Inside BMG – tech talk with Sebastian Hentzschel

Sebastian is Group CTO and EVP of Royalty Processing Shared Services for BMG. The Bertelsmann’s music publishing and recorded music division is headquartered in Berlin and operates in all major music markets in the world. In 2018 it turned around 545 Million Euro according to Wikipedia.

I met Sebastian not so long ago and we immediately had a click – same old, same old – technology, startups, company culture. I thought would be cool to get a sneak peak at BMG’s tech stack and here is the result – my first interview of this kind.

Sebastian, what is your technology stack?

Our primary stack is AngularJS, Java Spring, Elastic, SQL Server. The other two stacks we have is .NET for one of our key data pipelines on top of MSBI, and Hadoop/Spark for our royalty engine and data analytics platform.

What products do you work on?

We’re currently actively working on roughly 15 products. The most prominent is MyBMG, a web and mobile app our clients can use to see their realtime income earned globally from their music and can run data analytics on it. Other products include BMG’s global repertoire licensing platform our teams worldwide use for finding, pitching, quoting and licensing our 2m+ music rights to business clients in the film, TV, advertising and gaming industry. Lastly, we’re currently expanding our rights and royalties platform across all business segments, moving from traditional to big data technology for better scalability.

Which one are you most proud of? Why?

I’m proud of us as a company. We’ve built a business from the ground up, starting in 2008 with minimal revenue and three people in Berlin and growing to more than half a billion in revenues and 800+ people worldwide.

From a tech perspective, the business of music and music rights management is a very data intensive business. We started out with basic off the shelf software and quickly had to build a new technology platform from the ground up while not risking business continuity. We’ve hit new, growth driven inflection points almost every year, and we’ve been able to get through them and come out better on the other end. Also, we’ve integrated acquired companies globally very tightly on to our platform, which is something that wasn’t easy but we’re clearly benefiting from today.

Just curious – are you a Mac or Windows person?

At home I use Mac and Chrome OS. At work I need my Windows, mainly for its keyboard shortcuts.

Which apps you use daily?

Let me check … FT, Koyfin.com, Whatsapp, Evernote, Headspace, Teams, Jira, Confluence, Trello…  well, and Outlook & Excel, of course.

Let’s go back to tech. What is your development process like?

Our application management and product management teams are internal, software engineers are outsourced with a handful of very close development partners of ours. Most of our products are developed in agile mode. As a result of outsourcing, we have a proxy product owner on the vendor side who takes on the agile process ownership and closely collaborates with our internal product owner. Agile doesn’t fit for all projects, however. We run our royalty platform development project in waterfall with monthly releases. For us, this works better for the type of projects with zero acceptable margin of error.

Tell me about your team. What does your team structure look like?

Teams are organized under our VP of applications & infrastructure, VP of technology product, head of data analytics, as well as three regional heads of workplace services for the US/Latam, UK and Europe & Australia. Software engineers, data center infrastructure management, and data engineers are all outsourced to selected vendors, who we work together very closely. We intend to keep the relationships with those vendors consistent so as to leverage learning curves, knowledge and efficiencies. But we do retain a healthy dose of competition between them.

What is your preferred development mix (e.g. in-house, nearshore or offshore)?

Again it really depends. We operate a mix of onsite and offshore. We chose to outsource development primarily for reasons of scalability. We’ve been needing to spin up, or ramp down, new teams rather swiftly. For example, when we started to replatform our royalty engine, we needed a big data team quickly. Our partner was able to put together that team within a month. What works best though is when developers or business analysts are co-located. On the flip side, the higher the time zone difference between your product/business and development teams, the more difficult collaboration gets. Given that offshoring usually involves outsourcing to companies that have their cultural roots outside of European or Anglo-American culture, projects success requires people who understand both cultures very well and can translate between them.

What I found important to look for in a vendor is that they bring their own set of processes, best practices and innovation to the table. That’s a huge value added.

How do your scale your ops when you have to?

With the growth we’ve had as a company, our capacity planning has frequently failed us with data volumes outpacing quickly our “worst case” projections. On the flip side, the nature of our business cycles is rather solid and doesn’t come with massive spikes of usage. This is why we run data-crunching intensive processes in a private-cloud data center on “our own” virtual and physical servers managed by a third party company. This allows us to significantly leverage fix cost/capex investment.

How do you hire? Do you do brainteasers or coding challenges?

I’m trying to maintain a comfortable atmosphere so the candidate has enough space to present him or herself. I may chance pace should I notice the candidate is vague or evasive. Yes, I do case studies and brainteasers. I want to understand how a candidate thinks, the cognitive avenues they’re taking and how they manage challenges in a high-stake situation. I’ve had candidates really stepping up in these situations, or falter, not because they couldn’t find the answer right away but they wouldn’t engage fully.

What makes a candidate stand out?

For the roles we hire for, I am looking for technical experience and intuition, as well as empathy and the ability to make human connections. In product management, the ability to both be empathetic and structured is important for me. In the application dev and ops space I look for a sense of relentlessness when it comes to driving constant improvement. In any case, I look for authenticity and the candidates who stand out are those who are strong in what they know and do, but are humble at the same time.

Let’s talk architecture. How do you see your architecture in 2-3 years?

I would love to move to serverless architecture, although this may still take awhile. Most likely, I’ll be pushing more services to public clouds where the re-architecture and operational model is financially sensible.

Do you measure speed and quality of delivery, and how?

What’s most important to me is that the entire team – business, business owner, product owner, proxy PO and developers – find their own groove and iterate on that. That’s the most sustainable and ultimately fastest model.

If a feature can be implemented either quick and dirty, or slow and perfect, what would you pick?

It depends. For client royalty obligation calculation it’s clearly slow and perfect. We’re trying to use the concept of going live quickly with a minimal viable product a lot though. It does however depend on the readiness and willingness of the respective business function to engage with that concept.

Do you have dashboard and what metrics do you track?

Yes. My weekly capex investment and operational spend. There’s no week that goes by without me looking at it. The non-financial figures I look at are our global incident burndown as an indicator for technology health and a supply and demand balance. I’ll be introducing a weekly team barometer shortly to ensure team health for both projects and operations – previously our team was much smaller and I was able to speak with almost everyone regularly. This has changed.

What mega trends already influence your products? What is coming next?

A few things. A focus on holistic customer experience is something that influences more and more of our products, even internal ones. Big data technology is no longer a strategic vision but operational necessity. My approach is to utilize all data available and automate reporting and data analysis. We’ve also started integrating machine learning in the first product of ours. Not all problems are machine-learning problems but we have identified a few areas in front and back office that would benefit from this technology. Blockchain is something we’re looking into and experimenting with but given what we know it’s a technology that may not have the impact it has long been proclaimed it would have.

Any question I should ask you?

When is our next lunch?

Sure thing, it was a pleasure meeting you and hearing your thoughts. Looking forward to see you soon.

Founders Hack was in Bielefeld and it was great!

Some (or none) of you may have wondered what was I doing on a mid-June weekend. Me being me, I went to the city of Bielefeld and mentored in the first Founders Hack. It was a typical gloomy German weekend, yet the hackathon was probably the best thing I have seen in a while.

The best part of the hackathon were actually the teams. I was impressed with the stunning mix of experienced business professionals and pumped up techies. In fact each team without exception managed to deliver a well thought over and absolutely uptodate solution.

It started during the day.

And went on during the night. Some went on till 4am.

A big differentiator to other hackathons were the real life challenges. They were drawn from actual opportunities (or problems) and provided by industry leaders from the Bielefeld area: Wortmann, Miele, Boge, Alcina, Benteler, Claas.

Some went a step further e.g. Boge impressed by bringing an actual product to make the teams play with their machine.

Challenges focused on IoT and machine learning with 2 prominent IoT ones being: 1) build an IoT based business model for the laundry care in sharing economy, and 2) track spare- & wear parts in a complex machine. Then the machine learning challenges explored using external data sources to track fashion trends and ways to increase efficiency in farming with data from agricultural engines.

The final delivery was in the form of a short pitch in front of the cheering crowd in a fully packed theater. And the prize was a unicorn!

Now add to this the fantastic Lasse Chor who orchestrated the event with a ton of great vibes and the tiresome Founders Foundation team, and you have an unforgettable weekend.

This event has definitely left a mark. I believe it is the first time when I saw corporates connect with startups and take over the initiatives into their agenda. For me the secret sauce to make this work would be well summed up with few words: curated team building, well defined areas of interest and business opportunities for the corporates, unhindered access to corporate executives, energising moderation and mentoring.

Most importantly, there was plenty of food. Just kidding but there was indeed good food :). All the time!

Before

and after

“This is Bielefeld” – these are the true words of Jackson Bond from Relayr, the word is spreading. One thing is clear, entrepreneurship is no longer reserved for Berlin, Hamburg, München and Cologne.

A bit about ISTA 2016, the killer of Slack and Blockchain

ista crosslend

This November I came back on stage at the ISTA conference 2016. The 2 day event gathered quite a crowd of geeks from the software industry and in particular from Bulgaria. Hosted in the top notch Sofia Event Center and with a great view to the Vitosha Mountain, the event allowed me to dust out after such a long break. In about an hour I walked with the audience through the evolving online consumer behaviour, and how the internet and ecommerce proliferation have opened the door for a whole new myriad of financial services innovations. That eventually brought me to cryptocurrencies, p2p lending and ultimately securitisation services through CrossLend. What struck me is that the hardcore financial language didn’t scare off the audience. I was actually a bit afraid that my topic might be too softy, yet the insights of how we run our IT operations rounded the talk and instigated plenty of questions from the audience. So all in all, a great event, amazing people and in support of a noble cause.

Another thing that I cannot not resist to mention is the lack of excitement in the media about the advance of a Slack killer from Microsoft. And from Facebook. And… no more big players, for now. So the rumours were true. Microsoft released its Teams product and bets it could beat Slack in their own game. Instead of buying Slack, MS goes for its own product for a second time in recent years. And it certainly has a scalable channel to get a sizeable chunk of the collaboration market. Same time there is the not so old mishap in the recent history of the company and namely building an awesome mobile OS, appealing mobile devices and still not succeeding to beat its equally powerful competitors. What failed MS was the lack of apps. What may fail them again is … the lack of apps (Slack has 750 of them). Yet, the main differentiator seems to be video calls capability. Well, yes, you may say we cannot compare Slack with Microsoft due to their vast difference in size. But keep in mind that Facebook has also launched Workplace and has won over 1 000 business clients. This is gonna be a heated one. Agree?

And finally, a bit about Blockchain.  It is officially my new darling to explore and you will probably get fed up with me writing about it again and again. Just saying 🙂

Technology Series – The opening of Gigafactory 1 surfaced some impressive facts about this engineering wonder

So what is the Tesla Gigafactory besides clearly being a factory?

As its name implies, Gigafactory is an insanely big factory (actually is going to become a lot bigger), and it will produce batteries for the electric vehicles of Tesla Motors. That is not surprising considering the massive volume of around 500 000 vehicles per year that Tesla wants to produce towards end of the decade. This ambition is steered by Tesla’s mission to accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy and to achieve that goal, Tesla wants to produce electric vehicles in sufficient volume to force change in the automobile industry. This apparently was not feasible to do using existing battery manufacturers so the true entrepreneur he is, Elon Musk decided to build his own factory. In his own words Elon said: “It has to be big, because the world is big”.

And while the plan was announced in 2014, last month the first part of the factory had its grand opening! The event emerged quickly in the press but then somehow got lost in all that sports events and probably holidays rolling out. For those of you who want to enjoy the video of the grand opening, here you go. Below I have put some interesting facts announced during the event.

  • The Gigafactory will be powered by renewable energy sources, with the goal of achieving net zero energy.
  • The factory current size is just 14% of its planned size. This article gives a good idea of construction progress with new sites starting already.
  • When complete, 93 Boeing 747 jets would fit inside, or in other terms 50 billion hamsters. 🙂
  • Design improvements allowed to increase initial battery production capacity per year from 50 GWh to 150 GWh.
  • When the factory is complete it will produce a higher amount of lithium-ion batteries than the world produced in 2014. And Tesla wants to build several of these factories.
  • In order to fit the maximum machinery in the factory and increase production speed, the engineering teams had to reinvent the battery production process.
  • The result: the factory strongly resembles a modular integrated circuit and claims a 5-10x increase in production capability. In Elon’s words: “… revitalising manufacturing”.

First Techstars Demo Day in Berlin

The first Techstars demo day in Berlin was something! I know it is Sunday, I will be quick I promise. 🙂

Techstars Demo Day 2015

Hosted in Hebbel-Theater in Berlin’s Kreuzberg district Jens Lapinski and his team presented their first batch of startups. The gorgeous Art Nouveau styled building was built in 1907/1908 and was the early and unique work of the famous architect Oskar Kaufmann. It was the breakthrough that shot him to fame. Let’s wish the same to the first Techstars batch!

The startups pitched in 2 batches of 5 and the presentations all looked super well done – for me this means crisp, elaborated and well timed. Founders walked to the stage accompanied by the thundering tunes of charging music pieces and presented with a sleek looking deck of slides outlining market opportunities, user growth, expansion plans. The best part though is that at least 2 of the companies have secured funding during the programme – 1x Seed and 1x Series A. You could feel that some founders are still fundraising and pretty nervous. Yet, I am confident that more news is coming soon.  I have seen the products of these companies 3 months ago and am amazed by the progress they have achieved.

Jens has closed the demo session with some kind words to all involved but I would like to share one of his slides summarising the Techstars values.

Techstars principles

 

Powerful message – nothing to add!

That was not all though. The event moved on in the Factory Berlin and continued with networking first and last but not least – an afterparty .

It was a well spent day 🙂

Good luck to all teams, and keep sending me updates. Looking forward to hear from you!

If you enjoy these short reads please subscribe for my blog updates.

Have a great rest of the weekend.