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Levi's Zach Crittendon supports big ambitions with flexible tech

The Contentstack TeamFeb 03, 2023

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One thing jeans and technology have in common? You can outgrow them. As digital became increasingly critical to Levi Strauss and Co.’s strategy, it was clear that the single, monolithic platform that had been powering the website wasn’t going to be able to keep up with the company’s omnichannel ambitions. 

“That was a great way to get started,” said Zach Crittendon, software architect at Levi Strauss & Co., about their legacy all-in-one platform. “It has a lot of best practices built into it and was sufficient to get us live on the internet, but it was not going to scale with us in all of the things that we needed to do as a company.” 

Crittendon recently spoke with us about developing scalable solutions, designing tools that empower creative teams and the advice he has for other leaders making the transition to a composable architecture. 

Minimize risk with phases 

Moving from an all-in-one platform to a composable approach, where different systems handle different responsibilities, can be a complex challenge — especially as most companies aim to make this transition in a way that quickly proves value and poses minimal risk. 

“A huge part of the transition is finding the business case that fits it,” Crittendon said. “One that will give you a real world evaluation of what you’ve built, what its strengths and weaknesses are, but in a way that doesn’t jeopardize your main line of business.” 

For Levi’s, this meant taking a phased approach. In phase one, the team added a headless CMS to create a new homepage while the rest of the website stayed in the legacy platform. Phase two was to completely replace the legacy platform for the Eastern European website, which was a simpler use case because a third party handled a large part of the order management process. In phase three, the team completely moved to a composable architecture. 

These phases allowed the team to gradually add complexity and step off the monolith one capability at a time instead of a big-bang replatform effort. 

“You can have those learnings and if there are any issues you have the time to work through and identify and resolve those before you bet the business on it,” Crittendon said.

Build with growth in mind 

“The most important thing with composable is having a very clear idea of where you’re going," Crittendon said. “Make sure that you have a good idea of what a strong, powerful, flexible, composable architecture looks like in the future.”

Keeping the long-term vision in mind helped the Levi’s team to develop and implement capabilities that would be able to grow with the business. For example, instead of creating a one-off template, the homepage was built in a modular way with the intention that the APIs, content types, content schema and the content itself could later be reused and repurposed for different use cases. 

“We ensured that the initial architecture was structured in such a way that we could expand the number of locations that this modular system could be used within our site and that the set of modules themselves could be expanded,” Crittendon said.

Having a foundation of reusable, flexible modules allows the team to repurpose content, integrate data, combine experience elements and deliver to different channels with very little technical investment. For instance, in a two-day hackathon they were able to develop shoppable videos that display inventory-aware products and local prices.

“It’s very simple to reuse all of these pieces that we’ve built and just reconfigure them to suit the requirements that we have at the moment,” Crittendon said.

Enable creative teams 

The long-term vision that guides how capabilities are designed and implemented should be developed with both technology and creative teams at the table. At Levi’s, the long-held desire from the marketing team to be able to blend brand-driven content with conversation-driven experience was a major factor in the design of the new architecture. 

“Going composable has made it faster and easier for us to create essentially whatever experiences our product and user experience teams are able to dream up,” Crittendon said. 

Pullout quote: “Going composable has made it faster and easier for us to create essentially whatever experiences our product and user experience teams are able to dream up,” Crittendon said.

“The way we’ve integrated our commerce and product information management APIs with our CMS APIs, we’re able to make it very easy for our business users to create these experiences that combine the commerce and the content in one place,” he explained.   

Crittendon and his team have approached this from two directions. First, by making it easy to put “content in commerce” and letting business users put text, images and videos directly in category pages and product grids. Second, by enabling “commerce in content” experiences like the ability to tag editorial photos with related products and use real-time data from the commerce platform to only show products that are available. 

“We’re not trapped in the template of a product display page but can instead deliver a very rich, custom, bespoke brand experience and have the commerce part of that experience just a click away,” Crittendon said. “That’s something that our team had been dreaming of for years before we moved to this composable architecture.” 

Focus on usability 

“Half the project is the experience that we’re delivering to the external customers, the other half of the project is how we’re doing that in a way that is easy to use and easy to learn and understand for the business users,” Crittendon said. 

“As a technology person my job, as I see it, is to understand what it is that they’re trying to convey and what the differences and similarities are across campaigns, locales and languages,” Crittendon said, explaining that a critical part of designing a solution for a global, multi-brand organization like Levi’s is making sure there is significant flexibility. So while architecture components are designed to be reused as much as possible, it’s easy to adjust if a country or brand needs to do something slightly different. 

This approach has made it possible for Levi’s, in just a few years, to go from a website with basic e-commerce functionality to having over 100 business users actively contributing to an omnichannel experience with thousands of pages live across 60 countries and nine languages. 

“Being able to create the tools that allow that to be managed at scale by a really wide group of users is something that I’m really proud of” Crittendon said. “Business users are able to create really rich experiences without any ongoing, day-to-day involvement from quality assurance, engineering, or performance.”

Learn more about going composable here.

About Contentstack

The Contentstack team comprises highly skilled professionals specializing in product marketing, customer acquisition and retention, and digital marketing strategy. With extensive experience holding senior positions in notable technology companies across various sectors, they bring diverse backgrounds and deep industry knowledge to deliver impactful solutions.  

Contentstack stands out in the headless composable DXP market with an impressive track record of 87 G2 user awards, six analyst recognitions, and three industry accolades, showcasing its robust market presence and user satisfaction.

Check out our case studies to see why industry-leading companies trust Contentstack.

Experience the power of Contentstack's award-winning platform by scheduling a demo, starting a free trial, or joining a small group demo today.

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Nov 17, 2023 | 3 min. read

Make unconventional decisions as your company grows

I've always leaned a little unconventional— a CEO sommelier. I am a first-generation Indian American growing up in a primarily Hispanic community with Filipino best friends— a non-techie leading tech company from a non-Ivy League school (that was a mouthful). It's been a fact of my life and my career. Part of it was because I needed access to the same opportunities early on, so I had to nudge my way through. But another part was more choice. If there's a "book" to live by, I prefer to take what works for me, throw out the rest, and write my version based on values and dreams. That's led to a lifetime of entrepreneurship and the ultimate dream of leading Contentstack from a product-within-a-service company to one of Deloitte's 500 fastest-growing tech companies this year. And guess what? I've made some unconventional choices along the way. Here, I've reflected on some of the biggest ones, with help from a recent "People Changing Enterprises" podcast. Starting where others didn't  From the start, we had a good idea: we built a product the market needed. That's because we created Contentstack due to seeing first-hand the frustration our Raw Engineering services customers were experiencing because of their monolithic CMSs.  The speed of business and culture was increasing, web, mobile, and social media platforms were exploding, and cloud computing was the apparent future. Still, their current systems needed help to keep up. This early customer testing ground led to customer funding when we spun out Contentstack. It's unusual. Many founders would move immediately to VC to scale fast. But we took longer to stay close to the customer, continue iterating based on demand, and prove product-market fit.  By the time we did raise VC money in 2019, it was for a much more significant sum than we could have a few years earlier. We had laid the groundwork for a sustainable, customer-driven business model (vs. the growth-at-all-costs mentality that became popular). Those anchors don't tend to steer you wrong. In the People Changing Enterprises episode, Bjørn Kreijen, director of Digital and e-commerce at equipment rental company Boels, also transitioned from brick-and-mortar to digital-first unconventionally.  While he knew the company would eventually move to a composable architecture, he chose the opposite direction at the outset: a monolithic CMS. This move allowed them to assemble the team and capabilities quickly. "First go for the monolith, make sure that you have the right capabilities on your team, that you have the technological knowledge. And then start decomposing. That's how we did it...But the CMS platform that we chose was built in the cloud, so it made the switch to composable easier." Investing in Customer Care We're just one of many who know that focusing on customers is an innovative business practice. Bjørn explained that another unconventional decision Boels made was to build its entire online presence around five customer journeys – not personas (are you a painter, plumber, or landscaper?).  The persona analysis needed to give them a meaningful distinction to build off of. However, they found the journeys differed based on the organizations' size, so Boels ultimately broke those out on a scale from corporate customers to individuals doing DIY projects. For Contentstack, these are some of the unconventional ways customer care comes to life: When we hire, we look for signs that candidates care about customers and their outcomes. Our interview scorecard asks if the candidate "Gives a damn." We built a proactive customer-level monitoring tool based on API usage that catches technical issues before they become a customer problems. This is a win-win because it ultimately helps customers save on infrastructure and helps Contentstack save on support costs. We created an ecosystem of support from Care Without Compromise™ to Contentstack Academy and the Go Composable website. In the most unconventional way, in 2021, we acquired a team of CMS experts from Raw Engineering, the service company I launched that served as the origin story of Contentstack. The team pioneered headless CMS years ago, coming home in a real full-circle moment. Together, all these efforts help customers with implementation, overcoming roadblocks, and developing their internal expertise.  Looking for Talent in Undiscovered Places I didn't go to an Ivy League school. I had to fight like, hell at a previous company to hire someone who became one of my top performers without a college degree. Why would we revert to old ways of thinking and hiring when we've seen what diversity of thought and backgrounds can mean to an organization? At Contentstack, we focus on unconventional hires, including partnering with organizations that support mothers' re-entry into the workforce and placing underprivileged high school students in paid engineering internships. Our annual Tech Surf competition in India received over 34,000 applications from students across 3,000 colleges. The winners get a chance to apply for several Associate Application Engineer positions. We also focus on transferable skills more than direct experience. That's how we ended up with an accountant student as one of our top engineers and a bodybuilder as Chief of Staff. It's about finding people willing to learn and driven to build something and hustle.  We won't change our unconventional ways anytime soon — and neither should companies like Boels. Instead, we'll continue focusing on building the most beloved product on the market by listening to partners and challenging the status quo. Like Judy Garland said: "Always be a first-rate version of yourself, instead of a second-rate version of somebody else." 

Oct 20, 2023 | 3 min. read

Five rules of leadership rallying

You have a new goal to hit or a new tool or CSR program to launch company-wide. It's critical that you get people – a lot of them – on board. In Narisa Wild's case, she was preparing to launch a new Digital Skills Index across Informa, a massive events enterprise powering conferences worldwide. On our "People Changing Enterprises" podcast, she explained the Index would measure digital maturity to help balance the employee divide.  But how would she get employees to take proficiency tests and leaders to prioritize digital upskilling – two responsibilities that can fall low on a priority list when tackling your "must-dos?" Rallying your people isn't easy. It's also not a moment in time. Successful rallying starts as early as building the right team and includes knowing when it's not your turn to lead, among other things. Here, I'll share the five rallying rules I've developed along my leadership journey.  1. Hire people with the drive to strive for better. As a leader, your time for rallying will inevitably come. Setting yourself up for success starts with hiring the right people. I don't look for people who want a job; I look for people who go after "better" when they see the possibility. I want to hear about a time when they chased improvement. That way, when it's time to rally around a new goal or challenge the status quo, they get excited by the potential. (Hiring this way also builds a culture of innovation.) On the podcast, Narisa advised: "If someone is smart, intelligent, willing, hungry, have the desire, they can pretty much wrap their arms around anything. Just look at our career paths. We probably didn't start anywhere near where we are now." I started in tech PR, moved to product management, and then to founding and running a tech company. So, I agree.  2. Show people how the cause positively impacts them. Would you hop on a bus with no destination? Or one with a destination of "nowhere special?" Leadership rallying involves clearly and repeatedly articulating a vision and how that vision impacts the people you want support from. Use empathy to understand the underlying factor that would most motivate the largest swath of your target group. Here are some considerations: Will the initiative make their jobs and lives easier? Is there a David vs. Goliath story? Will people have the opportunity to do something that's never been done? Will they get a reward or incentive for participation? Will they make important personal connections? Will they positively impact a community or close a societal gap? Will they have the opportunity to satiate curiosity and grow in new ways? Psychology Today published a list of common motivators that could help you think through this even more. But Narisa broke motivation down in the simplest terms of all on our podcast: describe "what this new 'toy' is bringing to them."  3. Make it fun. Nobody is hoping for another email telling them what to do. That can be part of a rallying strategy, but not the only part. Have fun and be creative with your initiative. One of our rallying cries, #LFG (it means what you think it means), was born out of the stressful post-pandemic period where we had lofty goals in what felt like a shaky market. I made #LFG tee shirts, shared pictures, and incorporated #LFG into our efforts. We hit the number, and I think rallying was a big reason why. Similarly, we recently wanted to rally around public voting tied to our South by Southwest Panel Picker submissions. Apart from distributing the voting call across all channels, we hosted a live voting session attended by close to 100 people. Our General Counsel, Jessica Shor, committed to donating a tree for every vote.  We'll find out soon if our ideas are chosen, but the motivation here is clear: help Contenstack get on stage and improve the environment while you're at it. They aren't immediately relatable, but it works!  4. Build followership by letting people lead. In my youth, I went from student body president to part of the Pioneer Leadership Program at the University of Denver. This involved living on the same residency floor with 30 other Type A leaders. I learned quickly that I couldn't always lead.  There were times when my most helpful role for the moment was following. That experience ultimately influenced my leadership mantra of unblocking and getting out of the way. Sometimes, the CEO or department head isn't the best person to rally a group. If you're looking for a Gen Z upswell on social media, for example, maybe it's a Gen Z leader, you must make it relatable. In these instances, listen to what the Gen Z leader requests from you regarding support and make it happen as best as possible. When team members request my participation in an initiative, I ask myself: do I have something unique to bring to the table? Can someone else make a more significant impact than me? I'd be excited about it if it's primarily tech-related but I would probably rely on our CTO or VP of Product, who have more authority.  5. Rallying isn't always enough. I've had moments of superb rallying that still led to failed experiments. I once built a parking app that launched at TechCrunch Disrupt and secured coverage in USA Today and The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. We passed out fake parking tickets that served as app credits. All this rallying created a viral sensation in its day, but the app was unsuccessful, likely because we hadn’t yet solved for product-market fit. Rallying is excellent – even essential – to a new initiative's success. But it'll not be easy to go far without other pieces in place, like the right business plan, people, and product-market fit. A rallying leader propels their team and organization forward, transforming setbacks into opportunities. I hope these "rules" will help you go after those opportunities…and have fun.