The five-minute CIO: Patrick Sherlock, Luzern

3 Jun 2016

Patrick Sherlock, co-founder and chief product officer, Luzern

“Time is always best spent managing the team, and letting them focus on the deep technical issues that require time and space to resolve,” says Patrick Sherlock, co-founder and chief product officer of Dublin e-commerce provider Luzern.

Patrick Sherlock is co-founder and chief product officer of Luzern, a Dublin-based e-commerce provider established in 2003. In this role, he oversees Luzern’s long-term technology strategies and the company’s understanding of emerging technologies. His team is responsible for the IT needs across Luzern’s client base.

Over the last 20 years, Sherlock has served in a number of senior management positions within the technology industry in Ireland, Belgium and the US. He has studied at Stanford Graduate Business School and also holds a BSc in Business and Information Technology from Trinity College Dublin.

The team behind Luzern saw an opportunity to use technology to sell products online in a way that is driven by data and powered by people. What began as a simple idea has evolved into a powerful e-commerce platform that is now behind the online stores, B2B portals and marketplace listings of large and mid-size companies including Philips, Unilever, Glen Dimplex, Jawbone, PetSafe and Turtle Beach.

Can you outline the breadth and scope of the technology rollout across your organisation and what improvements it will bring to the company?

One of our key selling points is the speed and flexibility that we bring to the core proposition of enabling e-commerce for branded manufacturers. At any given time, we have simultaneous client on-boarding projects that involve staff across our finance, sales, account management and development teams, not to name the various departments that can be spread out over numerous countries for our clients. To add to this, Luzern has staff in a few different offices – for example, in Ireland, we have developers working on client projects out of Dublin and Galway.

That means teamwork collaboration and project management tools, as well as applications, are key in continuing to scale our business while ensuring client satisfaction. To reflect this scalability, we’re near completion on the transition of all IT systems to the Amazon Web Services cloud. Nearly all of the apps we use are cloud-based, whether for email, project management, smart sheets etc. We’re pushing this further later this year when we will migrate our accounting systems to a cloud-based solution.

Finally, we also have our proprietary in-house developed e-commerce platform called Channel Optimiser that comprises three core elements: an e-commerce transactional system, an e-commerce operational system, and a business intelligence/data analytics system.

What are the main points of your company’s IT strategy?

Our company and team have grown tremendously over the past few years, so our focus is now on the scalability of our e-commerce platform and associated IT services required by business. We already utilise best-in-class apps for specific functionality and features that we integrate tightly to our channel optimiser, or build our own when we can’t find an app that does what we’re looking to do. Ultimately, our platform will be entirely cloud-based to provide optimum flexibility and scalability to our clients.

Can you give a snapshot of how extensive your IT infrastructure is?

We have a host of servers servicing all our internal requirements and we maintain our own network. Our entire publicly-accessible infrastructure is hosted in Amazon Web Services (AWS). We have this set up in multiple regions within AWS, both in Europe and the US. All these services use the standard built-in redundancy features available on AWS to ensure business continuity with no single point of failure. We have approximately 40 servers in the EU region and similar capacity in the US region.

In terms of managing IT budgets, what are your key thoughts on how CIOs/heads of technology should achieve their goals?

We tend to classify IT projects into the ‘run, grow, transform’ model, whereby we try to assess the objective of the projects and activities in these terms. So we’re coming through a phase that was focused on transformation where we invested heavily in development resources to build out our channel optimiser product and right now we are definitely focused on a grow phase where we have to ensure that everything can scale.

How complex is the infrastructure, are you taking steps to simplify it?

We are always looking to simplify our infrastructure and its architecture. We took a big step a few years ago by closing down our data centre presence and migrating all of our hosting to an AWS infrastructure. We have seen a huge benefit to the organisation from doing this, both from the point of view of having a completely scalable on-demand architecture, but also by allowing our engineering team to focus on building new applications and services rather than the overhead in managing our own hardware and the costs associated with this.

Our next stage will be to migrate as much of our existing internal hardware and network infrastructure as possible to the cloud. We will be looking to have our main file servers, phone system, active directory and all associated services replicated to the cloud, allowing all our users full access remotely. This will have the added benefit of reducing the reliance on our own internal network for critical business operations.

Do you have a large in-house IT team, or do you look to strategically outsource where possible?

As we’ve grown, this has been a major area of focus for us. We have a team of 10 working across our offices and we will continue to invest in hiring as we scale. We have and will continue to outsource for specific niche areas or for expediency with regard to on-boarding clients onto our channel optimiser platform. We’ve have great success with this model.

What are some of the main responsibilities of your own role, and how much of it is spent on deep technical issues compared to the management and business side?

With our growing engineering team, I tend to spend less time on deep technical issues compared to the business and management side. Time is always best spent managing the team, and letting them focus on the deep technical issues that require time and space to resolve. The rest of the team are well capable of resolving these issues with a little guidance from me when necessary. A lot of my time is now spent on planning out the roadmap for our products and services offering, scoping out the business requirements, enabling the team to implement them quicker and more reliably. I also spend a lot of time liaising with our customers to identify their requirements and how we can better service their needs.

What are the big trends and challenges in your sector, and how do you plan to use IT to address them?

The e-commerce sector continues to grow rapidly – our proposition and platform is definitely addressing a growing need as more and more brands and manufacturers realise that selling direct to customers online will be inevitable in the future, no matter the industry.

We have this huge opportunity and our challenge is to enable our business to scale and meet what is already a global demand for our solution. So we need to accommodate all of the aspects that a global and growing demand has on our e-commerce ecosystem, from ensuring our platform can roll out multilingual, multi-currency solutions, and accept the multiplicity of current and emerging payment methods out there.

With the demand growing, it also means we need to be able to rapidly integrate to all of the supply chain partners (warehouse, fulfilment centres, delivery partners) while continuing to provide an absolutely seamless experience for our clients’ end customers, wherever they may be.

As with all tech sectors, the e-commerce industry is constantly changing, so we need to keep abreast of all new innovations and ensure we can accommodate or integrate these within our platform as needed.

What metrics or measurement tools do you use to gauge how well IT is performing?

We measure the defect rate in the software and services provided. We have one-to-one interview sessions with the business to identify the areas where we are doing well, and what areas we could look to improve. From an on-boarding or new client project perspective, we have have a series of measures related to project completion.

Are there any areas you’ve identified where IT can improve, and what are they?

Often engineers require the time and space to resolve complex issues, but we always strive to balance this with the requirement of the business to receive feedback on progress updates. We are using a Kanban approach to software development to help bridge this gap, giving the business some direct feedback without the need to engage with the engineers

What other projects do you have lined up for the year, and what will they contribute to the business ?

We are continuing to build out of our channel optimiser platform so we can continue to grow our client base and scale rapidly. An important part of this is the building of a universal API that allows us to connect rapidly and easily to virtually any other systems or third party platforms that may be used by our clients within the e-commerce ecosystem. This will enable us to take on new clients while continuing to be as responsive as our clients have come to appreciate.

We’re also going to continue in our process of simplification and efficiency across the business, especially in terms of teamwork and collaboration, both internally and externally, with our clients and partners. This will involve the continued search for and adoption of best-in-class apps and solutions that we can tightly integrate into our overall platform.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years