by April Bohnert
October 30, 2018

On the surface, Fanatics may appear to be a simple e-commerce site for sports apparel. But according to Senior Software Engineer Steve Manuel, it’s so much more than that — and that’s part of the company’s genius.

Behind the scenes, Fanatics merges technology, e-commerce sales, warehouse management, apparel production, order fulfillment and long-term partner rights into one fast-moving machine. Managing every step of the process internally enables the Fanatics team to innovate on their own terms and bring fans the products they love practically on demand.

We talked to three members of the Fanatics tech team to learn how they’re leveraging technology to drive the business forward and what it’s like to be at the forefront of a multi-billion dollar industry.

 

Fanatics insider spotlight tech innovation Colorado
Photo by Nick Cote.
Fanatics Colorado insider spotlight tech innovation Colorado
Photo by Nick Cote.
Fanatics Colorado insider spotlight tech innovation Colorado
Photo by Nick Cote.

FOUNDED: Its retail store opened in 1995, with its online store following in 1997.

EMPLOYEES: 45 locally; 6500 nationally

WHAT THEY DO: Fanatics is one of the largest distributors of licensed sports merchandise, taking a tech-driven approach that enables them to deliver both fan favorites and timely new products on demand.

WHERE THEY DO IT: Boulder

NOTABLE PERKS: Unlimited vacation time, 401(k) matching, stock options, in-office sports bar, job training and conference opportunities.

TEAM BONDING: Every week, the Fanatics team stays late to enjoy a game of Dungeons and Dragons, where employees — seasoned and new — can work together and unleash their inner nerd.

 

Fanatics insider spotlight tech innovation Colorado
Photo by Nick Cote.
Fanatics insider spotlight tech innovation Colorado
Photo by Nick Cote.

 

Ryan Lee, Senior Product Manager, Mobile Applications

Ryan Lee helps bring Fanatics’ mobile products to life by working with business stakeholders, customers, development teams and product teams to identify opportunities for growth and new feature development, as well as to coordinate and prioritize product sprints.

BEYOND WORK: When Ryan’s not in the office, you can find him on the banks of one of the many rivers or lakes around the Denver area fishing with his kids.

 

How do you translate “vision” to software developers? And the reverse: How do you let the business team know how their vision can or can’t be realized via technology?

I find the most effective way to discuss the vision with my developers on our sprint initiatives is in our story time meetings after demos each week. The team shares the previous weeks’ progress, and then we all get a chance to comment on what we’ve seen and ask questions.  

Afterwards, the time comes for us to talk about what’s up next. I go through overviews of each of our top priorities, discuss the business needs and objectives, then open it up to questions, which help me better define the user story criteria.     

Beyond this, we have quarterly reviews of larger objectives and project planning with the teams to identify major milestones and feature releases.

 

I find the team culture to be very selfless here. It’s more about what we need to do as a group to be successful than anything else.”

 

Describe your culture. What was a moment in which your team solved a problem in a way that reflected that culture?

I find the team culture to be very selfless here. It’s more about what we need to do as a group to be successful than anything else.

We had a recent product migration that didn’t go as planned. I reluctantly sent a late-night invite (which I personally dislike doing) to not only my team members but the team leads for two other groups where we recognized dependencies. Not only did everyone join the call and start contributing immediately, but they all stayed for the entirety of the release and invited additional team members they felt could provide more insights into our problems. I can’t say I half expected anyone to join, let alone participate in such a way that we were able to overcome seemingly enormous problems.

 

Describe your ideal candidate. What characteristics or skills do they possess?

I am always looking for product managers who are excited about building — those with the creator mindset. It’s not difficult to learn how to write a user story properly or gauge priority based on certain KPIs, but the innate desire to deliver excellence and take pride in what you put out always resonates with me when I’m talking to prospective PMs. Be energetic about what you’ve done and tell me about your successes while acknowledging your growth opportunities.

 

Fanatics insider spotlight tech innovation Colorado
Photo by Nick Cote.
Fanatics insider spotlight tech innovation Colorado
Photo by Nick Cote.

 

Steve Manuel, Senior Software Engineer

Steve Manuel leads Fanatics’ technical decision processes, helping the team foresee architectural and implementation issues and solve around them. Much of his time is spent writing code for the platform’s existing systems and designing new ones.

BEYOND WORK: Steve created and maintains an open-source content management system called Ponzu, which he continues to work on in his free time.

 

What’s in your tech stack?

My team works primarily in Go, TypeScript, MySQL, Elasticsearch and gRPC. We chose this stack for the reliability and safety provided by the languages and the gRPC framework.

However, Fanatics is a polyglot company and that is reflected in our active systems, which are written in Java, Go, Python, TypeScript, JavaScript, Rust, Objective-C and Swift. We use practically every type of datastore, including self-hosted Postgres, Redis, Cassandra and managed services like DynamoDB and Redshift.

 

How is the technology you’re building at Fanatics driving your industry forward? What unique value does it bring to the market?

As a manufacturer, Fanatics develops and integrates highly specialized technology for our print and cut-and-sew operations. This enables us to have maximum control over product quality and ensures our customers receive the best merchandise available.

Fanatics’ invests heavily in bringing products to fans as fast as possible. Fulfilling an order quickly makes our customers happy, and allows us to restock and continue fulfilling more orders even faster. We build in machine learning to make informed decisions about our inventory and optimize each order for packing and fulfillment efficiency. Additionally, our in-house content management stack allows us to rapidly add new products for sale.

 

I’m very proud of being able to try something new and helping to shape future system design at Fanatics.”

 

What approach does Fanatics take to training and mentoring engineers?

Internally, we have dedicated presentations from teams about their learnings from their recent utilization of a new technology. Mentorship from senior members is commonplace, and we encourage team members to ask questions and be comfortable not knowing the answer to every question or how to use a certain technology. Fanatics also provides a significant education fund for employees to take courses, attend conferences and buy books or video content to develop skills.

 

If you look at what this team has achieved so far, what are you proudest of?

Our team took a chance with an architecture and code generation pattern that has proven to be extremely productive for similar systems and has echoed throughout the organization as a strong approach. I’m very proud of being able to try something new and helping to shape future system design at Fanatics.

 

Fanatics insider spotlight tech innovation Colorado
Photo by Nick Cote.
Fanatics insider spotlight tech innovation Colorado
Photo by Nick Cote.

 

Brad Macnee, Software Engineer

Brand Macnee works on Fanatics’ Mobile API — the middleware between its native applications and backend servers — with a focus on maintaining its legacy C# codebase while replacing outdated systems in a cloud environment with Go.

BEYOND WORK: Brad was a captain of his college lacrosse team where he played goalie, a position he says helped him become a stronger leader both on and off the field.

 

Tell us about your background. What attracted you to Fanatics?

Fanatics is a great fit for me because it merges quite a few of my interests. I am a CU Boulder alumni — and proud of it! Being able to work in Boulder is truly a privilege and I love spending time there. In addition, I played college athletics at CU for the lacrosse team and am an avid sports fan. Working in an industry you care about and that’s contextual to your life makes everything that much more interesting. I like seeing “behind the curtain” of the sports industry and how big trades, new superstar rookies and even political implications can affect my work.

 

Working in an industry you care about and that’s contextual to your life makes everything that much more interesting.”

 

Tell us about an interesting technical challenge the dev team faced recently. What specific technologies did you use to overcome this challenge?

Recently, we have been working on a system to send notifications to customers when a package has shipped or been delivered. We found no simple or reliable way to map package data back to a specific Android or iOS device.

Instead of trying to maintain an overly complicated web of tables and keys to translate, we decided to persist the relationships ourselves in our own managed database. This was made easy by the use of AWS and Terraform, allowing us as a dev team to stand up, monitor, manage and extend our database within a few days of work. This is my first professional experience with managed services and using them has made iterating on problems so much easier and cheaper. The initial deployment of the database in a testing environment took less than two hours, and right away I was able to test my new services against real databases.

 

What’s a tradition or ritual that reflects your team culture?

Unsurprisingly, we have a lot of nerds on our team and in our office. We have a lot of die-hard Dungeons and Dragons fans. Jay, my boss, puts on a game once a week at the office after work. It’s a great tradition because it lets everyone unwind and relax with a cooperative game. I’ve found it’s a great way to get new employees into the fold of the culture. It’s an environment where you can let your guard down and be a bit silly while getting to know your coworkers in a more relaxed environment.

 

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