How DICK’S moved its software development in-house and aced omnichannel retail

Originally published on VMware Tanzu

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“The retail space is more competitive than ever. If you take your eye off the ball for one minute, you’re one of those companies that didn’t make it”

Sean Graham, Engineering Manager at DICK’S Sporting Goods

Graham is a 20-year veteran of DICK’S Sporting Goods, the largest omnichannel, full-line sporting goods retailer in the U.S. Graham and his colleagues know firsthand what it takes for a traditional brick-and-mortar retailer like DICK’S to successfully transcend into omnichannel retail.

Not long ago, the DICK’S approach to software was very different than the modern methodologies in play today. In the past, DICK’S spent a majority of time customizing third-party software and writing detailed requirements for outsourced development. This approach resulted in a small number of “big bang” launches each year, and produced large, monolithic application systems. It was difficult to make changes or scale. Monolithic applications “inhibited our ability to address our customers’ needs and drive the value that the business requires,” Graham said. It was time for a change.

Fast forward and the DICK’S team is now in a very different position. Improved speed, scalability, and productivity mean that teams can respond quickly to business opportunities. One such example was DICK’S participation in a major product launch on short notice: “[The Marketing team] came to us a few weeks before and we would never have been able to do it in our old way,” recalled Jay Piskorik, Director of Platform Engineering. “It just wouldn’t have been possible. We’d need months to get the hardware in place…just for the wave of traffic we were going to get because it was close to 10x [the traffic of] our normal Cyber Monday.”

[Monolithic applications] inhibited our ability to address our customers’ needs and drive the value that the business requires.”

Sean Graham, Engineering Manager

Cloud native platform shifts focus from scaling and uptime to products and features

In 2017, DICK’S committed to a company-wide digital transformation. As a part of this effort, DICK’S technology team engaged with VMware Tanzu Labs to kickstart an in-house software development practice. DICK’S transformation strategy included modernizing existing applications, building new, customer-centric software, and leveraging VMware Tanzu Application Service to run these cloud native applications at scale.

Team working.

“Retail happens 24/7. We’re a U.S.-based retailer but there’s a very minimal amount of hours where we’re not receiving a lot of traffic,” explained Graham. “You have to have scale, you have to have uptime.” DICK’S needed to change its approach in order to meet the demands of a high-pressure retail market and deliver the omnichannel experience that helps set the company apart today.

Additionally, DICK’S is “committed to being cloud agnostic,” said Jason Williams, VP of Engineering at DICK’S.

“We want to provide availability across all our clouds, including our private cloud. A lot of our services are built to be multi-cloud. We can move through multiple IaaS—private, GCP, Azure—at any scale.”

Jay Piskorik, Director of Platform Engineering

To demonstrate this, DICK’S calmly initiated a failover of live e-commerce search traffic from GCP to Azure during a Main Stage presentation at SpringOne.

With Tanzu Application Service, scalability is no longer the challenge it once was. “We have certain time periods when we need systems to be more scalable and perform better for us than other time periods,” said Graham. “It’s nice to have autoscaling and flexible use of resources. That’s definitely a big win for us.”

We put the platform in place, established product teams, and got really good facilitation and training from [VMware Tanzu Labs] to drive these product teams forward. We now have a product team that can build and deploy and get something out very quickly.”

Sean Graham, Engineering Manager

Since implementing Tanzu Application Service with Concourse for CI/CD pipelines, the DICK’S Technology team has made significant gains: “In the past we were highly focused on [building] the infrastructure and the scale. It would take two weeks to stand up, solidify, and stabilize the environment. I can now do that in 30 minutes and it’s a self-service model based off what the platform team provided. The foundations are there, the containers, all the services, and the libraries that your team is using… Now engineers are just working on developing the product,” Williams said.

Shoe locator device.

Teamwork and a product mindset lead to better software

In addition to implementing Tanzu Application Service, DICK’S recognized the importance of changing the way it built software. DICK’S has engaged with VMware Tanzu Labs on multiple occasions in order to “focus on outcomes instead of completing projects, and ultimately be able to ship high-quality features with high code quality,” said Erika Green, Director of Technology Product Management at DICK’S.

Moving to a product-based, balanced team approach and pair programming dramatically changed the quality and velocity of software development at DICK’S. “Our developer productivity has increased substantially…a 40% increase from previous years,” noted Williams. Not only are developers writing more code but the quality of code has improved.

“With pair programming we’re finding issues sooner-in the development process and not in QA or production. Additionally, there is no longer the need for a hero culture, there’s a constant sharing of knowledge. There’s no one person that is the only one who can touch a code base.”

Sean Graham, Engineering Manager

The in-house Application Transformation team lead by Graham is spreading the tools and best practices learned from VMware Tanzu Labs across the company. “We don’t have dependencies anymore. We now have product teams that can build and deploy and get something out very quickly,” Graham said. A CI/CD pipeline, built-in monitoring, and blue/green deployments help make it easy for teams to identify and fix issues in minutes, without downtime. “If there’s a bug fix that we do need to address in production, we don’t have to wait for a release or get permission for an off-cadence deployment. The team fixes it, validates it, and pushes it through,” Green explained.

Store interior

Digitally transforming beyond e-commerce

The results of DICK’S transformation efforts are substantial and span across multiple teams, functions, and business units. From developers to teammates in stores, people are working in new and better ways to deliver software that ultimately benefits DICK’S athletes. “We’re shipping features every single day. We’ve got over 30 product teams that are all working independently from another, and we’ve expanded outside of e-commerce. We’ve now moved into stores, technology, marketing, merchandising, supply chain, and logistics as well,” said Green.

This is the first time that we’ve been able to take control of our own destiny and actually go after what our customer needs…and making sure that what we’re developing is actually going to have some benefit.”

Erika Green, Director of Technology Product Management

Reflecting on how DICK’S transformation and engagements with VMware Tanzu Labs have made a difference, Green said: “We’re able to really mold and adapt to the business as it changes and as technology changes. We need to be very nimble and this is enabling us to do that.”

Working with VMware Tanzu Labs also helped uncover opportunities for new applications. VMware Tanzu Labs designers helped DICK’S conduct lean experiments that revealed the need for a new mobile app used by teammates (store associates). The MerchSearch app is now used nationwide across hundreds of stores, empowering teammates with real-time product information and recommendations to better assist and convert athletes (customers).

“This is the first time that we’ve been able to take control of our own destiny and actually go after what our customer needs…and making sure that what we’re developing is actually going to have some benefit,” said Green.