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Vladimir Bobrov for Catawiki

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Changing the rails

When an online business takes off, there is always an imminent desire to be at the forefront of technology. An increasing belief that the business is on the right track fuels a fear of falling behind competitors — a feeling that can help push a company to success as much as it can hold it back. In the very beginning of our journey, Catawiki made a few technological choices it owes a large part of its success to.

Back in 2008, it was hard to find a more prominent web-development framework than Ruby on Rails. Even though Ruby as a programming language was never the most popular one, the shift of paradigm in web-development introduced by the Rails core team predetermined the success of the framework. As for many emerging Web 2.0 businesses, it was the obvious choice that helped us to focus on things that matter — continuous innovation.

Challenges faced

Six years after Catawiki was founded, the moment to make a bigger technological leap to support expansive growth arrived, facilitated by the company’s global recognition1. By the end of 2014, we at Catawiki faced the inevitable question: “how can we best support our business growth with our current technology while keeping the promises we’ve made to our customers?”.

What is a simple question at first glance became more complicated when we look at what challenges we had already been facing and what that meant for scaling our platform 10 100 times. Some of the challenges included:

  • Regular outages and “Friday’s on fire” caused by the increase of visitors and bidders
  • On-premises infrastructure with a high degree of manual system management
  • Lack of development and staging automation constraining engineering team growth
  • Monolith service combining practically two different businesses — auctioneering and collectors platforms

Tackling the issues

Even though these challenges looked frightening, we had a great team of engineers who recognised the issues and acted on opportunities to improve every day. The most significant challenge that popped up on the radar was not just to double or triple the engineering team to cope with increased amounts of issues and support business objectives, but to rethink the way we build things for the future.

One of the first things we tried to do was to move away from the monolith service by building new features (or rebuilding old ones) in a standalone application. This approach, which at first seemed promising, proved to be unsuccessful in the end, yet it brought us lots of learnings.

Monolith systems can be successful and in the early stages of business development this is the only way forward. Many businesses wouldn’t reach their success if the only thing they cared about was pure engineering excellence. In the end what makes great products successful is actually trying, failing a few times before finally succeeding in what you believe could work for many people. This in turn creates a large amount of technical debt a successful company should solve sooner or later when the business takes off.

By the beginning of 2015, we were a few months away from doubling our engineering team to about 25 engineers and we realised we needed to make our own shift in how we were going to shape our technological future.

Stay tuned to find out more about Catawiki's journey and what led us to success!


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