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 a Mac and a ChromeBook. 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, capacity planning has been a challenge with data volumes growing so quickly. Initially we’ve scaled our data processing infrastructure. We’ve now moved to Hadoop/Spark based data processing. The next evolution of this is moving that to cloud platforms. Technological progress has been on our side 😉

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 turn up the heat a little should I notice the candidate is vague or evasive. Yes, we 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?

We’ve just started moving our data processing & analytics platform to PaaS (platform as a service) of one of the large cloud providers. I am very thrilled about the ability to scale up and down quickly as required by business. We are moving nearly all remaining applications to cloud services, utilizing PaaS where possible. For all commodity software we are, or will be, using SaaS offerings. Essentially we’re trying to move up the stack as much as possible to keep infrastructure management lean.

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”. In other instances, we’re trying to go live quickly with a minimal viable product wherever possible. 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.

When is the last time you reflected on motivation and how to build lasting perfomance in your team?

Over the last years I have repeatedly encountered 3 words defining the current notion for motivation: 1. Autonomy, 2. Mastery, 3. Purpose. This notion has often appeared in presentations about tech culture, notably at Zalando (thanks Eric Bowman) but also often emerges in company cultures such as the one at Solvemate (thanks Christian Blomberg).

So I carried the notion with me till I felt urgency to go beyound the simple words. Ultimately I landed at presumably the source of it: the book “Drive” by Daniel Pink.

Without telling you too much and spoiling the read here are some of my takeaways for motivation:

  • Motivation 2.0 in the form of carrot and stick (rewards based) is inefficient and unpredicatable.
  • Motivation 3.0 defined by the 3 aforementioned words offers the ruleset for maintaining performance and job satisfaction of a present day person.
    • Meaning of Autonomy – to hold your life/job with your hands and direct it the way you deem necessary.
    • Meaning of Mastery – to constantly learn and improve on a subject that matters.
    • Meaning of Purpose – to dedicate to something bigger than our own self.
  • Motivation 3.0 seems to almost always outeprform Motivation 2.0. Even in the short term.
  • FedEx days at Atlassian. Nowadays called ShipIt this is a day long retreat for evey engineer in the company to create a new solution or fix something that annoys them. Execution matters but best idea wins.
  • The concept of ROWE – results only work environment, or else said no time keeping (check in/out).
  • Super clear and stripped down to the basics insights from Jim Collins (by the way also a great author) about self-motivation – 4 simple rules how to instigate such culture.

On the matter of ROWE quite curious how many companies run this model, it seems to be getting good traction in creative industries. Yet, wondering whether teams do not alienated by not spending time together.

Anyway, I highly recommend this book and plan to revert to it from time to time. Have you read it and what do you think?

The perfect storm in transportation is near and … not just there

 

Not a big fan of breaking headlines but certain technology highlights in the last years are starting to connect better then ever before. And it seems that visionaries and industry finally start to agree. We are witnessing major trends that will re-shape whole industries in a shorter period that we have ever experienced before.

I am pointing at trends in transportation such as::

  • Carsharing
  • Electric vehicles
  • Autonomous driving
  • Machine learning

Carsharing has taken the market by surprise and is becoming more popular by the day. European providers like DriveNow and Car2Go address the daily transportation needs in the city while Drivy, Croove and SnappCar are taking a share from traditional car rental by using privately owned cars. These companies effectively reduce the number of cars on the streets, remove the burden of car maintenance and undermine the desire to invest 30K+ in buying a car. The idea is so good that carsharing is being eyed by established players such as EasyGroup, the company tasked to expand the EasyJet empire, or Europcar, the 2nd biggest European car rental company (via its investment arm).

Takeaway: expect less cars on the streets in the long term, less car sales and revenue from spare parts for car manufacturers.

Electric cars are around us and whoever has tried the i series BMW or Tesla, knows the driving experience if not better is at least at par with current cars. And the acceleration is unbeatable so I am definitely in :). But more importantly electric cars are simple, they have 18x less moving parts than a combustion engine car and thus need close to zero maintenance. And even if needed, I am in no doubt repairs will be done by a robot in the very near term. A major concern before, recharging, is becoming significantly less of a concern with battery life getting longer and charging stations growing in numbers.

The advantages of electric cars and wide acceptance of the public are being unmistakably recognised by car makers such as Daimler which recently announced its own Gigafactory. It came as a result of the acceleration of its electric car plans and backed by $11 bn. KUDOs should go also to Tesla which has pushed the whole car maker industry to move faster and bolder.

Takeaway: expect less demand for oil and gas, increasing uncertainty for energy companies, less revenue from spare parts for car manufacturers, job losses in car maintenance.

Autonomous driving and machine learning are no longer an innovation. Self driving cars are around us, make total sense and are here to stay. Machine learning as one of the ingredients of autonomous driving is being adopted so fast that it will soon be considered a commodity.  Autonomous driving makes our roads safer, eases traffic and saves us tons of time. It is good not only for private use but also in public transport and moving goods. There are already autonomous driving luxury cars and truck trains on our highways but have you thought about autonomous driving buses? Because it won’t be long before you find yourself on one of those.

Takeaway: expect job losses in transportation e.g. professional drivers, even greater increase in efficiency in transportation and car sharing, further reduction of vehicles on the streets.

So what would our life look like in less than 10 years? I think something like this.

The rosy part: Commute in cities either by car, bus or rail will be driverless. Most vehicles will be electric. Very few people will own a car. The fee from A to B will vary based on provider, vehicle brand, transportation experience e.g. the latest interior and entertainment Audi concept. It might even happen that cities abandon public transport and outsource it to private providers that offer autonomous fleets on demand. These fleets might well optimise the routes so that they do not follow a predefined route but drive commuters to their door.

Car manufactures will become vertically integrated fleet manufacturers and managers. New type of vehicles will emerge, many models will become obsolete and will be abandoned.

Technology providers like Google, Uber and other technology-first giants will enter the transportation sector, and will have an edge on autonomous driving technology over car manufacturers.

The not so rosy part: Professional drivers, mechanics, petrol station workers will become obsolete. Smaller car manufacturers will fight for survival, some brands might disappear. Garages will disappear. Energy companies will be seriously hit from lower than expected demand for oil and gas as well as investments in oil and gas exploration.

And to ease a bit my apocalyptic predictions, stay tuned for the next blog post about my exciting experience at the Founders Hack event in the city of Bielefeld.

The Netflix culture – a myth or a must for company growth and sustainability

This time my topic is around company culture and in particular the culture of Netflix. Also big apologies to those expecting my next post on blockchain, please have some more patience, it is almost there, and I just could not hold on to share this Netflix jewel.

My personal experience and believe is that culture does not come from senior management or below but is set by the founders and the CEO (if not the same). In that respect, Reed Hastings, CEO of Netflix, gave a stunning example on culture and leadership by putting it altogether in a not so short presentation (you will find it below). He published the actual presentation in August 2009 when most of us were worried about the financial meltdown and existential topics. May be this is why it took so long for people to actively talk about it (or maybe it is just my humble me noticing it just now).

Reed Hastings made it clear that instead of nice sounding values (and often fake ones), he has designed the actual ones for his company. And so that there is not too much interpretation involved, he added plenty of examples :-).

“The actual company values, as opposed to the nice-sounding values, are shown by who gets rewarded, promoted, or let go.”

Takeaway I: The nine Netflix values are as follows:

  • Judgement
  • Communication
  • Impact
  • Curiosity
  • Innovation
  • Courage
  • Passion
  • Honesty
  • Selflessness

Reed has explained pretty well what each one means so please take a look in the deck, below you will find just my own takes coupled with a bit of commentary.

Reed Hasting’s Netflix Culture 2001

For me values such as Judgement and Communication point towards resolving the plague of each business – employees NOT being empowered to make decisions and communication flowing efficiently. But there is a catch – this of course is only possible if the people in place are AAA professionals. Else said (Takeaway II):

“Great workplace is stunning colleagues”

and

“Unlike many companies, we practice: adequate performance gets generous severance package”

and

“We are a team, not a family – we are like a prosports team, not a kid’s recreational team”

Takeaway III: Reed also references to The Keeper Test manager case. This is something I have vaguely practiced but never managed to summarise it so crisp: if somebody tells you he/she will leave, are you going to fight hard to keep the person?

At Netflix internal attitude such as “cutthroat” or “sink or swim” are not tolerated. Yet, this can apply only for a AAA team that will tolerate fast learners or otherwise

“Sustained B-level performance, despite “A for effort”, generates a generous severance package, with respect”

“Sustained A-level performance, despite minimal effort, is rewarded with more responsibility and great pay.”

The focus on high performance comes on a seemingly scientific measure:

“In procedural work, the best are 2x better than the average.”

“In creative/inventive work, the best are 10x better than the average.”

Takeaway IV: The Rare responsible person – yet another ingenious concept. Reed is referencing to the rare type of attitude towards self improvement, self motivation and that can even be spurred in people that pick someone else’s trash in the office and throw it away.

Takeaway V: When company grows, it often fails to add proportionately top talent to its workforce. Sometimes I even believe managers are afraid to surround themselves with top people and see them as a threat. The solution – grow talent density faster than complexity. In other words outgrow complexity created by growth by hiring top talent at a faster rate than the growth itself (as much as you can).

Takeaway VI: Netflix is not in a safety-critical market such as running nuclear plants so it rather focuses on rapid recovery. This for me translates quite clearly to the Facebook’s Motto

Move Fast and Break Things

But at Netflix, also Fix fast. 🙂

Takeaway VII: Another interesting point is the Netflix approach to working hours and vacation: No 9am to 5pm work policy, no vacation policy. Practically no tracking, yet people are actively encouraged to take generous retreats and come back with fresh ideas. And on top

“Career “Planning” Not for Us”

Netflix has dismissed formalised planning including mentor assignments, rotations, multi year career paths.

“High performance people are generally self-improving through experience, observation, introspection, reading, and discussion.”

Takeaway VIII: Managing through context

High performance people will do better work if they understand the context. Highly Aligned, loosely coupled … approach for corporate team work.

and

Investing in context means – frequent department meetings, being open about strategies and results.

Takeaway IX: (Last one 🙂 Always pay top of the market and do not connect payment with the well being of the company as times change but you can be successful only with top talent.

payment is aligned with what the market pays and what would cost to replace such a person.

and

… side effect is that rarely there will be a higher offer if somebody wants to leave.

and

it is tolerable to talk to other companies and then talk to your supervisor about your actual market value

This is all from me for today. Hope enjoyed the read and I will follow up soon with my next article.

P.S. All citations above are courtesy of Reed Hastings.

Technology Series – Is Ruby dying?

For those not into programming Ruby is a programming language. Ruby on Rails is a software library that extends Ruby and contributed hugely to its stellar adoption.

Many famous platforms are based on Ruby – Airbnb, Twitter, Basecamp, Kickstarter. Ruby programmers are probably the most tightly knit community of all programmers. But what is actually happening with Ruby.

There have been plenty discussions on the topic but they have intensified since 2015. If we discard the opinions of the hardcore proponents and opponents, it seems that there may be some sentiment in the direction, why would otherwise so many developers be asking this question.

Some arguments are based on counting the internet searches for each language, others on repository counters (repositories is where the programming code is kept), third on more or less established indexes.

Rankings
I actually looked at the popularity index TIOBE. Although it clearly shows that Ruby spiked in 2009, and then gradually faded away, it re-captured some positions in 2016.

Tiobe index ruby

A striking fact though is the adoption of Ruby is way under Python, PHP and Javascript, and ranks just above Delphi/Objective Pascal. If you do not believe me, check the ranking. That was quite a surprise for me.

Tiobe index of programming languages

No longer the new kid on the block
Besides, many of the comments I read point out Ruby is no longer the new kid on the block. So in a way it has lost some of its initial momentum, and that tendency is not being helped by the surge of interest for Python and Node.js software development.

Availability
May be the worst part is that good Ruby developers are hard to find and when you find them they are already working on an exciting project.

High cost
When you snatch a top notch guy, it usually comes with high price tag. Although many new business consider RoR as their first option, the cost combined with lack of available developers, makes them consider other options soon after.

Bottom line
I do not want to sound like I agree with such a strong statement but I see indications pointing to a decline. In my humble opinion, this is mostly thanks to the maturity of PHP and Javascript that bring a horde of skilled developers plus fast and feature rich frameworks. Still, many languages and frameworks have managed to recover and build on their community and the Ruby one is probably the best of all. Also no language dies out suddenly, especially with such a substantial codebase and famous companies using it.

If you happen to be into programming, what do you think?