Anatomy of an e-commerce organization

Ibeauty.com, an online retail site selling cosmetics, fragrances and other personal pampering products, runs lean and mean. A year ago, things got ugly. But today, with a pumped-up IT staff, the site is sitting pretty.

Ibeauty.com is well past the start-up stage, but you wouldn't know it by appearances. The company operates out of a huge warehouse in New York's Chelsea district. The staff is crammed into one open space overrun by messy desks and inexpensive stainless-steel utility shelves. The only visible amenities are an overcrowded coat rack by the door and a minifridge stocked with free sodas. Paint is peeling from the walls and the exposed pipes in the ceiling.

When chief technology officer Frank Stolze joined the company last September, the company's Web site was about as ramshackle as its office. "We had a broken, unstable site," he says.

All the technology was being outsourced to a partner that was growing increasingly unreliable; the partner had abandoned the proprietary platform on which it had built the site and wouldn't commit to taking care of the problems.

Stolze's mission was to bring the technology in-house and hire an information technology staff to stabilize the environment, choose a new architecture and migrate the site to a new platform. By the holiday shopping season, he had hired a core group of people. In December, the site held up as it sustained more traffic than any of its competitors, according to Media Metrix Inc., an Internet traffic-measurement company in New York.

Ibeauty.com now has a full-blown IT group of 15, with plans to expand by a third or more by the end of the year. The group is divided into the following five departments: the brains, bones, muscles, tissue and limbs of an e-commerce organization:

On Web engineering - Responsible for Java programming and applications development; has six people. No further hires are planned for this year.

On Systems - Responsible for infrastructure, including hardware and networking. This department has three people and expects to add one or two more by the end of the year.

On Database - Responsible for creating and managing databases, customer transactions and reports. Now three people, the department will hire one more person this year.

On Quality assurance - Responsible for site testing and quality assurance; responsibilities had been assigned to on-site consultants until May 1, when a quality assurance manager joined the company. The department will consist of three people by year's end.

On Internal IT - Responsible for in-house infrastructure, a Windows NT 4.0 network (to be upgraded to Windows 2000 over the next few months) and desktop support. Now two people, the staff may expand substantially this yea, depending on business decisions still under consideration.

The departments are connected to one another, all working to keep the site running, add new functionality and migrate to the new platform. That platform, San Mateo, Calif.-based Blue Martini Software Inc.'s Customer Interaction System, is a suite of eight integrated e-commerce applications for marketing, merchandising and customer relationship management.

The staff members come from an array of backgrounds, from traditional computer science to environmental research, from physics to fine arts. The body of their skills and experience demonstrates that in e-commerce, as in anatomy, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Overall IT Leader

Frank Stolze,

CHIEF TECHNOLOGY OFFICER, 31

On Tenure: Since September

On Education: A master's in computer science, Marist College, Poughkeepsie, N.Y., 1996; undergraduate education in physics in Germany

On Previous Experience: Systems architect at Mail.com, an online business messaging service in New York; Java architect at Sun Microsystems Inc. in New York, developing applications solutions for Wall Street firms; adjunct professor of computer science at Marist College, while working toward master of science degree

On Job Description: Developing and managing Ibeauty.com's internal and external technology infrastructure; evaluating and selecting technologies and vendors; hiring and managing IT staff; aligning business strategy with IT

On Why I Got This Job: A broad approach to problem-solving. "My work in physics has been very beneficial because it gives you an understanding of how things relate to each other."

With his team up and running, the site stabilized and the migration on its way, Stolze has turned his attention to the technology underpinnings for a business expansion. He declines to provide details except to say that Ibeauty.com will be evolving into something more than just a Web site.

"The challenge is how to stay one step ahead and anticipate potential problems we'll face six months or a year from now," Stolze says. "We have to be prepared so we're not caught in the situation we were facing a year ago."

Paying attention to the business issues is critical to individual success in e-commerce - whether you're the chief technology officer or the junior programmer, he says.

"You must understand the sector you're in - merchandising, the grand picture - not just the task you're hired for," Stolze says. "And you need to understand the interaction between your e-commerce play and the traditional retail sector, and how the retail sector will develop."

Web Engineering

Department

Gregory Cranz, director of

Web engineering, 29

On Tenure: Since November

On Education: No formal degree. A self-described "child prodigy," he's been working with computers since he was 6 years old. His father was one of the first Apple Computer Inc. dealers on the East Coast, so Cranz gained early experience helping customers with their computers and saw first-hand what it takes to run a business.

On Previous Experience: Web development manager at MarketGuide.com, an investment information site produced by Multex.com in New York; entrepreneur providing Web site development and hosting services in New York; applications developer at CMP Media Inc. in Manhasset, N.Y.

On Job Description: Overseeing all phases of site development, hands-on development work and hiring and managing development staff

On Why I Got This Job: Twenty years in IT. "Raw experience and intense passion for what I do."

Cranz is a hard-core programmer. His occupation and his vocation are one and the same; he lives and breathes by IT and supports 22 networked computers in his home.

But he's also a hard-core manager, the only person at Ibeauty who wears a suit and tie - a navy, three-button affair toned down by his soft-soled shoes and his hair loosely pulled back into a ponytail. Cranz says he made a conscious decision to pursue a management track and that an in-depth technical background puts him in good standing with his staff: "I know what developers need to get their job done," he says.

"Programming is very misunderstood," he adds. "It's a creative process, and people have an inherent need to create their own thing. So, I farm pieces out as sort of black box projects. I define the inputs and outputs and let them go at it. I try to be more mentor than editor because if you encourage creativity, you get better results."

He refers to the Perl scripting language as "the Swiss Army Knife of programming" and insists on developing applications in server-side Java because "for delivering logic, it's the only model that makes sense." And he has ultrahigh standards when it comes to hiring staff, interviewing as many as 22 people for one senior Java programmer position.

"A lot of them had the title of senior programmer." he says. "But they were really junior programmers, or else they were senior programmers, but they didn't have their Java skills together."

With the built-in learning curve his staff is facing with the Blue Martini application programming interfaces, Cranz doesn't have time to wait for someone to come up to speed in Java servlets. So he has a due-diligence process: He gives candidates a Level I certification practice test and asks them to answer 30 of the 60 questions. "It's a real litmus test," he says, noting that only three of the 22 applicants passed it.

"What sets Ibeauty apart," he says, "is that we're a company based on technology. IT is the foundation on which everything else was built."

Systems Department

Robert Lee, vice president

of systems, 32

On Tenure: Since December

On Education: Bachelor of science in computer engineering, Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, 1989; exploring whether to pursue an MBA

On Previous Experience: Technical manager, designing and architecting network infrastructure for Wall Street clients at Sun Professional Services, New York; senior specialist, AT&T Corp. WorldNet, Parsippany, N.J.; advanced systems engineer, Electronic Data Systems Corp., Bedminster, N.J.

On Job Description: Building and maintaining the site infrastructure, including maintaining the proprietary legacy platform and migrating to the new Blue Martini platform

On Why I Got This Job: In the right place at the right time. "I was with the right company because most Internet companies are using Sun equipment, and I know it inside out."

Approximately 70% of Lee's efforts are focused on the transition to the Blue Martini software. He has to devote less time to maintaining the legacy system because he has retrofitted "best practices" in network management and support to improve site stability. "We make sure that if we crash, we can recover within half an hour," he says.

Lee is a big advocate of best practices, discipline and methodology. He says he owes this to five years spent at EDS, where "they do everything by the book to make sure their customers' systems are up 24 hours a day."

"I know what works and what doesn't, and there's value in the process and the methodology because once those are set, if I'm not here, other people can follow them to fix a problem," he says.

The key to network management in e-commerce is "common sense and staying calm in a crisis," Lee says. "It's more about analyzing the situation and coming up with the right approach. Handle the pressure, don't cut corners, manage the problem. Instead of just doing things, think about it before you start."

Database Department

James Turner, database

report writer, 34

On Tenure: Since March

On Education: Bachelor of science degree in biochemistry, Virginia Tech (Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University) in Blacksburg, Va., 1989

On Previous Experience: Project manager at an environmental consulting firm in Charlottesville, Va. In his last project - an initiative with the U.S. Army group that tracks hazardous materials - he learned how to use Crystal Reports as an ad hoc reporting tool against an Oracle Corp. database

On Job Description: Database reporting and data mining. Also involved in building a data warehouse based on the Blue Martini software suite

On Why I Got This Job: Substantial real-world project-management experience. "I'm not wet behind the ears."

Ask Turner anything you want to know about Ibeauty's customers, and he probably knows the answer. He spends the bulk of his time generating reports on who's visiting the site, what they're doing, where they're coming from, what promotions they're responding to - "any type of site activity you can imagine," he says.

About the only things his job shares in common with his previous work are Crystal Reports and the Oracle 8i database, and that's fine by him. "I always had a technical bent that I didn't exercise as much as I wanted to," he says. So when his wife was transferred to New York, Turner decided to look for an IT job, using his database experience as a foot in the door.

"Now, I'm right in the middle of something I'd just nibbled at the edges of before," Turner says. "It really is an applicant's market. Demand for talent is so strong that if you have the skills and the interest, it's a straightforward proposition."

Internal IT

Rick Cecil, director of

NT operations, 31

On Tenure: Since August

On Education: Bachelor of fine arts in painting, Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, N.Y., 1990

On Previous Experience: Systems manager for a small investment firm in New York; LAN administrator and desktop support specialist at Metropolitan Opera Club in New York

On Job Description: Managing the internal LAN and network security, providing internal help-desk support, maintaining hardware and software, facilitating communication with external operations, including the site hosting service and customer service

On Why I Got This Job: Problem-solving skills. He says he has the "ability to make a good decision very quickly and come up with creative solutions to problems."

The biggest difference between supporting a group of Web techies and supporting business-unit users is that you can't fudge the truth when there's a problem, Cecil says. "I can't confuse them with techno-speak," he says. "They're much more demanding and knowledgeable than your average user."

On the other hand, "they're much more forgiving when they can see that something is out of your control."

The other distinguishing factor is the demand for around-the-clock uptime. "I have to stay tidy, focused and organized," Cecil says. "You can't let problems escalate."

When he's interviewing potential job candidates, he's less concerned with specific skill sets than a willingness to confront a problem head-on. "I look for someone who can rise to the occasion whenever needed because if they have that temperament, they can quickly pick up whatever skills they need," he explains.

Where his colleagues' work touches the external customer, Cecil's job is more guts than glory. But, without IT support, the site developers couldn't do their job. "They must have access to production machines," he says. "If I'm not on top of things, their output slows down."

Copyright © 2000 IDG Communications, Inc.

  
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