Rapid Application Development the Zappos Way

Billion-dollar online shoe store Zappos, and CEO Tony Hsieh, embrace the motto of Delivering Happiness. Living up to that means maintaining a reliable website and giving employees free reign to solve problems. CIO.com recently visited Henderson, Nev. to see how Zappos develops software.

By Matthew Heusser
Thu, June 07, 2012

CIO — On a recent Thursday, at the Zappos all-hands meeting at the Smith Center in downtown Las Vegas, I see the Happiness Mobile—a bus outfitted in bold blue colors that promises to "bring the wow." The next day, when a staffer picks me up for a ride to corporate headquarters in Henderson, a bright blue SUV makes the same offer.

Zappos Happiness Bus
The Zappos bus delivers happiness and brings the wow.

It's not a huge surprise. The core mission of Zappos is to deliver happiness—or, as CEO Tony Hsieh likes to put it, "Zappos is a customer service company that happens to sell shoes."

A lot of them, as it turns out. Zappos sold more than $1 billion in shoes last year. More than two years after Amazon acquired Zappos, I suspect it ranks among the fastest-growing subdivisions of the online retail giant.

What does all that mean for the IT shop?

That question brought me to Nevada to find out.

A Service Ethic from Top to Bottom

Zappos headquarters is a 15-minute drive from the bright lights of Las Vegas. When I arrive, Amelia Smith, an intern in the development group, meets me at the door. Smith started as an administrative assistant but thought she could do more. Management agreed. Now she's taking computer science courses at night, shepherding builds and deployments during the day and, apparently, giving the occasional company tour.

The company offers free tours every day, but my driver was a few minutes late that day and I missed the official full tour. Instead of making me wait 10 minutes for the next one, Smith offers the tour herself.

This is not a symbolic exercise. Everyone at Zappos is similarly invested in the company. Every new hire, from the janitor to the CFO, spends four weeks in phone training when he or she begins work. This training is mandatory, and there has never been an exception. The phone training has a second purpose—every employee, including Hsieh, will spend at least 10 hours staffing the phones during the Christmas season.

Employee Freedom Means Greater Empowerment, Rapid Application Development

Technical staff work in cubicles of roughly the same size, but they are decorated in radically different ways. Streamers, balloons, plastic tchotchkes and other decorations surround the place. The attitude is jovial; spontaneous, random parades of employees happen for no apparent reason.

Zappos office
You won't get lost in a sea of gray cubicles when you visit Zappos.

I ask Christa Foley, a senior HR manager, if Zappos should "standardize" the workplace per to the 5S method espoused in lean software development. That was my way of making a joke; the 5S reference is a common misapplication of lean ideas to software.

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