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InfoQ Homepage News Building a Platform to Gain an Unexpected Competitive Advantage: Ranbir Chawla at QCon London

Building a Platform to Gain an Unexpected Competitive Advantage: Ranbir Chawla at QCon London

During his QCon London presentation, Ranbir Chawla, senior vice president of engineering at RB Global, presented the journey his team took from moving from an "architectural perfect storm" and a highly manual operational system, to a product company with a modern event-based architecture that can be released in less than one hour. The company now focuses on providing real business outcomes to its stakeholders, and ensuring developers find joy in their work.

RB Global, an auction platform for agricultural and heavy-duty machinery, is an atypical candidate for digital transformation. Chawla mentioned that many of the company’s operations involved "white glove" manual operations externally and internally. Through the transformation process, he wanted to retain the care for the sellers and buyers using the platform but simplify the workflow of internal workers. One of the end users described the ideal system as "one she could work with using just one monitor", not using three monitors as with the previous system.

The initial system was an "architecture perfect storm" that resulted from Ritchie Brothers becoming RB Global through multiple acquisitions. This process brought together a series of systems without proper integration.

During the discovery period, Chawla had to work through the cacophony of voices, although nobody was talking publicly about the system’s shortcomings. He decided to start as if he were building the system from scratch and tackle each problem as he got to it.

Chawla pointed to the important aspects of the transformation process:

You need to know your business model to transform it.

Even if some voices felt they were doing e-commerce and wanted to create a new system by extending the Shopify platform, he challenged that affirmation – the company didn’t sell any "two items that are the same (even if they are the same model of digger, they always had a different history)". The inventory is also distributed across the world. So, he concluded their business model is closer to that of a stockbroker: selling the product owned by a party to another party and asking for a commission for the operation.

The product is your partner. Become a product-driven company.

Chawla underlined that during the transformation, the company was also moving towards becoming a software product company (and similar statements were made during the keynotes and other presentations from the architectural track). In this journey, a key role was that of the product department as they were "the integrating circuit" connecting the business side and the technology team. This allowed each technical team to focus on the domain of the services they were responsible for, incorporating the needed logic in the service responsible for it.

Chawla stated that to cut through the complexity of the inherited system, the key aspect was the focus on "radical simplicity", focusing on what would deliver the most meaningful value to the company "the unfair competitive advantage" that will allow the company to have the edge against its competitors. From the technical perspective, he mentioned that they didn’t count lines of code, but focused on delivering business outcomes and "developer joy". To ensure those were met, they deployed code fast (under <1 hour even though they didn’t deliver each day to production), but the product team provided feedback often.

Chawla considered that as an architect, you are responsible for "retaining deep knowledge" but also for helping the stakeholders understand the decisions’ tradeoffs of moving or rebuilding a system. He pointed out that diagrams representing the domain capabilities of different systems are useful, even if they are not architectural diagrams. Another decision was: what needs to be customised for RB Global, and what can be bought?

In the final part of the presentation, Chawla pointed out the key serendipity moments of the journey to the platform: the business owners speaking in the domain language, starting to hear a common language across the organisation, and the development team considering composing different APIs for building new features.

Chawla underlined the importance of containing the complexity of the systems behind clean APIs. In the case of the system his team built, he pointed to the complexity of different taxation rules around the globe. For example, in the EU there are tax exemptions for agricultural machinery, while in some of the states in the US, payments above a given limit must be conducted in a specific way.

Chawla closed the presentation by pointing out that the engineering organisation is the competitive advantage of RB Global. The company built its enablement platform to ensure the teams receive feedback swiftly. As a servant leader, he ensured everybody had the proper tools to deliver value. He concluded that the journey never ends, pointing to the difficulties of moving from a project to a product mindset.

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