We spoke about his professional journey within Zalando, the evolution of Merchant Operations, and the engineering culture within the company.
The interview was initially conducted for Zalando’s External Talent Community.
Boris, let’s go back to the start. What attracted you to Zalando in the first place?
The main reason for my attraction to Zalando was how quickly the company was able to adapt to change. I liked that they were constantly trying out new things, even if at that given moment they didn’t seem like the best solutions. At Zalando, there have always been believers in the change, and for me that is important. I think of the process as a journey, and who you share this journey with has always been important to me.
Do you think that’s the main incentive for people to join Zalando – the constant change?
I don’t think there is just one formula, one reason, why people choose to join the company. But what candidates should understand is that Zalando will always change. We will probably become a more stable organisation over time, but there will always be changes. We will continue to try out new things, and people should not be afraid of that. Some things turn out to be a great success, others don't, but we will always try to innovate and be better than before.
What is special and particular about Software Engineering at Zalando?
The engineering culture. Since the day I joined it remains the most impressive engineering culture I’ve experienced. What I refer to by the engineering culture is the support you receive on various levels: from a single line of code up to global challenges. There is always someone ready to help you, someone to learn from, and that’s really powerful. Our feedback culture is getting stronger with people having healthy attitudes towards sharing feedback. In general, we strive to build a community based on trust. Zalando has invested a lot in technology and our solutions and tooling are state-of-the-art. The way we enable our engineering teams to deploy their software – fast, autonomously, at scale and still compliant – is impressive. That sets us apart from many other companies. Our approach to solving problems is unique. We always try to put the customer first, we try to understand why we do what we do, what the purpose is, and this is important. We always aim to explain our strategy in the clearest way possible.
As the Head of Engineering in Merchant Operations, what do you do and what are your responsibilities?
Firstly, on a daily basis I enable the team to tackle complex challenges by providing guidance when they are unsure of how to come to an optimal solution. However, my main goal is to make myself “obsolete”: I aim to develop the team in such a way that they feel empowered to solve problems independently. An important part of my role as a leader is to hire the best talent for our business unit and the broader organisation. I am also responsible for planning and outlining strategies for upcoming technological, architectural or organisational changes that support the longer term Zalando Group Strategy. I work on building a network within and outside Zalando, so that I can turn to like-minded engineers and leaders for help with problems. Finally, I am accountable for the software that we deliver: it needs to be scalable and resilient, and when we fail, we need to fail fast, learn from it, and move forward to continuously improve on what we have done before.
Boris, you have just had your 5-year anniversary at Zalando and have gone through several stages of career growth from a Senior Software Engineer to an Engineering Manager, to a Head of Engineering. When the time came to pursue the next steps in your development, what motivated you to choose a management path? What does being an engineering leader entail?
Most of us want to grow by simply stepping out of our comfort zone. That’s definitely something that still drives me today, and at Zalando I have opportunities to do that. I came to Zalando as an experienced Senior Software Engineer, and leading people and projects was not new to me. When I joined Zalando, there was a reorganisation within the company and with perseverance and self-driven efforts, I enthusiastically grabbed the opportunity to become an Engineering Manager. Being a leader has taught me the importance of creating opportunities for career growth within an organisation. I am to provide opportunities for growth both within my team and beyond - I believe that it's important to support employees' growth first and foremost, no matter where it may take them.
Merchant Operations is often referred to as a great success story within Zalando, could you tell us about how this business unit evolved?
Merchant Operations has a rich history. I have been involved with the department from the very start, but when I joined it five years ago it was called Brand Solutions. Brand Solutions was building a prototype for a marketplace. It had a small tech team, and I was the third software engineer to be hired for the team. We had a great commercial team working alongside us, developing the idea of the marketplace and managing important partner relationships. Over time, we grew into a fully-fledged organisation. Three years ago, David Roberts joined us as the VP of Merchant Operations, and around the same time our objective became clear: build a B2B marketplace model, to bring Zalando closer to being the Starting Point for Fashion by increasing our assortment to include external partners. Currently, we have around 80 people in the engineering organisation, compared to just 10 in the early days. We have engineers in Berlin and Dublin. Our Dublin team has been a great success story, having ramped up really quickly after the beginning of our expansion in October 2019 to a team of 15 today. What makes Merchant Operations unique is that it started as a pure operations team. However, if you want to reach the scale required to become a giant in the fashion e-commerce industry, you need to focus on innovating through technology - and that is how we began to transform. Our biggest initiative currently is Zalando Direct (zDirect) which steers the business of external partners to Zalando's platform and extensive customer base, which increases our offering and convenience proposition exponentially.
Lastly, could you give a piece of advice for a Senior Software Engineer who would like to join Zalando?
Patience is very important. I think it is always important to give yourself some time to learn, grow and focus on what you believe to be your ultimate goal. If you are a Senior Software Engineer and still in doubt about the direction you would like to take with your development, you have to think about this first and foremost. Your goal may be ambitious. But it’s really important that you think of constructive steps you can take to move towards it. Be disciplined. Stay determined, don't be afraid to ask for what you want, and remember to remain open to a path of continuous learning. It's only when you step outside of your comfort zone, that you realise what you are capable of.