Software at Scale
Software at Scale
Software at Scale 31 - Maju Kuruvilla: CTO/COO, Bolt

Software at Scale 31 - Maju Kuruvilla: CTO/COO, Bolt

Maju Kuruvilla is the CTO and COO of Bolt, a startup that offers quick online checkout technology to retailers. Previously, he was VP and GM at Amazon Global Mile, in charge of Amazon’s global logistics and Amazon Prime fulfillment operations amongst other things.

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00:30 - What does a VP at Amazon even do? The day-to-day experience of a VP/GM at Amazon. I think I’ve asked enough people this question that I finally have a vague sense of what these engineering leaders do (I think).

04:00 - Managing global logistics in one of the world’s largest logistics companies in the middle of a pandemic

09:00 - Shipping software quickly when you’re a large company. Two pizza teams with a twist.

16:00 - The role of software in global logistics. Amazon’s epic migration off Oracle databases. How to get thousands of people interested in migration or similar work.

25:00 - Launching Amazon Prime Now in 111 days (21 days more than what Jeff Bezos mandated).

38:00 - The complexity behind a checkout operation in an online store. Tax operations, compliance (!), and other complexities.

46:00 - A tech stack to solve the checkout problem.

51:00 - Building trust, relationships, and making an impact as an engineering leader in a new company. Everyone wants to hire great people, but what does that really mean?


Utsav Shah: Welcome to another episode of the Software at Scale Podcast, joining me today is Maju Kuruvilla, who is the CTO and now CEO of Bolt. Previously, he was VP at Global Mile, which is an organization at Amazon that was in charge of global fulfillment. Thank you for joining me.

Maju Kuruvilla: Thanks for inviting me, Utsav. It's great to be here.

Utsav Shah: Maybe we can start with what exactly does a VP of Global Mile at Amazon do? How many people are reporting to you eventually and what is your day-to-day look like at that time?

Maju Kuruvilla:  So I had few different roles at Amazon, the last role was the VP of Global Mile. Before that, I was a VP of the Worldwide Fulfillment technology team and the difference is when I was VP of the Worldwide Fulfillment technology team, we were responsible for all tech and products that Amazon uses in our fulfillment centers worldwide and so that's kind of global responsibility. And then a move to Global Mile, which was a little bit more a general manager role, where I was responsible for not just the technology and products, but also the operations, the sales, all of the different components of that as an end-to-end business. 

In either of those roles were global had more than 1000s of engineers and a lot of product managers? And even when I was managing the Worldwide Fulfillment team and even hardware teams and networking teams, all of them are involved as part of the team. The difference in the Global Mile was more being responsible for a P&L and an entire business, it is a little bit different than the Global Fulfillment side and I'm happy to explain on either side but just want to put the difference out there, what's up.

Utsav Shah: So maybe you can just explain both of those things, I'm sure you're looking at P&L and then going into specifics understanding of what's going on? What does your day-to-day look like? I don't know if you can talk about any specific projects that you did, I think that would be super interesting to know about.

Maju Kuruvilla: When I took on the Global Mile role; first of all, what Global Mile is, before it used to be called Global Logistics, it's all the logistics that is done to connect between countries. So whenever an item moves between countries and has to cross a border, that's where global, logistics or global mile comes into the picture. Most of the items that we sell in the US or Europe comes from manufacturing countries like Asia or China. And so when we have to bring those items from there to the US, that's part of the global logistics role. So I took on this role right before the pandemic hit and the pandemic initially hit China, which I was responsible for running the China operations at that time. 

And then when the pandemic then expanded and spread out to the Western countries, and then the rest of the world, and running global logistics during that time was very challenging and exciting. At the same time, there are a lot of changes that got disrupted that even today are not restored to what it was before. So the global supply chain is still recovering from all the problems that have happened since the beginning of COVID. So since I took on the role, it was largely doing catch-up on how to do, what do we do with the China operations? How do we manage our people there? How do we get the operations up and running? How do we keep our people safe during this process? 

And then, when all the planes stop flying or the passenger flight stop flying, the majority of the cargo space was not available after that. So we had to figure out how to create more air capacity between countries and then there was this big backlog of things that were coming from China all over the world, all the way from the challenges at the beginning of the port in China to the port of Los Angeles. For example, you could see lines of ships that are waiting to get unloaded and just managing all of that process [5:00] and reinventing and figuring out how to solve the global logistics problem in the middle of the pandemic was the highlight of my time at Global Logistics.

Utsav Shah: Sounds like a fun on boarding project.

Maju Kuruvilla: It's hard to get trained for global logistics anywhere because Amazon does a lot of that. On top of that, dealing with that during a pandemic was certainly something I was not ready for but like with every challenge and every job; you just have to figure things out. And they've created a lot of great opportunities for innovations, we did a lot of things that we wouldn't have done at the speed at which we did if we were not presented with a constraint. So a lot of innovations came out of that, a lot of new capabilities came out of that, and it was great to have a strong team at Amazon, where everyone responded fast, and started building things fast and get [unclear 06:08] operational in a very short time.

Utsav Shah: Are you at liberty to share any of those innovations that you talked about? 

Maju Kuruvilla:  A few I can certainly share; one is the air capacity problem, like, around 45% of air cargo capacity comes from the belly cargo from the passenger flight. So when passenger flights stopped flying, you essentially lost 45% of the global air cargo capacity, it’s just completely gone. And so how do we recreate that, so we had to create, start thinking of running out on charters. So we started renting planes, like 747  to fly from China to the US and Europe, from the US to export countries and so we started releasing planes and started flying, which we never had before and that was something we created last minute and started flying. 

An interesting story there was we started even getting the cargo planes for lease became very expensive and because everyone was trying to do something similar, we started renting even VIP jets. At one point, we rented a VIP jet that even I have never been on but then we were putting packages on it and shipping all over the world. So creating that kind of air capacity in a very short time and then building that into a framework that can be used for longer-term was something amazing and quick we did and whenever we have to do that a lot of things need to come together. 

One is, do you need to have the right technology for us to organize all the different products at source, figure out the route at which we all need to go, and then how do we fill this capacity when on the airplanes. You put something called a ULD which is a box that you fill all the items in and that's what you load and unload. And so you have this complex math problem of how do we fill it because you want to mix the right amount of weight and cube so that you can maximize the utilization of that. And you just have to come up with all these algorithms quickly to maximize that and then you have to do the safety to make sure that the things that you don't want to get on a plane don't get on a plane. 

And the same thing, once it reaches the destination, how do we unload it, and then from there, how does it go into all the different distribution centers, so creating the technology for that into the end and also rocking the operational process, so we can run that end-to-end, and then making sure that the business is ready to run through all of that. Creating all of that in a matter of few weeks is the speed and scale sometimes we have to run with.

Utsav Shah: First of all, I didn't even know that 45% of all cargo capacity is on passenger flights so that fact itself blew my mind. But it's also interesting that there's so much software involved to ship something like this out. One thing that always fascinated me is that even though Amazon is such a large company, it can operate and ship some things like these so fast, and maybe it's like a secret sauce, how does Amazon get that done? And we've all heard about the two pizza teams and all of that but if there's something else, like something that you've seen is a super important part of the culture.

Maju Kuruvilla: One is what you just mentioned, which is the two-pizza team but the other aspect which at least I think allows Amazon to move [10:00] fast is the decision-making capability. So whenever at Amazon, we have to make a decision, we call it one word or a two word or decision. And one word or decision is something that you make a decision and there is no going back, so you have to be extremely thoughtful on whether you make that decision and decide to walk through that door. Whereas a duet or decision is a decision you can make and then if you don't like it, you can always walk back. 

And so for us to move fast, we have to create a lot of [inaudible 10:36] decisions, and then allow the teams and the people involved to make them because it's okay, if they make a mistake, they can always walk back. And decentralizing that decision-making, allowing people, enabling them to make that decision, and then giving them a framework where most of the decisions are just too [inaudible10:58] decisions where they can walk back so that it creates a very fast decision making. And execute and enabling people to make those decisions fast and then allow them to verify if this is working or not so that they can walk back. 

That kind of decentralized enablement is critical for companies to move fast and Amazon certainly takes advantage of that quite a bit, so people are not afraid to make decisions and people are not afraid to fail. Because the culture is that you can make decisions, and learn from it and if something is wrong, you need to work back from it, so long as you can do that properly, then that's great. And that is where I feel like most of the companies get stuck because nobody knows who will make a decision. Everyone is kind of marveling at the decision to a higher level. And there is somebody who's trying to make a decision that is not very close to all the action and even if it's a very good decision, it just takes a long time. 

So we say sometimes, a fast repair wrong decision made fast, might be better than the right decision made very slow as long as it's a two-word artist.

Utsav Shah: Yes, that makes sense, and if you can walk through the example of renting airplanes, who would make that decision? Would a VP or a GM decide that we have to rent out this airplane, how would that bubble down just so that you can walk listeners through a project like that? Who would be making decisions, at what level?

Maju Kuruvilla: Again, these are not qualified anywhere, per se and so whenever you make a decision, it is one thing to make a decision, the other thing is to notify and let people know, this is what we are doing and this is going to be the implications of that. In this scenario, it was brought up to me by the team itself, so they were like, capacity is down, and we got to come up with some of the new ideas. So they started coming up with options and now the challenge here was, whenever you create capacity in any supply chain if there is a little bit of a chicken and egg problem, do you create capacity first, or you create demand first. 

And when you build a supply chain, most of the time, you have to create capacity for us because if you create demand for us, then demand is just going to wait and you create a terrible experience for people. So you have to build capacity first and so in this particular case, it was more like, we didn't have enough demand to charter our planes. But if you can build it and create an infrastructure around that and make it reliable, are more people going to use it. And so it was a decision that people bubbled up, it was largely too for me to make that choice at that point. And I made a very strong recommendation to our leadership, and they were like, go for it and the decision were made in less than six hours, and then off we go. 

And now that we decide that we are going to double the capacity and we are going to figure this out, then it's all about execution.  Now, that's only a small part of the decision-making, then there is the decision-making that happens every single day, like how many do we need, which days we need to run? And when at the beginning and the source and the destination, do you have the right operations aligned and which days you don't want to come and wait somewhere? And so how do you know that there's a lot of decision-making that happens at that level? And then it's like, what do you put on the plane, how do you prioritize? 

Do you prioritize an Amazon retail item? Do you [15:00] prioritize a seller's item, do we prioritize protective equipment for our associates. We even transported some of the equipment for hospitals, and some others just so that we can help during the middle of a pandemic. So, there are decision makings that happen at all levels. And the key there is not making one big decision right now that it's all about when you think it's in when you are working in a very fast-paced environment like this. There's a lot of micro-level decision making and if anybody hesitates to decide because they feel like okay, now somebody is going to beat me up, and I don't know what exactly it means, or I don't have all the answers, then you can move fast. 

But if everybody knows that, that's okay, I can't explain this. And it's fine. And I have no I and my everybody's going to understand or at least, and if I did something wrong, that's a great learning experience for me, then you can move fast. So it’s not a decision making at a particular level and what kind, it's enabling that a culture of freeing people from the fear of failure, and allowing people to focus on what are we trying to do? How do we achieve it fast? And anything and everything is available and possible to do that? It’s the culture of this decision-making that needed to move fast.

Utsav Shah:  That's interesting for me to hear and can you apply this a little bit to a large software project that you all did so that it's more relatable to people? We're more used to trying to ship a large piece of software? 

Maju Kuruvilla: Quite a few examples are coming to my head but one is a very complex and very technical project, even though the outcome is fairly simple. So Amazon has built the entire software on the Oracle Database platform over decades and then we were struggling and started running into constraints on Oracle and there were scaling issues because what could scale vertically, Amazon wants to scale more horizontally? So we wanted to move out of vertically scaling systems and getting more horizontally scalable systems? So the bottom line is, how do we move out of Oracle, and get to different platforms, whether it's dynamo DB or Aurora, or any of them some kind of a horizontally scalable solution. 

Now, doing this the entire Amazon had to go through it but for the fulfillment, which is one of the earliest teams at Amazon, it is a big ordeal. How do we now go and change your database where you have; first of all, fulfillment cannot stop right now, every day, you're fulfilling millions of units, and everything needs to move fast. But on the other side, you want to change the database, which you have been relying on for decades and this is not a small load, you're applying heavy load on this completely new technology and it's an all-in-one database. Everybody has their tables, and there are dependencies across all these tables, and how do we make it all happen in some kind of a sequential way and we want to get it all done in one year.

So, this is one of those projects, where we thought it was impossible, and then we said, alright, let's go after it because our leadership all agree that this is the right thing to do for the company. And some teams were able to take their data and go and find new destinations for them and that was fine; that simple those are the 20% of the use case of that all locked. everybody else, there were a ton of features needed, some needed transactional support, that are dependent on the ACID properties on a database to kind of do whatever that feature they are trying to do. And there are also interdependencies where if this error is moved, then that service also needs to move because they share the same data and you cannot shift in different ways and this is a project. 

I spent a lot of time, a whole year working with every single team and you have to imagine I have around 1000 plus engineering teams, a few 100 individual teams, and hundreds of services that need to move out of this. And so this is why again, another one [20:00] where we decentralized decision making where we tell people that these are the things that need to be done and you can go ahead and get your pieces done and if you cannot, then you need to come back with a proposal, and how do we collaborate between the teams? And also, a lot of times there were decisions that need to be made where do we go from a relational database like Oracle to a completely no sequel database? 

Or we go from a relational database to another relational database like Postgres or an Aurora, kind of a data store? And how do we manage all of that journey? And again, this is where every team had to make hundreds and 1000s of micro-decisions on their side and they have to figure out how to collaborate across all the people. And then there were times, where some of those things were not happening like there was no plan. And so I still remember me and one of the Distinguished Engineer in the team, we know we had to tell people if something is not going to work, you need to tell us right now, you need to raise your hand because if you keep thinking that it's going to work, and if it doesn't work on last minute, we won't be able to help. 

So you need to ask us early enough that we can help but there are a few instances where we had to go and help. There are a few instances, we had to innovate and come up with completely new technology so that we can solve that by running that kind of an experience of moving the entire worldwide fulfillment to Amazon that has been running 20 years or so in Oracle. And in one year, moved them completely out of Oracle to a new platform and we got it done and it was no small feat and we got it run and scale just fine for a week and it was a huge outcome for the company. So I don't think running something like that in one year is something a lot of other companies may struggle to achieve, something like that in a short time.

Utsav Shah:  That sounds like a hard migration way or that you said that 20% of use cases are easy, like half of them will probably get done and there'll be so many stragglers with special cases and one-offs, it just sounds extremely painful to drive.  How do you set up incentives in the right way to make sure that people wanted to do like because I'm sure a lot of it is grunt work and it's a little bit of an ordeal as you said? So one thing you mentioned was, you have a Distinguished Engineer, going to help everyone but people have so many competing priorities, they want to ship new things. How do you make it easier for these teams to prioritize this work?

Maju Kuruvilla: It's all about prioritization, so you have two people look at what's important, you can say something is important but then people will pay attention to where you are spending your time. Right now, if people see that I as a leader or anybody who was a leader, spending most of their time on a project then people know that is important. It's not that they are saying it, they're doing it, and then provide with structure or guidance. For example, we created a small Tiger team and they knew how to go and audit every single team's plan, not just their migration plan but also their peak readiness plan and they will give out a report to me, and then I can review that. 

And if they are not ready, even if they think they are ready and if the team that's auditing did not feel like that's ready, they will come back with that and there are different mechanisms we put in place to enable teams to do that. Now, that example is more a hard groundwork of just migration, if I switch to a different example, which is the launch of prime now that is more exciting new work. Amazon wanted to get into fast delivery and there was this big plan that was created on how to do that and when debase [unclear 24:27], he reviewed a plan and he was, well, this is great, I love it go and make it happen in 90 days. So when you bait in your bases, you get to say things like that, go and make an entirely new experience of allowing people to get things within one hour in 90 days. 

This is said when same-day delivery is not even a thing, nobody would see our delivery is not even a thing and nobody know what it means. And so I was responsible for all the fulfillment aspect of that which turned out to be very complex, [25:00] how do we deliver something less than an hour when usually our fulfillment systems are designed to deliver in two days or less. So there is another one where we assembled a core team, we divvy up the function, and we decided to build, take some of the components of the fulfillment, created a lighter version of our fulfillment stack, and build.  Some teams built the front end, new app, how the call connectivity? How do we manage payments? How do we manage fraud? 

And then, in the end, how do we even create technologies within the fulfillment center where you can pick and box all these things in a lightning-fast way. And then we launched that in New York, right in the middle of the city during Christmas, and I was there because we work hard on it and I delivered, we call it rideshare. You can go with the people who are delivering and see the experience for the customer and I did that for some of the initial ones and it was fascinating to watch the people's reactions when they get it. Sometimes we delivered things within eight minutes of when a customer first presses the order button and you can just see the stars and customers' eyes when something just shows up within eight minutes of something they ordered and mind you back in the day, these things didn't exist. 

So it was a magical experience for everyone; so we got it done. Not just my team but the collective team recording was done in 11 days, from the basis meeting, even though here that 90 days, we got it done in 11 days, and, and I don't even know how we got it done in under 11 days and basis, we're still happy but that's the speed at which you move. And if you need to move that kind of speed, you are innovating so many things; you are making decisions on so many items. But, it's not one person making all of the decisions, the entire team making those decisions, and allowing everyone to move faster.

Utsav Shah:  Just from reading one of the books on Amazon and understanding your stories, it seems the idea is to find each level so that it has enough people, so that's not what the blocker is. But then make sure there is fast decision-making and accountability. So projects get done on time, rather than not funding each level enough that it will just take forever to get stuff done because people feel they're super or something like that.

Maju Kuruvilla: Well, whenever you have a big problem it's very hard to solve a big problem as is. So number one is let's agree on the problem and make sure that solving this problem makes sense for everybody and this is the right thing to do for the company, for the customer, and we have the right know-how to make it happen. And once we do that, then the next question is, how do we divvy up this problem into small chunks? If you want to move the mountain, it's extremely hard to move the mountain but assuming everybody can take a piece of rock from it and 1000s and millions of people if you can all assemble, then we can move the mountain. 

That's the concept of swarming a group of people around a huge problem not attacking the whole problem as one but divvying up the problem into smaller components. Now, divvying up the components is an art, you have to find out how to divvy it up because divvying up is not like, I will do this part or that part. Each of the smaller components needs to be fully functional by itself so that the team knows if they make it, they know how to test it, and how can you know if it's a car? Each of the components is like a tire and if you build the tire properly, you can have a tire team, you can have a wheel team and the good thing about that is, that team can continue to obsess over that and make it better every day. 

Today you can come up with some new tread wearing and all of that and tomorrow you can come up with some nails, but they have something they build that is complete in its sense as a component and that is something they can continue [30:00] to make better throughout their life, so we call that a pizza team. Or at Amazon, we call the pizza team and what that means is that team has ownership of a component that is complete and relevant [unclear 30:20]. So it's not a short term, as a project I will do this piece and that piece is more long-term ownership. And in the long-term ownership, I own this component, and I will continue to make that component better and I know how this component fits into all the other larger pieces but I don't care. 

So I am not going to worry about how the headlights are going to work or something, all those other things, I know it's all there but I don't need to worry about it. I'm not constrained by it because I built the right contract, if it's a tire, I just need to fit it on the right wheel and then I'm good, and then what happens after that I don't care. And I am going to obsess over this tire and all the materials that are on that forever and so we'll make it better over time. That's the concept, how do we break it down into components where each of the teams can own one of those pieces and then they can obsess over it? Every day, they have 24 7 365 days, they just tried to make it better and when a lot of components come together, you assemble to solve the larger problem you're going after.

Utsav Shah:  And I'm guessing the holistic vision on the assembly is management's responsibility along with the senior engineers and the principal engineers who will give guidance.

Maju Kuruvilla: Yes, more than management it is that the senior engineers and the principal engineers, and a distinguished engineers because that's the way at least Amazon is structured is you have this pizza team that it's called two pizza team because suddenly, you should be able to feed a team with two pizzas. And so the magic number is somewhere between seven and 11, that's the number of people you should have in a team and that team should have everybody you need to solve the problem with that component. So sometimes the team may have hardware people, software people, data science people, it cannot be just a software team; it's a team, what do you need to solve that problem, you need all of them in there. 

And then whenever you have a principal engineer, their responsibility is to look at across multiple components like this, and see how they all come together and also the senior engineers in the teams, even though they are part of the team, they look across and negotiate and make sure that all the pieces are coming together well. But the rest of the teams, are headstand focused on what they need to build, and how to and they all have a metric that they are trying to make better and Amazon call it a fitness function. So you are looking at that fit fitness function and trying to make sure that you're continuing to make progress on that.

Utsav Shah:  And then that's some quality metric which is indicative of this team's component functioning properly or not.

Maju Kuruvilla:  It's more than that, this team's component being the best. So,  it's not a functional metric, it's a fitness function means this is the most important thing that you can measure to see if they are doing the ultimate best, they can do.

Utsav Shah: That's interesting, and then you can imagine that some people might even have an NPS score or something eventually getting tracked as part of that fitness function. And then finally, management reviews, all of these different teams is fitness functions to make sure that everything is coming together and then they can deliver the final large piece which is a huge prime now.

Maju Kuruvilla: And usually there is a operate operational plan, so that that happens every year, you see how everything is going to come together and Amazon also has heavy documentation, culture, writing and reading are important. And reading is as important as writing by the way because I have seen a lot of companies tend to say we have a writing culture but most of them don't read. So I feel writing is one of those networking effects. If people don't read then writers have no incentive to write properly but Amazon has a very good doc in writing and reading culture and what that means is whenever you have to solve let's say, [unclear 34:43], another product was we did a computer vision system to completely automate the inventory, counting process in all fulfillment centers, it used to be a very manual [35:00] process. 

Before people used to count, it’s late, you're closing a store, you have to count the entire inventory all the time for compliance purposes, and also have to make sure that the virtual and the physical things are connected. And we completely get on with a new project where computer vision systems constantly monitor things as robots are moving things across the field and that can replace the whole process manual counting process. And again, a team of 11 people made that happen from an idea, they pitch to making it happen for momentum, Amazon's providing fulfillment centers worldwide, just loving people just made it happen. And it saves a lot of money for the company and automated a lot of processes but its more pizza team coming together. 

And so when you have to do that, the first things you write is what do you call a press release document or a PR FAQ document? And it's a one-page that clearly says, what's the problem? Why do we think we are the right people to solve? Is this the right problem to solve? And if you solve it, what will be the experience for the customer, so you have to write the experience for the customer, past solving this problem before you start doing anything. So that's what the press releases, you are writing down how the experience is going to be after the fact before you start any work, which is very powerful, by the way, because most of the time when you have to write that from a customer angle, a lot of things could become very clear, things we didn't think through will become very obvious because you might be solving either part of a problem or it's part of a bigger problem. 

And a customer only cares if the whole thing is off, not a piece of the result. So going to explain that customer experience is very powerful and then from that, there is a sequence of FAQs and usually, it's only one page, by the way. PR FAQ is just one page on the press release and then a lot of questions and that document is the first thing everybody writes and reviews. And so any of this brothers prime now, whether it's this computer vision-based inventory, counting any of that's the first thing people do, they write in a document, and then that gets reviewed by leadership. And then if someone reads and then finally says, approve, and you can go and start a new pizza team for that, or you going to allocate resources for that. And then you can go and do what there might be multiple pizza teams come together to solve that and you explain that in your plan. 

That's our plan, and then that's fine, you get a proof and then people will go off from that point, and make things out.

Utsav Shah: So switching gears maybe a little bit, one of the things that Amazon is good at is making sure the checkout experience is super smooth,  there's the one-click option, which I think Amazon has a patent on, so it's not easy for other companies to do something similar. But a lot of reasons why people like using Amazon is also the smooth checkout experience plus, it's super reliable. So just recently, I tried to buy a DELL laptop from Dell, and twice they just canceled my order and I had to place it through Amazon. I don't know how much Dell has to pay Amazon for it, but they just lost the commission on that laptop. So can you walk through why it's so important for checkout to be so seamless, intuitively it makes sense, you don't want people to be abandoning stuff in their car, but any numbers or anything whatsoever about why that checkout experience has to be as convenient as it is?

Maju Kuruvilla: It's an interesting story and the whole online commerce story is unfolding in front of our eyes as we speak, this is the time for e-commerce. Companies like Amazon created this online buying experience and people started trusting buying online before people were worried about the security and safety of their staff and the quality of the things that they might get. Amazon solved all of that and got people to buy online without thinking twice about it. What we are seeing now is the consumers are used to it, now pandemic accelerated the whole process too, pandemic accelerated e-commerce adoption, almost 10 years ahead of the previous base. So if we didn't have a pandemic ended up taking another 10 years for us to be where we are, but it accelerated 10 years. 

So now people are [40:00] buying, especially the newer generation, folks buying online are not a big deal. They don't even think twice about it but what comes with that is people also want a different experience, people want to buy, they will continue to buy from Amazon but they also want to go and buy from other places. Because there are a lot of different merchants and brands that want to provide a very unique experience for customers. And people having that experience is not just about buying a product as it's about that whole experience of connecting yourself with the brand and that the experience of buying and then all the post-purchase experience after that on being connected with that brand. 

So sometimes that relationship is more than just buying something and more people want that, and especially the newer generations are more into that process. The challenge with most of those margins is that, how do you provide a simple seamless checkout experience like Amazon? Because Amazon has, like you said, an amazing checkout experience and how do you provide that because people are used to it now, so you don't need to beat Amazon on that. But at least people, you need to provide a similar experience that everywhere else and this is where companies like Bolt come in. I'll speak about Bolt a little bit here, where we can provide that checkout experience that people are used to, and make that one-click checkout experience where you come to our site, and you just click one button, and it's yours. 

And if you can provide that experience, people will start engaging with brands and merchants a lot more than if they have to go through the whole kind of high friction buying process. Because when you think of buying, it's a funnel and the first is research, and then there is a discovery of product, then there is intent to buy. That's why most of the time [unclear 42:11] on and then there is the conversion and at every point, you are adding friction, and if you can have where people can back off from the process. But if you can remove all of that, it's when you have to randomly a movie, and you have to go all the way to a blockbuster or stand in line, pick up a video and come home and watch it, that seems like a lot of friction versus just sitting at home and click Netflix and boom.  

People do watch more Netflix because of the ease of it, than like Hollywood or [unclear 42:51] Hollywood, or blockbuster or somebody like that because there's a lot of friction in that and the same people just do more because it's convenient. And that applies even in a checkout where we want to eliminate all that friction so that when people want their intent to buy is their conversion. There's nothing that stands between that and beyond just buying things on the brands and their website. There is also one more step beyond that. This is where most of the people are moving to and that is called social commerce where people want to buy things as soon as they see something, it's called buying at the point of discovery. 

So as you see an advertisement, you see a video, you will see an influencers media or you're reading a review, and you see something and you want to buy it, can you just click and buy it right there with one click, or it's a link that takes you back to some site and you have to buy it there now by going through all the process. So simplifying this whole process, whether that's buying from a website, or buying at the point of discovery at any surface, is going to be very critical in the future. And in fact, that's going to be the expectation for a lot of people as we move more and more into the e-commerce journey and that's what companies like Bolt provide out of the box for merchants so they can provide this experience to their customers.

Utsav Shah: And maybe even talk to us a little bit about the impact of going through that funnel, if I'm a shopkeeper today who just set up my site without using Bolt or an optimized lead what abandonment rates and stuff would I expect? I know it's going to be different for each person, but I'm just trying to understand how much does that convenience factor play into online purchases?

Maju Kuruvilla: It's substantial. So, it depends on the merchant, depends on the category, depends on the customer [45:00] and we have several case studies that we have listed on our website. But in some of the good use cases, you see an 80% increase in conversion, when you get a one-click checkout experience that's on the highest end. But it's very powerful because there are a couple of reasons; One, is it just the friction, you don't need to go and do something else to make it happen and number two is, it's just the safe, that people feel their safety and privacy. Do I want to give my information to all the websites out there? Or if I just give it to this one party I trust, and it insists that my identity is just there, and all my information is there but it enables me to log in everywhere, it's the single sign-on concept everywhere, that provides more comfort and safety for customers. So it's one side is the friction, the other side is feeling having a safe way to buy from anywhere.

Utsav Shah: And I think one thing you spoke about was the fulfillment stack, building out all of this technology that provides fulfillment, maybe you can walk us through the checkout stack if you have to build a checkout system like this.  At a glance, you're adding something to a cart, and you're retrieving that cart, and you're making a purchase but how does this work? How do you make it go one-click? And what are some challenges? Because I can imagine there are all sorts of things to worry about as users might click by mistake, there's fraud and stuff, how do you solve all of these problems?

Maju Kuruvilla: Great question. So when you think of checkout when from the outside, it seemed like a fairly simple process, you add something to the cart, there's a checkout button, you click on it, and it asks you for payments and few things and it's done. Checkout is one of the most complex parts in a commerce stack and the reason for that is until it is checkout, it's just browsing, you are just adding things here and there, nothing needs consistency until at that point but when it's come to checkout, it's real. The checkout system needs to check for inventory, it needs to check for taxes, you need to look for coupons, it needs to look for the pricing at that time, it needs to look for all the shipping options, anything and everything that you need to check is all done at checkout. 

So checkout needs to call every single system that an e-commerce stack has to make sure that it all comes together so you can present it to the customer. What does it take to buy the thing and when they can get it and so it is an extremely complex function and so behind that scene, there is the UX how we provide a seamless user experience. For example, at Bolt, we obsess over how every single pixel works in that checkout? How does it work on the website? How does it work on a mobile? How can we make sure that it's so optimized that our customers feel the whole process like a breeze but then there is the payment gateway? People may want to use a variety of different payment instruments; payments are the whole world is changing so fast that there is some new payment method or an alternate payment method coming out, or every other week nowadays. 

So how do we keep provide merchants and integration into the entire payment world? And how do we place all of that so that the cost the customers can choose it in the right way, which is the other layer of complexity? But then there is the identity of the user itself, how do we do provide one click? We need to save that user's name and all the payment details and all the information so that we can do that. So, a company like Bolt, what we have is, we use that user in all the shopper's data as a network. So think of all the different shoppers who are connected to our shopping accounts network and everybody can contribute to that network and everybody can benefit from that network if they use Bolt checkout. 

So the Bolt checkout system is built on our accounts network that is continuing to grow and evolve and as people are shopping and all of these different merchants, people are getting added to this network. So as a new merchant coming brand new use Bolt, they have access to this whole network that's created through the shared network that is created so far, and they can provide one-click checkout to every single user in that [50:00] network. So what we are finding is this virtuous cycle of as we get more merchants, we get more accounts into our network and as we have more accounts in the network, you get more one-click checkout transactions, and then more one-click means more merchants want to sign up for us. 

So that virtuous cycle that's happening and that's added is accelerating, kind of Bolt's growth for now. But those are the different layers, all the way from a UI to all the complexities around that, but fundamentally built on this shared accounts network that's truly powering the one-click experience for everybody.

Utsav Shah: So as an end-user, do I know I'm using Bolt when I'm buying something [unclear 50:46] website, or is it just like opaque to me?

Maju Kuruvilla: No, you are buying it through Bolt; however, we don't try to brand it as a completely different brand because the merchant is buying us and we want to seamlessly integrate into Martin's ecosystem, so that we want to look more like, we are enabling the merchant, and we want to stay away between the customer and the merchant because we want to provide an experience as seamless as possible. However, for users they need to know that this is Bolt so that they can trust us, they know that it's powered by Bolt, creating an icon with Bolt, or logging in with Bolt, so that they know where it is, and they can control their information, they can manage it, and they can be at peace that we are taking care of that information and in one safe place. 

Utsav Shah: So that makes sense to me. Now, I'm curious to learn, you were running divisions or organizations at large companies like Amazon before, you can't just take every single good idea you have and apply it at a much smaller company. But what are some things that you feel you've changed in the first few months you were there and what are some things that you feel extremely strongly about? Even at a much smaller company when the Bolt is not super small, clearly, but what are just some learning’s that you feel you had to apply?

Maju Kuruvilla: First and foremost, I would say, it doesn't matter what's the size of the company, you have to be connected with the customer and every single person all the way. For engineering, it doesn't matter whether you're an engineer, whether you are an accountant, or it doesn't matter what your discipline is, if you are in a company, your mission, you're passionate about it, you need to be very connected with your customer, you need to attend to some customer calls, you need to attend some support calls, you need to be on-call, sometimes, you need to be right in the thick of things. So big, small, doesn't matter and that I'm passionate about, and I'll force to make sure that everyone is deeply connected to that. 

And number two is hiring great people whether it’s; again, your company is only as good as the people you have. So hiring great people and taking care of great people is the highest priority of any leader across big, large mall doesn't matter; all companies. So, for example, when I came in, hiring more people into Bolt we are growing fast, so we wanted to bring in a lot of great people. I spend a lot of time in hiring and meeting with our people, for example, in my first 90 days, I met with every single person in the engineering and the product organization, had a one-on-one with them as simple three questions on what's working well at Bolt? What's not working well? And what are they hoping that I'll be doing to help? 

Three questions to every single person involved in engineering and products, I enter my first 90 days and I did that north of 100 interviews in my first 90 days, to both sides of the world, you have to take care of your great people and understand the people and what they want, what's working, what's not working so you can fix them. And continue to bring in great people into the company and that to me, knowing the customer and having a great team are the two things I hold dear to me, it doesn't matter where I go.

Utsav Shah: Look, that makes a lot of sense to me but how do you [55:00] gauge the right people? How do you know somebody is good or not? Is there something in the interview you do or is this just a quality? You see, I don't know, I'm just curious, everybody talks about having great people, what does that mean?

Maju Kuruvilla: There are two aspects where I look for personally, when we look for hiring great people, one is the basic table stakes, which are operational excellence, their technical skills,  and all of that, which I think almost every company probably look for, which is great. But then there is the other side and this is where I will say beyond culture, I tend to look for people who are system thinkers, people who can think into it, people whenever they hear a problem, it's not just like, how do I solve this piece of the problem, but take a step back and look at, what's going on here. And what is the right way to solve it is maybe the solution is very different than what's obvious at the very beginning. 

And so people who can take a step back and look into and have that system thinking. And what that means is, truly solve the problem and sometimes not solving the problem you solve. But solving the original problem that even caused the problem, what you are seeing right now and so I tend to focus a lot during the interviews on things that like, what are some of the things they did? And I asked questions like, why did they do that? And why did that particular problem, the solution was the right one? How did they think that will solve whatever they're looking for? Because what I'm finding is that people can think more, can have that system level, an end-to-end, and end up solving innovative ways, than people just attack individual issues and solve them by themselves. 

And so I know, it's not that scientific way to think but it's a mindset, I have found that the people tend to create much resolving longstanding impact than most of the others.

Utsav Shah: Yes, I think that makes a lot of sense, systems thinking framework, thinking people can understand the problem more holistically, than looking at the smaller things. But yes, I think this was a lot of useful information and we're almost on time. Thank you so much for being a guest, I certainly feel I learned a lot about a company that is pretty much in a black box, sometimes from the outside. I had no idea about so many things, about how fulfillment works, check out, thank you so much.

Software at Scale
Software at Scale
Software at Scale is where we discuss the technical stories behind large software applications.