E-commerce is about more than just shopping carts. With more shopping shifting not just online but to mobile, retailers need to constantly innovate to stay relevant. Hamburg, Germany-based retail and services company Otto Group offers its customers a variety of innovative technologies to enhance the shopping experience, including augmented reality applications for online furniture shopping or AI driven voice solutions for first level support. The basis for this is provided by a state-of-the-art IT landscape and software development tool chain.
These sorts of new digital experiences are a major priority for Otto Group, which owns 30 major company groups and does business in over 30 countries in Europe, North and South America, and Asia, including Crate and Barrel, Freemans, Manufactum, and, of course, its namesake Otto. Ideally, all of its subsidiaries will share innovations, helping the entire family adapt quickly to the changing world. But many of Otto Group’s subsidiaries have their own IT teams. “It’s a heterogeneous environment,” says Dr. Hanna Huber, Otto Group VP of Technology Strategy and Governance. “Some brands are working with bleeding-edge technologies, others are battling legacy systems.” That led to silos across the company, and instances where one brand might have solved IT problems that other brands were still struggling with.
Otto Group started using GitHub to unify their software development efforts in 2015. In 2020, the Otto Group set new benchmarks to standardize software development processes by founding its Software Engineering Unit. GitHub became a supporting pillar in establishing a modular approach to the development and implementation of apps and mobile features. GitHub provides what Huber calls a “common language” for Otto Group’s companies to share code and resources. With GitHub as a technological framework, Otto Group has been able to sustainably advance the innersource processes that 18 group companies are already involved with. “This development was driven by a group-wide transformation process that stands for a new era of collaboration,” Huber says. Today, Otto Group’s engineering teams are flocking to GitHub, even though it’s not mandated. “We don’t want to do everything top-down,” Huber says. “We want people to adopt things because they work and because they want to use them.” The company now has more than 1,300 engineers using GitHub and is still growing.
As usage grows, GitHub is becoming more central to development at Otto Group. For example, the company’s Digital Product Lab team, which builds mobile apps for many subsidiaries, uses GitHub Actions for its entire CI/CD pipeline, from pushing code to QA to shipping to app stores. Bjoern Bengelsdorf, a senior software engineer in the Digital Product Lab team, says that they’ve been able to find a prebuilt GitHub action for nearly everything they’ve needed to do, saving them time and resources. “We get everything we need from the marketplace, to build on top of our tailored CI/CD pipeline” he says.
Bengelsdorf says Actions provides a better developer experience than their previous solution. “Everything is in a single environment, there’s no need to switch to another application or connect to something through a VPN,” he says. “You run the Action just by committing your code, which is awesome.”
The upshot of having fewer tools and processes to manage, Bengelsdorf says, is that they get to spend more time focused on building new software that they can share with the rest of the company. For example, the native shopping app framework shared and used by several Otto Group brands were created by the Digital Product Lab group. “We provide a framework for native apps that includes all kinds of e-commerce modules,” Bengelsdorf says. “Each brand customizes that framework based on their own identity and the shopping experience they need.” When the team adds new features to the framework, like the augmented reality module, all the different Otto Group brands can take advantage of those. That entire process of adding new features and deploying them to different brands is managed through GitHub.
Everyone is already familiar with pull requests, forking, and the discussion of issues and features. That makes it faster to get new hires up to speed.
GitHub makes life easier for Otto Group’s engineering teams in other ways as well. The Digital Product Lab team’s Head of Software Engineering Tobias Hutzler says GitHub is great for onboarding because so many developers are already experienced with GitHub. “Everyone is already familiar with pull requests, forking, and the discussion of issues and features,” Hutzler says. Otto Group benefits from a central corporate IT service department, which makes the integration of Github much easier. “That makes it faster to get new hires up to speed.” Plus, with so much of the development process happening in GitHub, there are fewer accounts to create for people and permissions are much easier to manage. “Developers just need to set up a GitHub account and we map them to our Github enterprise organization,” Hutzler says. “It saves hours of time.”
GitHub also helps Otto Group manage security. “We have many different credentials for things like app stores and signing certificates,” Hutzler says. “GitHub actions in combination with secrets helps us keep our code secure. It’s the preferred way to manage all those credentials.” Likewise, GitHub Packages helps streamline security and management. Open source is an increasingly important part of Otto Group’s development stack. “Modern software is really based on open source,” Hutzler says. “With closed source, you don’t get the transparency that you get with open source, and you often don’t get to see bug fixes or feature requests implemented.”
Today, Otto Group developers are faster and more efficient. “I think it’s really impressive what the Digital Product Lab can deliver with such a small team,” Hutzler says. “GitHub along with the rest of our cloud native tech stack makes that possible.”
Tim Graham started contributing to Django as part of a college research project. Now he helps maintain the popular web framework full time as a Django Fellow.
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