Digital transformation was already well underway for many enterprises before this year, but 2020 has shown just how critical it is to have technology that is able to quickly adapt and support unforeseen circumstances.
At the recent BIMA Conference: Lessons for the Future, digital leaders from Dawn Foods, The Gym Group, WP Engine, and Frontastic sat down to discuss their experience around building a future-proof technology stack, and why many enterprises are leveraging a MACH architecture (microservices, API-first, Cloud-native, headless) to ensure their business is ready to evolve.
Read the rest of the article below and find the recording at the bottom of this page.
The Digital Bar is Raised
“What we’re seeing in all of our clients is the importance of a digital presence.” said Nina Jonker-Völker, Head of Marketing at Frontastic, the front-end-as-a-service platform. “Your customer touchpoints have become the main entry point for your interaction with your customer.”
As customers interact with more businesses online, the bar is getting higher around their expectation for what every digital experience should feel like. “We want to make sure that we are ahead of the curve in terms of experience.” said Gireesh Sahukar, Senior Director of Digital at Dawn Foods, the wholesale bakery company, “We’re constantly thinking about what other experiences are out there that our customers are engaging in. Not just in our space, but online in general.”
A Composable Future
“We looked at a lot of different architectures and technologies, but the theme became clear to us that pretty much all the platform vendors were saying the same thing with their roadmap.” Gireesh said about his recent experience creating a new customer-facing digital solution at Dawn Foods. Regardless of where platforms currently were they all said they were heading down an API-centric path. “This essentially meant that there was no architecture disagreement between vendors and between approaches, they were all saying this is the future, this is where we’re going, this is where we’re taking our products. It made our decision fairly straightforward. If the vendors are going there, the ecosystem is going there, we need to essentially start from there and build out a brand new solution for our customers using those same principles.”
Software vendors are turning towards MACH principles in response to businesses who are looking for much more flexibility in how they leverage technology. “What we’ve seen clients do is think more in abstraction. Really try to find architectures and composable solutions that help them lower the dependencies on the current technological situation.” explained Nina, “Whatever comes next, be it a new front-end framework, or a WhatsApp checkout button, or social commerce, they need to be able to plug it in the solution at any point.”
That type of adaptability is hard to find on legacy platforms. “What’s happened, particularly in retail, is that you built up a lot of legacy and a lot of complexity as you chased the growth and the profits that were coming from eCommerce.” said Jim Hingston, Head of Digital Product at The Gym Group, an affordable gym membership across the UK. “A lot of monolithic platforms have been customized within an inch of their life, and it becomes very difficult to make even simple changes.”
Not only do monoliths lock you into a growing tangle of customizations, they also lock you into a certain feature set. While it is convenient to have capabilities out of the box, it can be frustrating if they aren’t the right fit for your business. “You have some features that work well, some that don’t, and you have to live with those compromises.” says Gireesh, “With the MACH approach, you don’t have to live with those compromises.”
Gireesh explained that building a composable architecture with MACH vendors, where each is specialized in their own area, allows both the vendors and Dawn Foods to focus on what they each do best. “How do you go from the old school, on prem, co-located, data center managed world to a fully managed public cloud service? How do you move from running your own infrastructure to leveraging more of the cloud based services? At the end of the day we are a bakery business and we want to be in that bakery business and serve our bakery customers. We’re not a technology company, so we have to draw the line and be clear about our purpose and make sure that everything we do is to further that purpose.”
A MACH architecture brings a new level of flexibility, but working with multiple vendors instead of one central monolith does bring its own set of considerations. Nina explained that for some of her clients, a microservice architecture simply isn’t the right fit for now. “There are organizations, with their level of capability or the business they are in, that have absolutely no need to burden themselves with the extra complexity of a MACH or composable set up. If you don’t need the flexibility as much, or the speed, or if you can’t handle it, then why would you do it? The decision needs to absolutely be led by the business strategy of each organization.”
“Microservices, as great as the promise is, can be just as much of a frankenstein and as big of an impediment if the alignment across the organization isn’t there.” said Haidee McMahon, Senior Director of Engineering at WP Engine, a WordPress Hosting and Digital Experience Platform provider. She explained that without an organized approach, business won’t be able to fully access the speed a MACH architecture can give, “Systems can be like taking the Christmas lights out of the attic each year, in that you have to untangle everything before you can put the lights on the tree. It’s about structuring your code well and ensuring that everybody is aligned. I think that’s where you get your velocity.”
With MACH, businesses are in full control of ecosystem decisions, which also means they are now responsible for ensuring those decisions are consistent. “At the end of the day you have to steadfastly hold fast to some basic tenets.” said Gireesh, “We set up an architecture and we’ve said we aren’t going to stray from it, we aren’t going introduce complexity, we aren’t going to introduce any vendor or service that does not comply with the tenets of this architecture. We have drawn some lines there.” By defining core principles and the parameters around third party services, Gireesh’s team is able to manage complexity. His advice to any company doing the same is to write this information down, ensuring that it lives somewhere outside of the minds of your team.
Split Ends for a Stable Stack
Modernizing your architecture can feel like a game of operation, trying to carefully detangle legacy technology without having the warning buzzer go off on your customer facing experience.
“Over eleven years we have built up a lot of technical debt, and the challenge for us is how do we balance addressing that debt so that we can scale but also continue to deliver fast iterations of customer value.” said Haidee, explaining that her team tackled this balance by first creating a microservice front-end that could be up and running quickly, while chipping away at the deeper technical change on the back-end.
This split between technology layers is a common way that enterprises are ensuring they can carry out foundational and innovative work in parallel. “What we are seeing in our client base is that they are, one by one, starting to decouple the front-end from the back-end. This stabilizes and de-risks the customer facing layer, so they can start working under the hood bit by bit to exchange their monolith.” Nina explains that this long term approach gives companies more time to discover the best technology blueprint for them. “If you stabilize the customer facing layer you can do almost anything on the back of that, really making sure that you come to a situation that is tailored to your business.”
Jim shared his success with using this approach during his time as Head of Digital Product at Debenhams, “We built out a new front-end, primarily on mobile to start with because that’s where our traffic was shifting to, and we used that to leapfrog the competition and get a foothold. This got us more ready for the future while we solved some of the bigger, deeper engineering problems on the back-end.”
Teams Trump Tech
Technology is, of course, a bit part of digital transformation but all of the roundtable speakers stressed that future-proofing your company culture is just as important as your architecture.
“We won’t move faster unless we as an organization can mobilize and move with the technology.” explained Haidee, “We have to build teams that are very much motivated by the work that they are doing and it really is down to matching the motivation with the work and the compelling mission of each team.”
It’s easy to get excited about all the new opportunities digital brings and forget, for many people, this rapid change is accompanied by anxieties around new roles and new training required to keep up. “We had significant change management to explain to the organization what we are doing, why we are doing it, and what it means for the organization.” said Gireesh, “Including how people’s roles will change, what new skills they need, and how do we go about training and retraining our existing team members so that they acquire the new skill set.”
Gireesh believes that being very transparent around the development is a key way to build confidence in a new solution. “We had frequent demo sessions of what we were building. Even if it wasn’t fully built we were showing it to the internal team to bring them along, to show the progress, to show here’s where we are today on the timeline, you can see for yourself.” By giving internal access to explore the new system hands on, business users were able to build up confidence in the system while it was being developed. Additionally, Gireesh’s team provided one page summaries that helped employees familiarize themselves with the system, talk to customers about the new changes, and promote a consistent message publicly. “We relied on that kind of internal communication, so that while we were doing the change management we were also helping the team understand and grow their proficiency and confidence.”
“Teams are our competitive advantage, because if you get it right it’s very hard to replicate.” explains Haidee, “Technology can be replicated, but getting people to work together and be motivated and enthusiastic to deliver what we need for our customers is actually very hard.”
Ready to Leave Legacy In the Past?
If you’re interested in moving off your monolith, or just curious to learn more about a MACH approach, we recommend you check out the recent article on understanding the total cost of ownership and ROI for MACH architecture and the webinar discussing how to migrate from a legacy suite-style monolith to microservices.