Meet the New Breed of Developer (Found at the Nearly 70 Year-Old ASICS)

Whether you're leading your decades-old organization through a Digital Transformation or you're a developer plotting out your career path, you'd better get to know and understand the new breed of developer. For those of you who grew up in the 70's watching Superman on TV, I'm reminded of words from the opening credits to that TV series: "Faster than a speeding bullet. More powerful than a locomotive. Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound...Superman, who can change the course of mighty rivers, bend steel in his bare hands."

To successfully transform, you need developers with superpowers. As a developer, to stay marketable and employable, you not only need to have those superpowers, you have to be a Darwin-like chameleon.  

Meet Phillip Connaughton, director of engineering at RunKeeper. Extremely modest (sorry, but that's not something you see often in Silicon Valley), ridiculously talented, but most importantly, very deeply in touch with the connection between the work he's doing and the business priorities of his employer. In fact, when you speak to him, in one breath, he sounds like a software engineer. But in another, he sounds like a chief financial officer thinking about business outcomes and the bottom line.

Runners everywhere know the app RunKeeper. But what they might not know is that it was acquired by the 68 year-old running apparel company (known mostly for its running shoes) ASICS. Connaughton was therefore essentially "aqui-hired" into ASICS. You hear about these acquistions a lot. Some old company acquires a tech startup, gets an infusion of new blood and hopes the new kids can be change agents. But in the end, you can't change a leopard's spots. The honeymoon ends, the anticipation fizzles, and, disenchanted, the newcomers ride-out their earnouts (or blow them off altogether) and take off for greener pastures. 

But not at ASICS. This is a company that clearly saw the potential, changed its spots and turned the reigns over to Connaughton and others to completely reinvent the company as a Platform. As Connaughton told the story of his journey to a packed room of attendees at a MuleSoft Summit in Boston, MA, he flashed a photo of the team that drove the company's innovation (disclosure: MuleSoft is the parent company ProgrammableWeb). It was him, and just two other guys. When I asked about that, he was extremely fast to modestly point out that there's an army of other technical colleagues back at ASICS that are also in his team's corner. And they moved at light speed. In my interview of Connaughton (audio and full-transcript embedded below), he told me "I think a lot of times when companies get acquired, you're not really sure what your job is going to be in the new organization. I know when we got bought, my family and friends were like, 'Are you going to get laid off now? What's going to happen?"

But the nearly seven-decades old company clearly had other plans for the RunKeeper team. "I think the relationship with ASICS has been awesome. We proved out how we could add to the company by continuing to connect with customers shortly after the acquisition in implementing some of the other features that ASICS was hoping we could drive." said Connaughton. "I think that led them to really believe in us and believe that we could help out on the commerce side of things, as well......Now [ASICS] can engage with the customer when that customer is going out for a run, as opposed to just when they need a new pair of shoes."

Wait a minute. Is that an engineer or a business-person talking about "engaging customers?" He's both. He and his team are deeply in touch with the business propostion of their work. This skill is no longer optional. Not for developers who want to stay employed. Not for companies that need developers to lead them through their transformations into a composable enterprise driven by API-led services.

Perhaps just as interesting was how Connaughton was talking about his work as a Front-end developer when he let slip that his role in the ASICS transformation was as a Back-end guy. So, wait a minute there; those are two completely different disciplines. When I asked Connaughton about that, he responded "I think in order to be a software developer today, we have to be constantly changing our skillset." 

It's so true. Remember those COBOL programmers who woke up one morning asking "Who moved my cheese?" They blamed it on someone else. From where I sit, technology is moving at such light speed that the very basis of how software and web apps are developed is going through a revolution that developers cannot afford to miss. It's more than being a so-called "full- Stack developer" as many developers like to call themselves today. It's not just about making the move from something like the Android flavor of Java to Kotlin. The underlying stack is constantly shifting as well. The cheese is always on the move. The question is whether you and your company are too. 

Here's the audio interview (the full text transcript appears below):

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Full Transcript of David Berlind's Interview with Phillip Connaughton

Editor's note: This full transcript includes time codes at one minute intervals. If you click on the time codes, it will take you to directly to that spot in the video on YouTube. We hope you like this feature.

David Berlind: Okay, I'm David Berlind, editor in chief of ProgrammableWeb, and this is a ProgrammableWeb podcast. I'm at a MuleSoft summit in Boston, Massachusetts. I'm standing here with Phillip from ASICS. Many of you will know the company as a company that makes running shoes, but Phillip, why don't you tell me your full name, who you are, what you do, and a little bit about the company.

Phil Connaughton: Yeah, my name's Phillip Connaughton. I'm the director of engineering at RunKeeper. RunKeeper is a subsidiary of ASICS, and I'm responsible for the technical aspect of developing a new global eCommerce platform for ASICS.

David: Okay, you said the word RunKeeper, and a lot of people out there will recognize RunKeeper as one of their favorite mobile apps that they used for keeping track of their running. What's the history here? Are you the founder of RunKeeper? Did ASICS acquire [00:01:00] you? Why don't you tell us a little bit about that.

Phil: I wish I was the founder of RunKeeper. No, I'm very good friends with him. I joined RunKeeper about six years ago, and RunKeeper is almost 10 years old now, I think. We got acquired by ASICS a year and a half ago as a means for ASICS to connect with their customers outside of just the process of buying a shoe. Now they can engage with the customer when that customer is going out for a run, as opposed to just when they need a new pair of shoes.

David: As a part of that acquisition, because a lot of people used RunKeeper, and it was agnostic to the running shoe you had, did it lose some of that agnosticism? Or is it specific to ASICS? Or will it work with any shoe?

Phil: That's a great question. The goal has been to not tie ASICS, how to say it, to not have ASICS play too big of a role in the app, or too big of a role in a way that it will drive away any users. But we do want to pull in some of a lot of things that ASICS is really good [00:02:00] at. For example, ASICS has spent years developing running, training plans, and so we're bringing in some of that running content into the application to develop better training plans.

David: Going back to before the acquisition, how API driven was RunKeeper?

Phil: I think that was the only way we were driven. It was a mobile application, so everything was based on APIs that we had built out on our back end. We were communicating with other APIs from Facebook, Twitter, geo-locator APIs, APIs that helped map out what your elevation was when you were going out for a run, so a ton of different APIs.

David: A real clear example of a mobile app started up based on an API architecture, and that helped drive the success of the company, and eventually, the acquisition of the company in many ways. Yes?

Phil: Yeah, I'd say absolutely. One of the great things of mobile applications is [00:03:00] you could only be API driven, because you didn't have a lot of built-in infrastructure on the phone itself. You had access to a SQL Database, and that was about it. Most apps just ended up using that SQL Database as a caching layer.

David: Alright, but you could've done a more tight Integration. The problem is is that then you have a lot of difficulty managing the connectivity between the front and the back end. There are plenty of mobile apps that preceded a lot of the API driven apps, where the front end and the back end was so tightly coupled that it caused problems eventually, right? You certainly went past that architectural decision straight to the API decision.

Phil: Yeah, absolutely. We were constantly looking for new areas that we could send some of the RunKeeper information. We were communicating with APIs like Facebook, and where it posts your run to Facebook, and customers really wanted to see that. One of their big reasons that [00:04:00] people enjoyed RunKeeper and other mobile fitness apps is that they could share to Facebook, and they could have that accountability with some of their friends and colleagues. They would hold them accountable to continue on their runs.

David: Were you deeply involved in the API architecture of RunKeeper prior to the acquisition?

Phil: I was mostly involved on the front end, and so doing the mobile development, building out the front end UIs, and communicating with the back end APIs, to some extent. But I had a great back end team, as well, that I worked pretty closely with.

David: Earlier today, you gave a presentation about how ASICS was essentially digitally reinventing its eCommerce platform, and it was going to be very API led. One of the most impressive things that I thought I heard, although you didn't put it in these terms, you said the company was founded in 1949, which makes it approximately a 70-year-old company. We're talking a really old school company here, and [00:05:00] they had to completely re-architect their whole platform around API led connectivity. They picked you and two other guys to do it, just three people!

Phil: Yeah, I think to some extent that's true. We have some great product folks on the team, as well, and we are using a systems integrator team to help build out some of the front end. But they really wanted to find different ways that they could leverage what they had bought into RunKeeper and what they want to get out of RunKeeper. Not only did we have that mobile fitness app, but we do have a lot of technical insight at RunKeeper.

Yes, me and a couple other guys on my team, but I work with quite a few other coworkers who aren't focused on eCommerce specifically, who I'm able to constantly bounce ideas off of. We really do have a great team at RunKeeper. I wouldn't have been there for six years, if that wasn't the case.

David: Yeah, but think about it, ASICS acquires this company after being in business for nearly 70 years. You guys walk in, and you guys are [00:06:00] change agents at this company. You really completely revolutionized their platform. Do you think they would've been able to do it without bringing in a team that had that kind of experience?

Phil: Sorry, I like to be as modest as possible. But, yeah, I think we are real excited about the opportunity. I think a lot of times when companies get acquired, you're not really sure what your job is going to be in the new organization. I know when we got bought, my family and friends were like, "Are you going to get laid off now? What's going to happen?" I think their relationship with ASICS has been awesome. We proved out how we could add to the company by continuing to connect with customers shortly after the acquisition in implementing some of the other features that ASICS was hoping we could drive. I think that led them to really believe in us and believe that we could help out on the commerce side of things, as well.

David: Right. Another thing that struck me is you did start off your presentation talking a little bit about how you're like a front end guy, and you just mentioned that. But it sounded like as the presentation went on, [00:07:00] your role in the transformation was more on the back end.

Phil: Absolutely, and I think in order to be a software developer today, we have to be constantly changing our skillset. I jumped in head first to learning how to develop in MuleSoft, and quickly learned how great the technology was, and how easy it was going to be to integrate with all these different systems, and transform the schemas that we needed to, in order to deliver this integration layer.

David: Were you one of the influencers of whose technology to use to get it done?

Phil: Yeah, we looked at a couple different companies. Admittedly, it was one of those projects where we had to move really quickly. It was only a couple weeks before we needed to make the decision, and I think we really are happy with the decision with MuleSoft.

David: In terms of the benefits, so now you've transformed the company a little bit. Remind me, [00:08:00] you spoke about how ASICS had several brands that it wanted to bring under one eCommerce umbrella, if I could use that terminology. What were those brands again?

Phil: ASICS Tiger, Onitsuka Tiger, and ASICS, the performance running brand.

David: That's a little reminiscent of the company that runs the Gap. Their eCommerce, I forget all the brands that they've got-

Phil: I think it's Old Navy ... shoot, what's the other one? I can't think of the other-

David: Yeah, but Gap, of course, oh oh ... Banana Republic.

Phil: Banana Republic, yeah, yeah.

David: It's really funny, it's just that when you're interacting with one brand, it looks remarkably similar online, or in the mobile app, as when you're interacting with the other brand. Sometimes even the back end is conflating your personal commerce from three different brands. I've seen that happen a couple times. Is that what you guys were after to provide a [00:09:00] standardized eCommerce Framework that worked across all of the brands?

Phil: Yeah, absolutely. I want to say that the Gap is operating on Salesforce Commerce Cloud, as well, and that's the eCommerce hosted platform that we're moving towards. We wanted to provide our customers the ability to shop among some of those other brands that we have that they might not have been aware of. People are in love with the GEL-Nimbus, or the GEL-Kayano, or their specific ASICS running shoe, but they might not be as aware of some of the shoes and other products that we have with ASICS Tiger and Onitsuka Tiger. We saw this as a means to open up awareness to those other brands.

David: Is that going to show up in the mobile apps, like if you're a RunKeeper fan and been using RunKeeper, how does that eventually show up? Are you going to offer suggestions? What's going to happen in the end User Experience that ultimately is carving a path through the APIs to the back end?

Phil: That's a good question. I think as much [00:10:00] as possible, we want to keep RunKeeper running focused. We've had a lot of internal debates about that, like is it the right platform to surface our product from ASICS Tiger or Onitsuka Tiger? Ultimately where we've landed right now is no. We want to stick true to running or true to fitness. Although ASICS is developing into a lifestyle fitness brand, at this time, those products aren't made for runners. I think we'll probably keep them separate for the time being.

David: Okay, Phillip, thank you very much for your time. The event's not over, so I hope you enjoy the rest of the event. Maybe I'll catch up with you here next year, and we'll get a new update from you.

Phil: Yeah, I appreciate you taking the time to talk with me.

Be sure to read the next Application Development article: Google Announces Chrome Trusted Web Activity and User Experience Report