Roman Zenner on growing eCommerce with microservices and cloud solutions

Care to share?

Roman Zenner, industry analyst from commercetools and author of ShopTech Blog, is the guest of this episode of eCommerce Talks. Along with our host, Marcus Bravo C. they discuss tools for expanding eCommerce in terms of both business and technology.

What are the best ways to grow brands in eCommerce? How to listen to and answer the right users’ needs? What are the best hosting technologies for the future? How to ensure the security and safety of future technologies? How to move away from monolith architecture and take a modern approach without losing business constancy? Why can overthinking technology hurt your business?

For the answers, check out the podcast and be sure that microservices, cloud solutions, and the customer-centric approach are essential threads in this conversation.

Watch the full episode or dive into our transcription of the talk.

eCommerce Talks – video:

eCommerce Talks – podcast:

eCommerce Talks – transcription:

Marcos Bravo C.: Welcome one more time to eCommerce Talks. Today, I have the pleasure to introduce you to Roman Zenner, who is an industry analyst for commercetools. 

Roman Zenner: Hello :)

– Thank you for coming and thank you for being here. 

–  Yeah, thanks for having me.

– Roman, there’s nobody better to introduce yourself than yourself. So, if you can, tell us a little bit about your background, and what are you doing right now in commercetools.

– Okay. My name is Roman Zenner. I work, as you said, as an industry analyst in commercetools. I started as a freelancer, like 15 years ago, in eCommerce, where basically I wrote some books on eCommerce software like Magento. I spent my time trying to educate people about shop technology really. So, that meant doing workshops with customers, also entering project management for customers, just trying to make them choose the right piece of software for the right circumstances, like context. And then, a couple years ago, the guys from commercetools approached me, and now I’m here at the K5 conference and doing the industry analyst thing, which means basically networking, getting to know the industry, getting to know competition, producing white papers, producing case studies, and these kind of things. 

Next to this I also run my own blog for a couple of years now, it’s called ShopTech Blog. It’s in German. We basically try to do interviews with CTOs and do weekly reviews of the shop tech world. 

– Amazing. I watched a couple of… I wouldn’t say I understood everything because I don’t speak German very well, but the level of knowledge that is spreading is actually really interesting. 

You were saying about different conferences, that you’ve been attending. In simple words for CTO’s, or people who are still a bit lost on how to grow and how to get into eCommerce, and how to grow their brand, and global expansion, and all the buzzwords that you throwing there: what are the trends right now? What should people be looking at or where should people be getting their information?

– Okay, so I see two things. First is: everybody’s talking or has been talking for the last couple of years about customer centricity, and that actually meant nothing to most people. So it was just a buzzword. But now people understand that it’s really important to be customer centric, and what that means is, on the technological side, to build something like PWA’s (which means progressive web apps), totally focused on what the customer wants. Moving away from: “Okay I show something that my shop system can do, I do something that my template allows me to do”, we’re moving into a direction where we really control every pixel of the user experience. And that’s what brands are going to, right? Creating a very unique customer experience. So that’s the one thing, really focus on the frontend, focus also on the frontend on mobile devices. 

And the second thing is clouds. The second thing is really cloud infrastructure. Don’t mess around with services anymore, make sure you’ve got like good grasp of your processes and do your stuff on AWS or Google. Those guys handle the load, the infrastructure, the security, and so you can really focus on that front end bit.

– Now, this is a very personal question. When we hear cloud, people are still scared about like “Yeah putting all my stuff all my data all my businesses in the cloud”. Why should people trust it now better than a week ago?

– Because you’ve got pros who are in charge of the servers, who really make sure that the servers are secure, the data are secure. It might sound counterintuitive, because you might think: “Well if I run my own server, it’s gonna be more secure”, but that’s wrong. I mean, what we see in the market set, if you talk about server breaches and security issues, it’s mostly with smaller hosters or green companies trying to run their own servers. So, in cloud you’re better off, you’re safer, and plus you’ve got very elaborate and very sophisticated encryption technology these days. You really don’t have to worry about data, even if data should get lost it’s still encrypted, it’s not a problem for you.

– After all, someone can come to your house and steal your server…

– Exactly! It’s not that if you have your server in your living room or in a basement that, you know, you think you’re gonna be safer. No, that’s not the case.

– Now one of the things you guys do, at commercetools, you help companies to evolve and adapt their eCommerce solutions or platforms, and one of the things you’re doing, is moving companies from monolithic to microservices. How does the process look, for people who are thinking about it.

– So okay. So what’s a monolith, in this context, is just this big block of software, that’s just all interconnected and you can’t really change. If you change something at this end, you really have to retest the whole thing and make sure that everything runs. It is obviously bad, because there are situations where lets say, you just want to move a button from left to right and it ends up turning into a million-dollar project because it takes so long. That’s just horrible, so what we’re suggesting, and what people are doing, and also big companies such as Spotify, Netflix have realized a long time ago, is to split functionalities into, what they call, microservices. Which is like really small, encapsulated services that can exist on their own and the strategy is then to create like a bunch of those services and interconnect them by API’s. And the way to go from the monolithic approach to the microservice approach, is to really… the move is you take the functionality bit by bit and say: well let’s first extract the customer section, let’s then extract the catalog section, let’s then extract the payment and so you move those bits from A to B, one step at a time. 

It’s not really like a Big Bang Migration, it’s like a soft migration from A to B. And that’s what is happening. And it also doesn’t mean that you have to get rid of your monolith altogether, for most people it means that you can sort of make your monolith more modern, by stacking microservices around this whole thing. So just imagine you’ve got a retailer who sells glasses and they might want to offer the virtual glass thing. They might opt for the standard solution and then just build a microservice for this pretty little bit on top, so they can keep all things, keep the infrastructure as it is and they can add new cool stuff for the microservice. And that’s what most people do these days.

Make eCommerce ready for changes with microservices architecture >

– Okay so it’s not something that you have to “I need to shut down my shop for three months before microservices are ready” something that can happen during the…

– Exactly and this is, by the way, this is something you should never do – ever again, because it never works. It’s painful, it’s expensive and it’s really horrible, doing these migrations. I mean we’ve seen millions of euros and dollars wasted mainly in those projects. 

– Now, what will be the top pro of having microservices? What you think is the top reason why people should migrate? Is this how easy this is to use or how easy it is to make changes? What will be your take on that?

– It’s agility, its speed. It’s just making sure that you know you can react as fast as you can. So if there’s a new thing you have to do, like a new business model behind this or a new move by a competitor, you want to be fast and that’s the only reason. Because it’s not really saving a lot of money, it’s not something that you do because you want to save money. It’s basically just to make sure that you have a structure which allows you to be more agile.

– I should’ve mentioned that you’re a doctor. And I told you before that I thought you were a data scientist and actually your are a literature PhD. So you’re the person that takes a lot from human nature and how people react or interact with the shop. And obviously nowadays we all have an extra limb, which is a mobile phone, right? I mean nobody loses or nobody lets the mobile phone go. So how do you think the commerce… eCommerce is moving into the mobile platform? Are we there yet or are we moving forward slowly?

– Well, we’ve seen peak PC usage in 2016, so that was the point where mobile traffic actually was bigger than desktop traffic. And since then we’ve seen a huge increase in mobile usage and I guess Zalando’s doing like  80 percent of its turnover on mobile. So it’s really amazing and, I mean it makes sense, especially in the fashion industry, there was this one who person says, well you know you actually carry around your mobile phone, it’s close to your body as it can be, right? It’s close to your heart, is close to you. You take it to bed really. So you know that’s…

– Yeah, I do.

– Yeah, people usually do! That’s something… it’s a very personal device and it becomes more like a personal shopping device. My feeling is that, you know, in the western world we’re not, as far as in the east, as China and Asia in general, you know, for example, mobile payment is not really there yet. People are not really used to using their phone to pay for stuff. So that’s… we’ve got some… we need to develop a bit more in this direction, but for sure it’s really the idea of having, as you said, like another limb, that’s really important.

– So looking at the environment right now, most companies don’t think locally anymore. Most companies, as soon as they’re created, are already thinking of the global expansion. Even small companies when they have a small team, a small tech team, even a small marketing team or it’s just one [person] and it’s a CEO, CMO, CTO together. What are the first steps for them, to move into global expansion, obviously eCommerce focussed.

– Well, it depends on where you start really. Is it a rookie approach? If it really is just the beginning and I don’t know whether budget is an issue at this stage? If budget is an issue, I really recommend building a very small use case to get you going, because most people tend to over-engineer these things, even made in a very early stage. They go like “Okay, in five years time I’m gonna need this, and this, and this…. Therefore I need software which is prepared to do this and this in five years”. That makes it extra expensive and extra long to implement. Instead, they should be asking themselves “Okay so what’s the first thing I need” and for most people, it’s just a Shopify installation or Shopify usage, you know just pay 30 euros per month and that gets you going. And you get wiser on the way, you understand your customers better and that it’s so much more valuable than people think. People tend to over-engineer their models and their technology.

– One of the questions that we usually go through to close in and encapsulate all the advice that you are giving: What would you recommend as a good podcast, beside yours of course, or a good book that people should start building their foundations with?

– Well if you are… well. You should go for Exciting Commerce, that’s the first thing I’d recommend because they are the guys who actually organize the K5 conference. So that’s like the mothership of all podcasts. Then there is a Kassenzone which is a similar business oriented podcast series.

– Where can people find out more about you and your recommendations?

– So if you just hit my name into Google then you’ll probably find me, and it’s – it’s just my address. And there you will find all those links to my podcast and blog posts and other things. The reason why we do this podcast is because there is still a lack of technological podcast. Most people talk about the business aspects, business models and KPIs, but the tech aspects are still a bit under the radar, so I really hope to see more of those podcasts as well.

– Cool – that’s how business will generate some sort of environment.

– Absolutely.

– Well, thank you so much for joining us. It’s been great having to talk and, yeah, we hope we’ll have to have you again, and thank you everybody for watching and thank you.

– Thank you.

Podcasts recommended by Roman Zenner:

– Exciting Commerce by Jochen Krisch and Marcel Weiß –

– Kassenzone by Alexander Graf –  

– ShopTech Blog by Roman Zenner – 

– The Jason & Scot Show by Jason “Retailgeek” Goldberg & Scot Wingo –

Reach out to Roman Zenner at 

ECommerce Talks podcast - all about the ever-changing world of eCommerce. Start listening >

Published August 11, 2019