QUIRKY ENGINEERING JOBS… A day in the life of: Head of innovation, Net-a-porter
In a new Telegraph Jobs series looking at quirky engineering jobs, James Christian, head of innovation at fashion retail site Net-a-porter explains how becoming a software engineer has led to one of the coolest jobs going.
What do you do exactly?
I lead the innovations team at Net-a-porter to transform ideas and concepts into new prototypes and products.
I also help identify business opportunities that technology can offer and work on new ways to entice customers. I spend time meeting technology companies to try out the latest gadgets and platforms that might lead to new customer experiences. I’m part of an IT team of 120 staff, including web designers and developers.
What's your technical/ engineering background?
I studied computer science at Cardiff University. I then took a job as a software engineer for Yes Television, where I was involved in one of the first Internet Protocol TV (IPTV) deployments.
This led me to specialise in enterprise applications development and, over the years, I’ve managed development teams on a range of high-profile projects, from digital TV content delivery through to public-facing, high traffic e-commerce sites.
How did you get into software development?
I am fascinated by technology and spent my youth gaming and experimenting with music technology. When it came to thinking about a career, I thought that a computer science degree would allow me to indulge my passion for technology and would also help me to keep my options open in terms of a career, as technology plays such an important role across many industries.
How did you land a job at Net-a-porter?
I was working for a large research and development department before joining Net-a-porter. While the work was interesting, it could take months or even years for a concept to come into production. Net-a-porter releases software updates every few weeks so your efforts make an impact on the business really quickly.
When I was interviewed for the role, I explained that my interest was in seeing projects through from the creation to delivery phase, and I was keen to work with creative people to bring innovative ideas to the customer.
I think this helped persuade them that I would fit in well with the culture of technical innovation and teamwork that drives our success. I’ve worked closely with marketing, editorial, creative and retailing teams, as well as the business owners, ever since.
What did you do to make your application stand out?
Jobs in software development are competitive and Net-a-porter receives a lot of applications. That said, we are looking to double our IT team over the next year so there’s plenty of opportunity for the right people to come on board. A lot of people are surprised that we have such a large in-house IT team but technology is the backbone of the success of the business.
When I applied for the role, my experience in interactive TV and my passion for web technology meant I was well-placed to join. I’ve since helped the business to create Net-a-porter TV for Google TV, an innovative interactive experience that allows visitors to shop for their favourite designers as they browse video content created by us.
What do you enjoy most about your job?
Net-a-porter’s highly creative team are some of the best in the business; so bringing all of the visions and concepts to life is probably the most rewarding. I’ve developed projects that range from very design-led interactive iPad magazines to completely new shopping sites. All the varied business expertise is in-house, so it’s always fascinating to sit with them and get an insight in to their daily challenges; from the buyers at the fashion shows through to the operational experts in our warehouses.
Our (very stylish!) offices are situated above the Westfield Shopping Centre in West London. Along with the very generous staff discount, I need to be extremely disciplined not to spend all my salary on impulse purchases.
What's a typical day like?
The day starts with a daily ‘scrum’ where everyone associated to a project team (including the business owner) shares their daily progress and plans for the day ahead. This is also an opportunity to flag up a great approach to a problem or if you need some help.
We then break out in to smaller groups to develop creative concepts with designers and user experience experts, sketch up technical designs on our forest of whiteboards and get stuck in to developing the code together.
One thing that I think is great is that new starters get to choose what operating system they want to work with - Mac OSX, Linux or Windows.
Describe one of the best days you've had at work.
I’ve had many great days here, but nothing beats the buzz in the office on launch day of a new site or product.
The launch of discount designer fashion outlet, The Outnet, was the culmination of a massive development effort and I was really proud of my team’s unwavering dedication to creating a quality site. When the first order appeared on our live displays the atmosphere was ecstatic - with party poppers and blaring air horns. I don’t think I’ll ever forget Net-a-porter founder Natalie Massenet pushing the tea-trolley around the development team as we made last-minute tweaks before launch.
Launching the first weekly fashion iPad magazine and T-commerce experience on Google TV were also very rewarding as we felt we had created extremely innovative products that offered new and exciting ways for users to interact with us. We needed to learn and anticipate user expectation before we even had the devices so we collaborated closely with design and User Experience to create cardboard prototypes of iPads to user-test our concepts. The team massively appreciated the immediate and overwhelmingly positive customer feedback through social media and email.
What's it like working in the fashion and retail sector? Do you have to care about shoes and handbags to succeed?
Net-a-porter is as much a technology business as it is a fashion retailer so I feel very comfortable in the environment. I’m not a fashionista but with shopping and online media being an experience that we can all relate to, I can appreciate the needs of our customers. As developers we trust in the fashion expertise within the business and learn from our customer insight teams what our customers’ actually find useful and compelling.
Do you get out much or is it an office-based job?
As part of my role involves working closely with external tech development teams, I do get a chance to head out the office and meet people. I was also lucky enough to present our Google TV application at their recent developer conference in San Francisco, which was a nice chance to meet people from the industry and visit the States.
What career advice would you give to anyone looking to work in this sector?
To anyone wanting to take a role in software development within the retail industry, I’d recommend looking for opportunities with companies where technology is at the core of what they do; not just a back-office function.
When applying for a role make sure your computer science fundamentals are on show and demonstrate a real passion for developing useful, beautiful solutions – not just software.
What are the related jobs in this sector?
Whilst “head of Innovation” is quite an uncommon job title, it is really encouraging to see other companies establishing “labs” teams. It reflects the important role R&D plays in keeping your brand at the forefront of product innovation and relevancy to your customers. In a similar role, digital agencies also seem to be positioning “technologists” as core to concept development as they identify technical and data-insight opportunities.
Whilst I’m not sure there is a well-defined career path to this kind of role, I think people with a passion for great design and user experiences matched with computer science and software development skills are well suited.