Playing to win: an interview with's Francesco de Marchis

By Peter Gothard
06 Sep 2012 View Comments
francesco de marchis

“Right now, I’m developing so much stuff in a very short time, and sometimes you have to cut corners. You don’t like it, but sometimes you have to cut corners,” Francesco de Marchis tells Computing.

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It’s a surprisingly frank admission by the CIO. A year on from the British e-retailer’s buyout by Japanese online behemoth Rakuten, de Marchis remains refreshingly candid about the realities of meeting project deadlines during fraught crunch periods. The key, he says, is knowing when coding best practice can be abandoned without causing serious problems down the line.

“At the end of the day, [Rakuten] don’t care how I deliver the project, but we know that if we have written ‘spaghetti code’, it’s going to haunt us later,” says de Marchis.

The project in question is to overhaul’s website structure in line with Rakuten’s in-house models. The revamp was supposed to go live this summer, but an autumn launch is now looking more likely.

De Marchis says the changes will underline a marketplace philosophy at that is far superior to that of its closest rival. “Amazon has the tendency to invite you as a seller, and let you build a market,” says de Marchis. “As soon as you find a good market, and start selling a specific product very well, they jump in the market and sell the same product, and start selling it 10-15 per cent cheaper. And they usually don’t work to educate the seller at all. They just say, ‘Here’s what you have to do – that’s it’.”

After the revamp, those looking to sell through will be able to build customised market mini-sites.

“We’ve built a lot of user interface tools, with heavy use of Ajax [Asynchronous JavaScript and XML], because that is going to give [sellers] the flexibility for drag and drop, and moving around components,” says de Marchis.

Web content management solutions from Sitecore are also being used, but “stretched heavily”, says de Marchis, in their capabilities. “We prebuild slots with functionalities, but give them to individual sellers and let them change them if they want to,” he says.

To achieve this, splits its IT development workforce between four offices. The UK offices in Cambridge and Bristol handle a small amount of coding, their main focus being customer service. The main bulk of coding is outsourced to developers in India and Romania. De Marchis is keen to point out that outsourced staff are treated like “normal employees”, saying they work much better because they feel they are part of the Rakuten empire.

Despite its absorption into Rakuten, is still immensely proud of its Cambridge startup heritage. It’s a “geek company” pedigree it shares with close neighbour Autonomy, which still provides data solutions for search, personalisation and categorisation across’s website.

“We still have a relationship [with Autonomy], and are the guinea pig for their new technology. But that’s a good relationship from our perspective; we know their products work,” he says.

A slightly less amiable relationship, however, has been between and HM Revenue & Customs. As of April 2012, the low value consignment relief law that covered imports from the Channel Islands has been removed by the Treasury. Already, says de Marchis, has taken a considerable hit.

“It hurt brutally,” de Marchis admits. “Having Rakuten behind us helped. A lot of other companies would have been forced to move away or shut down the business. We didn’t shut down in Jersey, but we’re considering other options. We didn’t need to increase the price - we didn’t want customers to feel the pain for that, so we took the hit. Sometimes we’re selling at a loss, to be honest.”

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