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Fireside chat with Nolan Zandi, Co-Founder&CTO at Qualify Digital Labs

Who is Nolan Zandi?

I am the co-founder and CTO of Qualify Digital Labs, an e-commerce management and development firm that allows brands with an online presence to outsource or supplement pretty much any part of their e-commerce experience to our team of marketing, operations, design and technical veterans. We work with a wide variety of companies and industries from new startups looking to launch a small fashion label to multibillion dollar conglomerates who need our help managing and growing their portfolio of e-commerce businesses. I’ve been a passionate engineer and builder of engineering organizations pretty much since day one. I started as a cofounder of Rideapart which we sold to Motor1 Inc. back in 2016 and have since served in various head of technology or CTO roles at firms such as Pressed Juicery (where the QDL team first met) and Joyride Coffee.

Developing high scale technology organizations and applications has always been a huge passion of mine and it’s a privilege to be able to continue to do so both in my role at QDL and as an advisor and consultant to a variety of growing companies. If I’m not coding or working in my capacity as CTO, you can generally find me in the outdoors decompressing from technology.

Tell us more about your role in Qualify Digital Labs?

As CTO, I’m responsible for technical project ideation, technical architecture and application design with the client and our design staff, and then staffing the project so that it can be built quickly and efficiently. While we primarily focus on e-commerce platforms at QDL, we develop on all platforms from Shopify to fully custom and an important part of the position is identifying the right e-commerce solutions for a client to fit their product needs, existing infrastructure and growth plans.

I also work with a variety of existing technical properties on optimizing, auditing and then staffing the continued growth and development of said properties with our marketing and operations departments.

What is the most difficult part of your job? But the most rewarding one?

I think there are two areas that are the most difficult. The first is to develop the best and most scalable technical solutions for a client’s problem or desired outcome that fits within their desired user experience and existing infrastructure. We live in an era of an incredibly wide variety of effective and promising platforms and technologies to try to optimize the e-commerce experience and every platform has costs and benefits. Many provide broad applications or flexibility but with higher costs or slower development. Others provide focused benefits of a niche implementation that can save large amounts of capital and time, but only if the application needs match the value proposition of the product exactly. Performing technical discoveries to identify and then commit behind particular technologies and platforms is definitely one of the most difficult (but rewarding) parts of the job.

The other would be properly budgeting and staffing committed and large projects. Technical development projects are like any other type of construction: often capital intensive and time consuming. We are dedicated to providing as much foresight into technical projects as possible, both from a cost and time perspective. Making sure that we’ve budgeted the appropriate amount and staffed the right level of resources takes a lot of careful estimation and planning and is probably an area that I spend the most time and energy on. However, it is absolutely critical to a project and business’ success.

Is there anything that you would change about your professional path?

I don’t think there is anything I would change per se, but I always wish there was more time in the day to pursue the parts of my job that I love the most. It’s been an honor to have the opportunity to build up the technology organizations that I have and to grow teams to set up technology organizations for success. But I always wish I had more time to code and work directly on every project I’ve been lucky enough to be involved with. I consider myself a hands on technologist and, although I try to take time to code every day, if I could change anything it would be to have somehow found time to be able to work even more directly on many of the projects that I’ve supervised or architected.

What’s your key strategy for the development of your company?

Well, QDL provides a lot of services around the management and development of e-commerce organizations, but I think from a technology perspective a key strategy is to be able to provide very flexible, quick and scalable technical resources to all sizes of organizations at the reactive pace that e-commerce and digital retail occurs at. I think some of the biggest questions that e-commerce organizations try to answer at the smaller scale is how can they utilize technology and engineering resources to develop and maintain the premium features digital users expect from their platform in an affordable and scalable manner that reflects the volatile and on-off nature of these needs without hiring full time engineering staff that won’t be fully utilized and at a stage that’s too early.

I think very similarly, at the larger company scale the question is how do they leverage their existing technical resources and supplement them as needed to scale their development intensity up and down to correspond to volatile, periodic and often seasonal digital retail needs.

At QDL, our technology department is working to be able to provide and fill these organizational gaps both from a strategic perspective to help with long term but still temporary technical needs (such as redesigns, site builds, integrations etc) and also the reactive, day-to-day but not full time needs that are constantly present in the competitive digital retail economy.

What do you think about the next period of time, keeping in mind the pandemic and the new business climate? How will your industry be affected?

In many ways, the pandemic accelerated existing trends within digital retail and e-commerce. While providing digital shopping options has been a growing segment of all retail for decades, the pandemic suddenly made digital ordering and delivery the primary method of sales and distribution for thousands of businesses. During the pandemic, we had a huge influx of retail and brick and mortar businesses work with us to increase their digital presence and allow them to continue their customer relationships through all of the disruption caused by the pandemic.

We expect additional investments from broad retail and brick and mortar retail, but we also think the pandemic has firmly established a digital first strategy for retail businesses going forward. For that reason we expect to see additional new businesses looking to build out their e-commerce presence first and then make traditional storefront retail investments after the establishment of their online presence as a secondary method of sales or to also act as distribution centers.

Regardless, we expect e-commerce investments in technology, marketing, operations and design to be major growing investment centers over the near and medium term horizon.

Please name a few technologies which have the greatest impact on your business.

There are many but to name a few, Shopify has been absolutely massive in allowing for the development of e-commerce businesses with fewer investment and time commitments than had ever been possible before. This opened the door to digital retail for a lot of new and innovative brands across the spectrum as well as allowing retail businesses with less technical experience to take the plunge in a manner that they could more actively work with outside of the normal black box of technology.

Other important technologies have been AWS and Google Cloud which has allowed us to create very unique technical solutions for clients and operate them at any scale, serverless technologies (such as AWS Lambda) which has made microservice integrations much simpler and easier to implement, nodejs and React which has allowed us to build complex decoupled applications without utilizing multiple programming languages and made staffing custom applications much easier, Prismic which has been a great alternative CMS for custom and headless front ends and Netlify which has made hosting headless front ends (a high growth area in e-commerce) much cheaper and easier and made headless e-commerce a much more viable options for growing brands.

What books do you have on your nightstand?

I try to keep a constantly growing library but a few volumes include The Effective Executive by Peter Drucker, Peace Is Every Step by Thich Nhat Hanh, Getting Things Done by David Allen, Daring Greatly by Brene Brown and The Complete Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson.

Because of the current economic climate our publication has started a series of discussions with professional individuals meant to engage our readers with relevant companies and their representatives in order to discuss their involvement, what challenges they have had in the past and what they are looking forward to in the future. This sequence aims to present a series of experiences, recent developments, changes and downsides in terms of their business areas, as well as their goals, values, career history, the high-impact success outcomes and achievements.

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