Loblaw Digital
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Loblaw Digital

Unlocking our next phase of growth

In Loblaw Digital’s early days, the priority was to get our e-commerce businesses stood-up quickly. Given that, a decision was made to leverage an out-of-the-box Monolith platform solution to build on. If you’re unfamiliar, Monoliths are single-tiered platforms in which all components are interdependent and reside in a single application. This option made sense at the time, as monoliths are notoriously simple and therefore quick to develop, test, and deploy.

From then on, with so much to do, every time we needed to launch a new business (which happened more often than you’d think) we spun up a new instance of that Monolith. Each build was unique, with a high degree of customization. For Joe Fresh, for Online Grocery, for Shoppers Drug Mart, and so on.

This is what our numerous stacks looked like 😱

Unfortunately while Monoliths are simple to stand up, they struggle to scale; as you increase the size and complexity of the application, performance is crushed; you have to redeploy the entire code base with every update, and a bug in any one module can bring down the entire system (to name just a few of its flaws).

Fast forward eight years and we found ourselves with several outdated Monolith instances and extensive duplication. All of this required constant maintenance, capital, and, perhaps worst of all, slowed our pace of innovation.

In the Middle of Difficulty, Lies Opportunity

In contrast, a microservices-based architecture decomposes your application into a set of manageable, interconnected services that are much faster to develop, much easier to maintain, and, most importantly, able to scale independently.

A rough sketch of Loblaw Digital’s Microservices Architecture

A favourite quote of mine is from Alex Schleifer, who reminds us of the simple truth that “you can’t innovate on products without first innovating the way you build them.” This was precisely what we intended to do. If we wanted to build the best digital experiences in retail, we couldn’t be tied to a Monolith. We needed to move with speed and flexibility.

Migrating to this type of architecture was my top priority as I moved into the role of SVP at Loblaw Digital in October 2020. And with massive spikes in demand brought on by COVID-19 paired with increasing expectations from our customers, it was clear we could no longer wait. Our architecture at Loblaw Digital had to be modernized if we were to both support Loblaw’s multi-billion dollar digital business, and if we were to continue to attract the best product and engineering talent in the country.

So at the start of 2022, having completed the rebuild of my leadership team and with clarity on our ultimate direction, we embarked on an ambitious mission: 170 colleagues were no longer dedicated to a single line of business. They were now part of a newly formed Platform team, tasked with building for them all.

Our new organizational structure with our Platform underpinning all our digital products

Platform with Benefits

When making a change as material as this, it’s important to constantly remind folks at all levels (from a Dev I all the way up to Management Board) of the benefits that stand to be realized — tangible examples that help contextualize the future. So, if you’re interested, here are just a couple.

Historically we had a Product Catalog per Monolith instance, which meant products could only show up on their own digital experience. On the flip side, a single Product Catalog in the Platform houses all our products (From beauty, apparel and food, to optical, liquor and more), which means an open door to giving customers access to Loblaw’s entire inventory assortment through any digital channel they’d like. This approach also ensures they see consistency in how products are represented across our ecosystem. Even better, for our teams this means a common framework that allows us to reduce technical complexity and eliminate duplication of development. Launching Joe Fresh on PC Express™ took seven months of development time. With Platform, that work can be done in weeks. Platform lowers the cost of experiments like that, allowing us to improve or fail faster.

Migrating to single services within a single platform unlocks so many benefits for our digital businesses as well as our customers.

Another important customer benefit of Platform is the principle of Familiarity. Through the use of common UX patterns across all our services, an experience becomes easier to navigate for the user. They don’t have to learn the system each time they engage with it, it becomes intuitive, recognizable. This consistency not only makes an experience more usable, it builds confidence and trust in the brand or service. Offering this level of cohesion will make it easier and more enjoyable for our customers to shop, not only within our experiences, but across them.

So Here we Are.

While the vision for Platform was clear on day 0, the path was blurred. Despite that, and the many ups & downs experienced along the way, the Platform team has persevered. We are now dev complete on every single Platform service.

We also aren’t just creating a more flexible version of what we had. We are actually building some of the coolest %#?! you could possibly imagine (and we’re just getting started).

The team has achieved things they didn’t believe were possible, learned what it truly means to be a platform organization and built not only a resilient technology infrastructure but strong relationships and friendships in the process.

It’s fair to say that at this point, we have acclimatized to a world that looks very different from the LD of past years. We have finally created a space within which we can operate at 10x. And while we haven’t reached a finish line (is there even one?), it’s important we acknowledge how far we’ve come.

On Sept 15, 2022, for the first time, the entire Platform team gathered to celebrate, while also recognizing the important road ahead, as we begin onboarding our businesses onto Platform this month.

Some shots from our first Platform celebration at Mascot Brewery in Toronto

We also unveiled the name and visual identity of our Platform. Designed by Kathleen Babin, we are excited to introduce the world to Helios. Named after the God of the Sun, that which fuels life on Earth, this name felt appropriate given Platform sits at the centre of LD’s success. It was the top choice by our leadership team following the review of over 90 submissions from colleagues across the company.

Helios swag being modeled so elegantly by some of the Senior Leadership Team at LD

The logo is a modified monospace custom type solution, inspired by modernist and futurist logos at the height of the space age. Its accompanying “o” glyph symbolizes the independent yet connected elements of the Helios Platform, also emulating space station-like architecture, a nod to Helios’ cosmic concept.

The official Helios logo 🚀

Change is the Only Constant

At LD’s Q1 Town Hall, I declared emphatically that real change takes time; that ambitious endeavours are difficult but offer some of the greatest rewards. I hope that resonated with the team then, and even more so now, as they are able to look in the rear view mirror and be proud of all they have achieved. Organizations like ours, companies that are over a century old, that continue to reinvent themselves — those will be the ones who will continue to succeed because they actively embrace change. They seek it out and crave it. This is precisely what the team building Helios has done and this is ultimately how we will continue to thrive.

Interested in learning more? Look for an upcoming technical deep dive on Helios by our VP Engineering, Charu Pujari.

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At Loblaw Digital, we know that our customers expect the best from us. Whether that means building the best, most innovative online shopping experience, or designing an app that will impact the lives of people across the country, we’re up for the challenge.

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lauren steinberg

lauren steinberg

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SVP Loblaw Digital. Hobbies include purchasing overpriced sneakers and never wearing them.