Online retail giant, bol, hikes productivity with Slack

“As bol’s Director of Engineering, I’m focused on maximizing and empowering our IT teams, and Slack has increased our overall employee happiness and productivity.”

Mirko van EdeDirector of Engineering, Bol

bol is one of the largest ecommerce platforms in the Netherlands and Belgium, serving more than 13 million active customers and bringing in a revenue of €5.5 billion each year. 

But to continually build and maintain its position, the business needs to innovate, invest in the customer experience, and compete intelligently with other ecommerce giants as well as brick-and-mortar retailers. For that, bol needs a well-oiled IT machine, which is why the company has invested in Slack. 

“I fell in love with Slack because they improve things all the time, and if there’s something they don’t have, we can build it inside the platform,” explains Craig Newton, Engineer at bol. “I am so used to Slack other tools now feel strange to me.”

“It’s really nice to not have to use any external tools for collaboration.”

Craig NewtonEngineer, bol

Bringing everyone together 

bol’s IT leadership chose Slack Enterprise Grid without much hesitation. “For me, it’s a no-brainer,” comments Evan Reeves, Engineering Manager at bol. “Slack is a tool I don’t have to think about. It feels very natural and it’s easy for me to be productive. But what I want to emphasize is how it’s bringing us together. We have a central hub of communication instead of fragmented conversations in multiple platforms.” 

Around 1,700 bol engineers and developers use Slack and rely on hundreds of Slack channels. It allows the team to reach the right people at the right time, which is crucial for the type of work the department does. After all, very few conversations or ideas can be answered simply in one email by one person. “This works very well, especially with our managers because they all have busy calendars and it’s very difficult to get 15 people in a room together,” says Reeves.

The Slack-created collaborative approach is also contributing to a more productive and responsive environment for employees. Anastasija Efremovska, Platform Engineer on the FinOps team at bol is grateful for the responsiveness brought on by Slack. “We get an instant reaction to our communications,” she says. “We don’t have to wait for people to see a dashboard or reply to an email. Slack has created a lot of instant reactions.”

To add to this new connected environment, Reeves is relying on Canvas to create a company newsletter. He can see exactly what’s happening on his teams, what managerial processes need to be communicated to the wider audience, and what should be expected in the future. “This is going to be massively helpful because we only have quarterly meetings,” he says. “We’ll be able to share up-to-date information and get more interactivity. There is even going to be a workflow for feedback on the newsletter.”

Yvonne Bruggink, Software Engineer, also uses Canvas to create a separate newsletter for her FinOps team because the layout options help with information processing and presentation. “Before, I did it via email,” she says. “I tried to make a template, but it was hard to create a good layout. Now, I can focus on the content and, in just a few clicks, I have a newsletter that’s visually impactful and easy to read.”

Single pane of glass

The company’s use of Canvas stretches further than helping design a newsletter, it’s simplifying everyday tasks. For Newton’s continuous integration/continuous delivery (CI/CD) team, meeting preparation and follow-ups no longer require the use of SharePoint, Excel, or email. Now, topics for discussion, task management, and comments are gathered in one place. 

But Newton also relies on the tool for onboarding alerts and metrics, with a dropdown menu in the relevant channels helping locate all the discussions and the history of each alert. “It’s really nice to not have to use any external tools for collaboration,” he says. “And I’m no longer fighting to set up privileges for other solutions all the time.”

Creating a more focused environment is not only helping employees but the department at large. Istvan Jordaan, Senior Product Manager at bol, believes that many companies struggle with multiple sources of truth diluting their perception of what’s happening. Information is fragmented, with only some people getting access to its various parts. “Slack eliminates that,” he says. “And you can send and receive more focused communications based on all the channels that are available. This makes a very big difference.”

All this contributes to a single-pane-of-glass approach that helps IT see everything that’s happening in their team. With Slack, there is no need to switch between tools and it’s easier to contribute, collaborate, and even open-source projects as well as triage emergencies. What’s more, any tasks, tickets, or solutions are easy to find. “Picking up a Jira ticket, I can see when it was mentioned in a Slack channel and its history,” says Newton. “And if I want to peer review or code with somebody, I can just bring them into a Huddle and we can start going from there. In terms of productivity, it’s great.”

The value of this centralization is extended by various integrations that help with incident management, including Opsgenie, Grafana, and Nagios, posting to the relevant channels. Support engineers can triage, work on tasks, and collaborate more easily. Additionally, the engineering teams have a second support channel on Slack, where an engineer on duty (EoD) can pick anything up. This is being further automated with bots that help notify the right EoD.

“Bringing everyone together in this one gravity well is great. I want more of it and I want more to happen there.”

Evan ReevesEngineering Manager, bol

Making things smoother with the right tools

The EoD chatbot was built in-house because, with bol’s various security requirements, firewalls, and country-specific solutions, the engineering teams rely on Slack’s simplicity to build their own integrations and apps. 

For example, Jira is integrated via a webhook, which allows engineers to maintain the company’s firewall while linking the solution with Slack. The same is true for GitLab, where a socket mode allows for a connection from Slack through a proxy. Engineers at bol can find their own solutions to enable more Slack capabilities, with the perfect example of this ingenuity embodied by a hackathon project organized by Newton early on. It resulted in a proxy that enabled Slack communication and messaging in the first place. 

For Reeves, one of the most useful integrations made possible by the FinOps team is used for cloud billing. Team members subscribe to a Slack channel where they can be automatically informed if their cloud costs exceed the original forecasts. They are also notified if their costs are too low because this can be a sign of error. “It keeps me very cost aware,” says Reeves. “And it’s a great example of how we’re weaving information into Slack.” 

Sometimes, the little things make the biggest impact. For Newton, it’s the time savings when searching for information. “I’m not spending time trawling through emails trying to find who sent what and when,” he says. “Slack just makes it easy as a one-stop shop. It saves me hours a week.” In fact, having everything in one place and easy to find saves the team approximately 2,000 hours per year, a conservative estimate based on Slack adoption data, user surveys, and user interviews at Bol.

For Bruggink and Efremovska, the feature with the most impact is the threading model. “It lets us keep the discussion in focus,” Efremovska shares. “We can have discussions, but they’re all nicely containerized. And being able to tag on top of a channel the three most important links is really helpful. We get repeated questions all the time and this means we can avoid providing the same explanation.”

These benefits permeate the Slack environment and people’s everyday work lives. Jordaan summarizes the main value of the platform. “The power of Slack is that you’re not aware of it when you achieve good things. When a tool becomes ubiquitous, that’s a sign it’s a good tool. It’s deeply integrated into the way that we work and I don’t have to think twice about getting anything done.”

Increasing the pace

With Slack, the IT department is much more focused and productive. Every employee can contribute to shared tasks before and after meetings and everyone is informed and included in the relevant groups. 

“Without Slack, there would be a lot more noise and we would have a lot more meetings,” says Newton. “Now, it can just be a thread that we can tag and go back to if needed. For tying teams together, it’s great to have a conversation and our daily standup is always in Slack, no additional meetings are needed.”

bol has only been using Slack for a year and the team is looking forward to further developments, including a Jira Cloud integration and the official Jira Slack app, Workflows, more integrations and apps, data and analytics, as well as AI features. The team is also building an internal developer portal that will include consolidating every engineering diligence that requires their attention onto a single dashboard, further contributing to the single-pane-of glass approach. 

“Bringing everyone together in this one gravity well has been great,” concludes Reeves. “I want more of it and I want more to happen there. It will be awesome to get the rest of the organization in Slack.”