How Full-Stack Development Drives Digital Transformation

Aman Sethi
Senior Director Commerce & CoBrand Acquisitions at Marriott
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Speaker 1 (00:15):

You're listening to the Tech Tables podcast. A weekly Q&A podcast dedicated to interviewing industry leaders from across the world, ranging from startups to Fortune 500 companies. Mixing it up each week with topics ranging from design and product innovation to IOT and Industry 4.0. Let's do this.

Joe Toste (00:33):

Hey guys, welcome back to a week in the world of Tech Tables with me, Joe Toste and let's connect with you behind the scenes on LinkedIn, Twitter, and Instagram. There, you can even message me questions for future guests coming on the show. But today, I'm very excited, we're going to shift our focus to digital strategy and products. Huge thank you to Aman Sethi for coming on the show today from Washington DC. But that's quite enough from me, without further ado, I'm thrilled to welcome Aman Sethi, senior director of commerce and co-brand acquisitions at Marriott.

Joe Toste (00:58):

Awesome. Well, I'm back with Aman Sethi today and super stoked that you're here, welcome to the show.

Aman Sethi (01:03):

Thank you so much. I'm excited to be on.

Joe Toste (01:05):

Awesome. So let's kick off today a little bit about you and your background at Marriott and your focus on digital transformation, product developments and being a mobile evangelist, let's start there.

Aman Sethi (01:15):

Sure. I've been with Marriott now for just over six years within the digital [inaudible 00:01:21] organization. And before that had led mobile experiences at other digital companies with a total experience of about 12 years in mobile. And really I'm always excited to work on new engagements with mobile experiences or trying to figure out how we can bring digital experiences to more of a physical world.

Joe Toste (01:45):

I love that. That's great. And I think that's super applicable, especially with the whole COVID-19 thing crisis happening right now, bringing those digital experiences is now more important than ever. So, I've been a pretty long time Starwood and now Marriott member, I know it's been a couple of years since that transition happened. I've used the Starwood app and now it's the Marriott Bonvoy app, pretty much on a monthly basis for my personal and business travel up until the COVID-19 crisis, which is... I went from traveling in January, I was in six or eight different cities and now I'm in my closet because I lost my office recording the podcast.

Aman Sethi (02:28):

Yeah, we all have been facing all kinds of obstacles and learning new ways to experience things with the crisis and I really hope that we can start to travel again and really enjoy, whether it's on business or leisure to really enjoy those travel moments that you get when you're checking into that hotel and seeing a brand new lobby experience, or being able to try out a new restaurant. There's just so many new experiences that we all are like wanting to go back out again and try.

Joe Toste (03:02):

Yeah, I'm looking forward to it. I'm really excited. Now, we talked before, I know you have a daughter, I got a couple of kids and we love the theme parks in Southern California, so I'm looking forward to hitting the theme parks and having a hotel experience again.

Aman Sethi (03:16):


Joe Toste (03:17):

Can you chat a little bit about just the user experience, design and increasing the engagement after the acquisition as far as just like combining the two different apps, there was a Starwood app, there's a Marriott app and then just fusing those experiences together?

Aman Sethi (03:33):

Yeah. So I think it really just starts with understanding the customer and knowing that when we brought on Starwood into the Marriott family, it was really about understanding the customer and their needs and knowing that they had different needs within their mobile app compared to the Marriott mobile app, and how can we bring the best of those two app experiences together? And that started with talking to customers or reading customer reviews, learning from their internal product team what were the features that they thought were really important as well as understanding what drove engagement. And that really drove our roadmap for the next 12 months of what could we do to build a better app that included things that Starwood members like but also Marriott members were also wanting, and seeing how we can bring the best of those two worlds together.

Joe Toste (04:26):

Yeah, I really like that, especially, I think you said 12 months, I remember it being quite a process before actually merging the two together. I think it was pretty thoughtful and I think it was a pretty great experience. I think there was a lot of time to kind of [inaudible 00:04:40] everything you talked about, feeling out the different members of Starwood, what do they care about? What do they like? Asking those questions before just kind of merging them together. So I really liked that.

Aman Sethi (04:50):

Yeah. And it really made us think about areas that we weren't thinking about and figuring out what areas maybe we may not be able to achieve on day one of this new combined program, and new combined app, but what were the new long-term capabilities we wanted to go build that we knew our new customers were asking for? And so there was definitely a lot of debate internally about figuring out, well, what could we do now versus what should we do later but not forget about? And that was really important to us. There's some features we just launched recently that have been big customer requests, like being able to shop for multiple rates at once. And that all is now there, but we knew the customers really wanted that from day one. And so we had to be very thoughtful about our roadmap and what we could achieve.

Joe Toste (05:42):

I love it. So mobile used to be really high, every company wanted to create an app in the early 2000s, then we went to this next phase where mobile was going to die, but instead mobile evolved with the advancements in AI, VR/AR, Mixed Reality. Talk about the evolution of digital and mobile and where you see it's going, especially with the COVID-19 crisis.

Aman Sethi (06:06):

Yeah. I think mobile is just going to take off more than ever. It's funny, I was at a coffee shop the other day and the first time I had gone to that coffee shop, just when COVID-19 was starting but companies weren't necessarily fully on the work from home policy yet, you could still go in, there was a little bit of awkwardness between you and the server about taking your payment and figuring out what you wanted to order. And then just recently, it's become purely a mobile only experience where you don't even see anyone. It's a QR code right outside their storefront at the very entrance of the coffee shop and we have to scan the QR code and then it will take you to a link to order your menu, look at your food and then be able to place your order with an easy payment system attached to it and then your food will be ready 10 minutes later on a table outside.

Aman Sethi (07:12):

And so you don't even see a human, which is a completely new experience that I'm sure a lot of customers are facing as to how do I use these new systems or how do I teach everyone to place an order through a mobile device using a QR code for people who aren't familiar with that? And seeing that whole thing transform is really interesting. What I hope is that we don't lose the human touch of that as the mobile starts to grow and expand and new use cases.

Joe Toste (07:42):

Yeah, that's great. I really like the not losing the human touch. This morning I went out, I was walking my son to grab some coffee, I'm starting to go a little stir crazy with the two kids, wife, three people on Zoom every day. And so I took my son out for a walk and this coffee shop's like, "Hey, you can now order." They just added a link on their website and so I ordered online and there's like a glass window, kind of reminds me of like Bank of America bulletproof glass, and they just put your coffee on the other side. I'm like, I really miss the human touch but I really want the coffee right now, so I better appreciate this.

Aman Sethi (08:19):

Right. At the same time, there's apps like Nextdoor that are just becoming so more increasingly important in the neighborhood culture and how neighborhoods are starting to band together to barter or to trade things that people need. Just earlier today, I was dropping off yeast to someone in the neighborhood because you can't find yeast anywhere for anyone who wants to bake right now. And so all of that has been communicated through Nextdoor or through text messaging to help each other out.

Joe Toste (08:52):

Yeah. I love that banding together and I hope that human touch stays once the crisis passes.

Aman Sethi (09:00):


Joe Toste (09:01):

So organizations looking to build out scalable frameworks like you did with Safe... First talk about what Safe is and, two, how to use it to create an orchestration of agile teams to really execute at a high level.

Aman Sethi (09:15):

Yeah. So Safe is something we brought on board at Marriott, it's a scaled agile framework. And simply all it is, is bringing individual agile teams together that can build something bigger and better, that have a more focused strategy as well as very concrete value streams that allow you to be focused on what are the objectives at hand so that all of the teams are building up to that larger objective. And so what happens a lot of times in large organizations is that you stand up all of these mini agile teams all throughout the building, and then you're trying to figure out while each agile team is running off and doing their own thing. So with Safe, you can really start to bring them together, but you can also start to identify dependencies and remove those obstacles with Safe so that you are working together to make sure that those dependencies are met, there's more improved communication and you can map those dependencies out, clear execution so that you can hit those objectives but also make yourself move faster as an organization.

Joe Toste (10:25):

That's great. I kind of want to unpack this a little bit. There's a lot of organizations out there, they talk about using agile and I like the Safe framework. If you were going into a new company or you were talking to some friends who have different agile teams, how would you kind of start that conversation with helping that transformation within the company?

Aman Sethi (10:49):

I think it first starts out with, what is your mission, your vision statement, what are some of your main objectives and KPIs so that you can start to map out? What teams are helping drive certain KPIs or certain value streams? So, for example, if one area of the business like with Marriott is focusing on revenue and bookings, well, then, let's figure out how we can get all of the agile teams together that are focused on growing revenue, whereas there may be another set of agile teams that are helping with account servicing, loyalty and member benefits, that has a very different goal and KPI. And so you may not want those two different teams on the same Safe Train, is what they call it, because they have very different value streams and different goals and KPIs.

Aman Sethi (11:42):

So it's really first starting out with breaking it up from the top, and then once you've done that, then it's a discussion of who are your right leaders to help put in place to make sure you're identifying what are the next set of objectives on your roadmap so that all of those agile teams that are trying to make that objective can now work together, kind of orchestrated in a simple fashion.

Joe Toste (12:08):

That's great. And as far as on the tool front, just in your experience, as far as communicating and in a fast and kind of rapid way, is it Slack? Is it Teams? What are some of the tools you guys use?

Aman Sethi (12:21):

For us, it's mainly Teams, it's kind of our communication tool. But I think before you start thinking about tools, it's making sure you have the right processes and communication methods so that the tools are there to help make those communications more efficient. So making sure you have your scrum of scrums or making sure you have your product sync meetings so that everyone can be connected. And then the tools really help come into play to make sure that you can look at all of your features that you're working on or your big portfolio initiatives in such a way that you can see what the progress is and how you're executing against it.

Joe Toste (13:03):

Awesome love that. When it comes to just mobile vision and ideation for you and your team, what's your process look like for building out a strong mobile vision that's equally tied to a strong business value prop that the other stakeholders in the project are going to care about?

Aman Sethi (13:18):

So I think when you're working with different stakeholders, you first got to understand what is the user problem? What's the business problem? And really thinking about what is it that you're trying to solve. A lot of the times you're creating a mobile vision, but it may not be solving anything. And so you got to understand the full customer journey, what steps are they in? What are the painful points? And then seeing how mobile, whether it's an app or a mobile web experience, or easing certain pieces of mobile like push or SMS, that you're looking at all of those in the broader, bigger customer journey to say that this will actually solve either a customer pain point or a business pain point so that then you can have a really good value prop to your stakeholders and to your customers.

Joe Toste (14:07):

That's great. Yeah. I think really trying to dial in and figure out what the problem and the pain point is, is really critical piece early in the beginning because, you're right, you don't know if its a mobile app, you don't know if it's just a web app or some other piece of mobile, but really figuring out what those problems are.

Aman Sethi (14:28):

Yeah. I remember like 10 years back, it was, "Hey, let's do a mobile app to do this." And everyone said, "Yeah, let's go do it." Because it sounds cool and fun, but you got to really ask yourself because anything mobile is typically more expensive, especially mobile app development, so you have to really think carefully about, are you going to help serve the need?

Joe Toste (14:51):

Definitely. One question that just kind of just popped right into my head, I was just curious, are you more Native? React? I'm just kind of curious where you fall in the line.

Aman Sethi (15:00):

Yeah. I really like Native apps. I'm a heavy Android user and a heavy iOS user, I love both OSs in different ways. So I'm always a Native first person. But what I think is really interesting is to see apps like Uber and Google maps starting to come out with very interesting Reactive apps that are web based, that almost feel Native using all of the local controls of the device. And so I think that's going to be a big frontier to see where people don't necessarily have to download the app to experience all the benefits of a Native experience.

Joe Toste (15:44):

Yeah, no, I completely agree. Wanted to move on to full stack development and how that really helps your team without having to involve multiple stakeholders from different silos, ultimately really benefiting the customer and being able to ship software and experiences faster. Could you just talk about the benefits of having a full stack development team inside your org.

Aman Sethi (16:05):

Yeah. So this is something definitely newer at Marriott in terms of how to think about a new development process, but I've had the opportunity to really think about creating a team like this. And so what I've found is that you can remove so many of the barriers of what an organization would look like even just five years ago, how we thought of as front-end, middleware and backend development. But when you start with the customer experience first and the customer journey and you start to look at well, what are the systems and experiences required to make this customer journey come to life, full-stack development makes it so much easier to execute on that because you have all of your folks on one team that understand different parts of the system that you are trying to build and put it together and they're all happier because they get to understand the full journey and the full customer experience.

Aman Sethi (17:06):

A lot of the times what you'll see in an organization is just like the back end team never talks to the front end team, and so you've got this misalignment. And so when they come to build this experience together, the train tracks never meet together and so you're always off and then you're having to redevelop it and you tend to then have fights on priorities as well as what's the right way to implement it. When you get people on the same team, it makes it so much easier internally to get the work done, people are happier and in the end you are able to ship things out faster.

Joe Toste (17:41):

Right. And that's really probably one of the main goals, is to ship faster, everyone wants to ship faster and then go on back to whatever your company's mission or vision is. Uniting everyone around one result typically gets better results, so I really like that. On our prep call, we talked about having a digital and product mindset and how digital might have to change the entire business as a whole. Now more than ever with COVID-19, it's really the ultimate forcing function for companies to make the digital transformation leap in evolution. Talk about how the business and as a whole would have to change.

Aman Sethi (18:20):

Yeah. So with a large organization like Marriott, you always will have different business functions and different business units that are having different missions. And so digital can come on board as more of a service agent that will help you build the experience for you. But I think as we get into COVID-19, a lot of larger organizations are starting to think about, well, how do I maximize my efficiency with potentially a smaller workforce and a set of functions where you may not necessarily need a business owner and a product or a digital product person? Can they really be the same role? And so having someone accountable from both the business side of making sure that you're meeting your business objectives, but also the digital experience side where a majority of the revenue or the majority of the engagement is now happening. And so that really causes a forcing function in a large organization to think about, well, if you're going to go to more of a product led organization, what are the right roles and the people that you need that can then solve your business problems but also solve your digital experiences?

Aman Sethi (19:41):

And I think that's the crux of a digital transformation in an organization, is thinking about peoples and roles and how that's going to change over time.

Joe Toste (19:49):

Yeah. I think it's one of the things that's really hitting people in the faces. I think before COVID-19 everyone said they had a digital transformation plan and then COVID-19 happened and their plan blew up for a lot of companies-

Aman Sethi (20:03):


Joe Toste (20:04):

... which is just kind of funny. The plan really gets tested when no one's going into the office and the companies are scrambling and... Lastly, before we hit the 60 second Tech Table segment, what are some of the typical problems directors of mobile are seeking to solve?

Aman Sethi (20:23):

I think we're really trying to solve not just the business problem, but how do I make it better for my customers? A lot of the times you can solve a business problem, but if you can delight your customers at the same time and make it a better experience for them, they're going to come back to you, they're going to want to engage with you in different ways. And so I think what it comes down to is really that long-term play of making engagement better and delighting that customer.

Joe Toste (20:56):

That's great. Yeah. That word, delight, we actually use that quite a bit. You do really want to be able to delight your customers and have them come back and have a really great experience and then share that experience with their friends and family. Okay, so 60 seconds Tech Tables, three quick questions. Question number one, talk about journey analytics and having a 360 view.

Aman Sethi (21:20):

So journey analytics is, I think, a new term that's been kind of coming out across the digital space. And what I like about it is that you're starting with the customer first, which is a lot of how product folks think, is let me look at the whole journey and let me see what they're doing. And so analytics in the old school way is more thinking about, well, let me look at this page or let me look at this one part of the experience and see how it's performing. But when you think about it from a journey side and you segment it based on maybe your high value customers as well as maybe your basic customers or your normal engagements, you start to then see really interesting flows that come out. Can be things like, well, maybe someone's not converting on sign-in as well as I would like or you're starting to see that these types of journeys are doing these other activities in addition to a booking.

Aman Sethi (22:21):

And so it really spurs the mind then to thinking about, well, what else can I delight this customer with if they're booking a hotel and they're also doing a mobile check-in, improving those experiences to maybe make them a little bit more unified? So I think there's a lot and it's just about reframing how you look at analytics. So start with the journey and start with the customer and go from there.

Joe Toste (22:48):

Love it. Number two, what are some tools you've used to measure the analytics?

Aman Sethi (22:53):

So any basic analytics tool is, I think, important. Whether it's Adobe analytics or, and metrics, there's lots of different providers out there, Google Analytics. What is also really interesting to use is more of the customer engagement analytics so you can see what customers are actually doing on your products. And then there's a couple of different providers out there that will allow you to actually look at screen recordings and what the customer is doing on both mobile and desktop. And that gives you a new light of information such as seeing where people are spending most of their time on a page or what are the issues they might be having, it's a really useful tool.

Joe Toste (23:41):

Yeah. I love that. One of my favorites is Mixpanel.

Aman Sethi (23:44):


Joe Toste (23:45):

Yeah. They just have a great platform. Okay, last question, in the hotel industry on the mobile side, what is the number one KPI that you're looking at?

Aman Sethi (23:53):

Besides bookings, I think engagement is probably going to be one of the most important KPIs whether you're in the hotel industry or not. When you're in mobile, you're really trying to see how are people interacting with your mobile app or your mobile experiences on web and understanding what drives that engagement so that you can keep increasing it. In mobile, it's so easy to have a customer leave you. And so it makes it more important to focus on engagement where you're trying to get repeat visits or you're trying to get repeat bookings so that they come back over and over again.

Joe Toste (24:31):

That's awesome. Well, that's going to wrap up the show today. Where can people find you if they want to reach out?

Aman Sethi (24:36):

Best is on LinkedIn, Aman Sethi, last name, S-E-T-H-I. So go reach me on there.

Joe Toste (24:44):

Awesome. Well, thanks for coming on the show today and looking forward to releasing this episode, really excited.

Aman Sethi (24:49):

Thank you, Joe.

Speaker 1 (24:51):

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Speaker 1 (25:16):

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Joe Toste
Joe Toste
Host of TechTables Podcast

Host of TechTables 🎙- Conversations with Top Technology Leaders