Give every system engineer the freedom to build Behind the Screens with Shaun Maxwell

5 min.
16 June 2021

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 ‘de winkel van ons allemaal’ (the shop for everyone).

“Everything clicked on the bol.com Experience Day for me. I had already been given a job offer and was invited to a full day of actually experiencing the company. I wasn’t sitting in a room being grilled with questions, it’s more of a ‘come and meet the people in the teams a few desks away from you, have lunch with them in the cafeteria’ type of day. It was such a nice personal touch.” Shaun is quiet and thinks for a moment. He continues: “Yeah, I was completely taken aback by that personal attention before you decide to take the job. There are people who take the time to take you on a tour of the office, people will stop what they are doing to talk to you and they will take you to lunch. That’s…that’s really nice.”

In an on-screen interview, systems engineer Shaun Maxwell opens up about his move from South Africa to the Netherlands in 2020 to find a new future. “After my graduation in 2016, I was recruited into a DevOps team at the largest online retailer in South Africa. I built their first Kubernetes clusters and helped the engineers to reconfigure their applications to run on them. After that, I built the CI pipeline to make sure everything would run smoothly.” Shaun quickly learned a lot about Kubernetes and Google Cloud as well. “ After 3 years at the company, I was looking for a new place to go. I needed a new challenge in terms of scale and technology. I could work at bigger corporations in South Africa, but culture-wise they were not my cup of tea.”

Bol.com Experience Day

“My girlfriend and I had spoken of moving overseas a whole lot. We had the Netherlands in mind. Most people here speak English, which is an upside. Besides that, we have a decent understanding of Dutch, by knowing Afrikaans, so it just made sense. I flew to Schiphol for a round of interviews at both bol.com and another big technology company in Amsterdam.”

“The Experience Day at bol.com blew my mind. It’s not like they’re trying to get a big group of people together. They just schedule it around your availability, which is especially great for internationals. I had to get my Visa sorted, get leave from my job in South Africa and all that stuff. So I really liked that personal touch and it gave me a completely different opinion on bol.com. Compared to emailing recruiters and having on-screen job interviews. Bol.com completely swayed me on this experience day. I knew then and there it was the right choice for me.”

Expats Management Group

Shaun was pleasantly surprised to find how bol.com helps you move to the Netherlands: “They are partnered with the Expats Management Group or EMG. Once you’ve signed your offer, EMG mails you, and they help you with documentation, with visits to the embassy to get all the paperwork sorted. When I arrived in The Netherlands, they helped me with temporary accommodation but also to find a place for me and my girlfriend. They set up appointments to look at apartments and houses, and help you with the offers. EMG facilitates all these things to make sure things are happening correctly. It is incredible to have someone helping you with questions you haven’t even thought of yet when you move to another country.”

Work in CI/CD

“My clients are our own internal development teams. They’re building the site and all the needed functionality, whether it’s stock management or the front end. When they write a piece of code for a new feature in our app or on the website, they need to get it from their laptop to running online.  There are a whole lot of steps that happen in between that. This is where we come in. Continuous integration and continuous deployment (CI/CD) is about automating and speeding up that process while keeping it reliable. We used Jenkins to do this, but we recently moved the CI/CD pipelines to GitLab. Writing a Jenkins pipeline is not user-friendly so we were generating pipelines for users. It all worked well for a long time but with the sheer volume of applications that we have and the commits being made, Jenkins is growing bigger and bigger. Even though we can add more CPU and more memory to it, it’s struggling.”

Pipeline freedom

“So you’ve got this system that is slowly ageing and doesn’t really have a good high availability solution. We chose GitLab as the alternative to that. And what’s really nice with Gitlab, is your pipeline belongs to your application, it lives in the same repository. You define it very easily in some YAML, which is nice and quickly readable and it gives the power back to you as the engineer. We help our engineers realise their own pipeline dreams. We provide some basic building blocks and examples to build a very simple pipeline. From there on you can tweak it to your delight. 

We also do a bit of consultancy, but unlike Jenkins, we no longer dictate what you should use, or how you should deploy features. The freedom is on you. That’s what every engineer wants, right?”

“We provide the environment where every engineer can do the best job in the language and framework they are most comfortable with or what the application needs. In the end, that is what makes bol.com a better retail platform.” 

Move to the cloud

Bol.com is growing rapidly and in need of ever-growing resources. Both in people and machines. To keep up, Shaun’s team is moving their work to Google Cloud. “We choose Google Cloud. Moving to Amazon’s AWS wouldn’t be a smart move for bol.com to do now would it”, Shaun says laughing, “For us, it’s about scalability and flexibility. You want to be able to say: I just want to quickly test this feature, create it, destroy it. We’ve recently implemented Istio. It creates a network mesh across Kubernetes clusters, so applications can communicate with each other as if they were in the same cluster. It is all quite new technology, but we are growing so fast that a lot of these new tools are a necessity already. We are a Google Cloud Partner, which gives us access to early features that are not publicly available yet. Other tools we use are Artifactory and Rundeck, which also gives us interesting architectural challenges when we move everything to Google Cloud.“

The perfect candidate

We are looking for extra system engineers, and we realize the perfect candidate doesn’t exist. It is rare to find people with experience in both managing hardware in a data centre as well as operating applications to the cloud. We want somebody with the ability to learn new things and implement them in a good way. Anyone who can talk about projects they’ve done, where they’ve faced the challenge of not knowing what a particular technology or application is, to go from zero to being trusted with it, then it’s fine. Your exact skillset isn’t too important.

Because with our StudieBol program, you have full internal training at your disposal. We have partnerships to get training on specific areas and you absolutely get time to work on that. There are always areas in which you can improve, both in your professional skills and more soft skills like coaching and collaborating. When we meet you for a job interview and we see your passion to learn more and improve yourself, then it’s a match for us!”