Au revoir NET-A-PORTER
Over ten years ago I got lost walking around Westfield London trying to find the NET-A-PORTER offices. The next day I had an interview with “some fashion company that sells expensive dresses”- as I then described it to my friends. It was the last of an exhausting run and I wanted to make sure I arrived on time.
I had moved to London the year before and to say I hated it was an understatement. I was at a small agency, I knew no one and as anyone who has lived in the city knows it can be a lonely place. Agency life never really suited me but it was the only type of work in the industry I had been exposed to. I wanted to own a project, I didn’t have time to learn anything new and I was miserable. I thought about to giving up on computers and London all together and buying a burger van with my friend. At the last minute my stubbornness kicked in, I didn’t want to see my move as a failure and applied for as many jobs as I could — I wanted to give London one more chance.
Walking into the NAP office was pretty intimidating, even more so as my current job was down to three people. I was greeted with warmth, kindness and support, something I had not experienced during my first year in London. The fear was immediately gone and from that moment I fell in love with the company that would be my home for the next ten years.
So when I say I’m leaving YNAP, it’s with a heavy heart. If you wouldn’t mind joining me for one last self indulgent swan song, I wanted to talk to you about ten memories from my ten years at the company.
10. Flash is dead
Flash being dead is now so mainstream it hit the front page of the BBC but this journey started more than a decade ago at NET-A-PORTER.
As anyone who worked with me over the last ten years no doubt heard, on repeat - “I was a Flash developer”. I had spent the last four years in different agencies creating advertisement campaigns, writing games and even complete websites purely in Flash. One of the big draws for me joining NET-A-PORTER was their use of the technology — in fact it was written in my job description.
So it came as quite a shock in my first couple of weeks when Natalie Massenet (NAP founder) stood at the top of the stairs and announced the company was dropping support for the technology.
Our company’s USP was an online shoppable magazine, one that had to be created in three days and needed to have the layout flexibility of traditional print.
Apple deciding to drop support for Flash would prove to be the correct decision. But when you look at the web platform in 2010, Flash was the only way to give true rich interactive experiences cross browser.
Apple’s stance started an arms race for migrating certain types of content to the app store. I moved from Flash to play a small part in the new native iPad app team. We would release one of the first editorial apps on the market and the only shoppable one. It would go on to be shown at WWDC and win countless awards for its new approach to storytelling.
As the company began to localise content, magazine layouts could no longer be static; they needed to adapt. I would be lucky enough to lead the development of another iteration of The Edit, this time with the changed browser landscape we could now take advantage of all the web platform had to offer.
The magazine touched so many teams, I got to work with copywriters, art directors, designers, retouchers and photoshoot producers. It was sometimes a jostle for authority and deadlines could be quite manic but I enjoyed the pressure. I got to see and understand so many different roles at the company, it was during this time I made some of my closest friends.
9. Being a socialite
I have been lucky that in every place I’ve worked so far there have been Christmas parties but NAP took the social activities to a whole new level. We had the annual summer away day which started with an overview of where we had been and where we were going, followed by a BBQ and party.
The upcoming Christmas I would have not one but three parties; one for my team, the tech team as a whole and then the entire company. The company wide Christmas party was always black tie, or as the invite would say “Smart and Stylish”. I loved the chance to be with my teammates and to see everyone all dressed up — it was a great time for everyone to bond and put the year to bed. You might even get a drink poured by Natalie, who would often be found working behind the bar and on the dance floor later on.
These two parties would be the main social focus at NAP, but that was not all. There would be monthly drinks in the office, different sports team you could join and university-like societies, from singing in a choir to playing boardgames - all of it covered by the company.
As a sign of how important this was, Natalie and Mark (NAP CEO) would often be there to cheer you on. They were there when we rented a lower league football stadium for an annual Westfield vs Distribution Centre football match to raise money for Prostate Cancer UK and Natalie would later say watching the choir in concert was one of her proudest moments at NAP.
All of these things made
NET-A-PORTER consistently rank in the Times 100 Best companies to work for, it made the people at the company want to stay and others want to join. This culture meant you would get to know not only the people in your team but people from all over NAP, helping to produce an empathy model where everyone want to support the company and each other.
For me London was now not such a lonely place — from knowing no one I now had hundreds of new friends doing interesting things that would show me around the city.
Head of Social
During the merger The B.L.E.S.S (Be the best, Lead not follow, Exceed expectations, Service Starts with You, Smart and Stylish) social team was sidelined while the two companies tried to find their feet. Once the dust settled they asked people who were interested in joining a new committee to interview for voluntary roles. After missing out on the votes to join B.L.E.S.S, I thought this is my chance! I had an interview that was longer and more gruelling than the one that got me the job at NAP and after waiting a few months I found out I was the new Head of Social.
The first thing I realised was that this is going to be a lot of work so I asked my friend Minh to be my partner in crime. It would be a baptism of fire as our first event would be the company wide Christmas party.
While going offsite to sample food and drink options was fun, the thing I was most interested in was selecting the venue. We had our heart set on
The National History Museum and, while that caused us a lot of headaches, getting to see everyone dressed up partying under the whale ranks only second to launching Mr Porter as a career highlight!
After this party however the role became a lot trickier as our social budget was cut by over 95%. We could no longer afford to support any of the sports or societies and our parties would have to be held internally. However with a great team, Minh and I working that creative accounting we still managed to throw some good parties.
I loved being head of social, it was a great break from coding and I truly believe having a focus on people is as important as your roadmap and salary for retention. Getting together to throw out ideas like “let’s turn a meeting room into a giant ball pit”, “we could turn the office into Notting Hill Carnival” and “what about a ridable Christmas pudding”, and then being able to actually do them was the most dangerous and fun times I had at NAP.
8. Mark & Natalie
When I joined NAP we were less than 500 people compared to more than 5000 as I leave. On the day of my induction I was in a group of 30 newcomers, which was itself larger than anywhere I had previously worked. Even at a company that size which was growing rapidly, Natalie and Mark came to meet everyone and introduce themselves. I would feel their presence and influence from that day throughout my time at YNAP and I’m sure I’ll continue to do so throughout my career.
Mark Sebba - NET-A-PORTER CEO
My first summer party at The Hurlingham Club I was sitting out on the lawn having a BBQ with some friends and we had taken this new guy under our wing when Mark wonders over:
“Simon, Rik, Tim, Robin. I see you have met Gene, make sure you take care of him. He cost us a lot of money.”
While this story over the last ten years has probably warped in my mind and is almost certainly not what Mark said I do remember the feeling. Mark at that point was almost a mythical figure, like the primary school headmaster or the bank manager my mother would sometimes go to meet. I remember feeling like a celebrity when Mark knew all our names, such a small thing but one that has lasted to this day… also who was this Gene guy?
I was never senior enough to work with Mark on a daily basis but he was always there there walking the halls, smiling and waving but for a long time our professional paths never really crossed. Until one day when my desk phone rang, I looked at the caller ID “MARK SEBBA”. My first feeling was an instant, “fuck” while I searched my brain what could I have done that is so bad Mark Sebba was calling me?
I answered the phone nervously
“Hello Robin, how was your flight…”
We had recently acquired a company in China and I had been sent to their offices in Shanghai to help with localising our content. Mark called to ask if they looked after me, was the hotel nice and finally to book in a debrief once I was rested. Our professional encounters were limited but in this conversation alone I knew why people looked on him so fondly.
Sadly in 2018 Mark passed away. A real moment of sadness for anyone who was lucky enough to have been at NAP while he was there. I attended his funeral as did hundreds of other past and present Nappers — so many in fact most couldn’t fit inside the building. They had speakers outside so you could hear the service and one eulogy really stuck with me.
A woman told a story of how she got in the lift at the end of the day when Mark got in with her and as always, he wanted to know more about her.
“So what do you do?”
“Oh, I’m just an intern”
“Don’t say you’re just an intern… you’re the backbone of the company”
Mark had time, respect and a friendly face for everyone at
NET-A-PORTER and he always made people feel like they worked with him, never for him.
Natalie Massenet - NET-A-PORTER Founder
Whatever happened or happens with NET-A-PORTER whenever I hear its name I will forever think of Natalie. While Mark was more in the background Natalie was always front and centre, our Mick Jagger, our Debbie Harry. She was fun with a sense of energy, excitement and passion that was infectious. She would beam with pride over the company’s achievements but it was ours, she never claimed it as hers.
I think at successful startups the founders are trying to solve a problem they’ve encountered. Trying to execute their vision can be hard because you are trying to create something that only exists in their mind’s eye. It can often feel like trying to guess a number someone is thinking of, without even knowing what the range is. Natalie made that process much easier with a clear understanding of our customer and high expectation when it comes quality. It made her the best QA at the company because she not only knew the tone of voice, branding and art direction she wanted but she also caught bugs like no one else.
I think when I started my career I was guilty of having a “that will do” attitude, or “no one will notice”. Natalie’s insistence that we can do better, while it could result in frustration and late nights, started to become part of my work ethos. I was beginning to understand what NAP was trying to do, we were not just selling clothes, we were selling an experience, digital craftsmanship and a lifestyle. If we were going to get people to spend tens of thousands on our website then we needed to earn their trust and every cut corner eroded that. We needed to ensure every part of the user journey was as smooth as possible.
My attitude changed, “that will do” was no longer good enough and even if no one saw the corners cut, I would know and knew we could do better, not only for our customers but for pride in our work. After Natalie left I really felt a responsibility to keep this alive. I remember the frustration I used to feel working late on what seemed like insignificant details, and I’m sure I went on to inflict the same frustration on others when asking, can we do better?
A few years ago the tech team moved into The Tech Hub, a purposely designed space for the team. It’s nice, it’s big and open with more breakout space and while I personally prefer our Westfield HQ, I was excited to explore. However when looking around I noticed the meeting rooms had inconsistent kerning and weight fonts for the room numbers. I raised my concerns but was dismissed with “no one will notice”. I felt aggrieved that everything I had learned no longer seemed to matter to the company. Every time I passed a meeting room I would mutter to myself
“Natalie would never have stood for this”
I have no idea what Natalie would really have thought about those meeting room numbers, I like to think she would have agreed with me, but that’s not what is really important. It’s what was instilled in me and the company, we should take pride in the smallest of details because they are all as important as each other in building our brand.
The passing of Steve Jobs showed companies can continue to grow and be successful without their founders but you can’t help feel there is also something missing at Apple with each product release. NET-A-PORTER may continue to grow, be more successful and make lots of money but since Natalie left there is also something missing. While you can still find pockets of it, without her leading the company NAP ultimately lost its heart and with it, its focus on delighting customers and recognising its staff.
7. Black Friday Down
Ok, The big one, probably my career defining moment… I might need to pour a stiff drink for this. In a previous post, Solving a problem like routing I talked about the longest outage in NET-A-PORTER, Mr Porter and The Outnet’s history.
What I didn’t mention was…
I caused it.
M. Night Shyamalan!
However after 6 plus years I can finally say; “It was not entirely my fault”. I merely pushed over the first domino that set off a chain reaction taking down all three websites.
On sale days there would be a core team that started at 4am, a collection of people who had the autonomy to make any decisions necessary to make the day run smoothly. This sale day around 10am when traffic was peaking I started seeing some issues causing errors, I wanted to make a simple change to allow an application to bring up more instances. Bad decision… Unbeknownst to me an application downstream was no longer stateless and I just opened up thousands of additional requests per second to a service that made ten plus subsequent calls to our on-premise database.
The next ten seconds happened in an instance and at the same time at a glacial pace. I watched our real time errors fly up and looked across at Angelo our SysAdmin as I heard him say, “what the fuck just happened, I’m locked out of the data centre”. After another unknowable duration of time the Heads of Tech for The Outnet and Mr Porter walked in the room, all sites down.
Everyone was as always unbelievably supportive, telling me their own war stories, fetching me meals and consoling me. At the time it was just white noise while I looked on in horror, wanting the ground to swallow me up with a mixture of wanting to cry and to be sick. I’m grateful to everyone who supported me on the day but mostly that they also gave up their own time and worked basically 72 hours straight to get the websites up and running again.
Once we had the website back, after countless other components were taken out and patched, the team was determined to not let something like that happen again. We needed to understand new pieces of our architecture better and we needed improved observability.
In what I think is the best technical leadership since I’ve been at the company Hugh Fahy our then CIO let us play wargames on the live website over a weekend. We were separated into Red Vs Blue hats — on Saturday Blue had to try and take the live site down while Red had to monitor and protect it. Sunday we swapped over, the winner being who could take the site down. It was great fun and a huge opportunity to learn how our site behaves under certain conditions, improve the monitoring and the stability of our site.
I came out of the incident with a completely different outlook and it made me the engineer I am today — technically it was a massive learning experience. Emotionally however I took the outage on my shoulders, the thought that I let the team and the company down haunted me for a long time. I wanted to repay the damage I felt I caused, and the attempt to rectify my mistake resulted in me experiencing massive burnout that took me years to get over.
6. Reinventing fashion classics
Last year I wrote about the Launching Mr Porter in 2011 for YNAPs 20th anniversary. A moment that still ranks as number one in my career for sense of accomplishment.
It was an incredible feeling to see Mr Porter launch to the public and watch those first orders come in. During that time I was again working on editorial content as web developer but in 2018 I got to relaunch Mr Porter, not just writing code but also as a technical lead and architect of the new frontend platform that would later go on to power not only The Outnet but also NET-A-PORTER.
- We moved from a monolith running in our own physical data centres to a collection of Microservices running inside an Istio mesh in Kubernetes.
- Our builds which were often permanently red, taking hours, requiring manual QA moved to 10 minute builds including cross browser automation run on every pull request.
- Releases went from multiple hour manual deployments to seconds, deploying semantically versioned images using GitOps, you can read more about that in my post Beyond GitOps.
I’m really proud of what we have achieved as a team and while there is still plenty of room for improvement, we have a solid base to develop, deploy, monitor and iterate.
5. The merger
The only constant at NAP since I’ve been there is change, owners, leadership, team structure and roadmaps all can change at the drop of a hat, however the communication around these changes can be mixed. There is a phrase at the company, RDD, Rumour Driven Development because if official comms go out, everyone has already heard a version of it on the grapevine. So when the merger happened it was a shock that it came to most as a complete surprise. At the time I hadn’t heard of YOOX then the next thing I knew we had merged, we were going public and would be traded on the Italian stock exchange under YNAP.
Over that weekend huge speakers had been installed all over the office and by Monday morning someone was sitting on a purpose built stage telling us what was going to happen next. NET-A-PORTER had always celebrated its people and the fact company was created by everyone who worked there equally but from that Monday the message would become YOOX NET-A-PORTER was the invention and success of one person.
The next few years would be a power struggle between the two (former) companies while it was decided who was best placed to run what department. The result would be a huge loss of talent, early joiners and knowledge, teams were isolated being left to figure out a multi-billion pound merger amongst themselves often without leadership or direction. This resulted in more people leaving creating a huge vacuum where both companies would lose their identity while trying still to create a new one.
You can read the serialized drama of what happened on The Business of Fashion. From the outside it reads like an exciting thriller and while I often wonder who in Hollywood might be cast to play me for the movie adaptation, the reality of being there at the time was a lot less fun and later reading what happened behind the scenes quite upsetting.
4. Don’t you know who I am, I’m internet famous
When I joined NAP I felt like I was pretty confident until my first company hackathon, in fact my first ever hackathon. I got up to talk about what I had built and felt this whole new sense of nausea.
Public speaking filled me with absolute dread. Yet leaving the company, I have been lucky enough to give talks around the world, been featured on Chrome developers channel, spoke on panels, been interviewed for magazines, run an internal meet up and finally it now seems part of my job description to give people’s leaving speeches.
I don’t have any new hot takes on how to do it, I just started doing it and over time found a voice.
I always took part in hack days, mainly because I liked making stupid things but I also took the opportunity to get more comfortable on stage. It took me a while but once I realised the crowd was just my friends the whole thing became less scary.
Working closely with Matthew Green and David Boddy we thought we had something interesting when it came to Web Components and Atomic Design. This would lead to my first external talk at Firefox’s office in London.
What really made me nervous was trying to remember a script, I would panic if I forgot something and I would find myself being semi-robotic. Doing talks with Matt and David my ad-lib off the cuff style was not encouraged but somewhat tolerated, which to be fair I understand, my not wanting to practise or “Fuck It, We’ll Do It Live” attitude was probably very frustrating.
“Only you have had this experience, you are the authority, tell the story the way you want it to be told”
This was some advice given to me by James Wyllie, something I would use when I was looking for my “style” of presenting. I wanted my tone to feel much more like a conversation. Each slide would be a kick off point, a short cue to talk about a subject, if I know the subject well enough things would just flow. Not trying to remember a script and no more trying to read long reams of text from powerpoint, just a single bullet point or a diagram then see where it takes me.
With experience this would take me to working with the Chrome team and them recording a web developer story at YNAP.
I was back to being scripted this time with the comms team approving what I was allowed to say in real time and a hungry crew waiting for me to get my lines right, needless to say, I don’t think this is the career for me. It was so much harder than I thought, my “style” meant every take being different, which didn’t help and maybe I had a few diva moments with the
poor comms team.
From here I would go on to speak at Google’s Polymer summit. I had at this point done a fair bit of speaking at events but nothing at this size, around 800 people in attendance and it was also being live streamed.
With an event this size it was obvious the fast and loose style was again not going to fly, with the change in approaches and seeing how good everyone else was, my nerves were shot on the day. Thankfully I had some great advice by another one of the speakers, Rob Dobson.
“No one out there is here to watch you fail, everyone is on your side”
I don’t really remember giving this talk, I can’t watch it, it brought back all my old fears of public speaking. At one point where I ask for water I’m just starting to have a panic attack and deciding if I can just walk off the stage or try to finish. I feel proud that I managed to get out on the other-side, the encouragement, feedback, friends I made and all I learned made it all worth it, I would do it again but I couldn’t say I enjoyed it.
The whole experience was vastly different to when I ran Tech Pub.
Tech Pub is the internal meet up I run at the YNAP Tech Hub, where we have multiple speakers who can talk about anything they want and we order in food and drinks from local suppliers. It would just be a great chance to hangout with everyone, get different teams talking and make some new pals.
After the social budgets were cut we needed to get creative so Tech Pub took over our Christmas Parties too. This was pre-covid times so people could still stomach a Pub Quiz although making it nearly four hours long might have been pushing it.
If you weren’t able to take part, here is a question from the round Frockbusters — you need to name the designer from the clue below.
Tech Pub is one of the things I’m most proud of at my time at YNAP, I really hope someone takes it on after I’ve left and makes it bigger, better and opens it to the public so I can come back and see what everyone is up to.
3. Don’t look at them, they’re famous famous
The rich and the famous go hand in hand with NAP and when your founder is the British Fashion Council Chairman it’s no surprise. NET-A-PORTER and Mr Porter have customers who have a lot of money and spend even more. Our EIPs have exclusive offers, experiences and even their own meeting rooms in our offices. After joining NAP my seven degrees of separation from Hollywood got a lot shorter yet here I am, still a software engineer…
There were two main ways the rich and famous could impact your working day. First, you might be responding to a call and realise you’re helping a professional footballer, Hollywood actress or a steel tycoon. Secondly, they might just be swanning around the office or using it to shoot a reality TV show. One morning you might get an email telling you there is going to be a couple of famous actresses in the office and you’re not to look at them or a certain politician is coming to the office so keep your political views to yourself.
The spiciest incident happened when a famous designer came to visit our office and the whole tech team and only the tech team was asked to leave. If this was not enough of an insult we had to use the fire escape — the company needed to ensure the star didn’t have a whiff they were ever in the same building as us nerds. Looking back it makes me laugh and I’m always under the impression it’s never at the celebrity’s request (by all reports in this incident the person in question is lovely) but someone at NAP worrying that someone in tech might make an audible Warhammer reference.
This legendary day goes down as one of the greatest in NAP history and couldn’t be missed it off the list. We arrived at work knowing we would be leaving early because there was a planned tube strike that day, little did we know the drama that would unfold.
At the time Westfield was extending their shopping centre into White City when they found an unexploded World War II bomb. For safety, Westfield security and the police decided to evacuate the entire shopping centre.
As we were evacuated and coming down the escalators I noticed a line of about a hundred six year olds waiting patiently for us to leave. I looked back over my shoulder to the people behind me, to my left at the nine hundred something Nappers leaving the building, then back to the children waiting…
“Did you see they evacuated us before those children?”
“yeah… it’s actually cold, should we get some breakfast”
“ok yeah, I know a nice place in Holland Park”
Before you could order your avocado on toast every pub in Holland Park was filled with Nappers drinking their Bloody Marys and Bellinis. Everyone was hanging out, chatting with different teams waiting to hear if we could go back to the office. After lunch they declared everything was safe and Westfield would soon be reopened, but with the tube strike imminent was there any point going back? People got into walking groups and headed in the direction of their homes, of course taking the scenic route and stopping off to put the world to rights every few hundred yards and in my group’s case there was also a stop off in Soho for some karaoke.
Like all the best nights out they are never planned, ask anyone who was there about “tube-strike-bomb-day” and they will spin you a yarn about this unofficial NET-A-PORTER holiday.
1. The people
It’s a now become almost cliche but since I joined the company it has always resoundingly been “the people” that keep the people at the company, maybe followed by the discount.
Being part of NET-A-PORTER was what I imagine being in the Freemasons is like, in fact we once held a Summer update at the Freemasons hall. You had this worldwide network of amazingly talented people you can call up if you need help with a project, recommendations of where you're travelling or even a place to stay. I have been to countless weddings, met many a new adopted niece or nephew and travelled the world all with the people I met at the company.
I arrived at NAP not knowing anyone in London and I leave with a whole new family, all thanks to the culture Mark, Natalie and everyone who walked through those doors helped to build.
Over and out
I appreciate that was a long and again self-indulgent trip down memory lane but I wanted you to see the company through my eyes and everything it offered me. NET-A-PORTER was always more than job and I have now been at the company as long as I was in secondary school and university combined. I leave without a golden watch, a football testimonial and without even the short lived yet coveted TEN-A-PORTER trophy. However I do leave with unforgettable experiences and endless opportunities, life long friends, a career I could never have imaged and most importantly the smug sense of satisfaction that it was the right decision to not buy that burger van.
In the last few years it has become impossible to recognise the company I joined in 2010. The office looks the same, the website has had a lick of paint but the values I loved have become lost and once again change is coming. The appointment of Geoffroy Lefebvre as CEO may signal a more hands on approach coming from Richemont, and with endless talk about FarFetch the company might become even larger, risking being more faceless and even less nimble. Yet change is needed and I feel a sense of excitement for the adjustment in course.
I love the company for everything it gave me but mainly I love the people, past and present. So while it was way above my pay grade on my last day I got to speak with Geoffroy and offered some advice. YNAP needs to start investing in its teams, communities and people again. Like before the merger Richemont are once again the majority share holders of YNAP and the company should follow Mark and Natalie’s lead to invest heavily into its people. It was this investment that took the company into The Times 100 Best companies to work for. Reintroducing investment in social, wellness, diversity & inclusion, charity, equipment and training will once again give people a sense of belonging, being part of something, attract talent and make people proud to be part of YOOX NET-A-PORTER.
So with that and this blog post, this is it, my final contribution, my time is up. I just want to say a huge thank you to everyone I’ve worked with at the company, for the opportunities you gave me, your advice, time, patience, laughs and the beers.
It’s been a blast, take it easy x
While I had a great experience at YNAP, I know many others that didn’t. My somewhat rose tinted post should not gloss over these points and for a wider breadth of experiences I recommend reading Glassdoor and Indeed.
If you are interested in working with me you can reach out to me at gullwing.io.