Executives from Neiman Marcus and AWS sat down at the NRF 2023 retail event in New York City to talk about the luxury apparel retailer’s cloud journey and committing to a five-year deal with AWS’s wide-ranging services.
Two of the largest cloud providers attending NRF this weekend – AWS and Google Cloud – have noted a general trend in organizations moving from an “elevate and transform” transition model to an overall “transformation” as they interact more closely and broadly with the cloud provider.
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For Neiman Marcus, Vijay Karthik, Chief Technology Officer and Senior Vice President, has been appointed to manage the transition. It started in 2016 with only two servers for mobile use. In the context of choosing a platform-as-a-service provider, explore “elevator, certified architecture, re-platform, and reboost” — starting in small chunks with programming done for the cloud from the ground up.
This requires training programming teams to think cloud-first. Whichever cloud provider the organization chooses, they will have to think about how the technology teams can realign the pace of change and keep up the momentum during the transition process.
“Teams need to be agile and the pace of innovation needs to be fast,” said Sriram Vaidyanathan, vice president of omnichannel development and engineering at Neiman Marcus. “Choose the right tool for the right workload. We had to rise to our level and be native to the cloud.”
Figuring out what the engineering teams would look like also included getting input from e-commerce stakeholders, site merchants, and the Neiman Marcus customer and digital strategy team. As with any major turnaround, buying executives was key.
Karthik said operational efficiencies come when you are cloud native, not cloud agnostic. The transition period from 2017 to 2021 — the point when Neiman Marcus entered into a five-year deal with AWS — has taught them how to move forward.
Cloud team building
Many people in retail will say that customer needs are the top priority. When it comes to the cloud, Vaidyanathan said that evolving and iterating in the way Neiman Marcus works with the cloud is part of building platforms and experiences that truly meet customer needs.
“To actually put this in place,” he said, “you have to have the right foundation.” “You have to have the right founding team to be the cloud custodian.”
This would then lead to the deployment of best practices across the organization before starting to deploy the workspace through the cloud, he said.
Other recommendations: Keep your architecture simple, and don’t bite off more than you can chew. It is important that people on both sides, customers and internals, not see the process or outcome as too complex.
“Keeping it simple builds a repetitive engineering practice,” Karthik said.
In terms of the in-house development team, ownership and empowerment are key to enabling people to move in a very agile fashion, and motivated and enthusiastic teams can complicate things. Instead, go ahead, be aware of how your engineering teams operate, and keep them small and independent.
Other advice applies to leadership roles: instead, set expectations and be a leader who can unlock their team’s potential to deliver on those expectations.
Start small, but build from scratch
An important consequence of Neiman Marcus getting the CEO’s blessing to experiment and change is that more teams can focus on the cloud. The Cloud Center of Excellence is a mixed and eclectic team of DevSecOps developers, but that team couldn’t be set in place until the organization knew they wanted to start their cloud journey, and they couldn’t embark on that journey without an experienced team. It took a small start but rapidly expanding to succeed.
Karthik said the Cloud Center of Excellence team’s platform architecture was done entirely from scratch. One of the good things about the cloud by its very nature is that you don’t have to worry about patching – AWS has done that. On the Neiman Marcus side, the next steps were to get the scrum teams involved and make good management part of the team and company culture.
Vaidyanathan said that platform engineering has become a core competence for one subsection of the Cloud Excellence team. They made sure everything was automated, worked in a new pipeline, could scale to be multi-region, and was available and consistent.
Lessons for Cloud Transformations
What can other companies get from this plate on how to make a seamless transition to the cloud? Karthik and Vaidyanathan both mentioned that automation is very important. Amazon provided workloads for them. Anything that allows the developer team to code by hand less improves efficiency, and Vaidyanathan emphasized that code-level automation and automated quality checks make the process easier.
Vaidyanathan said that Neiman Marcus’ developer team is gradually getting better at eliminating “process for process’s sake”. “If you have to move quickly, if you really have to have your team be able to enjoy … ownership rights, you need to make sure there’s not a lot of red tape that prevents teams from doing the thing that they’re specifically supposed to do.”
He said that failure to fast is also important. Company leaders need to understand and tolerate the fact that not everything will go according to plan every time and that the transition team will learn what needs to be done better.
Along with tolerance to failure and rapid failure, the team smoothing a large-scale transition to the cloud must make sure they don’t make the same mistake over and over again. Instead, demonstrating value to the broader organization is key.
Vaidyanathan also mentioned the importance of bringing in good partners if your organization lacks expertise in a particular field. For example, Neiman Marcus brought in a content delivery network partner for e-commerce.
Overall, the focus of the panel was to be a deliberation on the pace of your cloud adoption — from the slow, exploratory start to the overall deal that Neiman Marcus and AWS have now.
In conclusion, the lessons Neiman Marcus learned during their cloud journey included:
- Future proofing: Find the right tool for the right job.
- Cloud infrastructure at scale: the change from neutral to cloud to cloud native.
- Take advantage of microservices, including microlites and versioning.
- Evaluate availability over consistency.
- Emphasis on security and governance.
- Find a good CDN partner.
- Take advantage of the knowledge of the experts.
For more information on cloud adoption and the transition, take a look at The Rise of the Edge Cloud and the Cloud-First Shift.