Every so often, a fundamental shift takes place in business technology, such as the rise of SaaS, the emergence of hyperscaler public cloud platforms, or the adoption of CI/CD and DevOps in software development. There's a particular buzz in the air when innovators and early adopters first come together in conferences devoted to these emerging shifts. I felt that buzz last week in London at the first MACH One conference. It was particularly striking that global brands are already among the early adopters, with speakers at the event from companies including Kraft Heinz, LEGO and Mars, along with retail chains Asda, Costa Coffee, Crate and Barrel, Primark and River Island, among others.
MACH stands for Microservices based, API-first, Cloud-native SaaS and Headless — four key characteristics of a more agile, composable way of building websites, e-commerce stores and other digital experiences that first emerged around 2015, espoused by headless content and commerce vendors such as Amplience, BigCommerce, Commercetools, Contentful, Contentstack, FluentCommerce, Netlify and others.
Two years ago, a group of vendors and consultants in the space founded the MACH Alliance to bring together advocates of this digital-native architecture. Last week saw its first in-person conference, with a speaker line-up from leading retailers and consumer brands that demonstrates how rapidly this architecture has advanced into mainstream adoption in these few short years. Going MACH is now becoming a commercial imperative, as Niall Edwards, Vice-President of Marketing & Channels Technology, LEGO Group, told attendees:
MACH matters because business is technology ... You have to harness the power of technology to make your business function. You can't ignore the change in technology, you can't ignore the innovations that are out there, because your competitors will be, other brands will be, scale-up startups will be. People will be stepping into your space and doing things in a more innovative way. So you have to care about technology, and you have to care about what technology can do for your business.
This was the first time that several hundred practitioners from all over the world were able to come together and compare notes about what they've been able to achieve with this new technology framework, which is replacing incumbent platforms from e-commerce and marketing leaders including Adobe, Oracle and Salesforce. I was there as a judge in the inaugural MACH Awards and the awards submissions give a flavor of the impressive results enterprises are seeing — major projects delivered on time and on budget, including one global e-commerce retailer's site that was built and launched in eight weeks for its new owners; zero downtime at peak periods, compared to frequent failures with previous platforms; notable increases in traffic, revenue, return visits, dwell time, order value and conversion rates; flexibility to introduce new features and functions in days or weeks rather than months with previous platforms; huge reductions in the time taken to onboard new clients, add new items, deliver new campaigns and promotions, or resolve customer care issues.
This was a private event, with no formal media presence, so I can only quote from a select few presentations and interviews that were on the record. I'll be writing about some of these in more detail later on. Andreas Westendorpf, CTO of fast-growing mattress company Emma Sleep emphasizes the agility of the MACH architecture:
We're switching because the cost of opportunity, [of] not doing business development in an agile way, like we couldn't do before, is just so intensively higher than any cost we would spend on a new system, or any system.
Many of these early adopters are also finding their new platforms cost less to maintain and operate than their previous systems. Wolford, the upmarket women's tights and bodywear brand, is rolling out a new MACH solution called WolfordX built around the Commercetools headless commerce platform. Rainer Knapp, Global Director IT & Digital, says:
At the end of the day, from the operational cost perspective, WolfordX is cheaper than what we are running today. Therefore, not only from the functional side, also from the financial side, it makes a lot of sense.
In addition to speed, agility and cost benefits, these early adopters also praise the reliability and scalability of MACH. The LEGO.com site relaunched on a MACH architecture in 2018, replacing the previous site built on Oracle ATG. LEGO's Edwards says:
There is probably no way that we would have survived the massive scale in web orders that we had during COVID, if we hadn't done this.
Taking back control
In his presentation, Edwards particularly emphasizes the speed of getting to value, along with resource efficiency and "taking back control from software vendors." He elaborates on this last point:
Your users, your customers, your consumers, your shoppers, whoever it might be, are actually getting the service that they need, because you're building it in a way that suits them, rather than the way a vendor thought ... Fundamentally, it means you've got a business that's more flexible, that you're more in control of, and you can deliver what your customer needs.
But he also sounds a note of caution, explaining that this new architecture forces organizations to change the way they buy software. The old style of RFP, in which the buyer lists all the features and functions they require, doesn't work for a model where one of the key requirements is agility to change over time. He explains:
These platforms ... are selling a different notion. They're not selling a platform or capabilities, they're selling a way of doing something, and we needed to fill in the gaps. So actually, what we did was, we did our RFP based on principles. We did it based on fit — how does your organization and our organization come together?
He also believes the software industry needs to do something to counteract the way that costs escalate when buying multiple different services on a consumption-based pricing model. He elaborates:
The problem is, over time you go, 'Well, we'll have that component, and we'll build that composable bit, and we'll have that, and we'll use this, and we'll use this.' And suddenly, the cost has actually scaled to a slightly uncomfortable place where, yes, you're paying for what you use, but you're paying for so many things that it's become quite prohibitive.
We talk about composable commerce, we talk about composable platforms, but we're still paying in a fairly monolithic way.
One of the biggest issues for this nascent industry remains a lack of mainstream awareness of what MACH is. In a Slido poll of the audience, 37% cited lack of board buy-in ("Board doesn't get it") as the biggest challenge in moving to a more agile stack, with "Lack of strategy" just behind on 33%. Edwards says that technologists too often make the mistake of focusing on the technology characteristics rather than the business impact. He advises:
That's the bit that people get wrong. Because they go in talking about a platform change, they go in talking about uptime and resilience, rather than talking about risk prevention or flexibility or speed to change ... [Make] sure that you really embrace the idea of talking about why you're doing this, not what you're doing.
It's important also to bear in mind the impact of changing to a more composable technology platform on how the business itself operates. Enabling more omnichannel processes means that store staff may have to learn how to handle online order queries; speeding the time it takes to add new items or launch campaigns may change established work patterns for buyers and marketers; greater agility will acclerate the pace of change. Neha Sampat, CEO of Contentstack, one of the MACH Alliance's founder members, says:
One of the key principles of adopting composable architectures is understanding that this isn't just a tech decision, it's a mindset shift in your organization, and incentive structures might have to change or you may have to empower people to make different levels of decisions than they have access to now. You may have to empower them to work differently.
The time to act is now, she adds, endorsing Edwards' view that brands must adopt this next generation of technology. Her advice:
What are you leaving on the table by not changing? ... It's happening at mainstream brands now. We've gone from early adopter to at least early majority in adoption. If they don't make a change, they're going to be left behind.
The value of events like MACH One is that they help to raise that mainstream awareness. They also give individual practitioners the assurance that they are part of a community in which others share their challenges and experiences. The importance of that is not to be underestimated. When describing what he would have done differently, Edwards recalls how difficult it was to stay confident that his team was doing the right thing. He explains:
I would have had a lot more faith. We were doing something that seemed crazy. Loads of people told us it was stupid. Why would the LEGO Group buy a platform that's not been used in that scale before? And I was doubtful, and I shouldn't have been. It was the right thing to do. So stick with your convictions.
The MACH One event forcefully reminded me of the early days when cloud computing first started to break through into the mainstream, when most established vendors still didn't get it and few business leaders really appreciated its importance. The growing sense of community among the early adopters was crucial for building confidence and taking the message out to the world. I've followed the MACH Alliance's journey since its inception because I share its members' confidence that this new architecture will take hold and become mainstream. Indeed, I would argue that it's part of a broader move to what I call Tierless Architecture across all types of enterprise application, not just e-commerce and content. But it's not surprising to see consumer brands and retailers being among the earliest adopters, given the pace of change their industries are currently dealing with.
The work of the MACH Alliance has been invaluable in providing a rallying point for vendors and early adopters and enabling a community where they can share their experiences. That work continues to expand, with yesterday's announcement that it has appointed its first Managing Director, deepening the expertise at the top of the organization. We'll continue to track its progress, and I'll have more from last week's event over the next week or two from those interviews and sessions that I'm able to write up.