A Digital Ecommerce Transformation – The Last Failed Holiday – Part XI

This is Part XI, to start at the beginning goto Part I.

It was mid-November of 2011 when we had finally secured the funding to start the rewrite of TWLER.com. But that timeframe is right before Holiday, the time between Thanksgiving and Christmas that generally defines the Holiday season for retailers, and can account for 50% or more of their annual revenue. Particularly, there are three days that make or break the business, Thanksgiving, Black Friday and Cyber Monday. On those three days the traffic to an electronics retail site increases by 10x or 20x. TWLER is the third highest scaling eCommerce site in North America during this time period, behind only Amazon and Walmart. Designing systems that can survive this type of load is difficult, and operating them is even more difficult. But we had the courage to believe we could do it.

First we had to try and get through Holiday of 2011 with our antiquated ATG system and poorly defined architecture that often called Enterprise services that were never designed for web scale. Why we called the Enterprise services was one of those well intentioned but clearly incompetent EA decisions large companies make. Not understanding the demands of ecommerce, the EA team had forced the Dotcom team to use Enterprise Tax, Payment, and Inventory systems. This isn’t a bad idea, it’s great to have Enterprise services, but only if they scale. If they are not designed with the Internet in mind then you have serious problems. In Dotcom, we operate with zero downtime, we have traffic 24 hours a day, we have demanding latency requirements and we scale 10-20X for a few days a year. The Enterprise services could not handle any of those requirements, so forcing the digital teams to use them out of a desire for reuse and lower costs is idiotic. But that’s how non-digital EA teams think.

So this Holiday, like the last one, was marred with outages, all attributed to Enterprise services that failed under load. It was painful but a great lesson in future architecture principals. The new TWLER.com would be designed to operate regardless of whether Enterprise services were available, it didn’t matter what we had to do, we would isolate ourselves from systems not designed for web scale. This was actually a good thing for everyone but the EA’s didn’t agree because it violated some outdated EA principle.

The only saving grace for TWLER at this point in the maturity of eCommerce, was that people wanted to buy from TWLER. We had good prices on many things and, even though we suffered through the Holiday, people basically distribute themselves in these situations, they make up for your lack of scale by trying again at less popular times. You shouldn’t count on this but human behavior can be one of your scaling algorithms.

The need for a TWLER.com rewrite was confirmed yet again. After we limped through Cyber Monday we started getting down to the business of building teams to implement our new architectural direction. We had great ideas and a solid plan, but without high quality engineers to execute it, we would just be wasting our time.

Goto Part XII

A Digital Ecommerce Transformation – CEO Inspires Panic – Part X

Part X – to start at the beginning goto Part 1

The major breakthrough for our effort to rewrite TWLER.com happened in 2011 when the CEO announced, without consulting anyone in digital, that TWLER.com would double its revenue in 3-5 years. It seems he had finally figured out that Wall Street wanted to see double-digit growth in ecommerce if it were going to believe TWLER had a future. When online retailers are eating up your market and showrooming becomes a verb applied towards your company, you know you have to make changes.

This announcement was met with panic internally, the digital team had been growing at a reasonable 10-12% per year for the last few years, and that level of growth was putting enormous strain on the site. Shifting to the 30% growth target to double within three years was unthinkable, they all knew the site would tank and that would be the end for everyone.

The CEO panic was our opportunity; many of these executives had seen our plans to rewrite TWLER.com and called us back in to review them again. Desperation was in the air and we were throwing them a lifeline. As it became clear people were now taking us seriously, my VP assigned a business leader to help us refine our pitch to make it more palatable for executives, and review the numbers to ensure they made sense. We settled on $13M for the first year growing to $20M for the subsequent years and ramping back down again in year four. The fever grew and we presented to the President of Digital, the CIO and finally made it to the people with the money, two EVPs that oversaw digital and stores.

As we prepped for that meeting my VP was determining who should give the presentation. She could give it, the more polished business manager could give it, or I could give it. In the end she decided to let me present it because she thought I showed the most authenticity, having wrote the deck and presented it at least 50 times in the past few months. I was grateful because I wanted to represent my ideas and make it clear that I was going to run this program.

The presentation went well, very well. The EVPs were excited to see what looked like a viable plan brought internally to them, rather than by consultants. They overlooked the raw slides and poorly done graphics and animations and granted us the $13M, asked if we wanted more, and said we should be done in 18 months, not three years. We agreed that 18 months was a better timeframe, but that was it, we all knew three years was a stretch, 18 months was ridiculous if we wanted to evolve the site rather than build new. But if agreeing got us the capital, than we agreed.

One of the EVPs, still with TWLER to this day in 2017, performed what I consider the best management judo I’ve ever experienced. After the presentation she came around the table to chat with me about the project. She said, “I’ve seen a lot of presentations to fix TWLER.com, but this is the best one I’ve seen. Why? Because till now I didn’t believe the presenters could actually deliver, but I believe you can deliver.”

I’m sure she was just doing her management thing and making sure I knew she thought the project was important and that I was capable of doing it. But her statement motivated me for years to deliver TWLER.com so as not to disappoint her. Someday I’ll perform my own management judo on an unsuspecting engineer with a great idea and thank her for the lesson.