Footasylum Tech

A place for us to share our thinking (and the fact we *are* thinking).

We've just said goodbye to Kim Morley, our Head of Delivery. She joined in February 2019 at a point when we started reorganising our traditional IT department into a set of digital product and services teams so that we’d be more equipped to thrive in the digital age. Kim supported the team through this change, implemented new ways of working and helped transform our culture.

Now seems like a good point to look back over how far we’ve come.

January 2019

The executive board appoints Paul Martin as IT Director to spearhead our digital transformation. He sets out a strategy to bring the Tech team closer to the business, starting with closing the development team in India to allow for new skills to be introduced into the tech department.

February 2019

Paul officially joins. Spurred on by low morale and a negative audit from KPMG, he makes some more big cultural changes, fast. He:

  • creates, shares and asks for feedback about which projects would have the biggest impact on the business by bringing together a project board to understand problems and prioritise – a more well-considered and democratic way to work
  • introduces and hosts a weekly huddle for the Tech team – makes himself visible and available
  • brings in Kim Morley as Head of Delivery

Kim joins the Retail team and works alongside John Sylvester – he’s recently made the move from store supervisor to product manager after answering a job ad in the stores’ weekly update.

The push for change begins.

Kim encourages the Retail team to burn the existing backlog and begin a discovery into stores.

"Instead of working on solutions suggested by our business team, our aim going forward would be to work together to find the most important problems to solve." – Kim

March 2019

We make plans to recruit UX designers, delivery managers, QAs and developers so we can begin to work in multi-disciplinary teams that align to 4 business streams: Retail, Merchandising, eCommerce and Logistics. We put wheels in motion to move away from a pool of developers picking up tasks in a ‘requirements factory’.

There are now plans to bring in more leadership for each discipline (a process that took time).

We dedicate time to thinking about our work culture – how we’d like being part of the Tech team to feel, and what sort of environment helps everyone thrive regardless of individual circumstances and personality traits.

We start to build understanding that teams could and should self-organise, that people can work flexibly – and from home – because we believe work should only be part of someone’s life, not the all-consuming everything in it.

“It’s not about bums on seats or how many hours you work. It’s about the focus we put into the things that matter.” – Paul

We buy a LOT of post-it notes. Paul’s asked to justify the £74 spend to the then Finance Director.

Kim introduces the ‘blameless retro’ (urging everyone to keep the Prime Directive in mind). We look at morning stand-ups and whether they’re working as well as they could.

Kim starts to put communities of practice in place and starts with our product managers.

Slide taken from product manager community of practice.

We look at how we prioritise tasks and whether we should be doing this differently. We involve stakeholders. Together, we conclude that tasks that provide the most value (‘high impact’ on the matrix) should be prioritised.

matrix showing high and low impact versus high and low risk

Kim and John outline our proposed discovery to area store managers. Naz Miah, Head of Retail gives a big thumbs up.

The Retail team moves into Federation House in Manchester from our Rochdale office.

We’re now a short walk to 4 Footasylum stores in the Arndale Centre, which makes it much easier to collaborate with store colleagues and get regular feedback. Let the discovery commence!

All levels and types of store colleagues join us in Federation House. We find out about their daily work routine and at which points things could be better.

Service mapping begins.

6 people service mapping round a whiteboard.

We look at managers’ daily tasks, for example, opening and closing the store, cashing up, doing rotas and processing timesheets.

sprawling service map.

April 2019

The search for a development manager begins.

Service architecture project starts (Platform team). We realise that our systems are all very tightly coupled, with data problems everywhere. We take a big step to re-architect and aim to make things like product codes consistent across all systems.

The Retail team presents at the huddle for the first time. We ‘show the thing’ to the rest of the IT department. We’re honest about our successes and failures.

And then, the week everything breaks... Store colleagues tell us about a single item showing up incorrectly-priced on the tills. An easy fix, or so we think. But the tiny release causes all hell to break loose. One small deployment causes issues across all business functions. International frenetic problem-solving and lots of confusion follows. It is tense. But there’s an acknowledgement that everyone is doing their best and everyone is learning something new about old systems.

With so many teams involved it's very difficult to keep track of who is doing what, where. John’s giant role of paper proves invaluable as the issue went on and on.

Giant roll of paper on desks with post-its identifying problems and what action is being taken.

Naturally, our first massive retrospective comes soon after all this. We begin to understand what we could do to prevent a repeat of the chaos.

Then we’re back to the discovery. We spend more time in stores. We realise how many efficiency and usability problems we were facing. At this point, we realise that innovation should not be our priority – fixing the basics should be.

We stop what we are doing. Work begins on a product that store colleagues can check whether our tills are showing the right price for the right product. Product name? The Price is Right. Of course. 😂

May 2019

Graham Thompson joins the Retail team as Technical Architect. Graham Thompson back to camera, arms out-stretched against whiteboard in the office.

We continue to grow the teams in Rochdale and Manchester by closing ties with the near-shore teams in Romania.

We realise the software across tills is different and that each time we release something, the behaviour is inconsistent. We start to fix this by putting new hard drives in every Footasylum till and create a ‘golden image’ to give us consistency.

Also, we set the objective to implement contactless and mobile wallet payments by peak trading (run up to Christmas and sales).

June 2019

All product or service teams start introducing blameless pre-mortems and post-mortems.

July 2019

Jason McCreery joins as Head of Infrastructure and Support.

Stand-ups, sprint planning and pre and post-mortems now happen like clockwork across all teams.

August 2019

The leadership team is complete. Andy Norton joins as Development Manager and Phil Penketh joins as Head of Data Strategy.

September 2019

The countdown to peak trading begins to ramp up. Each team works on their roadmap so they can see clearly what’s left to do, prioritising what will make the biggest impact to our business. As a group, we share what we want to achieve, we use our pre-mortums again to help us predict what might stop us getting there.

October 2019

Black Friday preparations really kick off. This month: our test store in the Arndale gets contactless payment capabilities; we release till software and contactless payment finally begins to roll out across all stores after repeated problems with PDQs. We create a Retail Support team – a help desk dedicated to stores.

November 2019

Our new online checkout goes live (created in-house and with a small team based in Portugal).

Contactless and mobile wallet payments are now available in every store.

man using contactless payment in store

We collaborate with influencer KSI to offer customers promotion codes through his Youtube video – it creates so much traffic our site breaks in a few seconds.

KSI instagram story to his followers when they broke the FA website

Black Friday swings round – it’s what we’ve been preparing for for most of the year. We see 60% more sales than the same event in 2018, and 40% more sales in stores. Warehouse colleagues report that they’ve packed nearly double the amount of orders compared to last year, and that there hasn’t been any outages, or downtime.

All this is a huge team achievement.

As with failure, our relative Black Friday success is subject to a retrospective. What had gone wrong? What should we reprioritise in time for Christmas and Boxing Day sales? How about our next peak?

December 2019

We prepare for more teams to move into Federation House.

Christmas and Christmas sales come and go and although many aspects are widely considered better than last year, we do a retro. Of course.

Looking good for 2020

By the end of 2019, we’d put out some fires, laid the foundations and gave the confidence back to the business. The culture felt different, teams and individuals had autonomy over their work, we were sharing regularly, inviting feedback and collaborating more with the rest of the Footasylum business. We’d made a superb start on attracting the kind of people we want to work with. It was in no way ‘mission accomplished’ but, we’d made progress and we were well set up going into 2020.

2020 has been turbulent so far. However, the foundations we laid last year, has meant we've been in a decent place to cope with challenges.

Kim Morley (former) Head of Delivery

I joined Footasylum Tech in July 2019 as a talent acquisition specialist. Now I’m an apprentice software engineer. This post is about how and why I made the move, and what it was like starting in a new industry during lockdown.

✈️ From cabin crew to tech recruitment

I’m not sure how long I’ve had an interest in tech but thinking back to university, the unit that has really stuck in my mind is one on forensic computing. It was about security, hacking and cyber crimes and how specialist investigators can use a laptop to help solve crime.

Although that sort of stuff was fascinating to me, I didn’t consider a career in tech. In fact, my first job after university was a cabin crew role with British Airways.

After that, I worked in a tech recruitment agency for 18 months. Work days were different. Long hours. Alright pay. Room to progress. And there was something less fleeting about the relationships I built with my colleagues too – I liked knowing I’d be in the office working roughly the same hours as them.

That role was a brilliant way to learn about the tech industry. I began to understand the disciplines as well as the intricacies of the skills needed for each specialism. It also helped me get a handle on the businesses, organisations and agencies I was placing people in and the skills they look for as they grow and develop.

First experience of Footasylum

By June 2019 I was ready for a new challenge. I joined the Footasylum IT recruitment team in July 2019 at a point when big changes were happening. At the beginning of the year, Footasylum had appointed a new IT Director and there was real momentum to get good people in to help transform the business and make it more efficient and fit for the modern internet era.

The day-to-day work was good but the social side of work was strong too. The HR and recruitment team, and the IT team were working closely and all pulling in the same direction.

Making the leap

At the end of 2019 I was accepted onto a coding course in Manchester. All those months of placing people in teams caught up with me – I wanted to be part of a team that builds digital products and services.

As I told people my plans, an excellent and unexpected thing happened: Footasylum said they’d invest in me to train and then the IT team would support my development once I had coding basics under my belt.

It made perfect sense for me and for Footasylum. I loved the culture. They already knew me.

The coding course

Code Nation’s 3-month bootcamp was intense. It covered basic coding including multiple tech stacks such as JavaScript, Node and React. The course has connections with businesses based in the north-west too and sensibly, the skills taught on the course are a reflection of the skills those local businesses are looking for. So for example, Footasylum Tech uses .Net so the course is tailored to include an introduction to this technology.

The course was intense but the quality of the teaching was brilliant. Somehow the ‘basic intros’ to various technologies were crammed full of info and ended up feeling quite in-depth. I enjoyed it as it was such a challenge. The tutors struck the right balance of being super knowledgeable and supportive but encouraging us to be as independent as possible to prepare us for life working within a business.

Business practices – like ways of working – are also incorporated into the course. Each week, a guest speaker from a local business came to present and through those sessions I learnt much more about agile methodologies, mob programming and other digital disciplines like research and content design.

Lockdown induction

My first day in my new role as software engineer was 7 days into lockdown. It was hard work because I’m new to the industry but thankfully I already knew my team. In fact, I’d placed some of them in their roles when I was recruiting. Having pre-existing relationships has taken the worry away from that aspect of a new role and we’ve been in constant contact throughout lockdown.

Joining the Platform team

I’m on the Platform team and our role is to provide services for different teams. Our role is to create the services which handle the data as it is passed between teams, for example, from the EComm team to the NAV team. We primarily work on API services, and we create the functions which manipulate data so it is handled correctly and then stored securely.

My first few weeks have been varied. In some instances I feel like I’ve been thrown in at the deep end – like my teammates aren’t making any exception for me because I’m junior. They believe in me and see no reason why I wouldn’t pick things up and learn as we go. At other times we’ve gone right back to basics which has also been good – cementing what I learnt on the coding course in a real job situation has also been very useful. The team has been very supportive – they’ve helped me when I’ve asked but most of the time I don’t even have to ask because people go out of their way to explain things and help me with my learning.

Mentors and supportive culture

Sarah Weeks on a video call with her colleagues Ruth and Ian.

Although I started the role in isolation, I’ve felt well supported. Senior developer, Ian Wells dedicates a day and a half each week to mentoring a few junior devs and I’m so pleased about how much time he has for us. In my recruitment role I saw a lot of companies promising mentoring, but I’d be surprised if it matches Ian’s in quantity or quality. I see the senior devs learning too and supporting each other and this is the sort of culture I’m here for.

🌟Smashing it🌟

I’m a driven person, but working for a company that thinks my learning and progression is worth investing in has been a real confidence boost. It’s made me want to smash it even more.

Sarah Weeks Software engineer