In this blog series we dive into the world of work at bol.com. Who are the people behind the platform? What are our roles? How do we work together? And why do we love it here? Whether it’s IT, Logistics, Platform or Commerce, we each have something unique to contribute and it all adds up to make us who we are. That’s how we make bol.com is ‘de winkel van ons allemaal’ (the shop for everyone).
How can you innovate at lightning speed and still keep track of developments? And do this with teams operating more or less autonomously? All within an organisation that does things just a little bit differently. That’s exactly when bol.com architects are in their element. Elinor is Lead Architect and Domain Architect Platform Technology. We asked her to lay out what all this involves.
“I have a dual role,” Elinor explains. “As Lead Architect, I’m part of the Architecture Management Team at bol.com. I spend one day a week on this. The other four days, I’m Domain Architect in Platform Technologies where I manage a team of architects. We have about 30 innovative product teams working in this domain. The teams are largely autonomous and set their own short-term goals. The architect, however, needs a more long-term vision. We maintain the overview of the entire domain together as a team. I discuss matters with other domain architects if we devise something that will affect multiple domains. I like to describe myself as a silo buster. I’m good at breaking down barriers and bringing teams together to achieve a common goal.”
It's a huge job to build a transparent ecosystem of this size
Is standardisation the way to go?
Bol.com is experiencing tremendous growth. And, of course, that impacts the way we work. “Bol.com is developing itself into a product organisation. Unlike more traditionally organised companies, we don’t work with a fixed architecture method or with models. Many existing frameworks don’t work for us because we’re growing so rapidly and because we believe our product teams should be autonomous. And, yes, we’re just a stubborn company. We do things a little differently and decide for ourselves what suits us best. I’m convinced this is one of the reasons behind our success.”
“We’re trying to streamline the way our architects work, also because lots of new people are joining our team. For this we’ve created a tool kit to help our architects. For example, we want each product to have an architectural vision, that’s like a three-year plan for a particular part of the platform. Our tool kit helps architects find answers to questions, like ‘What makes a good architectural vision?’ and ‘What’s the very least it should include?”
Transparency in the landscape: a mammoth task
Elinor is quite clear about the results of good architecture: “The architects work to create transparency in the landscape. We’re coming from a microservice-architecture. At one point we had about 1000 different services, each with its own interface. It was almost impossible for teams to link them together. That’s why we’re now working on an architecture with a smaller number of very clearly defined interfaces, so we can see what’s what. The interdependencies are easier to manage and it makes it easier to develop new functionalities with wider application.”
“From now on, we really want to develop according to API-first principles. This means teams design their interfaces together with users, so it’s very clear what they can do with each bit of functionality. This also makes it easier to access the functionality in our ecosystem which external developers and partners can then use.”
“It’s a huge job to build a transparent ecosystem of this size. To achieve our long-term strategy, we must allow enough time to get there. And that’s what we’re doing. Because we believe this is the way to ensure the platform is flexible in the future.”
What makes a good bol.com architect?
“We expect a lot from our people. Our architects should have a broad background and experience in both IT and business, as well as product innovation. The key skill here is conceptual thinking. There are so many different ways to approach a problem. Do you consider the people or the technology? Do you look at the process or at how responsibilities are assigned? We want our architects to weigh up stakeholders’ interests and design a vision for the future that all parties can embrace.”
“Our architects also need to be good communicators. They need to know how to explain their vision to others and ensure colleagues and partners follow our recommendations. Architects at bol.com don’t have a mandate. This means we can’t actually tell others what they should do. Our job is to advise colleagues and partners so they can make the right decisions for themselves. Our architects often question the ‘status quo’ and aren’t afraid to take an unpopular point of view, when necessary. We have to deal with resistance to change and dare to adopt a critical attitude, even in meetings with important decision makers. That’s not something that everyone is comfortable doing.”
“Everything is changing fast within bol.com. We have lots of plans and are very ambitious. We work in an environment that’s often chaotic. But it’s fun chaos,” Elinor hastens to add. “And, of course, no one is expected to do everything flawlessly from day one. Bol.com invests considerably in employee training and personal development. We also offer our architects training on specific soft skills. You can also opt for coaching, if that suits you better, or you can learn something which falls outside your current role. Almost anything is possible at bol.com when you take the initiative.”