Rent the Runway's CTO says a strong engineering department turns dreams into reality

Camille Fournier leads a 60-member team that has delivered innovations such as a one-of-a-kind platform that allows customers to shop by browsing photos of real women with similar body types.

Rent the Runway calls itself "a fashion company with a technology soul," with proprietary systems driving its growth from its 2009 formation as an online dress rental company through its expansion into brick-and-mortar shops in 2013 to the introduction of the lineup of online features it has today.

Camille Fournier has led much of that IT innovation. She joined the company as director of engineering in 2011 and in August 2014 was named CTO, the company's top tech position. She now leads a 60-person team that has delivered innovations such as a one-of-a-kind platform that allows customers to shop by browsing photos of real women with similar body types. Fournier frequently speaks at events on various tech topics and is an advocate for bringing more women into IT.

What's the biggest IT challenge Rent the Runway has faced? When I joined, most of the technology that ran the business was in Drupal, a PHP content management system that is useful for many things, but it's not a great fit for the complexity that is Rent the Runway. It was what they had chosen very early on and they made it work OK, but it wasn't going to scale. I had to [determine] how do we get out of Drupal, how do we change the engines while the jet's in flight? We did it. We went piece by piece, took functionality out and wrote it in Java and linked it up with APIs and moved the website framework to Ruby. We accomplished it quite smoothly and also evolved the product while we were doing it. We were doing new product features while we were re-architecting our base systems.

What was the biggest challenge you faced when the company went from online-only to opening brick-and-mortar stores? If you're a classic online retailer just selling things, you can probably find some off-the-shelf software for a point-of-sale system. There aren't off-the-shelf point-of-sale systems that work for us. [Customers] need to be able to rent in the store, but people expect a different experience when they're in the store than when they're on the website. Initially we'd send them to the website [for transactions], and that's not what that customer expects from a retail experience. We had to do a lot of custom software to make the retail experience work for the customer and for inventory management and for what's in the store.

Is all your software developed in-house? The vast majority of it is. We use some services for customer service, help desk, email and email tracking for our customer service team. But it's really hard to find off-the-shelf, customizable software that works for our business because we have such an unusual business.

Does that make it easier to recruit developers? On the one hand, we have had a pretty good experience growing the team because we are doing interesting things. But it takes some education of developers to understand what we're doing. Nobody has rented nondurable luxury goods the way we're doing it. People have rented DVDs, but that's different than renting a dress. You have to get developers to understand all the complexities, and once they do, they're really interested in the company.

How did you come up with the scan-to-screen technology for your brick-and-mortar stores? We wanted to provide our customers with a more high-tech experience when they were in the retail store. We wanted to let them try something on and write notes about what they tried on and record that. So if they try on 10 things and like six and want to rent for future events, they have those notes in front of them. We always thought we were a tech company; technology is our brand. So how do we have these high-tech experiences that make it better and more fun for our customers? This is one way to let our customers engage with our products in a high-tech way.

Camille Fournier, CTO / chief technology officer, Rent the Runway [2015] Rent the Runway

What about Rent the Runway Unlimited, the subscription service platform? We've been kicking around this idea for a while. When you think about rental, your mind naturally wanders to classic Netflix. You have three DVDs out and you return them when you want. Our CEO had this vision that the future is not going to be as heavily weighted toward ownership. Unlimited is part of our effort to break into more than just occasion renting. From a technology perspective, it was a really fun build.

Why? They spent two weeks sequestered -- the product team, the engineer team, the analytics team -- and they came up with prototypes and a sketch of the code. They got into all the systems they needed to touch to make sure the key functions would work. They made a prototype. I told them when they were building it, build something but plan on throwing it away. Don't worry too much about the engineering. The point was to learn by doing and iterate really, really quickly so when you build the real thing it will go that much faster. I believe they scrapped all the code they wrote and took all the ideas and implemented it more thoroughly. We learned a lot from doing that.

What was the timeline? The war room happened in late March [2014], so April, May, June they actually did the work. We went live on July 19. From a technology perspective, it's satisfying and fun. To be able to create something entirely new and have the release be so seamless was a real triumph for my engineering team.

Is engineering synonymous with IT, or is it more specific? When we say IT here, it's actually the people who support our Google apps account, the laptops, the physical wiring. They are part of our team, but when I say engineering, I really do mean software development. Nowadays, when you call a software development organization an IT organization, it has a bit of a negative connotation, it has a cost center connotation. I don't call my engineers "IT" because I want to make it very clear that this is a place where money gets made for this business. Without a strong engineering department turning dreams into reality, we don't have a business.

How do you bridge that gap between business and engineering? It's really important for software developers to be thinking about the business itself when they're thinking about what to build. They're not just thinking about whether it's going to do the right thing from a technology perspective, but will this do the right thing for the business. We tend to hire developers who have that entrepreneurial sense, who want to work on the most impactful thing for Rent the Runway. On the business side, it's explaining risks in ways that can really be understood.

You also talk about environments that encourage developer growth and creativity. How do you do that? Developers are able to grow and learn when they're challenged, and sometimes what that means is you have to pull the business side, the product management side, back from the desire to prescribe exactly what's going to happen. Sometimes they say, "This is what I want implemented" rather than, "This is the problem I'm going to solve." You might get what you wanted, but it might not solve the problem. So I really feel that a huge part of my job is ensuring that working relationships are peer relationships and one side doesn't dictate to the other.

Do you enforce a dress code for your team? No, we're casual. We actually have fancy Friday. Some people dress up in suits and dresses.

Do your engineers have to understand fashion or retail to be successful? You need to have an empathy for the customer, which does not necessarily translate to being an expert in retail, e-commerce or fashion. Most people on my team don't have a strong affinity for fashion. They don't have to be able to see that this is not matching the high-fashion trend of the day but to say, "We want the customer experience to be beautiful and engaging." And if they're building something and they don't think it's beautiful and engaging, I expect my engineers to say something, to say that this interaction isn't at the level we want our brand looking like.

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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