Meet Your MACH Alliance Ambassador: Mihaela Mazzenga, Chief Technology Officer at Sharper Image

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Mihaela Mazzenga understands digital experience from many different angles. She’s seen the evolution of technology as both a vendor and consumer of software-as-a-service (SaaS), with roles at companies that offered services, ones that enabled them, as the CTO of a highly customer-focused health and wellness platform, to her current role as CTO at Sharper Image.

The recent migration she led her team through was the first to specifically use end-to-end MACH technologies, but she’s been seeing the rise of the microservice approach behind these tools for some time.

“From a business perspective, everything has moved to service-based at warp speed over the past several years.” says Mihaela. However, with a background on the vendor side she says that the seemingly meteoric rise of services is similar to other technologies that were being used by engineers for quite some time before being broadly adopted.

“I remember when people laughed about Cloud technology, and they would joke about the name. Then all of the sudden if you’re not on Cloud you’ve fallen behind in digital maturity.” says Mihaela, “I think the progression of software services has gone in the same direction.”


Engineering Principles Brought to the Mass Market

“What I’ve enjoyed most about the progression is seeing that core principles of software engineering are now being delivered in the service market.” says Mihaela, “This is making it easier for engineers to incorporate features in weeks, or even days, which would have previously taken them months to do.”

The most important engineering ideals that the market is incorporating, according to Mihaela, are reuse and composition. As the digital experience expanded, companies didn’t want to reinvent the wheel every time they tried something new. Instead, they started turning to service based technologies that could be used across any channel.

“The MACH approach, especially Headless, started to become pronounced when integrating other user touchpoints became a priority.” says Mihaela, referring to a growing number of solutions designed with MACH (Microservices, API-first, Cloud-native, Headless) principles. “Companies creating web-enabled applications wanted to be able to extend those experiences to other channels without having to rewrite natively for each touchpoint.”

MACH tools break features down into channel-agnostic, individual services that lead to more flexibility for both business and development teams.

“If you have been tied to a monolith for a long time you can absolutely see the value of breaking out individual features for optimization internally or with different vendors.” says Mihaela on the value a service-based approach brings to business users. “You’re able to identify which areas aren’t driving enough value and select modern solutions that can more effectively grow that part of the business.”

Having that level of feature control, and the ability to reuse those features across touchpoints, is allowing businesses to create digital experiences that were previously unattainable.

“Certainly, like with any new approach, you’re going to have refinement as the market matures,” says Mihaela, “but I’m happy to see the accessibility of software come to the masses as it has, allowing businesses to tailor experiences like never before.”


Modern Tools Bring New Challenges

While the MACH approach offers a lot of promise, Mihaela points out that both the market and the understanding of these technologies is still maturing. “MACH is a huge benefit from a service perspective, but it should also be recognized that it’s highly complex.”

“I think there’s a fundamental difference in MACH versus everything that preceded it, and that does impact the business understanding and buy-in of the solution,” says Mihaela, “The migrations I was previously involved in were more conventional, they were easier to explain and easier for business users to understand.”

“The MACH replatform required a progression of understanding, which has absolutely made it the most difficult migration to date.” says Mihaela, referring to her team’s successful lift to a MACH architecture at Sharper Image. “It differs from the traditional models that people understood, and there’s a lack of comfort in that.”

“The most challenging to grasp is the C in MACH, the Cloud-native SaaS, because it breaks the norms of the centralized single system.” says Mihaela, “There is a linear understanding of a single server, or a set of servers, in a controlled environment where resiliency and security are very specific and easy to measure. Now you have multiple distributed systems involved in creating the experience and any one of those could negatively impact your solution.”

“If Cloud is ultimately an asset or disadvantage to security operations is still a question I have to answer myself.” says Mihaela. “With what I’m observing, I do think that long-term it will be a positive, but it does require breaking the current mindset of how you think security is supposed to be structured and integrated.”

MACH concepts can be complicated, and technology leaders considering this approach should take into account the effort needed to challenge the conventional ways their business thinks about enterprise architecture.

“There is a lot of opportunity for education.” says Mihaela.


Flexible Teams are Paramount

Moving to a service-based approach not only requires educating the business stakeholders, but also ensuring that technical teams are up for the transition.

“Team preparedness is critical.” says Mihaela, “You cannot choose to go down the MACH path without first making sure you have a team that is on board and capable. It’s more complex to plan and implement than anything that has preceded it, and you’re going to struggle if you start this endeavour and find out you don’t have the right resources midway through.”

For Mihaela, there is one principle that stood out as the biggest predictor of a team being up for the challenge. “Flexibility is core in everything. It’s core in the systems, it’s core in the people, and it’s core in the business.”

“If you have a team that’s conditioned for flexibility as a standard, then changes in path won’t feel as disruptive when they happen.” she says, “If you allow teams the bandwidth to collaborate internally, and collaborate with the business stakeholders, then they can quickly solve problems and keep moving. That requires a lot of flexibility. Change is the only constant.”

Part of that flexibility is being able to adapt team roles to match business needs. “As you go down this road, you will find different areas of expertise within the team.” says Mihaela, “You’ll be able to better manage complexities if you align the team to perform in the areas that are best suited for their individual strengths.”

“You have to have team members who are comfortable and interested in their area of work to be productive, because you’re layering on additional complexities with MACH.” says Mihaela. “With monoliths, you didn't have to worry about orchestration details because of the scope of the environment versus the application code. Now, in a microservice environment, you have to manage the interactions, permissions, and deployments of these services. Each service has its own mini-environment.”

“First align the team to your business goals, and then align the team members to the services that they have the most strength and interest in,” advises Mihaela.

Feature Freedom and Vendor Management

Fostering flexibility, both in how teams operate and how business views technology, is critical to being able to tap into the benefits that MACH offers.

“One of the biggest benefits for the business is that there is no vendor lock anymore,” says Mihaela, “Even with the core vendors, if a specific feature isn’t working then you’re free to change that out. If you want to build your own feature, or want to add another vendor, you can go ahead and do so easily.”

MACH allows businesses to move away from one-size-fits-all monoliths to modular platforms that are selected based on specific needs. This offers a solution that is easier to adapt to your needs as they change, but the leaner MACH platforms may not offer all the features teams were used to right out of the box.

“If you’re doing a migration or reassembly then you may encounter feature loss, and you’ll have to decide how to fill those gaps.” says Mihaela, “There may be feature issues that you won’t be able to work around with a specific vendor, so you’ll need to be able to pull back and see if you can move the feature to another vendor or even build internally.”

This means that vendor management can be more complicated than companies were used to with a monolith or suite. Says Mihaela, “You now have to build strong relationships with many different vendors, and people are usually the most complex part of any project.”

Mihaela advised selecting vendors that align with your desired features, with how you want to access those features, and with your expectations around partnership, whether you’re looking for just a service provider or want more of a collaborative relationship.


Education is Key to MACH Adoption

Having successfully completed a full lift to a MACH architecture at Sharper Image, and now focusing on refining the solution, Mihaela’s team is experiencing the benefits of MACH. As she says, “We went from being locked into one set of ideals determined by the platform we were using, to being able to change ideals as we see fit.”

However, she doesn’t shy away from the fact that getting to this stage was complicated and part of her reason for becoming a MACH Alliance Ambassador is to share her knowledge and help other companies better understand the benefits and complexities of these tools.

“What I like about MACH is that there’s an interest in pushing it as a standard,” says Mihaela. “Having an assembly of people that are proponents of utilizing MACH for very valid reasons and can also educate others is important, because it is a complex approach and education is going to be critical.”

“Having been on both the service end and the client end, and having executed a migration of this magnitude using MACH technologies, I’m happy to offer my knowledge where I can.” says Mihaela. “That's really what attracted me to becoming an ambassador.”

MACH Alliance Ambassador

The MACH Alliance is very excited to welcome Mihaela as a MACH Alliance Ambassador. Our Ambassadors are a carefully selected group of business and technology experts with a wide range of experience across industries and backgrounds. Passionate about the benefits a modern architecture can bring to an enterprise, our Ambassadors have graciously committed their time to support the mission of the MACH Alliance by writing, speaking, and serving as subject matter experts to help empower companies to go MACH.

If you’re interested in learning more about a MACH approach, and understanding if it’s right for your business, you’re invited to reach out to Mihaela or get in touch with us at info@machalliance.org to be matched with the MACH Alliance Ambassador most relevant to you.

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