How to Innovate Inside an Enterprise Organization: Matt Savino of DIRECTV
Matt Savino was part of a team that accomplished what some have called impossible:
They successfully executed a major innovation project inside a massive Fortune 500 company—DIRECTV (now part of AT&T).
In an exclusive interview, Savino told us the story.
According to him, there were 5 unique elements that came together to drive his project to succeed within DIRECTV.
We’ll get to those here in a moment.
First, the story of directv.com.
The Market Was Changing Rapidly
Savino was hired in 2010 to join DIRECTV’s website development team as a Senior Application Architect.
Things were changing rapidly for DIRECTV at the time.
Blockbuster filed for bankruptcy the same year Savino was hired. A year later, the once dominant video-rental franchise sold all 1,700 of its remaining stores to DISH Network.
As most everyone in the industry agreed, Blockbuster was done in by the explosive growth of services like Redbox and Netflix.
And though Netflix was still primarily a DVD-through-the-mail company, everyone could see where the market was going: online streaming video.
DIRECTV had always been a TV and satellite box operation, but it saw the writing on the wall.
It was time for DIRECTV to get serious about delivering content online.
Which meant directv.com would need to add a host of new features—and soon.
The Problems of a Giant Website
Directv.com grew rapidly in the years after Savino joined the team.
“By 2013, it had grown into this monster,” Savino said. “It was really hard to maintain.”
The stakes for the website were high.
Ten million people watch NFL Sunday Ticket on DIRECTV during football season. If the site went down 5 minutes before kickoff, it would cause a public relations nightmare—not to mention lost subscriptions.
As directv.com got bigger, it became even more difficult to maintain.
“It took forever to get anything changed,” Savino said. “We’d get a request for something simple, and we’d have to tell them it would take four months. When we changed one thing, it broke other things and then we had to fix those. It just became unmanageable.”
Node.js and a New Framework for Directv.com
The challenge was selling it to the higher-ups to let us do it.”
This is the point of the story where developers at Fortune 500 companies complain about the endless silos, red tape, and bureaucracy common within enterprise organizations.
They can’t move fast enough. Nothing ever gets approved. They don’t have the tools or support or permission from “the higher ups.”
Some of this is true of course. Big companies do have silos and multiple layers of approvals for big decisions.
And completely rebuilding the site on the back of a relatively new programing language—that definitely qualifies as a “big decision.”
But, DIRECTV did it anyway.
Savino and others in the development team researched ways the company could overhaul directv.com.
They laid out a plan for upgrading the site they could take to their leadership for approval.
One of the most important recommendations on their list: Node.js.
“The idea was to break it into smaller pieces using Node as the presentation layer,” Savino said. “It would let you make one piece for apps. One piece for customer service. One for entertainment. One for marketing. While these weren’t quite true microservices, it was a step in the right direction.”
“That was the vision in 2013 anyway,” Savino added. “The challenge was selling it to the higher-ups to let us do it.”
The team presented the idea to their boss, who loved it and quickly became their champion.
They then took their recommendation step by step up the chain, explaining why the site needed to change and why Node would make it better. Specifically, they believed they could make the site:
- Better organized
- More stable
- Much easier to change
At every level, the higher ups gave their approval, and soon Savino and the development team were hard at work rebuilding the site.
From start to finish, the entire project took about a year and a half from inception to their initial production project.
Today, thanks to their work, Node.js is powering millions of video views every month through directv.com and a dozen apps seamlessly integrated into the company’s media database.
It has happened fast enough that DIRECTV was able to launch DIRECTV NOW, a new, online-only streaming subscription service, giving it the product it needed to compete with Netflix, Amazon, and others entering the online media space.
The 5 Elements That Enabled Change
Completely overhauling a Fortune 500 company’s corporate website is exactly the kind of project that can get bogged down for years in bureaucratic red tape.
How—exactly—did the development team at DIRECTV get relatively quick executive buy-in and support from their higher ups?
For Savino, there were 5 things that came together all at the right time:
1. A Big Reason
“You need a big reason if an enterprise company is going to change,” Savino told us.
In the case of DIRECTV, the need to support business needs like streaming video was a strong motivator for company executives.
Moving to Node would also mean moving to an open-source coding language for a key layer of its site, potentially saving DIRECTV millions of dollars in licensing fees every year.
Instead of saying, “Hey, we need to rebuild our site,” Savino’s boss presented their proposal in terms of the problems the current website was causing.
Enterprise organizations aren’t usually going to be the first ones to try a new technology. Node.js was relatively new in 2013, but it had been implemented successfully by several other enterprise organizations.
“We talked to Bill Scott at PayPal, who’s become something of a champion for Node,” Savino said. “That really energized us. It let us know that another enterprise company was already having success.”
3. The Right Champion
It helps to have a salesperson on the team.
“We had the right boss at the right time,” Savino said. “He was a showman. He wasn’t just about making the trains run on time. He wanted to shoot for the moon.”
It was Savino’s boss who opened the doors for the conversations that needed to happen with the executive team. His passion for the project and his ability to sell it drove the approval, support, and permission the team needed to move forward.
4. The Right People in the Right Positions
Organizationally, adopting Node meant DIRECTV needed to make several organizational changes.
“We had no DevOps environment at all, so we had to build that from scratch,” Savino said. “That meant adding a new position, which can be a big challenge to sell to executives. It’s something they’d never had to pay someone to do before.”
Savino’s boss was crucial to getting approval from the executive team, but later, during the project itself, a new boss took over.
He was a former military guy, someone who was really good at “making the trains run on time,” as Savino put it. “He was exactly what we needed for that stage of the project.”
Finally, since no one at DIRECTV had direct experience working in Node, the team engaged an outside consulting firm in the early stages of the project.
“I was trying to learn Node just by searching Google,” Savino said. “Finally I went to my boss and just told him, ‘I don’t know how to do this right.’”
They engaged an outside firm that specialized in Node, which helped Savino find his way.
“Node is a lot more free-form than the object-oriented approach I had been taking,” he told us. “Having him really made a big difference.”
Why Savino Says Innovation Is Difficult for Enterprise Companies
Savino was adamant that he didn’t believe he had all the answers about innovation.
“There are professional consultants that say they can come in and do innovation and they fail all the time,” he told us.
Innovation is possible, he said, but it takes the right mix of factors.
Some are external—like Netflix creating massive disruptions in your market with a new business model.
Others are internal—like the words you use to describe the problem or finding the right champion to sell your project to the executive team.
“Companies don’t have problems innovating when it doesn’t bump into any existing structures,” Savino added.
“It’s when you start asking groups to change—to give up ownership of things they’ve traditionally owned before. That’s when it gets difficult.”