At PlatformCon: For Realtor.com, Success Is Driven by Stories
You’re only as good as the stories you tell. Storytelling, after all, is a tenet of humanity, and the best way to pass information, at least when it’s anchored in context. It’s also a pillar of successful sales. No matter what you’re selling or who you’re selling it to.
For platform engineering, your eager or not-so-eager audience is made up of your colleagues, the internal developers as well as other company-wide stakeholders and influencers. You have to understand the context and needs of your different target personas, and how they could respond to the changes you’re making. Much of intentional developer experience and platform adoption hinges on your ability to convey what works and what hasn’t, often socratically repeating back to be sure you comprehend your stakeholders’ stakes — and making sure they feel heard.
For Realtor.com, a platform engineering mindset is anchored in the power of success stories. Suzy Julius, SVP of product and engineering, joined the virtual PlatformCon stage to share how the top U.S. real estate site, with 86 million visits per month, went from a culture where you couldn’t say platform to a culture that embraces it.
The First Step Is always Recognition
Realtor.com is a company that’s over the last couple of years scaled mainly via acquisition, which often results in either spaghetti architecture or a complete lack of visibility into other business units. It pretty much always signals an increase in complexity.
“Our tech stack became extremely complex, slowing down our ability to build features in a fast and reliable way,” Julius said. “The existing tech stack made it difficult to ensure a quality product or ensure reliable feature releases.”
Facing its divergent and often duplicated tech ecosystem, in 2020, the company embarked on a transformation, with the aim to “simplify to scale” in order to accelerate innovation.
A platform emerged as the solution.
When Julius joined the company at the start of 2021, her team recognized the common barriers to entry to platform adoption, mainly, “knowing that there was a reluctance to building a platform, with fear that one would slow down the engineering team by creating more complexity.” Not an uncommon hurdle for platform engineers to face at all.
So the platform team kicked off this journey gaining feedback from a diverse background of stakeholders, not just from engineering, but from business and security, and offered a compelling success story, she explained. Now, 150 people are considered part of the platform organization — a mix of product leaders and engineers, who she said are all “focused on developer experience, data, content and personalization.”
Next, It’s Time to Adopt a Product Mindset
Come 2022 and the platform team was embracing a platform mindset, concentrating on developer enablement and providing a service to their colleagues. Specifically, Julius outlined the aims as:
- To provide service to others to help everyone go faster and more reliably.
- To understand as a platform team the vision and principles, and then to get corporate buy-in.
- To be able to show short-term and long-term wins.
- To measure, iterate and evangelize the vision to be a platform empowering all products and unlocking business opportunities.
These goals, she said, mostly focused on developer experience, but they also created a data platform for a “clear line of sight to understand business metrics or give analytics the ability to create a canonical source of truth dataset for our consumer and customers.”
The tech stack that drove this sociotechnical change included:
- For developer experience — CircleCI, Apollo supergraph, GraphQL, Amazon EKS. ArgoCD, Tyk API gateway, Vault developer portal
- For data, content and personalization — Fivetran automated data movement platform, Snowflake for data integration, Apache Kafka, DBT for data warehousing, Apache Airflow, NodeJS, Amazon SageMaker for machine learning, Optimizely, Metaflow data science framework, ElasticSearch
All the platform tech, people and processes are aligned around the vision to become the preferred platform on which their internal customers choose to build. That is grounded, Julius explained, in connecting wins with features that drive business metrics, namely, revenue and/or user engagement.
She highlighted sociotechnical lessons they learned over the past year:
- A platform mindset is not just a technical but a cultural shift.
- Adoption hinges on training, documentation and awareness.
- You need a tighter feedback loop to establish stakeholder sentiment.
- Be aware not to over-index on microservices. For example, they had rate-limiting in different locations, which Julius said made it hard to build client features.
- Align around a few programming languages, as too many make it much harder to build cross-company platform features like logging and monitoring.
- And, in a time of tighter budgets, make sure you commit to continuously invest in your platform service, no matter what.
Keep up the Momentum
Now, this year at Realtor.com is all about embracing the Platform as a Product mindset and building a differentiated, self-service product suite. Treating your platform as a product is about treating your developers like your customers, always focusing on improving developer experience or DevEx. For Realtor.com, this includes continuous feedback and stakeholder scorecards.
This year is about “understanding that we need to continue to solve problems and to make it easy and intuitive to use our platform,” Julius said. “And we need to realize gains beyond tech, [like] more involvement and input into what the platforms do and how they can help the entire company.”
Many of the platform engineering thought leaders The New Stack has interviewed have talked about the importance of using the platform as a single pane of glass to create a common language between business and engineering. This helps business understand the value of the big cost center that is engineering, while engineering can better connect their work to driving real business value to end customers. Julius’s team stands out in looking to leverage the platform to measure that effect. She said they are currently working “to incorporate how platforms impact our end-user strategy and experience,” connecting the DevEx to the DevOps.
They are also working out how to evangelize the platform internally. Like with all things, communication is key, including around onboarding and design-first thinking. They are customizing their messaging for different stakeholders. Julius noted they all have to get comfortable repeating themselves to not get lost in the email and Slack cacophony. The platform team is also considering adopting a tool like Backstage to help facilitate that internal product marketing and to, as she said, “bring it all together.”
All this feeds into a continued highlighting of performance, security and reliability gains.
How Mature Is Your Platform?
Platform teams are cost centers, but, until recently, developer productivity wasn’t something that could be easily measured. This means that platform teams have had difficulty assessing their performance and impact. Last month, a new DevEx framework came out that examines developers’ flow state, feedback loops, and cognitive load.
The month before, the Syntasso team open-sourced their Platform Maturity Model which guides teams to answering the following questions:
- How does the company value (and therefore fund) platform efforts?
- What compels users to start, and be successful, using your platform?
- How do users interact with and consume offerings on your platform?
- How are requests and requirements identified and prioritized on your platform?
- How does product engineering manage non-differentiating (and often internally common) tooling and infrastructure?
- How does each business requirement (e.g. compliance or performance) get enabled by platform offerings?
Each of these questions has answers from Levels 1 through 4 to mark maturity of a platform team.
The Realtor.com platform team has created what it refers to as a playbook — an artifact that helps continuously build onto the organization’s Platform-as-a-Product culture. This includes their own maturity model. “It’s recognizing and reminding us that we don’t want to stop at a platform that just works, but we want to be seen for the good and invested in,” Julius said.
Pulling a metaphor for the company’s core industry, she compared a platform to a house. There are parts that you don’t really notice until something goes wrong like a window won’t open or the foundation is cracked. She explained that “Where we strive to mature as a platform when you notice the doors, you notice the windows, and they’re seen for the good.”
Next, the playbook features two decision-making frameworks to decide when to slow down or to speed up. She called them a flywheel to show off how they make decisions collaboratively and cross-functionally, “in a way that we can keep coming back and pointing at that decision as we progress.” They are:
- Strategic technical initiative group (STIG) — to ensure technical decisions are made collaboratively and consider the future tech stack and feature development.
- Cross-functional workshops — to collaborate and focus on both the Platform-as-a-Product and tech strategy.
Finally, the playbook centers on identity — which Julius said she could’ve given a whole talk around, it’s that essential to the Realtor.com product team. Identity leans into the importance of vision and purpose. A platform team always needs empathy, she argues, putting itself in its stakeholders’ shoes to better understand the technology and onboarding. It’s treating internal customers with the same level of care as external users.
Identity is all about understanding what a success story looks like and working backward to identify key aspects of that story, Julius explained, aligning that story with key decisions and remaining focused on the vision. It’s always about maintaining the organization’s reputation and grounding every decision in context.
“This is all about having the end state in mind, combining the fundamentals with your vision. It’s that compelling story of success.”