interesting when they happen in an open, honest and respectful environment. The focus is on facts, metrics and knowledge.” Being a part of this culture, Manuela is confident saying that “TomTom will continue to do well and drive progress in mapping.”

If you join TomTom, you're joining a bunch of people who are passionate about building the future, looking 10 years ahead on what's possible.

Manuela Locarno Ajayi

SVP Product Engineering, TomTom

Many people aspire to work at the world’s biggest tech companies. But Manuela says, “mid-size companies like TomTom provide exactly the same environment, along with an opportunity that is a bit more focused and impactful, where you get to work alongside experts in a specialized field.”

Having specialists in the right environment has brought the company results. “TomTom has been in the mapmaking business for over 30 years, and the innovation that the company has been able to push through over those three decades, and continues to push through, is what makes me excited about being here,” she says.

For example, TomTom invented personal navigation for drivers, creating one of the fastest-selling consumer products in history. And just within the past year, the company has introduced a new, future-ready global standard for mapmaking and used generative AI to launch a conversational in-car AI assistant. TomTom continues to innovate with forward-thinking leaders like Manuela, making it an exciting workplace for anyone who’s eager to have an impact in the tech industry.

Join the engineers at TomTom.

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