Why your company’s future depends on modernization
In the early stages of my career, I joined a “cutting-edge” software company as an architect in the IT department. I don’t want to spoil the story, but the company was not, in fact, cutting-edge.
While the company purchased all sorts of tools it considered modern, its leaders didn’t stop to consider what successful implementation might look like, or how to educate and empower their people to use it well. Instead, we just accumulated new tech.
I left the company less than a year after joining.
I was reminded of this experience while listening to Chief Digital Officer of Dawn Foods Bob Howland share his story in a recent episode of the People Changing Enterprises podcast. He led the transformation of the 100-year-old bakery supplies company.
I love his perspective: Don't modernize for the sake of modernization. Don't do it because there are shiny new tools. Do it because your organization’s future depends on it.
If I could go back to that company and tell them why driving digital transformation is important, this is what I would say.
You no longer have to compromise all three: speed, quality and cost
In the podcast, Bob referred to speed, quality and cost as the triangle that all companies chase. I like to refer to that quest as the “Pursuit of Happiness.”
Think of the elements as sliders on a mixing board. You are constantly adjusting the mix in response to your priorities at the moment and you can usually get a perfect sound with two of the three elements. The third hopefully is not far behind. A general rule of thumb is that all can improve, given the right circumstances.
When we were a young startup, we bought certain functionalities of our technology rather than building them, for the sake of speed — for example, our rich-text editor. As we grew, we doubled down on enhancing every aspect of our product to our standards. That’s when we rebuilt our rich-text editor to be one of the most advanced available in any CMS today.
But when you’re a legacy company with outdated processes and technology, speed, quality and cost tend to be:
Unaligned with company priorities
Lagging far behind what they could be
As a result, the company suffers from unrealized potential and unnecessary complexity that limits them in some way. The quality of what you’re offering might be good, but the right technology could enhance it. While you might be able to operate with a level of speed that is good enough, there is a possibility to be quicker and more agile.
Bob said it like this in the podcast:
“Someone would say we're doing fine, and they would be right. And here comes this person that thinks about the world differently, and says, ‘We can still be that company, but we can be better.’ And when I say better, I mean better revenue, trajectory, lower costs and improved customer experience. That's how I define better.”
Your employees will feel empowered
Before their transformation, Dawn Foods’ sales team could better be referred to as order takers. The only way a customer could place an order was by writing it on a piece of paper and physically giving it to the rep when they were visiting their store.
So when the company pitched the idea of an online ordering system to shift the team’s priorities to strategic growth opportunities for the customer, they were hungry for it.
Modernizing your technology stack is not just to achieve speed, cost, and quality for the business — it’s for your people, too.
One of my jobs as a CTO is not only to create the tech roadmap for the future, it’s to empower the people the vision is for. Whether that’s implementing a new tool, iterating on an old process or making space for innovation.
For example, when my engineering team does “sprints” — meaning, working on development projects for two weeks at a time — we always allocate time for innovation. Twenty percent of an engineering sprint is dedicated to bug fixes and feature requests from customer success; eighty percent is given to their creative endeavors.
One benefit of digital transformation is that your employees can shift their focus and skills to meaningful tasks that can have impact. Your customers will be happy, and your employees will be satisfied and motivated.
You can deliver what customers need when they need it
For a customer, there’s nothing more frustrating than needing a feature to solve a problem and knowing that it might happen in the next year if it happens at all.
One of the goals of digital transformation should be that you are able to respond to customers’ needs much faster. You become an agile organization, like Dawn Foods. In just 22 weeks, they delivered a world-class catalog to get their customers excited about their products and streamline their experience. They couldn’t do that without moving to composable architecture and upgrading their technology stack.
At Contentstack, our head of global customer success and I sit down every two weeks and discuss what our customers have requested. We prioritize by making a “top 10 wish list” and we leverage our tech stack to deliver what they need. This is how we prioritize continuous transformation.
And this is what I know: Transformation is a constant, iterative improvement. It doesn’t have a designated stop or start period. There is no before and after. You nurture the relationships, set up the systems and processes and onboard the right tools. When you do that, your business and its stakeholders will thrive.
For 100 years, Dawn Foods was hugely successful. But when Bob came to them and showed them what they could be, the entire board agreed it was their only option to keep that success going for another hundred years.
Any enterprise can benefit from modernization — especially if it has been around for a very long time.
The world is your oyster: using AI to support your content ecosystem
Every few years, the world is faced with a massive technological shift. In the 90s, it was the dot-com boom. In the 2000s, it was the cloud and mobile and omnichannel experiences.Now, we’re in the middle of the AI revolution. It’s been brimming under the surface for a while but transitioned into a full-blown movement with the rise of ChatGPT and DALL-E.How enterprise leaders handle this revolution over the next few years will determine how successful they will be at understanding and guiding their customers. At Contentstack, we’re making massive strides to learn about and test AI tools responsibly and seeing how our customers embrace the change, too.One of those customers is Informa, a global business-to-business events and information services company. On our “People Changing Enterprises” podcast, we heard from Narisa Wild, who spearheaded Informa’s digital transformation, about how the company uses AI to support its content ecosystem.Because it’s such a new and powerful category of tools, it’s worth discussing some of the options Narisa discussed.Reduce time on the simple stuffThis seems obvious and is often the number-one tip floating around for AI. However, some interesting use cases might serve as inspiration for how these tools can support your unique content requirements. At Contentstack, we test tools like Jasper to support our content teams.Buffer, a social media marketing tool, wanted to create a social media glossary to help their customers learn terms that might not be fully known or understood. Instead of giving one person a very time-consuming task, they used AI to help them define and collect the terms they wanted to include. In their own words, it took half the time in a move that helped their customers greatly.Narisa discussed how she's been testing AI to quickly and more easily compose content creation briefs, offering writers a framework to follow and doing some initial research for the piece. It saves them up to two hours of work — think about how many hours in a day (and how many of them we spend in meetings). It’s valuable time back.Think of all the big ideas you’ve put on hold because you didn’t have enough manpower or time to pursue them. Is there anything you can optimize with AI to pursue those other opportunities?Push “data-driven” to new heights“Data” is one of those buzzwords that permeates every facet of the business. We often use multiple sources of data in a siloed manner. For example, marketers use GA4 for website and ad traffic. They might use a social media tool to schedule posts and dig into more complex analytics for each platform. Yet another tool might be used for newsletters, podcasts, or any other type of content. But what if you could use AI to pull together each source and create a bigger, more strategic picture of your content ecosystem? In this week’s podcast episode, Narisa discussed the application of this data aggregation and analysis to inform content migration prioritization and taxonomy.In Narisa’s words, “It’s not impossible in Excel, but it would take us a long time.”Our Contentstack engineering teams use ChatGPT to help gather relevant data and information so we can assemble and understand requirements to build new products.We all know data is important to pull and analyze, but AI can bring depth and color to “data-driven decisions” we’ve never had access to.Take the time to do it differently than everyone elseMy biggest advice for figuring out how to best support your content ecosystem with AI: Challenge the entire organization to test and learn. On the podcast, Narisa highlighted that all these use cases are still experimental for Informa and many other enterprises. Testing and learning ultimately determine where AI fits into our unique content ecosystems and how to differentiate our brands from competitors. Don’t limit testing to individual content or tech teams; pull everyone in to learn together. At Contentstack, we’re learning how to use AI together responsibly. We all decided on the first and number one rule: protecting employee and customer data. While we may use it for other tasks, we don’t feed that information into AI.On the lighter side, we’re also in the middle of an AI “hackathon” for every department in every region at Contentstack. We’ve charged HR, marketing, IT, customer success, and everyone in between with one goal: find AI tools that help you in your daily tasks and assess the benefits. We’re incentivizing “winners” with a trip to an AI conference.It is not cliché, but we all win when the organization learns together. We all get one step closer to serving our customers more efficiently and pursuing bolder, more imaginative experiences. What is your brand’s version of doing it differently?We’re beyond the point of questioning whether or not AI belongs in our content ecosystem and enterprise teams. The question now is how will your brand leverage AI? In Narisa’s words, “the world is your oyster, " the possibilities are endless.
There is no growth without support
We hire people because we believe they can do the job and help our organizations grow. And, yet, often, managers fall into the micromanaging or the no-managing-at-all trap. On the one hand: "I'll tell you how to do it and when." On the other hand: "Welcome and good luck!"I don't like to think about leading as "managing" at all. I think of it as "supporting." As leaders, our number one goal should be to support our team to reach their full potential and, in turn, enable the company to achieve its goals.There is no growth without support. Here are the three areas where I focus my support.Giving clear directionYour team can't row in the same direction without knowing where the company is headed and why. If the company aims to be the most beloved solution in the category, then a strategy might be prioritizing customer service. Every person across sales, engineering, marketing, partner development, and more should have a plan for how they contribute to that goal. But a step comes before that: ensuring your team is aligned on the values.Your people need to be clear on how they are expected to show up in the communities they serve. Without this, you may find your team achieving goals in a way that creates friction. The behaviors might ultimately work against the North Star, like the high-performing salesperson who is a nightmare collaborator or that leader who rules with fear instead of empathy. Remember that identifying people who will model the core values happens before you hire them. Review company values with potential candidates upfront and ask candidates which resonate with them and why. Also, consider including interview questions about how candidates get through challenging situations or help people succeed and about their community involvement to go beyond a simple values "gut feeling."Greenlighting the right toolsTools are table stakes when it comes to support. There are inevitably things your team will need to accomplish the goals at their highest potential. It could be an e-commerce solution or a collaboration or analysis tool. Often, it's department-specific.As a Solutions Architect for REI's content and experience management platform, Jason Greely oversees a team of engineers. In a recent episode of our People Changing Enterprises podcast, he said he looks for "established solutions that have robust SDKs and APIs, are well documented, and can tackle our capabilities." That's because he's responsible for a team of engineers and prioritizes tools that allow them to experiment and be "happy."I loved this extra layer of evaluation. Yes, tools should help people get the job done. But the sometimes uncredited benefits that come with them – like user happiness – can be even more potent as they lead to increased effectiveness, productivity, and innovation. Some studies show happy employees are 12% more productive, but that number is downplayed.Jason's colleague Kat Valdre, engineering manager for REI's platform organization, added: "Developers are happiest when they get to explore. Just having the possibility of flexibility is what most developers want – freedom. Also, managers who encourage that exploration."One tip from the REI team: make sure the end users of the tool are involved in evaluating the potential options. In Jason's case, as they considered new content management systems, the engineers "contributed their criteria and assessed based on the proof of concept they built. Without end-user involvement, expect a disappointing tool onboarding and acceptance process down the line.Building trust through autonomyMy leadership philosophy is essentially: hire great people and get out of the way. While it may seem counterintuitive, the "getting out of the way" part is one of the most significant ways to show leadership support.Part of that is encouraging that exploration Kat mentioned. Another aspect is showing your support for a project publicly. This executive engagement also involves unblocking as needed. As a leader, you've illuminated the goal, your team paves the path to get there, and you support them by removing the roadblocks. Sometimes, those roadblocks require an executive's touch as they can involve tricky conversations with other executives. Here's the catch: Leaders don't have to necessarily agree with the path to get out of the way. If my CMO wants to do something, my job is to enable her to do it and only raise a flag if I believe it may conflict with our values. Autonomy is an important show of support because it builds trust. And trust keeps the engines running.If I had to boil the concept of support down to one question, it'd be: How can I help my team be successful? It's about giving clear direction on values and end goals, providing the tools to make the team work smarter and not more complex, and letting people run with their skills and ideas. With these elements in place, growth follows.
Retail reinvented: The top 5 takeaways from our conversation with REI
The convenience and accessibility of online retail have revolutionized the way people shop, especially after the last few years when in-person retail experiences were put on hold. In fact, by 2026, 24% of retail purchases are expected to take place online, totaling $8.1 trillion. To be able to react to customer needs faster, retailers are going composable. What does that mean? It means companies are ditching their traditional monolithic systems and trading them in for more agility and flexibility. Now, more than ever before, it’s important for brands to reduce transactional friction. Retailers need to be able to quickly adapt to changing customer demands and deliver consistent experiences everywhere their customers are — all without having to rebuild their entire infrastructure. Earlier this month, we had an insightful conversation with Matthew Schaeffer, Senior Manager of Data and Content Operations for REI. Matthew shared some eye-opening learnings about REI’s composable journey and how REI implemented new systems to bring their iconic green vest customer experience online. In partnership with CMSWire, we dove into how composable technology transforms retail experiences and how online retailers architect their digital experience infrastructure for peak engagement and demand. Below, we’ve recapped the top five webinar takeaways. You can listen to the full webinar recording here if you missed it. Brands today are not prepared to meet the rapidly evolving needs of customers.Sites like Amazon are raising the expectations for how people shop. Consumers want experiences that are more meaningful and more relevant to them. And whether it's to purchase something, find information, do research, or whatever they're trying to do, they want it to be easy. Evolving your systems is critical for delivering more personalized experiences.As a brand, your online experience has to be supported by your technology systems to create the best possible digital shopper experience. Delivering relevant and personalized experiences across channels at scale is the new revenue-critical trend. For systems that are already redlining, it's a challenge to evolve them. The next generation of customer experiences means being able to provide insights, information and personalization to win the loyalty of your customers. To do this effectively, you need to build a marketing tech stack that aligns to your future goals, not just today’s. Deconstructing the monolith is the key to scale and flexibility.Breaking down your monolithic platforms into more streamlined and more organized chunks gives you a lot more flexibility, not only in the ability to make updates and changes but also in choosing the right tools and the right integrations that you need to better engage your customers. Going composable doesn’t and shouldn’t require a rip and replace of existing technologiesWhile it may seem ideal to just pull everything out and start from scratch, the beauty of a composable platform is that it enables businesses to build what they need without abandoning tools they already know and rely on. Matthew said it best, going composable can't require a full rip and replace. The architecture to do the types of things retail businesses are trying to do online takes a number of different systems. Full-scale retail operations have search data, product content, different kinds of media, analytics tooling — the list goes on. Once you evaluate the capability sets of your different tools, you can figure out where to implement plug-and-play solutions. Define the value of going composableLastly, before you begin your composable commerce journey, it’s important to ask the following questions: Will your team really be able to innovate faster and be more agile? Will this technology help you adapt to your customer’s evolving needs based on what those look like today and you can anticipate them being in the future? How much is all of this going to cost? What will the impact on revenue look like? It’s important to be very clear on the vision and value you can deliver to your customers and your teams. And, then, find the people within your organization who will join you in advocating for transforming your digital experiences. Curious to hear the whole conversation? Watch the webinar here and stay tuned for next month’s webinar.
The power of documentation for innovation
What does innovation look like to you? Raise your hand if you think about paperwork. Nobody? You probably thought about scribbles in journals, crazed hours working on your computer by lamplight, intensive brainstorming sessions, or even getting into the field and talking to potential customers, partners, and investors. I doubt you thought about documentation. But that can be your organization’s biggest ally in creating something new and unlike anything on the market. Documentation was useful for REI, the outdoor retail brand, as they implemented their new digital composable experience. Kat Valdre, engineering manager for REI’s platform organization, and Jason Greely, Solutions Architect for REI’s content and experience management platform, came on our “People Changing Enterprises” podcast to discuss it.It got me thinking: Documentation is often one of those overlooked, even annoying, parts of the business. But the benefits are clear: collaboration, clarity, and iteration. CollaborationWhen we think about documenting our processes, we primarily consider it a safeguard for when people – and the knowledge in their heads – leave. Kat made a great point on the podcast: the people who start a project aren’t always the ones who finish it. If you’ve documented your processes, it’s easy to introduce new people into the mix.While that’s a valid reason to start documenting how organizations do things the way they do, it’s not the only reason.One of the most powerful byproducts of documentation is collaboration. No matter how hard we try to break down silos, it’s still second nature for separate business departments to stay separate. Ongoing documentation can actually blow up those invisible boundaries. We’re constantly building things at Contentstack. Here’s how we kick it off: when our product managers begin working on a new product request, they fill out a product requirement document (PRD) that lists details like the problem it solves and different scenarios it will use. They send that PRD to our engineering team and create a technical specification document – the features and how we will build them – with that information. Once these two baseline documents are complete, they are broken down into tasks and assigned deadlines in Jira, our ticketing system.That process works the same way every single time. Why? Because we’ve documented it, everyone is on the same page, answering the same questions and working with the same expectations.ClarityIf you haven’t guessed yet, we capture all our knowledge and processes at Contentstack. If that sounds grueling or repetitive, stay with me — there’s a reason for it.That reason is clarity. The organizations that move the fastest and deliver high-quality results are the ones that work toward extreme clarity with their teams about their roles, responsibilities, and expectations. Never assume that everyone knows every process's details and role in them. Most of the time, that’s not true. I love a quote about leadership: “It’s equally vital as a leader that you speak with your people in a way that not only can be understood by them but, just as importantly, cannot be misunderstood.”When processes and roles are on paper, it’s pretty hard to misunderstand who is doing what and why. That’s why, during their digital transformation, the team at REI held meetings and made sure they wrote down:What they discussed What they decided and agreed uponThe reasons behind those decisionsNot only did it hold everyone accountable for the decisions and the execution, but it made sure everyone was on the same page.Ensuring everyone knows where they stand and what they’re doing produces remarkable speed and agility. It also produces confidence; over time, the combination of all these elements becomes something even more valuable: trust.IterationDocumentation sounds complicated, but it doesn’t have to be. It doesn’t have to take twenty pages — it could be a bulleted list. My team uses Confluence to capture our processes; it integrates with Jira and makes async collaboration simple with tagging and more. The REI team even talked about moments where Excel comes in handy.And just because a process is down on “paper” doesn’t mean it stays the same forever. In fact, it’s actually the opposite. It's easy to see where things can be improved when you’re staring at what’s being done and why. My teams’ processes are constantly changing. We always look at what we do and give feedback on what we can improve. This brings me to another good point: not everything needs to be made from scratch; sometimes, it just needs to be tweaked. Sometimes, the saying “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” is wise. If a process is working above 60% effectiveness, salvage it. Innovation doesn’t always trump iteration.Documentation is not the most glamorous part of innovation, I’ll admit. But it’s simple and effective. All we have to do to take advantage of the benefits is make it a habit.
The beauty of a composable digital experience platform: It can be whatever you need
Have you ever tried designing a website from a template? It can be challenging. First, there are so many options to scroll through (that all somehow look the same) your head will spin. When you do pick a template, you have to build it the way you want, meaning a lot of customization. When that doesn’t work — because inevitably, you always hit the end of what the template can offer — you have to puzzle your way through custom code. That can become a tangled web very quickly.Imagine that process for an established enterprise like Sephora or even a fast-growing start-up. Think about the manual process of integrating each tool needed for e-commerce or inventory management. You think you are “done” building, but wait — the market is evolving and you need to start selling on a new-ish platform like TikTok or BeReal.A traditional legacy CMS environment is tricky: Change one thing and you risk the entire machine stalling. The beauty of composable architecture is that your website can become whatever you want, whenever you need it — easily. Jurre van Ruth, digital strategy consultant at PostNL, came on our podcast, “People Changing Enterprises,” to discuss how the company took that concept to heart and made their composable DXP work for them. But to make it work for your company like PostNL did, we need to level-set definitions and expectations. There’s a lot of confusion in the market about composable architectures — like what is a “composable DXP” in the first place — that I want to clear up. What is a composable DXP?I like how van Ruth said it in the podcast: “We see [composable] as an ecosystem of technologies that aim to create and offer a consistent digital experience for all our customer segments across all digital touchpoints.” I specifically love the word "ecosystem" he uses. CMSWire describes a composable DXP as providing “integrated, consistent solutions that are modular and tailored to microservices and yet connect the gaps of digital experience. This is a unified and seamless approach that eliminates siloed user experiences and all-in-one solutions.”To further flesh out that picture, I often describe composable architecture as a Lego tower: Each block is a tech tool and they each function together to make up one, larger tower, aka the customer’s digital experience. However, unlike a sculpture — or legacy enterprise suites — you can more easily change the look and function of the entire tower by swapping out each block within. For example, if your next marketing goal is to target potential consumers with more personalized advertising and content, those tools are easier to plug into a composable environment than traditional suites. Creative teams get to pursue the digital experience platform of their dreams, and there is much less frustration, less custom code and fewer heavy integration requirements for IT to handle on the back end.Then where does headless — AKA a headless CMS like Contentstack — come in? It’s simply a cornerstone block in your Lego tower. For a marketing environment, the headless CMS acts as a foundation. Every tool — like e-commerce, automated translation, or SEO tools — can integrate into it to make content the central hub of your ecosystem.Moving beyond one-size-fits-allEvery enterprise is different, which means that the capabilities they need will also be different. However, when it comes to traditional legacy martech systems, it tends to be one-size-fits-all. The problem is that one size actually doesn’t fit all, and those environments are slow and difficult to change. It takes extreme customization via code, contacting multiple vendors for help, and a lot of inter-dependencies that aren’t always caught until something breaks. One of the best benefits of composable is that integration is much easier and more natural with APIs inherent to a composable environment. Like clicking a Lego into place, that tool is now part of the environment. For PostNL, they invested in tools for headless content and digital experience analytics, which were easily plugged into their composable environment.An e-commerce enterprise can integrate all the tools they require, whether it’s an online storefront platform, a product catalog with elements like descriptions or visual assets, or any personalization tools it might need. But, for example, a hospitality service will need a different set of tools, and they can have them inside a composable environment.Enterprises are no longer satisfied with a one-size-fits-all approach. The beauty of composable architectures is that, in a market that changes like the wind, organizations’ digital experiences can also evolve just as easily.