I love operations engineering, full stop. Focusing on this unique set of problems gets me out of bed every day and drives a high energy level. I have spent a significant amount of time in various aspects of operations engineering throughout my career, and have found this area of software engineering not always so readily accessible or accurately portrayed. In this post, I'll shed some light on the discipline.
Let’s start off by defining what operations engineering truly is. In this context, I’m talking about software engineering that drives the core operations of a business. Viewing this from a functional lens, you can think of this as the systems that support how a company delivers its products to customers. If you consider it in terms of senior leadership, this usually aligns with anything under the auspices of the Chief Operating Officer. These systems can be software that run factories, assembly, stores, transportation lines, warehouses, and many other types of systems. These typically have deep ties to serving the end customer, although they are usually (hopefully) invisible to them, too. At Wayfair, my focus is Supply Chain Engineering, which is what I’ll be basing the rest of our examples on throughout this article.
Why Is This So Important?
First and foremost, in this discipline of software engineering, engineers have the opportunity to make an impact on a sizeable portion of individual lives. Most people who use your software are required to really use your software. Unlike a consumer app or website that a user can swipe closed or navigate away from, your users have to operate your system as part of the fundamental execution of their jobs.
By improving the experience, building empathy with users, and designing to make their lives easy, you are directly improving their day-to-day work. You can see this in brick-and-mortar stores, for example, if you have seen cash registers down, price or product lookups not working, and other system issues. It is a frustrating experience to deal with illogical or vexing software for paying customers, and especially for your users.
At Wayfair, we had a scenario where some warehouses used an amalgamation of legacy systems to complete a series of tasks. These tasks required regular reference to printed posters and frequent checks by peer associates in the warehouse. Additionally, using the systems that supported this process involved switching between multiple browser tabs and a terminal interface. We replaced this system with a streamlined directed question-and-answer workflow. This allowed us to drive users to a single internal page, view rich product information, and respond to simple questions in order to arrive at an outcome decision recommendation. This saved users a lot of time as well as frustration, especially with keeping track of multiple applications.
Field and Finance
I love going to the field. In Wayfair Supply Chain Engineering, we do a great job of getting into the field and engaging with our users – this means being on the ground with our carriers and primary users, understanding their pain points and experiencing the way they work. You truly understand the impact of what you’re building and what it means in a real-world context. The only way to truly understand a user’s problems is to have a conversation with the user, observe, and do the job yourself. If your system supports order picking, pick orders using your software for the entirety of a shift. You may find that your application will feel a little different by 2:30pm, given a field user’s work circumstances: Waking up at 5:00am for a 10 hour shift, standing on a concrete floor.
Field users may not let you know if something performs sub-optimally. They will certainly complain if a system is non-functional, generates frequent user-facing errors, or runs very slowly. However, if the system has worked “how it always has” or how they have been trained to use it – clunky, confusing, or inefficient behavior may not be as noticeable. In the previously-mentioned example, we developed the idea for streamlining the amalgamation of applications by going to the warehouse and observing our users. We used the system ourselves as software engineers and knew that it was unintentionally cumbersome and that we could significantly improve it. Through an iterative prototyping and user-feedback process, we arrived at a collaborative solution that worked for the users. Once you have a system in place, it is extremely important to build proper telemetry so that you know how your users actually use the software. You can leverage this data in usage pattern analysis to help detect deviations from expected norms and highlight potential issues before they impact a significant portion of the field.
Finally, I enjoy seeing the outcomes of the direct financial impacts of operations engineering. As I previously mentioned, operations engineering covers the systems that support how a company delivers its products to customers. Improving these systems directly correlates with financial performance related to customer product delivery: Driving the metrics of a better customer experience by offering faster deliveries, higher customer satisfaction scores by executing according to commitment, and others. An even larger portion is cost reduction, which drives up profit margin. Operations engineering is directly tied to a company’s cost of goods sold, which is a key element of a firm’s income statement.
As a software engineer in operations engineering at Wayfair, you have the ability to create a positive impact on many lives. Your software will be used day-in-day-out by numerous field associates with whom you directly interact with during field visits. You also contribute directly to the financial success of a high-growth, tech-forward company.
If this sounds like something that might interest you, or you already share my passion for operations engineering – great news, we’re hiring! Come join us at Wayfair and help us on our mission to help everyone live in a home they love.