SAN MATEO (06/12/2000) - As the CTO of Petopia, Prem Urali has more to deal with than just supervising 65 IT employees; he also shares Petopia's San Francisco office space with a plethora of dogs, cats, birds, and gerbils.
Although Urali encounters many of the same technology challenges that most dot-com CTOs grapple with, the company's policy that pets are welcome in the office, coupled with the employees' passion for pets, virtually eliminates Urali's people-retention problems.
Urali sat down recently with Info-World Executive Producer/New Media Katherine Bull to talk about life as a CTO at a pet-friendly dot-com.
InfoWorld: As the CTO of a pet-friendly company, what is different about your job?
Urali: First, there is a lot more of a human/ animal bonding type of an environment, which is awesome. And the people who work in this company are really passionate about pets. That creates an environment where there's a lot more commitment from the employees themselves because they not only believe in the idea of the company, they also think that the environment that the company provides is a lot more conducive to producing good work.
From a technology perspective, I think we still have to make these things work by crossing every t and dotting every i. It's pretty standard from a technology standpoint.
InfoWorld: What are your five top technology concerns for the year 2000?
Urali: From a technical perspective, as our company has grown the complexity of the systems have also increased, and as the CTO I have to worry about integrating these systems and making them work together in unison. That's a major focus for me.
I'm also interested in technologies which actually make the experience on our site for our customers better, [such as] anything that is customer-facing that would encourage our customers to keep coming back to the site and actually get the information that they need, feel like they're part of the community, and then ultimately as a result of that become shoppers on our site.
InfoWorld: What kinds of technologies do you think are important to your infrastructure?
Urali: I look at it from two perspectives. One is to look at each and every layer [of our infrastructure] and see what technologies in each of those layers actually enhance the customer's experience on our site. So technologies which enable caching are important because that enhances the customer's experience on our site with respect to where they are accessing the site from. I believe technologies which make our site highly available are also important. For instance, there is talk about having distributed replicated sites even in a transactional environment. I haven't really seen any technology to this date that I would put my money on. But those kinds of technologies which would make our site available in at least two parts of the globe yet provide transactional capability would be important to us.
InfoWorld: Do you have a hard time getting talent?
Urali: Just like every other company in the Bay area, we also have a hard time attracting talent in the numbers that we want. We've done an extremely good job in that we have been able to attract an extremely talented set of people. Where we can't attract the talent in the time that we want, we [go] to some of our partners who have been incredibly helpful to us. So I think even though that used to be a big problem for me early on when we were building out the company, it so happens that there are always pet lovers who really want to work for a company like us.
InfoWorld: What outside firms have you used?
Urali: InfoSys is one company that we work with. There are basically two approaches that they take, one where they actually augment your team with their own people, and they also actually outsource certain pieces of your development. And they can help kind of manage the whole project.
InfoWorld: How well would you say that your technology partners pay attention to you, as a company? Do you feel like you've gotten the level of attention that you need?
Urali: I certainly think so, and I think there are several factors for that.
Number one, since we are a consumer-oriented company, our name is more out there and they would suddenly like to be associated more with us. We also stand for a certain core set of values, so companies find they're [again attracted] to associating their brand with our brand. And I also try to foster a relationship with our partners as much as possible at the highest level, so I try to get commitment from their management team in terms of what they can help me with. And so just like any other relationship, we have I can't say a perfectly smooth relationship with each of the vendors. But when the situations arise where I need to talk to somebody in their management team and make them aware of the certain situation I have, I could always do that. And as much as possible, I'd probably hardly ever use [that], but knowing that option really exists and then knowing that they are there to support actually helps a lot.
InfoWorld: What are some of the internal issues that you struggle with in terms of balancing IT with the business side of things?
Urali: I have a team of about 65 people and we have a defined process that we track with our business. I'm not here to say that the process is perfect or that it works smoothly all the time, but at least there is a frame of reference for people who work within our organization and for the business teams that interact with our organization to fall back on. And then when we find areas where we need to refine it, we go back and think it through and make changes in the process.
My approach has always been to think about any requests that come from the rest of the management team, including the CEO, from the perspective of how does it make business sense for our company? And as long as any sort of decision that comes down is justified -- based on a business reason -- I'm perfectly fine with it.
InfoWorld: You acquired a catalog company called In The Company of Dogs not too long ago. How did you integrate their systems in with yours?
Urali: We are actually in the process of doing the systems integration now. At the moment, the In The Company of Dogs site is being run as a separate site, and it's been doing incredibly well just by itself. So I don't want to touch something that has already been doing well just for the sake of accomplishing the integration. We've already done some integration in terms of having links on our site to appropriate products on our In The Company of Dogs site. And references to Petopia site are in the catalog that gets physically distributed as a book, both in our own shipments as well as through traditional catalog distribution means. So we've done those levels of integration, and it is certainly in our plans to do further integration so our customers can have a unified experience on our site -- which would be www.petopia.com.
InfoWorld: How many IT people did you acquire with the acquisition?
Urali: Actually, it's interesting because In The Company of Dogs had outsourced their IT services to a company, and so we really didn't acquire any technical resources through that. But we continue to use their help in maintaining that site.
InfoWorld: What kinds of things keep you up at night?
Urali: I'm currently working on a release of our site, and as we go through the different phases of any project, there are certain moments you think you're going down a certain design approach and you're worried: Is this design approach the best approach? Is my team going to really be able to pull all these things together and get it to a point where [they can judge that] this is a viable design, and that didn't work, and [this didn't] perform? That used to be a concern and I used to worry about that quite a bit. But in the past the outcome has been very positive in terms of what we've designed and worked on, so that doesn't keep me up anymore.
At the moment, I think about what we can do better to address our business needs. I know there are a lot of business requirements that continue to come to us, and I feel like we are not able to serve them as fast as we wish we could.
And I'm sure this is a common problem across the board. But I'm trying to see how I can make it more efficient so we can get through a lot more, given the size of the resources that we have.
Prem Urali, Petopia
Biggest successes: Building a Web design and development team from scratch and evolving it into a self-sustaining organization that adapts to the needs of the businessKey challenges: Knowing what motivates each individual contributor and each team, creating an environment where both can succeed for the overall benefit of the companyPersonal note: Tennis and amateur Porsche racing.