CIO Spotlight: Luke Friang, Zulily
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CIO Spotlight: Luke Friang, Zulily

Name: Luke Friang

Company: Zulily

Job title: CIO, SVP of Technology

Date started current role: February 2011

Location: Seattle, WA

Before joining Zulily as CIO in 2011, Luke was VP and CIO at drugstore.com, where he oversaw all aspects of technology strategy, planning, development and operations. Previously, he was Senior Director of e-Commerce Technologies at Costco Wholesale. From 1997-2001, Friang held a variety of roles at The Spiegel Group and its associated companies, including Eddie Bauer, where he was responsible for the development of www.eddiebauer.com. He has served on the board of directors for the Washington Technology Information Association from 2010-2012. Friang is a big sports fan who still enjoys playing competitive soccer, traveling and attending Seattle Sounders' games with his wife, son and daughter.


What was your first job? When I was first exploring what I wanted to do with my career, I initially thought I'd end up in the sports industry. I always loved skiing and snowboarding, and envisioned I'd open up my own shop. But, while I was in school, I had some friends who were exploring computer science. I joined them and working on computers as a hobby turned into my career.

Did you always want to work in IT? I've always enjoyed solving problems, working in teams and moving fast. And technology, with its dynamism and dependence on teamwork gave me the chance to do what I loved.  

What was your education? Do you hold any certifications? What are they? I've studied Business Administration, Computer Science and Internet Technology.

What business or technology initiatives will be most significant in driving IT investments in your organisation in the coming year? Zulily has grown exponentially. We started out 9 years ago with a team of ten, and now the company has more than 3,500 employees. Since we have a bias to build, and technology is core to the business, the executive team and I are dedicated to investing and growing our technical team.

Tech powers everything at Zulily, from the experience our customer sees to all of our internal tools. Because our business model and supply chain are unique, we even built our own warehouse management system (WMS), which is critical as we launch a new store every day featuring hundreds of sales and thousands of new products. Plus, we continue to invest in our mobile experience, which is key because 72.9% of all orders are placed via a mobile device.

As we aim to become the go-to ecommerce destination for shoppers, we are looking for more colleagues to help us build great experiences and solve technical problems.

In 2018, tech led significant initiatives that positively impacted the business. We focused on improving our app experience on the backend. We completed an AWS migration to make our infrastructure more efficient and flexible. And, we laid the foundation for a new app/website brand refresh, launched in early 2019 - the first ever since the company's launch in 2010. We're also continuing to build on the personalisation efforts we've made enhancing our machine learning and data science capabilities to ensure each shopper feels like the experience is tailor-made for her.

What are the CEO's top priorities for you in the coming year? How do you plan to support the business with IT? As an organisation, we are continually investing in our customer experience. And, since we're an online retailer, that entire experience is driven by technology. What's most exciting to me, however, is how we play a key part in the logistics and supply chain part of the business.

Our team is unique in that we build our own systems and software, including our own WMS that ensures we're packing, delivering and shipping to our millions of customers efficiently every day. Those efforts are aided in the fact that our tech team delivers 150+ production releases every day - we're working to continuously update, iterate and improve so we can execute with discipline and agility every day.

Does the conventional CIO role include responsibilities it should not hold? Should the role have additional responsibilities it does not currently include? Every industry depends on technology for both day-to-day operations and long-term growth and vision. CIOs and tech teams are more integral to a business more than ever. I actually see that evolution as a great one - at Zulily, I'm proud that my tech team works side-by-side with the people they build software for every single day, whether it's our merchandisers responsible for getting great products on our store, or our marketing team, who use proprietary tools to attract new shoppers onto our platform.

Our model encourages engineers to be well versed in both technical skills and business skills. Conventionally, many CIOs may shy away from bridging between the technical and business sides. But in my experience, having a multidisciplinary background ensures teams are more collaborative and effective. I'm proud to help inspire comradery and to help my team grow professionally by encouraging them to not just build software, but to build a business.

Are you leading a digital transformation? If so, does it emphasise customer experience and revenue growth or operational efficiency? If both, how do you balance the two? I've never really liked the idea of digital transformation simply because it implies that evolution should only happen once. From my purview, CIOs and tech teams should see their work as constantly evolving. Your industry, your customers and your partners will only continue to grow and change.

Our team serves three main groups: the customers that shop on our platform every day, the vendors/brands that use a portal to sell products, and our employees that depend on our tools to do their work, whether it's an assistant buyer forecasting the day's sales, or a warehouse associate arranging packages in the warehouse. These groups all have different needs and it's all about empowering individual team members to truly understand who's using the software, what they need and what resources are needed to drive the business forward efficiently.

Describe the maturity of your digital business. For example, do you have KPIs to quantify the value of IT? Technology is integral to the DNA of Zulily. It's how we've been able to grow in our nine years as an ecommerce company and execute our business model. We hold minimal inventory and launch a new store every day, with thousands of amazingly-priced products that are typically live for only 72 hours. And because Zulily is all about fun shopping, we present both household and boutique brands to customers in a way that's compelling, entertaining and personalised to each shopper. With that kind of volume and velocity, technology is key to the experience - and our KPIs as a technology team are directly tied to the success of the business.

What does good culture fit look like in your organisation? How do you cultivate it? The ideal Zulily tech team member is someone who isn't afraid to constantly learn; they are someone who thrives in a fast-paced environment and thrives in solving complex problems with team members that may have a very different perspective from them. We tend to look for team members who are open-minded and flexible - people with an insatiable curiosity who want to collaborate directly with the people they are building software for.

For me, I look for students of the business, people who have foundational skills in data science, engineering or other technical skills but ultimately are driven by contributing to a team's success. In my experience, it's best to cultivate that kind of culture by empowering people to do their best and give them the time and space to figure out problems and giving them the agency to work with different departments.

What roles or skills are you finding (or anticipate to be) the most difficult to fill? Technical skills are imperative for teams to build, but they are teachable. What's most difficult to find and cultivate are leadership skills. It's one thing to be able to build software, but the business reality is ensuring that software ultimately moves the business forward. It can take years for engineers to master technical skills as well as the ability to inspire and empower teams, and to work with diverse groups of thinkers to achieve results.  

What advice would you give to aspiring IT leaders? Whether you're a CIO or an entry-level engineer, my advice would be to never stop learning. There are so many low-cost learning opportunities, from free online MOOCs or open source meetups that encourage discussion and skill building. It's integral to stay curious and to listen to other perspectives: it's the only way to keep growing both professionally and personally.

What are you reading now? We have been working on some exciting initiatives at Zulily, so I haven't been reading as much fiction as I would like. But I do think reading is important (and fun). Lately, I've been really enjoying the short, but informative case studies on Harvard Business Review. I subscribe to the curated reading lists, which help me gain perspective on everything from how to manage millennials to the latest research on AI in business.

Most people don't know that I…

In my spare time, I like to…When I'm not at work, I'm with my family. We spend a lot of time outdoors, whether it's playing/watching soccer (Go Sounders and Reign!) or hitting the slopes. Funnily enough, getting away from technology fuels my ability to be creative in my role.

Ask me to do anything but…

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