The Iconic’s secret (tech) sauce

IT teams get a bad wrap. Too often stereotyped as the nerds who are called in when the website breaks down, their creativity and people skills traditionally have been downplayed, if not blatantly ignored. 

But that misconception is beginning to change, as IT teams increasingly focus on user experience and technology becomes a critical part of every business. Nowhere is this shift more apparent than at The Iconic. 

The online marketplace is known for having one of the most personalised online shopping experiences in the country; same day, and in some cases three-hour, delivery; and an innovative snap-to-shop feature, which lets customers search for items in its catalogue that are visually similar to outfits they see on the street or internet. 

And yet, while it’s true that The Iconic boasts an in-house technology team of more than 100 people, that alone can’t explain its cutting-edge offering. Rather, it’s the way the technology team works that is the real differentiator. 

Creating a sense of ownership

Like many technology companies, developers at The Iconic use agile development and lean principles to move forward, such as having small teams work on projects in sprints and iterating until the product is suitable for shoppers to deliver fast, customer-centric results. 

Roughly a year ago, however, the e-commerce company took this one step further and started letting its technology team self-select the projects they work on each quarter to further empower them.

“It creates a lot of autonomy within the teams,” Manuel Silva, director of technology and customer products at The Iconic, explained at the Online Retailer conference in July. 

At the end of each quarter, the company gathers ideas for new projects to tackle in the upcoming quarter. 

“Everyone can bring an idea to the table,” Silva said. “We prioritise the ideas and surface the ones we believe are worth pursuing.” 

The product owners, the people responsible for leading the teams, create one-pagers describing the mission of each project, and the steps they believe they’ll need to take to accomplish them. These are distributed to the entire tech team ahead of a Workshop Day, when the product owners pitch their projects.

“We have videos [of the product owners] pitching the project Shark Tank-style, and some of the pitches are done to music. People really take it seriously,” Silva said. 

After this, the product owners and tech team engage in a kind of speed dating session, where people can see if they’re a good fit for a particular project and product owner, and finally, they add their name to the project they’d like to work on.

Often, of course, too many people want to work on one project, and not enough on another. So the exercise is repeated until each project has the right number of staff on it with the right skills. 

“Sometimes it’s a bit exhausting,” Silva said, but the upshot is that team members feel more engaged and take greater ownership over the work they are doing. 

This self-selection approach is a work in progress. Silva noted that the company solicits feedback from the team after each quarter and tweaks the process to improve it.

The company is also experimenting with cross-functional teams, including people who traditionally would not be involved in the IT department, such as fashion stylists and CRM experts. 

“This has been working really well,” Silva said.

Learning to innovate

Once a month, the entire tech team has a day to work on pet projects. They can work on anything they want, as long as it is good for The Iconic’s users, good for themselves (i.e. makes them more effective at work), or good for the company as a whole. 

Some of these pet projects have turned into real-life features that customers use on The Iconic’s website and app, such as the snap-to-shop feature, while others are used behind-the-scenes by the company itself. One person, for instance, developed a web UI to help the buying team manage their massive Excel spreadsheets containing orders for the next season’s stock. 

“Sometimes the projects are super complex, and there’s very little chance of them seeing the light of day, other projects are just little things, but they spark ideas that we can then leapfrog into a bigger project. They’re all good seeds,” Silva said. 

Another initiative The Iconic has introduced internally is Learning Days. They originated in the tech team, but are now company-wide events, and potentially could be opened up to external visitors as well, according to Silva. 

Learning Days also occur once a month and feature talks given by employees on a wide range of topics. The topics and speakers are advertised on a professional-quality website in advance, and employees can RSVP to the talks they want to attend. 

“We have all sorts of topics from how to give feedback, to programming, machine learning and sustainability,” Silva said. “We’ve had some really exotic ones, like how to play guitar and how to sew. The topics are quite varied, and they bring the personality of people to the table as well.”

The Iconic’s Learning Days align with one of its core values, which is that innovation is everyone’s job, not just the IT team’s.  

“No matter where you are in the company, you have a responsibility to innovate and think outside the box,” Silva said.

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