Play.com's business strategy to compete against the might Amazon will be to bring together a community of retailers, from global toy stores to an organic egg farmer, but this requires a good deal of technology development. Heading up this initiative is the company's IT boss Francesco de Marchis.
“For 2012 we have a 100-project roadmap,” he says excitedly. “That’s good, it’s a fantastic feeling as the possibilities and challenges are so big and every project will be on time, on budget and of a high quality,” he says with a relaxed smile.
“We will be going heavy on Agile, extreme Agile. Benefits are already being seen from aligning the project more on the market need.
“People got scared with the number of projects, but the projects come from them not from me, so I told them not to be scared,” says De Marchis.
One of the largest projects on his schedule for 2012 will be the implementation of the Rakuten business model, which will put a more global perspective on Play.com.
“We have already started the work to integrate several of the IT functions and we hope to have a few of these completed by Q2.”
Play uses bespoke e-commerce and CMS platforms because they fit the business model more closely, and they are being developed to accommodate the features required for the mall strategy.
As CIO of a technology-led company De Marchis has an IT budget of £10m and reports directly to the CEO.
Putting service first
One key aspect of the IT strategy at Play has been the implementation of service oriented architecture (SOA).
“From a platform perspective the implementation of SOA was a key enabling factor to start the future migration to the next generation of the Play platform. It will allow Rakuten companies to use the same services and code that Play are building.
“It was a huge hole that we didn’t have SOA. We realised that we had to leverage the information that we had and give that information to everyone in the business. We can now build APIs that our retailers can take and build their shops with.
“SOA is an expensive exercise, but it is a mindset, it’s about re-configuring the systems into a business fashion so that information is available to everyone. So we do not have one SOA project, but a constant mindset,” he says.
As Play moves to its new model, SOA will be vital as many of the traders it deals with have already dabbled in e-commerce and may have legacy platforms that they will want to continue using.
De Marchis believes that as Generation Y becomes increasingly important as Play employees, customers and retail partners, the company will need to instantly extract information from a variety sources.
“Without SOA that would have been challenging,” he says.
“The project has a tight control to avoid the implementation of SOA for the sake of SOA. We are building SOA only where it is needed by exposing the business logic to external customers or group companies.
“All the projects have an expected cost and ROI attached. At the end of the project we measure the cost immediately to verify the accuracy of the original estimate done by our PMO and development managers.
"After one month we start collecting the statistics for the expected ROI of the project and after six months we are able to validate if the ROI is lower than expected or exceeds expectation. Post-mortem meetings are held one month after the end of project and again six months later.”
Few of you will be thinking of doing your Christmas shopping in February, but for De Marchis and his IT team, February 1 is the first day of Christmas.
“Play, as with many online retailers, make more than 50 per cent of their annual sales in the last quarter of the year.
“For Christmas 2011 we decided on a new approach. We divided the improvements into two areas: applications and physical architecture. From an applications perspective we did several performance tests to identify the bad code areas. For physical architecture we deployed a virtualisation architecture which allowed us to deploy more servers in areas which were under more stress.
“The application code tests found the performance bottlenecks and then we set up search cache which has generated a 60 per cent deflection ratio.
“The code review is my developer background coming out. I always say the code can be improved. When you write under pressure you are not thinking of helping the performance,” he says.
All of these changes had a fantastic overall effect, generating a real 50 per cent cache including the long tail product that usually comes from the main server,” he says. By October these three major projects had been completed.
“I am running fewer servers than last year but serving more traffic,” De Marchis said just before Christmas 2011.
“Coming from a technology background I always embraced a more scientific approach to solving problems. I never liked the increase in hardware as the typical solution for more traffic and resilience. It costs a lot and never creates a good vibe within the team.
"I encourage my team to experiment with new solutions: sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t, but when they succeed these solutions can provide the extra step that Play as a technology company needs to have to compete in a tough market.
“People can go home and sleep and that is a huge difference,” he says of the difference the work made for his team between Christmas 2010 and 2011."
Cambridge is better known in technology circles for Autonomy, ARM and of course Sinclair, so it may seem a strange location for an e-commerce firm.
“The previous IT director was from Cambridge University, so that was why we were here.
“Cambridge is a better place to find talent, so they expanded; I think it was a good decision. In Jersey you can’t find talent, whereas here we have the university and the benefit of having Autonomy and Redgate in the area.”
Play and the other major employers in the area have their own CIO community and De Marchis says that although they are all competing for talent there are benefits from collaboration.
“We feel part of Cambridge and we take technology students when they graduate as they have good skills,” he explains. But a qualification is not enough to get a foot in De Marchis’s door.
“I say to them: show me your background in development and implementing and tell me where do you want to be. We focus on whether they have the right mindset.”
Like many CIOs De Marchis is passionate about the nexus between business and technology and becomes very animated when discussing the subject.
A chance to drive Play forward through technology was why he joined the company just over a year ago.
“Play had a strong technology background and a culture of build-your-own-stuff and that was what I was looking for as I needed a new challenge,” he says of the role change.
“We are David versus Goliath and we really need to do something special,” he says.
He’s been in Britain since 2006 having come here via CIO roles in the US. Despite the common language he sees big differences between the two countries.
“The technology challenge in the US is very high and I find the same challenge is available in the UK, but the UK is much more humane. Here they care that you take your holiday break as you will be stronger and will perform better.”
Away from Play, De Marchis finds time to be a scout leader; his son is a cub but will soon join Dad in the senior troop. As a business leader De Marchis enjoys helping kids push themselves and expand their horizons.
“I tell them you need to invest in yourself and your future and that the future is studying. The mindset that you build puts you in a position that employers are looking for. I do not tell them what to do. There are just not the jobs if you leave school at 16.”
At home his passion is cooking and reading and again there is a technology angle as this CIO has his own cooking website at www.mybook2cook.com full of personal recipes.