Retail’s future leaders will all share the same kind of team

DevOps, a movement with in the technology community that brings software and IT operations closer together, may be the perfect fit for merchants that want to reach omni-channel consumers

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By the time you finish reading this sentence, Amazon will have updated its software. And it will do it again not long after you finish this sentence, too. No wonder it’s harder for other retailers to keep up.

The e-commerce giant is justly famous for pushing out new code every 11.6 seconds, which helps explain why it has been so successful at connecting with customers online. It also provides a good example of where DevOps, an increasingly popular approach to thinking about the team and skills firms need to manage enterprise IT, makes the most sense.

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DevOps has been called a sort of “cultural movement” where developers, who normally spend most of their time trying to innovate new ways of enhancing customer experiences, could collaborate more tightly with those on the operations side, like system administrators. That way, if something truly useful in terms of software is deployed online, it will actually work as expected without the network coming to a halt and Web pages failing to load. Though small firms may already have to work this way, large organizations have tended to keep such functions siloed.

In some ways, DevOps is considered a natural progression of so-called Agile development, a way of creating software in rapid or small iterations rather than one monolithic (and largely unchangeable) release. Most of what I see on DevOps continues to be more about the software side — how developers will be changing and evolving. There needs to be more about what it will mean for network administrators and other parts of the IT department. I’m betting that retail is the sector where this is likely to happen first.

Of course, even large merchants in Canada might say they are nowhere near the scale of an Amazon. But it’s also important to remember that Amazon is, for the most part, a one-channel vendor operating in an omni-channel world. Most other retailers started with physical stores and only later created an online channel to complement what they were doing in person or, in some cases, on the phone. They might not be an Amazon in revenue or size, but they might be in terms of complexity.

To truly optimize for the omni-channel customer, retailers are going to have to get as close to that 11.6-second benchmark as they can. They will have to be in a process of continuous improvement to create the right online customer experience, and the network will be the foundation to support whatever happens with the code. As the smartest merchants now know, even those who shop in store often begin their research via the Web, whether on the desktop of via a mobile device, and portals are involved in almost every step from product selection to order fulfillment and tracking.

You can’t have a network team focusing slowly on uptime without greater knowledge of what’s being changed on the front end to drive more traffic or transactions. And the brilliant coders dreaming up the next great user experience need to take into greater consideration the various strains that can be placed on a data centre, even one that has undergone significant virtualization or move towards a hybrid or public cloud.

Sometimes these grand movements in software reach a discouraging end, where the high hopes are dashed in the execution. The race to respond to the omni-channel customer could be the moment where, within some savvy retailers, DevOps has a chance to prove itself.

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