Insights from code.talks Commerce 2019

code.talks Commerce is undoubtedly one of the largest German developer conferences for e-commerce. Last year I already had the opportunity to attend the event and had the best experience with the format. That’s why I was in Berlin again this year to inform myself – admittedly as a non-techie – in the comfortable cinema armchairs of the KulturBrauerei about the current developments in the tech environment of e-commerce. For all those who stayed at home and all those who couldn’t hear every talk in Berlin, I would like to summarize my notes in this article.

Another note for all those interested: In 2018 I already shared my impressions of the code.talks Commerce on LinkedIn (German only).

Zwischen Alexa und Microservices (Teil 1: Architektur)

Zwischen Alexa und Microservices (Teil 2: IT-Organisation / Digitalisierung)

Zwischen Alexa und Microservices (Teil 3: Voice & Bots)

Shop operator panel: Nice idea, but how do you do this in practice?

After the official opening by the organisers, code.talks Commerce began for me with an extremely exciting panel. Roman Zenner, Industry Analyst at commercetools, and Martin Möllmann, Team Lead E-Commerce at Flaconi, who are also well known for the highly readable ShopTechBlog, invited Steffen Heilmann, CTO at Aroundhome, Ingo Mommertz, CTO at Douglas, and David Beuchert, Lead Developer at Thomann, to a discussion in order to explore with them the challenges in the area of tension between IT and business.

  • To be technically prepared to implement business ideas quickly and effectively is one of the great challenges of IT.
  • Steffen Heilmann described a case in which a business need had to be implemented within a week. His learnings from it:
    • Why does IT often only learn about such requirements so late? Communication within the organisation must therefore be improved.
    • In addition, you should design your architecture in such a way that you don’t have to rape it even during such short-term to-dos.
  • At Douglas, business requirements are often first developed as small spin-offs and only later added to the core so that the core does not develop into a service monolith.
  • In response to the question as to how his company sees the duality between agile working methods in the IT sector and deadline requirements from the business, Ingo Mommertz stated that Douglas pays attention to the Scaled Agile principle. There are three-month plans. In order to be included in them, new ideas would have to battle themselves.
  • Steffen Heilmann pointed out that it is above all important to create transparency for the business. New things cannot be made “on top”. Instead, things have to be postponed.
  • With regard to the subject of customizing, Heilmann explained that he always asks himself: “What makes us unique? You should build these things yourself. Apart from that you can see what you can buy from third parties.
  • Douglas has also decided against a complete in-house development. The aim is to find the best tools and combine them optimally.
  • David Beuchert, on the other hand, reported that Thomann builds quite a lot itself. In this way, they maintain control and can be transparent to customers in the event of problems.
  • Martin Möllmann also underlined this point of view. With SaaS solutions, you often have no clue what’s going on.

Prepare for warp speed – How to establish a scalable IT organization

In his following lecture Steffen Heilmann dedicated himself to the development of the IT organization in his company Aroundhome, a mediation platform for products and services around home.

  • Aroundhome’s goal: The IT organization should become scalable. This project resembles the reconstruction of a house while it is inhabited. After all, business projects do not wait.
  • There is no Silver Bullet for such a project. Instead, many small things have to interlock. This means that many different areas have to be worked on at the same time (from the company vision to technology and processes to personnel).
  • The business also continues during the conversion. It can therefore help to deliberately leave dedicated resources unplanned despite the overall IT plan.
  • For the target organization, Aroundhome envisages three management roles for each team: Product Owner, Tech Lead & People Lead). One should not bundle these roles in one person. In this case, there is a danger that the tasks of the people lead cannot be handled sufficiently.
  • As soon as these prerequisites have been met, recruiting can begin. However, this should not be established as a project to be completed, but as a continuous process within the company.
  • In order to be able to scale, lightweight processes in particular are necessary. In addition, communication also plays a decisive role. There are different formats to communicate on as many levels as possible, e.g. CTO updates, tech talks, tech lead, people lead and PO rounds or even a short conversation at lunch or over a cup of coffee.

Back for the future: How does a traditional retailer transform itself?

Frank Leue, CTO of Lobenbergs Gute Weine, also spoke about an exciting transformation process in his lecture.

  • Over a period of 20 years, Lobenbergs Gute Weine has developed a monolith with grown complexity, managed by just two developers.
  • But also in the wine trade it is unclear how the customer will buy his wine in the future. Flexibility is therefore extremely important. For this reason, the goal was set to make the IT system more modular.
  • For this purpose, a decision was made to convert the system to a microservices-based one.
  • Leue’s most important lessons from this project:
    • The services should be developed from a business perspective and not on the basis of the old data model.
    • It is recommendable to start with small usecases to learn from them.
    • The complexity should also be reduced at the beginning.
    • It also makes sense to develop a microservice blueprint to unify integration and testing.
    • A CI/CD pipeline should be established from the outset in order to be able to develop quickly.

On-premise, Cloud, Headless – A comparison of different e-commerce systems

In the afternoon of the first day Ulrike Müller gave an extremely informative overview of the development of various e-commerce systems.

  • Ulrike Müller sees three waves in the development of e-commerce platforms.
  1. Licensed e-commerce software dominated in the 1990s and early 2000s, operated by the retailer himself or by a contracted service provider and adapted to his own needs.
  2. In the course of the 2000s, an increasing number of SaaS providers emerged to provide merchants with a fully-fledged e-commerce solution in the cloud.
  3. In the last few years, providers of headless software have emerged. The retailer or his service provider can develop their own frontends and connect them to the vendors’ headless solution via APIs.
  • The development of these business models was strongly linked to technology development and the resulting e-commerce requirements. While in the 90s and 00s the main focus was on getting online at all, many retailers are now focusing on managing the large number of different Customer Interaction Points.
  • For whom are the different e-commerce systems primarily suitable?
    • Licensed software is particularly suitable if you have special customization requirements and/or would like to integrate several third-party tools.
    • SaaS solutions, on the other hand, largely relieve the retailer of technical operations so that he can concentrate on his core competencies. On the other hand, differentiation is more difficult because SaaS providers naturally make their feature set available to several merchants.
    • Headless systems also help to reduce technical expenditure. These are focused on the work on customer touchpoints. These solutions are therefore particularly suitable for companies that value diverse customer interactions.
  • Müller assumes that innovations in the future will primarily take place within the context of the frontend. Backend systems, on the other hand, are likely to increasingly become commodities.

FOND OF partners: How we built a delightful offline first order platform for our B2B partners

On the second day, Till Hess and Philipp Brumm, Head of Digital Product and Software Developer at the bag brand FOND OF, spoke about the special challenges of a B2B e-commerce project.

  • FOND OF employs more than 100 sales representatives in the B2B business, who spend about 20,000 hours a year entering orders. There is therefore considerable potential in this area to increase efficiency.
  • Three Customer Journeys were tested:
  1. The sales representative orders via the B2B online shop (Problem: What happens if he has no access to the Internet?)
  2. The sales representative fills Excel sheets manually (problem: very time-consuming)
  3. The sales representative fills special Excel order sheet with automatic upload so that checkout can take place in the B2B shop (Problem: upload does not work with input errors)
  • Therefore, the goal was to build a fast and personalizable app that can also be used offline.
  • This resulted in a number of challenges:
    • Long product lists increase loading time – Solution: With Virtual Rendering, only what the user currently sees is rendered.
    • Spreadsheet Experience – Solution: Had to be built by FOND OF itself. The existing solutions were too heavy.
    • Offline capability – Solution: Service Worker caches the entire page and all its resources so that they are also available offline. Of course the checkout has to be done online.

The selection of the shop system is irrelevant. The success of e-commerce depends solely on know-how, team, engineers and a good strategy!

Lars Jankowfsky, General Partner at NFQ.Asia, invited the representatives of various shop system providers to a panel under a provocative title. Boris Lokschin, CEO of Spryker, Pierluigi Meloni, Product Manager at Oxid, Nils Breitmann, Principal Enterprise Architect at Intershop, and Christian Zacharias, Senior Lead at Oberlo-Shopify, discussed the initial thesis, which was sometimes extremely controversial.

  • From Lokschin’s point of view, success in e-commerce depends on the triad “team – method – tool”. If one of them is missing, you have a problem.
  • Zacharias, on the other hand, was of the opinion that 80 percent of the challenges in e-commerce can already be solved with a standard system. Only within the last 20 percent a lot has to be customized. Retailers should therefore consider how much customization they need and use this to select the right tool for them.
  • Breitmann pointed out that the choice of technology is very complex. After all, the selected shop system often determines the architecture of the solution.
  • In Meloni’s opinion, the company roadmap and architectural philosophy are therefore decisive for the choice of system.
  • Lars Jankowfsky then presented the thesis that customers often do not have the competence to make the right decision for them. That’s how stupid projects are created.
  • Meloni also often notices that decision-makers have little idea. Pitches are therefore often about telling a story that fits the other person.
  • Lokschin then took up Ulrike Müller’s presentation and explained that every shop solution has its own market, as these are also a reflection of history. His company Spryker claims to solve problems that did not exist a few years ago.
  • Jankowfsky then pointed out that good software would not be enough. You need the competent team that dealers often don’t have. So do they necessarily have to depend on an agency?
  • Zacharias felt that the goal should be for in-house developers to be able to manage their solution themselves.
  • From Breitmann’s point of view, companies should pay attention to allowing their developers to work on the differentiating characteristics of the organization and not on the standard functionalities.
  • According to Meloni, not all companies can become Tech-Companies due to the lack of IT personnel and the frequent lack of digital DNA. So there is always a danger of dependence.
  • From the point of view of a spectator, the trend – at least for large retailers – is also increasingly towards individual development. However, Jankowfsky advises against this. The necessary number of developers and a corresponding Tech-DNA could only be found in Germany among a handful of dealers (e.g. Amazon, Zalando).

What do you get when PowerPoint and Excel are having a baby?

After the panel, Nils Breitmann also presented his thoughts on low code in a separate lecture.

  • First, Breitmann asked what software development will look like in 20 years. Coding or Low Code?
  • The problem with software developers: they are too slow, too expensive and too hard to find.
  • What are the alternatives?
    • You can optimize coding. This is done e.g. by Agile, DevOps, Microservices, Frameworks and PaaS.
    • You can minimize coding. For this you can either use pure standard software, so that coding is no longer necessary, or you can help the business departments to create their own applications with low code.
  • In the Low Code area, there are various providers who enable experts from the business areas to click together their own applications using visualizing tools, some of which are reminiscent of Excel and PowerPoint.
  • Low code can significantly increase the speed and flexibility of software development, but it also carries risks.
    • A shadow IT could develop.
    • Low code applications can evolve into complex spaghetti code over time.
  • From Breitmann’s point of view, therefore, both options put forward in the introductory question will live on. The low code approach will enable business departments to increasingly develop applications with manageable complexity independently, so that IT can focus on complex challenges.
  • His advice is therefore:
    • To Business: Use software developers wisely!
    • To IT: Empower business users to be creative on their own!

When scalability becomes more than a buzzword, or how to saddle a unicorn

The fashion retailer ABOUT YOU has developed from a start-up to Unicorn in just five years. In his talk, Tech Evangelist Marten Westphal described the challenges this poses for IT and how they can be overcome.

  • To scale an organization this high, different things have to come together:
  1. The start-up spirit must be maintained despite the growth.
  2. The architecture and infrastructure must be right.
  3. A suitable organisational model must be found.
  • ABOUT YOU naturally works agilely to maintain the start-up spirit. In addition, emphasis is placed on hands-on solutions and open communication.
  • A SOA approach was chosen for the architecture. In addition, the entire infrastructure was migrated to the AWS cloud within six months.
  • In recent years, the team has been expanded to around 800 employees. The resulting complexity and the necessary communication create a noticeable overhead. Therefore ABOUT YOU has developed the organizational model MOVE, which is characterized by three qualities.
  1. Open Structure: The team is characterized by units, each of which consists of several smaller teams (circles). These can specialize in specific topics or be flexibly adapted.
  2. Striving for Excellence: MOVE is designed so that developers can easily change teams at their own request in order to specialize, try out new roles or take on leadership responsibilities.
  3. Clarity is King: Communication is open and honest. Transparency is explicitly desired – even if mistakes have occurred. From these lessons should be learned as well as from best practices.

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