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June 13, 2017

Shutterstock CEO on changing the engine whilst still flying the plane

CBR talks to Jon Oringer, Shutterstock CEO about the large scale transformation of the company's IT.

By James Nunns

Businesses have entered in to the era of digital transformation. Where forward looking companies are rejuvenating their IT estates and making themselves fit for the future.

Shutterstock is one of those big companies that is going through this transformation.

The company, which is best known for providing high-quality licensed imagery and music to businesses, has been undergoing a large scale project to rethink its IT structure.

With more than 125 million images from over 190,000 contributors and almost 1.7 million active customers across 150 countries, this is a big company with a huge project.

CBR’s James Nunns spoke to Jon Oringer, Shutterstock founder and CEO about this project, the challenges and what it hoped to achieve.


JN: Tell me about the project as a whole, what technology changes have there been – what was being used before, what’s being used now and why?

JO: “We have grown quickly from a rising startup to a publicly-traded company to an evolving platform. Historically, we’ve always launched new platforms with a focus on

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Jon Oringer, Shutterstock CEO.

speed and getting things to market where customers could try them out and we could iterate on them. Within a system like that, it’s sometimes hard to pause and get things stable.

“More recently, discussion turned to how we could better organize our database, websites, and systems. A sweeping change would be labor-intensive, but we knew that it would be what was best for customers and best for our business at once. It provides scale and stability and prepares the company for its next period of growth.

“We needed to rethink our IT structure, which started with organizational and cultural change. We moved over to containerization, giving us more flexibility and the ability to automate select pieces of our process. We also introduced 12-factor methodology. And, finally, we’ve relied more heavily on APIs.”


JN: Why the change?

JO: “I’ve always led this company with a focus on speed of delivery, but as we’ve evolved, we’ve had to get our house in order. Since 2003, we’ve gone from offering images to so much more — video, music, enterprise offerings and digital asset management.

“It became challenging with all these different silos to give customers what they really needed: a seamless experience. We had to simplify everything on the backend first to make the frontend of the site more user-friendly and valuable. A unified platform is the ultimate goal, and we’re getting closer by the day.”


JN: What tech was being used before and what technology have you moved to?

JO: “We moved the entire stack to a 12-factor application model that allows our code to be containerized and scaled across any cloud infrastructure. As the company has grown, and we’ve picked up developers all over the world, the importance of having a unified, intuitive, and scalable architecture becomes even more crucial. We consolidated seven different platforms down to two.

“Our front end development is done using ReactJS. All of our backend development is done using NodeJS. We’re relying more on APIs, turning the company into a platform-based company where everyone can find what they need for their creative workflows. We want any customer to be able to buy any asset wherever they are.”


JN: What were the biggest challenges, expenses, and delays?

JO: “Because you can’t shut down a 24/7 e-commerce website that 1.7 million customers depend on, you have to work around it. We were changing the engines while still flying the plane.

“When you dive into an old code base, you don’t know what you’ll find inside. It requires the persistence to go through it, spot what’s wrong, and keep going. You must be comfortable with failure. Things will go wrong, and other things will break as a result. You have to be prepared for that, and ready to find solutions to problems you didn’t know you had.”


JN: What are the benefits expected and how are these going to be measured?

JO: “We have grand vision for where we’d like to get as a company, and what we need to introduce each step of the way. While we have been leading this project behind the scenes, we’ve also implemented new innovation and tools within our service.

“Two major innovations from last year were the introduction of our computer-vision technology and the launch of our first editing tool, Editor. With Editor, users can custom size and crop, and add filters to images before they purchase. It’s something we heard customers wanted and we made sure that we delivered it as fast as we could.

“Throughout the process, we’ve had small groups of developers continuing to lead the way, ushering in a new era. Once other teams overcome the hurdles of the transformation, they, too, will join them in creating new features and tools. The benefits will be innumerable, as we can give customers everything they’ve been asking for, and more.”


JN: How long did the change take and who instigated and led the process?

JO: “It will never entirely be complete, but we are through the bulk of the work now. We began mid-2015, but really cranked up the efforts at the beginning of 2016. We have made it our top priority ever since, moving around teams to ensure we could complete the project efficiently and effectively.

“I spearheaded the process alongside our executive team, realizing that we needed to tackle this project once and for all to enable us to achieve our next generation of growth.”


JN: How did you work with IT and the rest of the business?

JO: “We started with architecture and chose programming languages that fit that model, Everything circles back to IT. We set up a DevOps model to enable us to design, develop and deploy code iteratively. We use Docker, Kubernetes and Jenkins, among others. We are thinking about what the business must look like 10 years from now or longer.

Read more: DevOps – Fad or Here to Stay?


JN: What are roadmap plans for the future and how frequently do you assess new technologies?

JO: “I can’t speak to specifics, but I can assure you that our tech teams are more aligned than they’ve ever been before. One thing that we instituted to success were daily standups across the whole developer team. That way, if something is being introduced, everyone knows about it. And if it could impact the work another team is doing, they can speak up at the start. We have more cross-team conversations and collaborations happening now. People are helping others to solve issues before they develop. It’s great to see.

“We’re assessing tech and our processes all the time.”


JN: What does this all mean for the business?

JO: “We are recruiting, hiring, and training our employees to push the limits of where the business is today, to play a part in getting us to the next level. We need to find better solutions to assist customers, to deliver more. That started with asking people to change the language they program in and also offering NodeJS training.

“All of this short-term change will lead to long-term benefits for everyone. We’re simplifying our code and our process to meet the demands of the changing landscape for our business. Going forward, we’ll tackle tech debt as we go and learn from what’s working and what’s not working. You can never be perfect across the board, but we’re working our hardest every day to improve both the site and our systems in place.


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