Hajo Eichler joined commercetools when it was a fledgling startup. As a software engineer, he was part of a small team in Berlin charged with developing the company’s first product — a headless, cloud-native, SaaS backend commerce engine. Dirk Hoerig, commercetools’ co-founder and CEO, and the visionary behind the innovative idea, was based at the commercetools headquarters in Munich.
At the time, there wasn’t any technology on the market even remotely similar to what Dirk wanted to build. Looking back, Hajo said that Dirk’s leadership was critical to keeping them inspired every day. “He wanted to disrupt the industry and was committed to making it happen. He came to Berlin every two weeks and always shared so much knowledge with us. He was super present and really made a difference.”
Six years later, Hajo was named Chief Technology Officer at commercetools, making it his job to ensure the company continually delivers innovative products that enable its global customers to consistently thrive in the ever-evolving digital commerce landscape. Here, Hajo shares tips on how he fosters innovation and fuels the creative spirit of his team, plus offers his thoughts on the role innovation plays in the tech industry and how leaders can instill it in their corporate culture.
Well, it’s critical because tech is evolving faster than ever. I often make this joke, “My milk is lasting longer than your framework.” And, it’s true. Even if it can be annoying sometimes, as a tech product company, you have to keep delivering cool ideas if you’re going to continue to compete. From a cultural point of view, this means embracing the fact that innovation is driven by the people in your organization, the people working in their domain expertise, right?
What innovation is, is finding the gap and the sweet spot where you can put something new in. You want everyone to be thinking about it, but especially your product and tech people — they really need to be invested in it. So, one of the most critical things you can do is actually give time to your people so that they can actually think outside of the box. Instead of a complete schedule of tasks, give them the freedom and space to really explore, be creative and seek out those ideas.
I think it's both. To distinguish yourself, you want to have something different than your competitors in the market to win the right customers and, hopefully, more customers. So, you have to put out new products and at the same time improve on existing ones. That’s what the expectation is, right? It's not that eCommerce is fundamentally changing now, but innovation is also about combination. So, say there’s a new trend and existing technology, then when you combine the two, you create an innovative product out of it.
You don’t get to have those water cooler moments where brilliant ideas sometimes emerge when you start talking to someone you don’t work with on a day-to-day basis. A marketing person could meet someone in tech or a sales leader could start chatting with someone in people operations, and sometimes the combination of different domain expertise spurred new ideas. Today, you have to make explicit time for this. You have to create those moments.
We have a company-wide program, commercetools Coffee, where employees get paired up with someone they don’t know once a month to encourage that same kind of interaction. In engineering, we set specific time slots for what we call “Tech Time” and, we’re actually talking about renaming it “Innovation Time” because that’s what it’s intended to be. It’s a fixed amount of time we offer to everyone in engineering and in product so they can share cool ideas.
I also ask my team members to share their learnings. Even if it’s something that didn’t work, it’s a good way for other people to gain insight from the knowledge you’ve gained. I request for it to be written down because that way it can be received asynchronously as well. I think this is something very important to foster in this remote culture.
I don’t have one leadership style. I adapt my approach based on the situation. In most cases, probably 80% of the time or more, I like to stay on the partner level. I want my team to feel we are all on the same level — that way we can all learn from each other. For me, that's important, especially when it comes down to innovation.
As much as I lead by encouraging people to share ideas and create back-and-forth banter, I want to be just another person in the room. That way it’s more collaborative. No one should feel like they have to jump on every idea I present just because it’s mine. The ideas should lead the discussion, not me. Even a junior person can bring the greatest idea for us to implement and make a lot of money on. That’s why we hire smart people.
Of course, I’m in a management position so there are situations where command and control are important, but not in the context of innovation and learning.
So one of the things I do if I want people to start thinking about something, is to plant a small seed. I’ll bring my team a proposal, and maybe it has gaps by intention. I give them context and I give them the freedom to kill my proposal. This gets them talking and coming up with their own ideas that might actually solve the problem. So, I become the trigger point. If they totally destroy my proposal, I’m fine with it because at the end, we have something absolutely awesome.
We also use Gather. It has many tools to aid collaboration, plus can follow one person on the board to help people stay focused. It also has a bunch of cool innovative stuff — it’s actually integrated into Google Meet now. It’s an awesome combination — it makes collaborating online much better.
Innovation happens by trial and error. You are constantly trying things to prove the theories that you have in your head, to find out whether you are correct or even wrong. So, there’s always risk involved because there can be a lot of iterations, especially when you discover, “No, that's not correct,” and then you try again.
The risk to avoid is we don't do it in production, but that's why we have “production-like” environments. You want to try out stuff without harming any customer. This is also important for every engineer to know. We want to keep operations safe, so we do as much as we can in production-like environments until we are far enough along to do a real test.
As a company, we have to put time, money and people into validating our ideas. What we’ve learned over the last 10 years is to cap the risk by setting a fixed time or monetary budget. Sometimes things don’t work out, so you stop the project. Just make sure to document the results so that you learn from it. Other times it all comes together and we end up with a new product on the market, like commercetools Checkout.
The innovation process is an evolution, each time you succeed or fail, you learn. As long as you have a risk/failure boundary set up, you can keep things balanced.
Even with our SLAs, we don’t say we deliver 100% reliability because the internet is not perfect., It’s not 100% reliable. We have a high SLA (99.99%) but there’s a possibility of failure built in. This little percentage between 99 and 100 is there so you can use it — this is an example of an error budget.
It’s important to note that it’s rarely just as simple as a click from a proven idea to a product that can be used by billions of end users.
While I encourage people to work in teams, I see cases where individuals make a big difference or impact. For example, there are a few open source projects that were born from a single individual at commercetools who put in extra time — their free time — into creating a solution for a problem they spotted. An amazing example is Sangria, which is the open-source implementation in Scala in GraphQL. It’s not only used by commercetools but also by X (formerly Twitter) and other companies.
Another interesting example is that some of the features developed for commercetools were created by one of our engineers who now holds the patent for the technology. It’s wonderful recognition for this person, and inspirational to others on the team.
It’s back to the combination thing. Seeing a product that works, but being able to come up with an idea to make it better. Someone just has to come up with the idea and actually act on it — like the story about the Egg of Columbus.
I’ve learned the thoughts I have are nice, but for me to really get to something concrete, I need to be challenged. I like open formats where it’s me and other people face-to-face, on a whiteboard. That inspires me.
I also look to other thought leaders. I reach out to my peers, other CTOs in the tech landscape and have chats with them. And, I listen to a lot of wonderful podcasts related to what I do. Two of my favorites are Germany-based: OMR (Online Marketing Rockstars) and HMZE (three CTOs from Berlin). They make you think about what’s actually possible.
What I do isn’t always easy, especially working remotely, so having different sources of inspiration is important. Once I have an idea, I go into implementation mode to bring it to life. That’s why for me the second step is to collect a few people to share it with and ask them to challenge my idea. That really helps me.
It’s just not really me to innovate independently (laughs). I always see these posts on LinkedIn where people take an ordinary thing they do, like bake a cake or take a hike, and they turn it into an inspirational story about lessons they learned while doing the activity. Well, yesterday, I was kitesurfing and my rope broke and everyone says this never happens. So, I thought, now I can write a cool blog post about “5 things I learned while stranded out in the sea with no one coming to rescue me,” but nope, that’s just not me.
To learn more about what makes commercetools Composable Commerce products so different from traditional options available in the market, read, Why innovation-driven eCommerce is incompatible with monolithic platforms.