19. Pioneers with John Williams, CTO at Amplience

"We had a great conversation on building digital experiences. John shared his story of how he joined Amplience. We talked through their pivot from Flash to Headless/HTML5 and how they incubated what's now the leading eCommerce headless CMS called Amplience. Great story of entrepreneurship, taking the ambitious endeavors. We also covered Microservices, API First, Cloud and Headless. Tune in!" Piotr Karwatka, Host

Questions asked in the episode:

·        Do you remember your first computer and how you got into software engineering?

·        You started your career at Reuters in the late 90's. Do you remember your first projects?

·        Then from the developer role you got into head software engineering at ixl and then at LBi. Tell us more about it.

·        You were leading a huge team at a services-oriented development company. What were the key takeaways from this experience?

·        It was 2010 when you joined Amplience. How did it look like in those days?

·        So you pivoted 180 degrees. What gave you confidence is in the right direction?

·        It was long before API-first, Headless became a thing.Do you feel like a Pioneer? 

·        Why do you think the Headless approach is the new way to go for enterprise software?

·        What is Amplience like Today?

·        What about the product. Can you tell us more about it?

·        What are the other players in the ecosystem you find the best synergies with?

·        What are the top use cases clients are using Amplience for?

·        You recently became a MACH Alliance member. Why do you think this initiative is important?

·        How many people do you have in your team now?

·        Can you tell us more how your typical day as CTO looks like? What are your key responsibilities?

·        Do you have any golden principles helping you at work you can share with us?

·        How do you stay up with the new technology trends? 

·        What do you think about the future of enterprise software?  What’s the next big thing?

·        What are the most over and under-hyped technology trends right now?

Transcript:

Piotr Karwatka: [00:00:00] Episode. My guest is John Williams, CTO of Amplience,enterprise grade, headless content management and experience platform fore-commerce. He started his career in the late nineties with Reuters. Then he went all the way along from the consulting practice to Amplience, who, when the was the third employee building a flash-based major server software then they pivoted into headless content management long before headless become a thing.

Hi John! Thank you for accepting my invitation!

John Williams: [00:02:57] No problem. I'm looking forward to it.

Piotr Karwatka: [00:02:59] Awesome. John, do you remember your first computer and how you got into software engineering?

John Williams: [00:03:06] Sure. When I was a child, 11 years old, I was given a X81. So most of your listeners won't know what that is, but it was, it looked something like a calculator that you plugged into a monitor with a black and white display.

And you had the whole of one care. And that was my first computer. And my father at the time said, I couldn't use it for games.Not that you could get very good games on there. So I decided to write them,myself all the way through having that. And then I had a Dragon 32, which had 32 K which was a huge amount of memory.

And then yeah, from that, I started writing games when I was very young. Was it basic, the first language combination of basic and a little bit of machine code? There was obviously no internet back then and to do a lot of learning, using the manual. And magazine. So standing in shops, reading, I guess, looking at how guts people coded, coded programs and games.

And I had my first programs published when I was 11 and then a whole bunch of them when I was 13. So I was earning money at a very early age writing games

Piotr Karwatka: [00:04:16] on the apps you are doing, right?

John Williams: [00:04:18Yeah, there were kind of sends some magazine. They print them out. And some of the guys will remember those days of sitting there with a magazine,typing out your computer programs into your machine, and then wondering why it didn't work.

I was and that was back in the day.

Piotr Karwatka: [00:04:41] That's some great, great story. Actually, your professional career started at Reuters in the late nineties. Right?

John Williams: [00:04:50] Yeah so, I kind of left university, moved to London From Middlesbrough in my hometown. I had to do that because at the time there weren't really any digital businesses out there in the Northeast.

And it's changing now. We have our own office out in Middlesbrough and I've got a bunch of us are out there right now to help really sort of, build up that tech talent over there.

Piotr Karwatka: [00:05:13] By the way I had an interview with Adam Sturrock from Maltin. I guess he started somewhere near your hometown, right?

John Williams: [00:05:24] That's right. Northern England. Yeah. Adam's from a similar place. Same sort of place. Yeah, we built a team out there mainly because like when I was out there, I knew there was lots of grit, talent and tech in the Northeast, but I had to come to London. I quite liked London. And I started my first job in Reuters. You know it was C ++ visual C++ plus lots of windows programs, windows apps. Yeah with pure windows apps it took like a week to just do one screen.

Piotr Karwatka: [00:06:06] It was actually how my career started to like MFC  visual C++ windows. I remember those times.

John Williams: [00:06:14] So I was cutting out that I was a junior program. I learned a huge amount around just general coding principles, straight out of uni. You have the basics, but there's so much more to learn. And I worked with a really cool team out there. It was one of the best times of my life,actually, you know, as a young person over in London writing some really cool stuff. It was an internal product as well called a feed management system.

So it was all about tiered billing for Reuters customers at the time. And so it was quite sophisticated. It was not project based. It was like kind of a it was a more of a product based thing. So it was my kind of first ever entry into working on a product. And I got to learn things like service support implementation as well as doing the demos and, you know, get involved with QA and things like that.

So it was a great grounding for a career.

Piotr Karwatka: [00:07:09] So you started out as kind of in a kind of product organization, maybe not product company, because the writer is, is absolutely not a product company, but you were doing some products, but then your career,but people tell it too, but I mean You got into head software engineering roles at IXL and then LBI. Tell us more about it

John Williams: [00:07:31] One of my friends we met up and talking with him and his girlfriend actually worked in IXL at the time and they were looking at, it was a .com boom. So people were desperate for developers at the time. So I, I kindof got to the point where three and a half years in Reuters, I was getting to the point of, I got to project management, but I didn't really want to do that.

I wanted to continue to be a technologist,continue to develop. And this seemed like a great thing today. You know, the internet was just really starting to emerge at that point. It was people throwing money at it. There was so much to learn. It was really exciting. So I moved to IXL at the time and it was fantastic.

It was huge amount of energy. It had more of a meritocracy type culture. So if you worked hard, you progressed lots ofgrit, things that were really diverse and had huge amounts of varieties of work. And I worked on my first ever web sort of Java web project. And it was a,B2B, B2C market plus one of the first to that, and I was using big speaks kills, Java development and it was a real change.

Moved from kind of a pristine office in Reuters to an office actually in the same office we're in today. Funny enough,the same building in the same building as I was my first job that I had. But it was a bit tired when we moved in, you know, the office itself. So it felt like a real cultural shift, but fantastic people out there.

I learned so much around user experience and design. And how you know, it's more than just the technology and it's more about developing experiences for customers as well as actually embedding in the technology.

Piotr Karwatka: [00:09:27] So, yeah. Fair point. You said that the culture was different. The organization was bigger. Sounds like you learned a lot. You mean just user experience. So is this the biggest takeaway you got from this experience?

John Williams: [00:09:53] I was there for about a year and a half and we started to hit the .com bust. And that was a really challenging time for many of us in the industry. You know, I had to make that point. I progressed toa head of technology and we're at the point of making very difficult decisions about who was staying in the company because of the .com. Blast. It was like, yeah, there wasn't scaling more.

Yeah that was not an easy decision to make.And so it went through that. And then at the back of that it obviously all changed around eventually. And then we had to build the team again. So, you know, I learned a huge amount about keeping a core team. I was trying to keep motivated, focusing on the right things in the business to keep the business going.

And it all felt like we're all a part of it in many ways. I guess there's a lot of people out there right now feeling same way about what's going on with the current pandemic. So it had that feel about it. But then we built, you know, we came out the back of that. We built this fantastic company at the end.

We went through lots of mergers and acquisitions. So I learned lots about dealing with that. I think we had. Actually,probably five different company names. And I sat in the same desk met lots of people from lots of cultures and companies and joined them together. Yeah. I got to deal with a huge amount of different technology. So it was kind of very horizontal. Both e-commerce farmer, CPG financial services, as well as content management, et cetera, every system search every single system and every platform from dot net and the Microsoft world over to Java. So you've got this kind of real understanding of architecture and breadth of technology

Piotr Karwatka: [00:11:51] It’s good you said that because actually that's my observation too. I mean, like I was in services for more than 10 years building Divante from ground up and the single biggest thing, there is no single learning, but yeah, if I'm to name one single thing it is the diversity of things you were doing.

Technology changes, people change,processes change, everything changes, and you have a great experience going through all those. And so then starting building a product is, I think it's easier after all.

John Williams: [00:12:27] It has, yeah. In some ways I guess I used to say an agency you'd kept really involved with the project and it became like your thing and you'd work incredible hours to deliver it. Absolutely. And then you kind of run away, right? You kind of flight. You have to let it go and move onto the next one. Or you might be working on three at the same time and it and grit for a while because you get to have all this breadth of experience, but it's quite demanding. Cause each time you've got a brand new set of requirements,brand new sector, new technology you've never heard of before.

And you've got to kind of wire a lot of it.Altogether new challenges, different people on the team cause it's agency or consultants. So, you're moving people. You’ve got all of these teams changing,all the technology's changing, so it can be quite demanding and quite wearing.And so building a product is easier in that respect as in, you can really focus and you can go much more vertical in terms of your thinking.

But it's challenging in different ways. I think it can be very challenged in different ways.

Piotr Karwatka: [00:13:32] Absolutely. It's a set of total different challenges.Yeah. Okay. So The next thing in your career was compliance. I guess it's a huge milestone because you are still in at the company.How did it look like those days when Eugena?

John Williams: [00:13:47] Yeah, so actually we would call 10 CMS right at the beginning and we changed our name in the middle. So when I joined 10 CMS actually joined with one of my friends James Brooke, who was one of the client partners in LDI, he went up and set up, this kind of business, asked me to come join him.

I was at that point where I finished an MBA. I thought I want to do something different. You know, I've been there for 10 years in an LBI and I fancied a new challenge. Really like the thought of working in product as you know, going over to the other side of the fence. And I joined and actually it was a very young company, only about I think 9 to 10 people.

It was really transitioning from a moreservices type company because they had nice SD care that could basically Mick media transactional for retailers. And at the time they were looking to move that into more of a product model. So that building a portal, you know, building tooling around ityou know, that kind of thing it was flash bear strikes, which is flat.

Yeah. Why would you do that? I don't know,but it looked really good. And it was only the only technology you could really do the kinds of things with media.

John Williams: [00:15:07] So it was, it was called interactive merchandising, the product that we built and it was amazing. You could take video and images put hotspots, or then link them into products. We made it so you could literally install it as if you were installing a YouTube player, spent a lot of time in the performance in the browser. It was really well-crafted once we got to the end of it and we had this great portal, we had a lot of customers, cause you could see the value of it straight away in terms of conversion and sales in e-commerce. But then we had Steve Jobs come along with this. I think it was his iPad at the time and decided that Flash was dead. And the HTML 5 was the new thing, and this is probably six- or seven-months in.

And I'm like, Oh my God, I just joined the company. And the cortex is Flash, and now we've got to like do something else, right. It's hard because everybody is so ingrained into Flash, it's not going to happen and it's not going to happen at the end isn't now, but it was right.

We had to make that bench. So, you know, we got the team together. And my current Head of VP of Technology that is still there. My team today, Darin don't really, and I actually sat in a cupboard basically for about a week, trying to work out how we transform this from, you know, like from a flash player to a HTML 5 player.

And we, we actually did it. We worked out a strategy for it. We followed an agile kind of lean route. It was mid lots and lots of iterations around this player. And actually, we came up with a fantastic proposition, which was depending on what browser you had, it would switch the actual player that you've got.

Because the other challenge we had is that everyone said, and do hitch more, five. Didn't really exist. It wasn't, it was just a kind of made-up standard at the point at that time. And different browsers implemented things in lots of different words. So it was quite tricky.Yeah, but what we did is we created this new Providence that allowed you to have the same experience, so infidelity experience, and it was swap out the players depending on what you wear.

Piotr Karwatka: [00:17:18] I'm just, I'm just curious, like Stevie is going on stage saying something more or less like Flash is dead. But actually it wasn't that clear afterwards that it's immediately dead. And you need it to make this decision?Yeah, I'm wondering, like, when were you sure that you need to rewrite the whole product? How did you make this decision, because it's a very tough decision, right?

 

John Williams:  Yeah. Ultimately we're sitting within an environment, not by ourselves. So we have customers already out there. We're already dealing with business development. We see the kind of announcements. You kind of see the industry news as a business.

That was like, basically not that many of us, but yeah, we were talking about this all the time. And yeah, there were parts of the business, I guess which were quite reluctant because they were like, no, this is not dead because we've been, this is our life doing this,right? Yeah. I was lucky in some respects being fairly new, because I was like,objective.

I was like, look it looks like the writing's on the wall. It's a challenge, but this is a challenge for the whole industry. So, let's just take on that challenge and, and solve it. Because if we solve that, then nobody else is doing that. And we kind of had the answer and you know, we could, we just needed to change the mindset about things.

But on top of that we have customers and then business development. They're asking all the questions, wait a minute,you're flash, Steve Jobs said, it's dead. So you get the messages from the market, from customers as well as you know, internally within your own team. So every decision that you make when you're a startup should really be made from feedback from customers and potential customers.

Piotr Karwatka: [00:19:05] Absolutely. Absolutely. That's even a sentence we can quote is perfect. Perfect fit startup situation.

Do you feel like a pioneer?

John Williams: [00:19:16] It's, it's a kind of yes and no answer to that. So I guess if we think about where we were all the way back there and we changed the tech. Didn't see that as pioneering that time, which is needed to kind of get some but then we, you know, I think in the industry, I think everybody in some respects has to be a pioneer because if there's one constant is change.

All the way through everything that I've done for last term, 10 years has been to do with change. And it's still happening today. So, we had that initial kind of technology stack change. And then, you know we have this player that's amazing. People are loving it. It's actually getting huge amounts of traction.

Everyone in business is excited by it. Then we have, you know, mobile, a tablet, omni channel, responsive design, fluid design and all of these things start cropping in. And when you've got a product that takes media and build stuff around it, it tends to be very canvas based.It's not meant to work on mobile, right?

So, you know, again, actually I. Talk to jams. And that was a much more difficult discussion because you're basically going, I think the businesses is not gonna continue down this path, if we, if we stay with just a player and being canvas what I thought was important was the content, not the delivery.

Ah, gotcha. James and I actually, you know,we talked about it. We were, we did lots of deep investigation with customers out in the business. And we both came to the same conclusion and in fact, the whole team were all around this idea that actually what's important is the content right. And content should be delivered as a service.

Yes. And we had a customer dare one. Talk about this. And so, yeah, this is really important to us. We'd like to think about it. So, we've actually moved to content as a service. We had a couple of gotcha. We had a couple of things along the way. Like we built a dynamic imaging service, which had to be hugely scalable and performance.

And we had to build the dam before that as well, which was all the API for it.

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