How do you ensure that thousands of associates distributed across the country have access to the most current handbook at all times – and ensure your legal team can seamlessly determine exactly what policy version was in place on any given date? In our new podcast, we’re talking about exactly how we did that for Macy’s, Inc. – and why the solution could easily be adapted for any client with a similar need.
Kat Jenkins: 00:00 Hello and welcome to Sanger and Eby’s brand new podcast. I am Kat Jenkins. I am your host and I have with me today for a tech talk, three of our tech team members. I have Mike Welch who is our chief technology officer and Seth Miller who is a senior developer and Jeff Webster, who is another of our senior developers. So thanks for being here today guys. Great. And I'd like since this is our first one, I'd like to just start by each of you introducing yourselves, tell me a little bit about you, your education and background, how you got interested in technology and Mike was, where's it going to start with you?
Mike Welch: 00:37 I'm Mike Welch. I'm the chief technology officer at Sanger & Eby. I've been with Sanger & Eby, I guess almost 20 years, just under 20 years. My background is I have a degree in mechanical engineering, believe it or not, from the University of Cincinnati. My background in computers started when I was a teenager just in high school learning how to a program actually over the summer and just have been, I guess fascinated with programming and computers my whole life.
Kat Jenkins: 01:09 and that sort of ties into a hobby that you have.
Mike Welch: 01:14 Yeah, I have a lot of different hobbies, but one of the more interesting ones is I race drones, so that's a little bit of where you controlled airplanes mixed with computers and software and tinkering and stuff like that. So when you race drones, you crash them and you have to fix them. And so it's a, it's a fun, challenging hobby.
Kat Jenkins: 01:36 Fantastic. And tell me what you like about Sanger & Eby.
Mike Welch: 01:40 When I like about Sanger & Eby is the fact that in working with our clients they come to us with problems and then our job is to kind of, to come up with a solution and, and trying to find the most effective solution that works within their scope and budget but also is easy to use and intuitive and is going to give them a long-term return on their investment.
Kat Jenkins: 02:10 Fantastic. Thanks Seth. Tell me a little bit about yourself.
Seth Miller: 02:16 Absolutely. I'm a Cincinnati native, been here my whole life. I went to UC for computer science and I have since graduated and been working at Sanger and Eby for about 10 years. Ten years now. I can't believe it's been 10 years.
Kat Jenkins: I know, right? Time flies.
Mike Welch: 02:34 Well that's because he started when I think he was like 17. So he's still looks the same.
Seth Miller: 02:38 Yeah, at 18, but close enough. Yeah.
Kat Jenkins: And so what do you do for fun?
Seth Miller: 02:45 I like to work on bicycles, like I'll restore vintage bicycles, newer bicycles. I like to tear them down and put them back together again. It's just really nice to have some sort of mechanical hobby where I get to build something really good, building a thing.
Kat Jenkins: And bikes played a big part in an adventure you had not too long ago.
Seth Miller: Yeah, just last year. We set off very optimistically on a trip across the United States of America, my wife and I on bicycles. We made it some of the way and then decided it wasn't quite for us. Roads were very dangerous and we weren't having as much fun as we wanted to. So we ended up just driving to the places and biking at each place across the country, and that turned out to be a wonderful summer.
Kat Jenkins: It sounds like a great practical solution.
Seth Miller: Absolutely. It was.
Kat Jenkins: Tell me what you like about what you do at Sanger & Eby.
Seth Miller: I like to be able to solve problems in creative ways and there's also great satisfaction and building a thing and having it live out there in the world. And so in solves people's problems, uh, much like my hobby of bicycling. I like to be able to like make a thing. It’s fantastic for me.
Jeff Webster: 04:04 I am also a Cincinnati native that has lived here my entire life. In northern Kentucky. More specifically, I went to University of Cincinnati just like Mike and Seth. I graduated with a bachelor's in computer science and not like Mike and Seth, I've kind of been around Cincinnati in several jobs. I've worked at places like Fifth Third and Macy’s and Total Quality Logistics. But I've lasted here at Sanger & Eby longer than I've lasted it any job at all. So that, that's, that's pretty cool. It's pretty cool.
Kat Jenkins: And what do you do for fun?
Jeff Webster: I have a lot of nerdy game hobbies. Basically on a weekly basis I play a card game called Magic the Gathering and also I like to stream on Twitch TV, playing video games. And on top of that I also liked to write and record music. I kind of have a lot of hobbies, almost too many. But I like to stay active. I like to keep in contact with friends and, and, and, and keep in contact with all kinds of people that I've met through all of my hobbies and it's really nice.
Kat Jenkins: 05:08 What do you like about what you do at Sanger & Eby?
Jeff Webster: Well, like I said, it's a chance to be creative and I like actually working with the designers because a lot of the time, when you've been doing software development and web development for, for over 10 years now you kind of, you kind of know that you can do all these things technically, but I don't exactly have the most aesthetic of eyes and so it's nice to get a designer in, you know, get in touch with a designer who can make something look great and then I can make it work. And naturally I just like solving puzzles and, and really solving problems for clients and coding and doing a really intense integrations with all their different systems. It's like solving puzzles. It's how you can get something to work in the best way possible.
Kat Jenkins: 05:58 And so solving puzzles and solving problems leads into what we're going to be talking about today, which is one of the custom applications that we've developed for Macy’s inc. And that application is called EMAG, which is an online magazine, if you will, for a Macy’s associates across the United States and in other territories. So it's for the executives, it's for store associates, it's for people in the warehouse and distribution centers and Macy’s came to us because they were having a significant challenge in getting information to all of these people in a meaningful way. And so, Mike, I know that you were central to coming up with a solution for this. So just tell us a little bit about how we approached it.
Mike Welch: 06:43 Well, the, the issue is that Macy’s has a number of different employees that have different policies that apply to them this policy may apply to only fulltime employees. This policy may apply to only part-time employees. There are some policies that are specific to a location because of you know, maybe parking in a specific area of New York. This policy applies to them or, or laws in California which are very specific. Yeah. Yeah. So there's some policies that are very specific, but they still need the ability to kind of track all of the, all of the policies that apply to one individual employee at any given time. So they came to us because the, the antiquated system they were using was based on SharePoint and they were having a lot of problems keeping it up-to-date tracking when something was published, when something was unpublished but then also making it available to all of their employees across the country. So they, they knew that they wanted to make it responsive, they wanted to make it mobile-friendly, so they wanted, they wanted their employees to be able to on their mobile phone, be able to log in and see the policies that apply to them and make it very easy to use on a mobile, on a, on a, on a phone, on a tablet or a desktop.
Kat Jenkins: 08:16 And that's really important because so many of Macy’s employees only have access to the internet through their mobile devices. And I know that a lot of the original site not only was in SharePoint but also was in Flash.
Mike Welch: 08:27 Yes, there were, there were some aspects of the system that we replaced had pieces that were done in SharePoint, but then it also had some pieces that were, were done in Flash, there were small little animations that really didn't serve any purpose other than like, I guess the designer thought it was kind of like eye candy. They were cute, they were kind of cute at the time, but what happens to that is over a couple of years they really dated and certainly for making the site responsive and available on iPhones. Flash wasn't gonna work. So that really had to be removed and stripped out
Kat Jenkins: 09:07 …And weren’t there some issues with it being available on the public internet?
Mike Welch: 09:12 Yes. The hosting provider and the developers didn't really set it up quite properly, because this is not public information, it is certainly information that's geared just towards employees. So it should be secure, it should be behind a login. Any traffic to it should be using SSL. So there were several other technical problems that we had to overcome when, when we built this system. So I think one of the most interesting aspects of this is we started from the very beginning and we worked with them using an app on a rapid application development system called Azure that allowed us to build a mockup of what this would look like and so we could build a desktop version when also a mobile version so we could actually go through iterations pretty quickly during the design phase. The other interesting aspect to this, and I'd like Jeff to kind of talk about this, was how are we going to set up the tracking? How are we going to set up the database because we had so many policies that we're constantly being published or updated. We needed a way to track that, right?
Jeff Webster: 10:29 And we figured out that the easiest way to track that would be to keep snapshots of literally every time anything up, anything that was a part of any policy was changed. And that gave us a lot of control over a being able to go back to previous versions if it was necessary, if something went wrong, we can go back to previous versions, but also Macy’s lawyers could go and check across, check against what policy was in place and published on EMAG and the last time any given associate also viewed that policy. So you can, you can see then that, well, this person last read this policy on March 5th, well, we updated the policy on March 6th. That would make sense as to why she didn't realize that this was the policy at the time. And so it, it managed a bit of legal exposure for them as well. So we stored all of the information and snapshots and the snapshots weren't just the policies, actually it was all of the content on the page as well. And doing that helped the end users, at least the power users of the system manage all of that content very efficiently.
Kat Jenkins: 11:50 Fantastic. And I know that that is an issue as well because inevitably a large company will face various types of lawsuits. Their attorneys were able to go very quickly back and determine what policy was in effect for this particular associate when they were part of the company versus later versions of the policy that might not necessarily apply. And I know that they were sort of able to do that before we created the system, but it was a very long and involved process. It was really very time consuming for them.
Jeff Webster: 12:18 Right. And what our new system, at least the admin interface of the new system would do is you could put in filters to look at a type of users, say it was a part-time store associate that worked in this store location in California and you would be able to get an entire export of the entire EMAG for that kind of employee. So you have essentially a custom associate guide or handbook employee handbook for every type of employee automatically generated out of the system at a specific point in time. And that's, that's the key part.
Kat Jenkins: 12:57 Yeah. At a point in time is a good point there that if that is the key thing, and I know from a design perspective we also created a new version of the sites avatar or icon who is a lot more fun and inviting and modern and really makes it much more personable and fun to explore for the associates, so it's very engaging. It could be a very dry thing, but we did a lot of things to drive some additional engagement and make it more exciting for our users to create and one of our own staff illustrators, Nadine Parris, actually created the look and feel as well as all the illustrations for the sites avatar, which is quite quite cool. And tell me a little bit Mike, what’s your favorite thing about this application?
Mike Welch: 13:44 I think my favorite thing about the application is really the front end or the user experience. We took what I thought was really an archaic system and replaced it with something that was very mobile-friendly. So to me the user experience on the front end, especially on a mobile device just seems very natural. It's easy to kind of to see list of, of the policies, click through a very, very easy menu to get to the appropriate policy and then view the policy on your mobile phone. So to me that is my favorite part because I saw what the old system looked like and I now can appreciate so much more what the new system does now. All of the magic is really kind of behind the scenes in tracking that information. But really what it comes down to is the user experience is the key point and the user experience is so much improved over the old system.
Kat Jenkins: 14:43 And another aspect of this I think is really exciting is that there's a content management system aspect of it as well.
Mike Welch: 14:50 Yes. We set up for them a content management system, really a custom content management system for them to publish content on the site, published the policies, and as Jeff said, track when all of those things were, were published, this specific date and time so that we can then present to them, you know, all of the information, what policies were available to this employee on this day.
Kat Jenkins: 15:18 And I know we also created a version of this for Macy's, Inc.’s Bloomingdale’s division.
Mike Welch: 15:23 Yeah, we, we initially launched this for the Macy’s brand for the Macy’s in-store associates and we have since then rolled it out for Bloomingdale’s associates as well. So the Bloomingdale’s employees are using it as well now. Great.
Kat Jenkins: 15:40 Any lessons learned or takeaways?
Jeff Webster: 15:44 I sure can speak to some of that. One of the things we did, and I'm going to speak to the Bloomingdale’s version of this, is we kind of knew in advance that we were going to have to do this for Bloomingdale’s as well. So what we were able to do is take the styling and switch it over to Bloomingdale’s styles and not have to re-architect the entire system or build it from the ground up. We were, we were able to detect as a user was logging in to EMAG or when it was for Bloomingdale’s, it was actually called EBAG. And we were able to detect that they were at Bloomingdale’s employee automatically and brand it with Bloomingdale’s colors, the avatar that you were speaking about, a change to a different set of avatars that whereas more I guess they’re more, a little more fashion forward, wear a lot more black, which is one of the key things with Bloomingdale’s, I understand for them. Yes. So, and following up, that would probably be my favorite thing about this is the way we were easily able to integrate this for Bloomingdale’s. It’s just having built this entire very complex system.
Mike Welch: 17:05 Yeah. I think the lesson learned that I, that, that I would pull out of this is, you know, doing the rapid prototyping on the beginning really helped and benefited the end user experience, but then also listening to the administrators, what their pain points were and building a very easy to use custom content management system that would then generate legal documents very quickly in case there was some sort of a discovery issue where they have to provide all the documents are for legal purposes. They can do that really just with a completed simple form, hit a “generate PDF” button and one custom PDF file of all policies in place are generated and that saves them a lot of time.
Kat Jenkins: 17:53 And this is really something that we could replicate for any company that had a distributed workforce and a lot of associates, different types of associates, a retail stores, distribution centers.
Mike Welch: 18:06 Yeah. I think that's certainly true. What makes, you know, what makes it unique for Macy’s is just their organizational structure, but every company has their own organizational structure that's more or less part of their DNA. You know we've worked with Macy’s for a long time, so we kind of understand what that structure looks like, but certainly this, this problem is not unique to Macy’s or to retail even, you know, managing policies for employees is, is something that really every company needs to do.
Kat Jenkins: 18:41 That’s true. And we start every process with understanding what those clients' challenges are and what their objectives are, how their target audiences are accessing information and, and really what we can do to create a system for them that's really going to solve their unique challenges as well. And I know that you have a lot of technical questions that you asked at the beginning of this process just to understand what their environment is, what those requirements are and just make sure that the solution we create for them is going to be as customized and as effective and have as greater return on investment as the systems that we've created for Macy’s with EMAG, for Bloomingdale’s with EBAG.
Mike Welch: 19:17 Yeah, I would say that yes, when you start a process like this, it doesn't involve asking a lot of questions. It also involves, you know, listening, you know, a lot of times customers or clients will come to us because they, they think they have a solution already and they want us to build a solution, but a lot of times what I like to do is have them kind of take a step back and kind of explain to me in their own words, what is the problem you're trying to solve because maybe the solution you've come up with that you think is going to fix everything, maybe there's another solution that's maybe if we look at the problem in a different manner, we can come up with an even better solution. So sometimes I want to, I asked, you know, our clients to kind of say, okay, explain to me what the problem is you're trying to solve first. Don't give me the solution yet, let me, let me try to figure that out on my own.
Kat Jenkins: 20:15 Yep. Very, very much speaks to the problem solving and puzzle solving mentality that we talked about at the beginning of this podcast. Alright, so that is the story of Macy's EMAG and a Bloomingdale’s EBAG. And thanks to my guests today on our tech talk, Mike Welch, Seth Miller, and Jeff Webster, and we will be back with another episode talking about on our next application. I'm Kat Jenkins, I'm your host of Sanger & Eby’s podcast. And we’ll see you soon.
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