Q+A: Engineer Aaron Bell on How Target Put a Spin on Netflix’s Spinnaker

October 13, 2016 - Article reads in
Target logo + the Spinnaker logo

Ever wonder how a company like Netflix is able to stream a ludicrous amount of movies and shows over the Internet? (We’re talking more than 40 billion hours of streaming last year—that’s a lot of "House of Cards" and "Orange is the New Black!")

The answer is the cloud, a network of Internet computer servers that can be accessed by the public. Behind that Internet magic, there are powerful software delivery platform systems that allow developers to make changes and enhancements that keep those movies streaming smoothly.

Last year, the brainiacs over at Netflix brought their cloud-computing prowess to techies around the world with a new platform that Netflix dubbed Spinnaker. Two notable features: 1. It’s an open-source platform that’s available to other companies and web developers to re-wire, customize and improve to meet their needs. (Compare it to how Wikipedia works as an open-source encyclopedia.); 2. Spinnaker was built to work with multiple public clouds versus just one.

Target’s tech team recently adopted Spinnaker. We love it because it helps our ambitious developer teams make hundreds, even thousands, of code changes every day. That means we can more quickly update our website and mobile apps, making Target.com and our apps run faster and more reliably.

Nine members of Target's tech team who worked on the contribution to Spinnaker

Beyond that, our tech team (pictured above) scored another big win—we’re talking major nerd-out props—for building new functionality that enables Spinnaker to work with private clouds, including our own. And since Spinnaker is an open-source platform, this means Target’s contribution is now available to the greater tech community.

A Bullseye View sat down with Aaron Bell from Target’s platform engineering team (pictured above, bottom row, third from left) to hear a little more about the work.

What challenges did the Target tech team face before deciding to use Spinnaker?
Our developers and engineers are among the smartest people we’ve got working at Target. Before Spinnaker, however, they weren’t able to do their jobs as quickly as we needed them to. That’s because our old system wasn’t cloud-agnostic, meaning it only allowed us to make updates, or “deploy,” to a single cloud provider. We needed a more nimble solution, and began evaluating various tools that would let us deploy to multiple cloud providers, both public and private.

We chose Spinnaker because it gave us the option to essentially build a customized platform. After our contributions, the team can now write, produce, test and deploy their code to multiple clouds, or production environments, in real time, positively impacting our speed and stability.

Does the open-source adoption and development represent a shift in how Target’s technology team works?
Yes. Our CIO, Mike McNamara, set the expectation early on that he’d much rather empower Target’s own talented engineers to deploy and contribute to open source software than rely on the commercial software industry. That’s a huge shift for a Fortune 50 CIO, and one cheered by everyone at my level. It’s a clear investment in people over products.

What most excites you about this work?
A lot! For starters, our adoption of Spinnaker has attracted more talent. Engineers know Spinnaker, and when they hear that we’re not only using it, but that we’re also contributing upstream to it, it says something about our culture and the opportunities here. 

It’s also awesome for us to be working closely with teams at Netflix and Google who regularly perform peer reviews on all of our customizations. Anyone who knows a software developer knows that building and creating alongside—and for—the larger tech community is a huge thrill. That’s what we get to do now, every day.

What are some of the benefits Target has already seen as a result of this change?
We see it as giving us the best of all worlds: The business benefits from a newfound tech stability, while our website and apps work better for our guests. And, of course, our software engineers are loving it. Not only do we now have the capacity to turn things around and upgrade systems at breakneck speed, but we did it by contributing something meaningful back to the tech community.

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