"It's important to think about this [a tech stack] as something that's designed, orchestrated, measured, and improved over time, and being in pursuit of solving specific problems in specific ways, rather than a collection of one-off choices." — Matt Powell, Chief Technology Officer, FTD
To succeed on digital and physical shelves, brands need enabling technology.
But far too often, they rely on disintegrated solutions that don’t play well with each other, perpetuating silos that only make it more difficult to achieve holistic visibility across their business.
That’s why building an ideal tech stack is so critical. Matt Powell, chief technology officer at Florists' Transworld Delivery (FTD), a 112-year-old floral gifting marketplace, led a recent webinar to help ecommerce leaders demystify this process and learn best practices for leveraging the right technology at the right time.
During the webinar, "Enabling the Right Technology for Results," Powell shared tech stack examples and his perspective on how to bridge the gaps between people, processes, and technology to drive ecommerce success.
What Is a Tech Stack? (And Why It Matters)
Succeeding in today’s competitive omnichannel world requires business and technology teams to forge an effective partnership. Developing the right tech stack is often the foundation of this partnership.
"When we talk about a tech stack, what we're really talking about is a collection of technologies that are stacked together, or joined together, to deliver some capability or some user experience," Powell says, adding that this stack can include custom tools or out-of-the-box software-as-a-service (SaaS) solutions.
Powell says not being intentional is one of the biggest missteps companies make when building their tech stack or modeling after tech stack examples. They often aren’t deliberate about what solutions they need within their stack, their intended purpose, or how all these pieces fit together.
"What ends up happening is duplicative solutions get put in place that overlap in unintentional ways, without really a plan, which spends money that generally our company doesn't need to spend and creates all sorts of integration hassles and tech debt," Powell says.
"It's important to think about this as something that's designed, orchestrated, measured, and improved over time, and being in pursuit of solving specific problems in specific ways, rather than a collection of one-off choices that are made by individuals who aren't thinking about the fact that what they're buying is a single platform."
Key Considerations for Choosing a Tech Stack
When comparing different tech stack examples that may work for your business, it’s important not to be vendor-led, Powell says. Instead, think about your company’s specific needs and what solutions offer the specific range of capabilities to meet these needs. From there, you can assess potential partners based on how well their solutions fill these gaps. Powell says this often isn’t an all-or-nothing proposition.
"[Force] potential partners that you're talking with about filling in those spaces to be really, really clear about where they're excellent and where they're good. Because it's hard to be good at everything and [be good] often. You might not need excellence everywhere. Sometimes being good here, excellent here, and good here is enough for that solution to be adequate." — Matt Powell, Chief Technology Officer, FTD
Fostering Enterprise Collaboration
As part of this due diligence, brands also must bring their technical and non-technical teams together. Making technology decisions should be a collaborative process based on the most pressing needs across the organization, so stakeholders from different parts of the business should weigh in and provide their input.
"In an environment where the technical functions are over here, and the business functions are over there, and they don't talk often, you could burn six months of building the wrong capabilities, overbuilding capabilities, or underbuilding capabilities," Powell says.
Forging clarity among key stakeholders is crucial before making any strategic technology investments. This way, your company’s time and resources are all aligned.
Should You Build or Buy?
Another consideration for tech stack examples among brands is whether to build versus buy. Powell says it’s important for companies to assess and really understand their core competencies before making this decision.
"If your business is mostly not a tech operation and needs tech as an enabler, but really doesn't have much of a center of gravity there, then you probably want to be really careful about what you build because you're just not set up to maintain it," he says.
Powell adds that leasing a solution sometimes makes sense because it can speed time to market or time to value. This approach also can give your company some runway before you ultimately decide to develop a solution in-house that lowers your long-term total cost of ownership.
"Looking at both the short-term cost and the short-term benefit, as well as the long-term cost and the long-term benefit can be really important," he says.
Building Your Tech Stack: Avoiding Common Mistakes and Making the Right Investments
During the webinar, Powell shared several best practices for brands seeking to develop or even upgrade their technology ecosystem.
Technology Is Ever-changing
“Technology is really never done,” Powell says. “It’s always in a state of change.”
With this in mind, companies should be prepared to update their tech stack once they build it. Some signs you may need to upgrade your tech stack include the velocity of change within your business.
Powell says this is often a sign of technical debt or “that your current needs no longer match your platform reality, so you have to look at a change in your solution context.”
Another sign is what Powell calls a “material change in what’s technically possible.”
Artificial intelligence (AI) is a prime example of this. The technology is driving automation and powerful data processing that is transforming every facet of business. Any company that wants to maintain or build its competitive advantage will stay on top of the latest technology and find a way to integrate it into its ecosystem.
Create a Plan for Managing Technical Debt
Powell says it’s also critical for businesses to have a process for managing technical debt.
"We like to define tech debt as the gap between the currently possible ideal solution and our solution, which can be the result of shortcuts that are good shortcuts or bad shortcuts," he says, referring to buying or building solutions that speed time to value.
A lot of tech debt happens because business teams don’t entirely trust IT to meet their needs, so they buy solutions on their own without IT’s buy-in. This results in IT teams having to manage solutions they likely wouldn’t have purchased.
Aside from shadow IT, there are also the two problems Powell discussed earlier: not aligning needs with capabilities and not getting buy-in from cross-functional stakeholders early on.
To avoid this, he suggests creating an IT plan that is strategically aligned with your company’s broader business plan. Powell says FTD does this by creating very clear goals and tactical alignments among business and IT teams.
"There is a business strategy that has a maturity goal for each year over a five-year period for the business that's built in partnership between the head of our consumer division, who's a profit and loss [P&L] owner, the head of our member division, who's our SaaS P&L owner, and me as the head of our tech division," he says.
Tech debt is a reality, so every company needs to plan for it. In this vein, FTD’s more holistic approach may be worth considering.
Create a Shared Business Language
Along with creating shared goals, companies also should create a shared language to ensure all their teams operate from the same knowledge base.
"A big non-starter in my team is speaking to non-technical partners in ways that use technology to create information asymmetry," Powell says. "So, you don't get to use language that somebody else doesn't understand purely to manipulate the argument. Your goal is actually to help the other person understand what you're talking about so they can be involved in the decision — not have it happen to them."
Bottom line: Avoid jargon, and foster a common language that allows all stakeholders to easily communicate, understand each other, and imagine the world in the same way.
Stack Your Tech Stack to Work for You, Not Against You
Taking all these steps into consideration will help your company create the right tech stack for your needs and make technology a critical enabler of innovation — rather than an impediment that prevents it.
To hear more of Powell’s best practices for building an optimal tech stack, listen to the full episode of "Unpacking the Digital Shelf."