Brant Snow is the Vice President of Technology at Extensiv, an omnichannel software solutions provider for warehouse, inventory, and order management. He began his career as a Web Technologist at Max International and later progressed through several technology leadership roles at 3PL Central, prior to the company’s rebrand as Extensiv.
In our conversation, Brant offers insights into communication and collaboration for in-person and remote tech teams and cross-functional partners and shares some challenge areas to be aware of with acquisitions: people, teams, and overlap. Brant also talks about the complexity of the omnichannel space and offers some predictions for its evolution.
Communication and collaboration is hard — that’s kind of the big takeaway. In the tech industry, we spend a lot of time architecting for technology at scale but we’re not as good at architecting for people at scale. I find that’s where most of the problems lie. This is also evident in project management. In my experience, most projects fail because of misalignment of communication rather than issues with technology.
A lot of people go into technology specifically to avoid interacting with people. But in reality, it’s such a team game — communication and collaboration are at the forefront of what we do. I think good communication starts with empathy and understanding where the other person is coming from.
Also, whether you’re in-office or have remote or hybrid teams, try to remove the ambiguity in your communication. If you take a look at domain-driven design, one of its principles is having ubiquitous language. That’s really important, especially when you’re not in sync and don’t have the same working relationship as you might with someone sitting next to you. You need to communicate clearly and concisely.
I lived in South Korea for a number of years as a child and attended an international school. That experience taught me the importance of taking a step back to understand what someone is trying to communicate rather than just jumping to a conclusion.
As I mentioned, the key to communication and collaboration is empathy. Each group will have different priorities and focuses that they’re trying to move forward. Having the ability to put yourself in their situation and see it from their perspective is monumentally important.
Several years ago, my company sent me back to school to get an MBA. The reasoning was there was less chance of a project failing due to a technology issue than due to a misalignment on goals or issues with communication and collaboration. The company wanted to ensure I could see things not just from a technology perspective, but also from the finance, business, and product perspectives.
This goes back to what I experienced growing up in Asia. In the US, when something goes wrong we have a tendency to say, “Well, whose fault is it?” But in Asia, there’s a much more empathetic response of “What are the processes or policies that we have in place that allowed someone to actually make a mistake?”
I think that empathy is the key to interacting with different departments, understanding what they’re trying to accomplish, and looking at things from their point of view.
Acquisitions are hard. I’ve been through a lot of them in a very short timeframe. There are three things about acquisitions that are especially difficult: people, teams, and overlap.
Let’s start with people. Each company has a different culture and unique nuances. You’ll need to decide what your new culture will be — an equal mix of both or a little more of one than the other? The acquiring company tends to be a bit more dominant, which makes sense since the purchaser is usually a larger company with more money.
Of course, this is a giant oversimplification. In reality, the purchaser doesn’t know the problem space, or the new customer profiles that they’ve acquired, like the acquired company does. So they’re really acquiring knowledge.
It’s important to figure out how to get people engaged. It can be very easy to acquire a different company and have your greatest resource — all those people — become disengaged or disenfranchised with what you’re doing.
Next, let’s talk about teams. We tend to organize a lot around tech stacks. You might have Java teams, or Node.js teams or C# teams, and when you acquire different companies, you’re likely going to have a lot of different tech stacks. In our case, it actually felt like we only looked for companies that had entirely different tech stacks.
In this situation, communication and collaboration are already hard. Now, let’s say you have an item, ticket, or project that you have to get across. If it has to touch four or five different teams, that’s going to be difficult. It’s not that the technology can’t handle it, it’s more how do you coordinate all the collaboration that needs to happen in sync?
At Extensiv, we don’t have very large teams. There’s nothing preventing a 100-person team from a technology standpoint — 100 people can commit to a Git. It’s more that people don’t work effectively in 100-person teams. Again, it’s not the technology that’s limiting, it’s the communication and collaboration.
I think it’s easier to spin people up on new technologies and help them learn that than it is to solve all of their communication and collaboration issues. I recommend dividing some of these teams across different tech stacks so that they can own one project end-to-end.
That’s a bit of oversimplification because there’s always going to be multiple teams that need to touch the project at different points, but try to limit that as much as possible. If you allow each team to feel accountable for the entire delivery, rather than just one small piece, you may start to see things fail between the different teams.
Overlap can be both technical and product. For example, if you acquire four companies like we did, each will likely each have its own concept of webhooks. That’s a technological maintenance overhead. You’ll need to decide where you’re going to do that so you don’t have to maintain it in a lot of different ways.
Product overlap deals with things like inventory. Now you’ve got five systems that each have a concept of inventory. What’s the source of truth for that? There are a lot of good technologies that you can use to either keep things in sync or to put an intermediary in place, like a Kafka event broker. This is a technology solution, but it’s also a people solution, in that each team can go to one intermediary source rather than trying to coordinate across multiple teams.. I think we see that a lot in our architectures. What we often would like to believe are technological solutions, are often solutions for people problems as well.
There’s a lot of complexity in this area both for brands that are selling online and for fulfillers. Brands want to grow and sell their product. The fulfillers want to fulfill and help the brands be successful. There’s some overlap in terms of what they’re both trying to accomplish, but there are some differences too.
Brands are much more interested in creating a great product, learning how to market it, and continually driving that sphere. They know that they need to get that product out to people, but figuring out how to do that safely, cheaply, and effectively can be hard for them and may be a bit outside of their core competency.
Fulfillers can ship things out and provide different services for brands, but may not really know how to provide a business differentiator for a brand, whether that is speed of delivery, savings, or costs.
At Extensiv, that’s where we come in. We help brands look at their data to find the optimal places for fulfillment. A brand may have one warehouse to start, but may eventually need an entire fulfillment network as it continues to grow. Additionally, we help fulfillers learn how to attract, retain and service brands successfully so they can continue to grow their business.
I think the biggest obstacle is that a lot of brands have six or seven different providers or integrators. That’s a lot of entities to communicate and collaborate with to get anything done. And, the data has to flow consistently across those and it has to sync. So when you’re trying to get analysis or insights, you’ve got to try to find a way to pair up all the data.
Like most industries, disparate data is a big problem — there’s data in different channels, whether that’s sales, inventory management, or customer interactions. It can be difficult to take all that fragmented information, get it into one place, and be able to look at a unified, integrated view.
Part of the issue is data quality and consistency as well. Then, there’s also the real-time data processing aspect. For some areas you may be able to afford to look at data behind the scenes, but other areas may need to have some real-time data processing.
I think we’re going to see a lot of stuff in the personal customer experience realm, leveraging AI, IoT, and augmented reality to improve customer experience by filling their needs quicker, faster, and better. The prerequisite to doing this will be understanding all those different data points. What are customers actually looking for? What are the fulfillment options? What are the best pricing options?
I also predict that machine learning will continue to drive things like predictive purchasing and customer predictive differences. So it really comes down to that data, consolidating it into one place, and understanding the full picture of that customer journey. This may be difficult for brands, which are just focused on one piece of the puzzle. At Extensiv, we are trying to bring all those disparate data and workflows across brands and fulfillers to one place.
It’s important to invest in yourself and be interested in learning new things. When I was newly married and a new homeowner, I didn’t have a lot of discretionary income. But, I decided to set aside $100 each month to use for self-improvement. Some months I used it for courses, other times I put it toward a certification or used it for new tools or experimentation. The point is, I invested in myself.
If your company doesn’t have a policy for reimbursing educational expenses, don’t let that limit your progression. You’re in charge of your own destiny. If you invest $100 in yourself each month, that’s $3,600 after three years. I guarantee you will make that back in multiples in terms of salary increases and job opportunities.
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