“In the last four years, Pixartprinting has changed a lot. It’s been like working in a different company each year,” says Nicola Aretini, a team leader in the firm’s IT Department. For a business with 23 years behind it, that’s a big deal: Pixartprinting has gone from simple printer to web-to-print pioneer to business unit of the Cimpress Group.
But it’s ready to reinvent itself once again to meet the challenges of the digital age and Industry 4.0 in a process of continuous internal innovation, which means the company is always evolving. Fundamentally, Pixartprinting is a manufacturing business and recognised as one of the most advanced to boot.
Customers large and small use the web-to-print platform in over 50 countries around the world: users can view the 400 products in the catalogue, from business cards to large-format items, and have the option of adding special finishes. They then simply upload their files, and everything is printed and delivered to their home or office a few days later.
Behind this apparently simple operation lies the IT Department, which develops ever more innovative solutions, and is crucial for this web-based business. To serve more than 600,000 customers a year and manage a complex system involving some 700 employees, the company relies on its technological heart, the 30 or so engineers and developers that make up the IT Department: it’s tasked with solving problems, developing software and applications, creating the back-end architecture that runs the whole business and its website and, last but not least, building and managing the IT infrastructure that connects the website to production, in other words the machines that physically print the products ordered.
There is one key ingredient that has promoted growth: trust in software, a daring strategy that has paid off over the years: “It’s IT that has made Pixartprinting stand out from many other firms. Thanks to our strong technology base, we are always trying out new solutions,” explains Simone Pavlovich, who has seen his department’s workforce grow tenfold in the past seven years.
As the company changes and matures, so too do people and working methodologies, which have undoubtedly become more complex. Change that is not always painless but which will bring improvements both inside the company and outside it, change that is seen by customers. Again, this is down to the IT Department. Why do something new when the company is going well and growing? Because everything around us is changing at breakneck speed.
Tearing down the monolith, or welcoming change
The IT Department is made up of different teams that are generally small but highly productive, usually comprising three people, with a few exceptions. Gone is the mega-department with a fixed hierarchy. In its place are teams, guilds, almost like in a role play: each team is responsible for one or more product or service. There is, for example, a team in charge of logistics and courier management, and another which maintains the website, the place where customers order products and the cornerstone of the business. Then there is the team that maintains the production software that connects customer orders with the physical printing process.
Between the department’s engineers and developers, there’s a continuous exchange of skills. Teams are interdisciplinary: whenever possible, they no longer work in silos. The IT Department is, however, just one part of a broader workflow: solutions are not solved by them alone, but involve every part of company. When producing a product, you also need input from, for example, those who use it (UX), those who “sell” it (marketing) or simply those who enter data into the application.
But the backbone of the company is the management software which was built in-house by Pixartprinting’s engineers and developers and which runs everything from quotes to orders. It enables every step of every single print job to be monitored, automatically determining which printing technology will be used for each project. The system is able to combine basic orders with five variables: print run, material, finish, format and delivery time. Automatic management of all pre-press stages saves time, reduces waste and cuts production costs.
At Pixartprinting, automation is at the heart of everything, which is why prices are so competitive. Software does “the dirty work,” in other words it performs menial tasks in accordance with rules set by managers, allowing employees to focus on activities with higher added value, such as quality control and monitoring production: “Any printing company can tell you whether an order would be cheaper printed using offset or digital printing. The difference is that we use a script, that is to say a program or sequence of instructions that are automatically applied, rather than a human being. Our job is to identify those processes which, due to their extreme repetitiveness, lend themselves to automation. This speeds up operations, minimises mistakes and prevents employees from becoming bored and alienated,” explains Valentina Vivian, leader of an eight-person team that brings software and production together.
Pixartprinting is constantly investing in latest-generation machinery at its plant in Quarto d’Altino, just outside Venice, Italy. When a new machine arrives, the IT Department gets involved too: “At this stage, the helpdesk team installs and configures the workstations then, with the help of the technicians, we look at how to integrate the machine so we can control it through our IT systems and obtain data on its productivity. Usually, there follows two to three weeks in which the machine is tested and broken in, and only then does it become fully operational,” continues Valentina Vivian.
But all this will eventually be torn down to make way for change, or better still, expanded to create new functionalities and access channels for customers. Pixartprinting’s core business is growing fast, but the firm must develop it intelligently to keep the business manageable in the future.
IT will tear down the monolith. The future is in microservices which are more efficient and flexible
Although the firm’s proprietary management software is far from obsolete, there is a real need for major in-house innovation to gradually restructure how software and services are provided to customers: the company is growing exponentially and requires systems that are even more flexible to keep pace as the business evolves. In the past, e-commerce and internet systems were “monolithic”, and based on large repositories of code. This means that the Pixartprinting website is a “single block” of code and technologies and, together with management software, represents a monolith that needs breaking up. Imagine the firm wants to launch a new service or offer a new functionality to users: in the past, developers would have to add the code for the service to this enormous single block, which complicated future management and changes necessary to add new functionalities. Now we think in terms of microservices, functionalities and additional services that are separate from the single block, but which interact with it when necessary.
Distributed e-commerce is the future
Pixartprinting’s IT Department well understands future challenges and is always looking for new systems to help the company grow: software, programming languages and services are constantly evolving, which is why it’s moving towards distributed systems, or microservices to be precise. It’s a more modular vision of the business, a software ecosystem with independent microservices, new access channels which are separate from the Pixartprinting website and management software, but which interact with one another.
In practice, a microservice might be a new payment system or PixartPro, the first product to be developed as a microservice. PixartPro rewards the most loyal customers, like marketing agencies, graphic design studios and printing customers, by giving them vouchers and exclusive services. For the end user, it’s one big service that meets all their needs, but behind it lie lots of little pieces that use data from each microservice, such as a webpage that displays a particular product.
It’s a way of thinking about software differently from a monolithic business: because they’re independent, microservices can be changed without harming the main business, resulting in fewer risks, more efficiency and greater scope for experimentation: “Something that we do with a microservice can be replicated at an infrastructure level for everyone in a matter of minutes. With this new methodology, we’re using some programming languages that are different to those used for Pixartprinting’s main website,” says Enrico Pesce, team leader for the infrastructure and cloud section of the IT Department.
It’s not just software that has to evolve, but IT infrastructure too, the systems underlying practically everything, which are fundamental because they store, process and transmit the company’s data. Enrico Pesce and everyone in his team know this well. For some years now, they have been reviewing the entire infrastructure for the e-commerce website and for production, and moving it to the cloud. While in the past servers were bought and managed in isolation, today the cloud is creating a new way of managing IT infrastructure, which is on demand and far quicker: “We’ve migrated everything to Amazon Web Services. In just a few clicks, you have new servers with more dynamic and versatile infrastructure. From that point onwards, we immediately noticed a clear improvement in performance, we were able to scale up significantly, as well as satisfy requests for more services,” says Enrico Pesce.
Having all infrastructure on Amazon Web Services allows different people in the IT Department to work together in synergy: if new software is requested, they can start working together, whether in the infrastructure or development team, to create both the code for the application and the infrastructure, with continuous daily collaboration between IT Operations and developers. Bridging the gap between these two worlds in the IT Department is DevOps, a portmanteau of “Development” and “Operations” (the people who look after IT infrastructure). DevOps is a software development methodology based on better communication between developers and IT Operations, with the goal of developing software as efficiently and quickly as possible.
First change the mindset, then the technology
The mindset and organisation of the IT Department have evolved too. How do you manage such complexity? By not getting in the way of chaos: “A company is a complex, living system, and it’s often chaotic, which is why it’s important to accept this fact and not think about perfect solutions or “all-in-one” systems. You need to start small and then assess, improve, scale up and sometimes re-do things,” explains Diego Venturini, the very first person hired in the IT Department, who now runs the development team that handles intragroup orders and the business intelligence platform for the production area. From the many methodologies out there, many groups in the IT Department have chosen Agile, which does not just apply to the IT world, of course. It’s a mindset and working methodology that focuses first on the person, then on the tools.
Making mistakes. This is something that really scares people, especially those who have just started, but Pixartprinting is a grown-up organisation: “Here, there’s nobody who calls the shots: the teams are collaborative. I’m a team leader, but I never say, “we do it like this, end of story.” We used to be like this, we used to say “you made a mistake,” but now we know that those who make no mistakes, make nothing. So we’re much more flexible when it comes to blaming someone, pointing the finger. It’s team work, not individual work, so while one person might work on a given function, the others can all provide their input. All employees are involved in looking for solutions and making suggestions. This way of doing things has grown even more with Agile,” adds Simone Pavlovich. It means constant software releases, even if small, but which provide tangible results for the business.
Technology isn’t everything: “It’s essential for the whole team to be focused on users, and that there’s trust and collaboration with them. Feedback must be welcomed to understand what to improve or change. Change is not a design problem but an opportunity to do better than expected. The technological challenge is to then find the best way to manage all this flexibility ,” concludes Diego Venturini.
New technologies and methodologies allow Pixartprinting’s IT Department to put these values into practice: changes in strategy are therefore an opportunity.
This is Pixartprinting’s IT Department, always open to new talent and people who want to bring value to the company: anyone who is looking for an organisation where they can grow and experiment with new languages and systems should look to Pixartprinting. They are after people who are smart, open-minded and want to constantly learn in a working environment that guarantees continuous training. The future is the cloud with distributed e-commerce made up of microservices and Pixartprinting is embracing this vision, starting with the IT Department. It’s a company that continues to evolve from the inside, thanks to technology and, above all, the people who work there. It’s a Human Tech Company.