Unleash Your Talent with Service Oriented Architecture

Mark Brooks, CIO, The Motley Fool

Unleash Your Talent with Service Oriented ArchitectureMark Brooks, CIO, The Motley Fool

In one of the most seminal (and lampooned) scenes from the 1999 box-office smash The Matrix, Keanu Reeves’ character Neo lies in a chair with a metal rod connecting his brain to a computer, his head twitching from side to side, his eyelids fluttering. As the computer’s process completes, Neo opens his eyes and says, “I know kung fu.”

“By standing up a solid SOA on our core systems, we free our people to use their gifts, to traverse our business, and to contribute their unique viewpoint to a larger number of challenges”

Neo and his compatriots pick up numerous skills this way, including other martial arts, helicopter piloting, and macramé (OK, I made up that last one). And what’s imparted is not just knowledge, it is ability--Neo can actually do kung fu.

Welcome to The Matrix

The prospect of this type of rapid enablement ignites the imagination, especially for those of us with large in-house teams of developers and designers. As our web applications grow more complex, the ability to plug our teams’ brains into the nearest computer and give them the ability to use our commerce system, content management system, caching layer, and the like is enticing.

This near-instant capability is not a pipe dream, nor is it decades in the future. Service-oriented architecture (SOA) is providing similar ramp up in areas of our stack that once took weeks or even months to grok, much less become proficient. A well-constructed API can take an otherwise inexperienced developer or designer and drop a robust set of tools in their laps and enable them to write value-driving code in short order.

Taking the Red Pill

At The Motley Fool, we built our own commerce system in the mid-90s, well before other options were available. 

It has grown with us over decades, catering to our marketing needs, enabling our large-scale recurring payment process, and making sure our acquisition team has had the flexibility they need to innovate. As a result, our highly flexible system became difficult to develop on unless you had extensive experience with it. The front end and back end were inextricably linked, meaning that you needed a full complement of skills to ensure you didn’t break anything whenever you popped the hood to make a fix or add new functionality.

A small team of developers who had worked with our commerce platform for several years saw an opportunity. While re-architecting the system to accommodate a new billing method, they built a fully functional API to make the commerce code more accessible.

The transformation has been remarkable. Commerce used to be the domain of a few experienced developers. Now, even novice developers and designers can leverage the power of our commerce engine. As a result, we can experiment rapidly with our landing and order pages -- and we’ve produced more order page tests in the last few months than in the last several years combined, from fewer than 10 tests per year to over 100. Now we’re working to replicate this success across our stack.

There Is No Spoon

Aside from more rapid iteration, we’ve derived a number of other benefits from our commerce system’s SOA.

First, the decrease in ramp-up time allows each team member to spend more time leveraging their natural gifts. Instead of toiling to stand up basic functionality, they can meet with users, sketch out alternative designs, or build new functionality.

Second, the reduced barriers to entry allow individuals to more easily transfer from project to project. When the one-time setup costs are minimal, moving to a new project becomes far more attractive, and the cross-pollination that results ensures that knowledge doesn’t become siloed.

Finally, because we no longer have to build teams composed of people with deep knowledge of a system, we get a greater diversity of viewpoints attacking a problem. The person who has the next great innovation for our order page may not be the one who knows that system the best (or at all). The more diverse thinking we can get focused on a challenge, the better the answer will be.

For all the technological promise of SOA, we at The Motley Fool are perhaps more excited about the promise for our people. By standing up a solid SOA on our core systems, we free our people to use their gifts, to traverse our business, and to contribute their unique viewpoint to a larger number of challenges. While it’s not exactly downloading learning directly to their brains, the empowerment SOA can bring is immediately transformative.

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