Open Source Is Integral to Making Online Retailers Future-Proof


Zalando is re-building itself into a platform company with mobile marketplaces (Fleek, Movmnt) and several B2B integrations (Media Solutions, Collabary, direct brand integrations into Zalando’s shops, fulfillment services).

As we covered a year ago, Zalando is strongly encouraging the company’s engineers to open-source their projects and is trying to create an environment for them to do that successfully.

Lauri Apple, who became in January of 2016 Zalando’s open source evangelist, writes about Zalando’s road to implementing and fostering Open Source into the company’s engineer’s workflows on She starts with the premise, which for Zalando includes Radical Agility (a massive re-organization towards this took place over the course of 2015):

Inspired by Daniel Pink’s Drive, Brian Robertson’s Holacracy system and the agile movement, Radical Agility emphasizes Drive’s call for autonomy, mastery and purpose as the pillars of the company’s tech strategy and culture. With this new framework, Zalando could more effectively evolve from e-tailer to online fashion platform; from top-down command-and-control to agile; from stagnant/uncool Java monolith to scalable and technically challenging microservices architecture that supports a polyglot approach to development.

​This changed the approach Zalando’s engineers took towards open-sourcing code. They became more enthusiastic:

Meanwhile, the number of projects published on soared into the hundreds. The enthusiasm our team showed for open source led the Guild to next develop a set of Open Source First principles to institutionalize this openness. These principles encourage our engineers to share their code instead of hide it inside private repos, as well as “take ownership,” “be safe,” “provide documentation,” and “ask for help.” The message reinforced the pillars of Radical Agility by encouraging mastery, team autonomy and end-to-end delivery of projects, and solid craftsmanship. […]
Pre-Radical Agility, many Zalando engineering teams had been working in a context in which they were expected to execute functional tasks, do whatever their lead/manager said, or both. This kind of culture might be good for delivery speed, but it doesn’t encourage engineers to engage with the product they’re building or solve problems independently.

​The challenge for Zalando now though became too many published projects with varying degrees of usability to outside developers, drowning out the more useful projects:

To understand what we were publishing on GitHub in a holistic way, I dug in and checked out each one of those 300+ projects on our GitHub repo. This review process took a few months, and revealed that we were releasing a lot of work that wasn’t truly open source — i.e. out-of-the-box useful to the community at-large. […]

The goal was to come up with a way for us to both respect their wish while making it more possible, as one veteran Zalando engineer put it, “to find the cool stuff.”

The solution: create a new GitHub organization called the Incubator for storing those “coding in the open” projects, and use only the main Zalando GitHub org for “the cool stuff.”

​Zalando had to tackle this because open-sourcing projects should not be a formality. (If it is, you might as well just stop.) If a company does publish open source code it should lead to meaningful interest outside the company. (Only then all the positive externalities of open source can be realised.)

For a company that wants to be a platform company making code open source has many advantages:

  • It makes it easier for third parties to integrate with existing APIs or find developers to help with that.
  • It makes it easier for a community of developers to form around the platform integrations to help each other.
  • It makes it easier to hire and find good developers. (Just look at who is using your code and how.) And, icing on the cake, they are faster up to speed.
  • It can also be a strong intrinsic motivator for developers, not just to work for this company but also to produce excellent code.

Even if one has no aspiration to become a platform provider of sorts, it still makes sense to have a sensible open-source strategy. Being technically excellent matters more every day in e-commerce. New platforms to build on / to leverage are rising everyday. Today there are iOS, Android, tomorrow there may be (additionally) FireOS, FireTV, Alexa, AppleTV, Google Assistant, WeChat, Facebook Messenger, Pinterest, Instagram, etc. And we are not even talking about the myriad of marketplaces with their different integration approaches here.

With the rise of those opportunities the supporting shop tech will grow (and diversify) as well. Online retailers which can master those technologies, the companies which can attract the right dev talent for their needs, are in an exceedingly better starting position than those that can’t.

​More on this topic:

​* Why Zalando goes Open Source
​* Collabary: Zalando Turns its Connections With Influencers Into a Platform for Brands
​* Zalando Media Solutions & the Diversification of Revenues at Big Online Retailers
​* Fleek and Zalando Media Solutions Could Together Form Zalando’s One-Stop-Shop for Brands

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