The tech industry has turned the first two decades of the 21st Century into a thrilling ride. One company that knows this all too well is Hallmark Cards.
Founded as a greeting card company in 1910, Hallmark has managed to not just hold steady but thrive through the last hundred years of rapid technological advancement. In fact, the company continues to ride the wave of continuous innovation via Hallmark Labs, its own center for technology and innovation.
We spoke with Hallmark Labs’ CTO Mark DuVall about how the company hires and manages the developers leading its technological initiatives.
EMPLOYEES: 120 locally
WHAT THEY DO: As Hallmark Cards’ center for technology and innovation, Hallmark Labs is the driving force behind Hallmark eCards, Hallmark Movies Now and other direct-to-consumer digital products and services.
WHERE THEY DO IT: Santa Monica
NOTABLE PERKS: Beachside office, massage chairs, bicycles, soft serve and a sparkling water robot.
HOLIDAY SPIRIT: Hallmark Labs decorates for every holiday, and it’s not unusual to find Santa Claus or even T. rex roaming the floor.
ROOM FOR GROWTH: Jeff Allen, Hallmark Labs’ VP of operations, believes his team is uniquely positioned to shape the future of media. Learn more.
Mark Duvall, Chief Technology Officer
Mark oversees the management of the engineering, infrastructure and product teams.
BEYOND WORK: A self-described “waterman,” Mark enjoys open-water paddle boarding, surf skiing and outrigger canoeing. He’s raced the 22-mile Catalina Crossing between Catalina Island and Newport Beach numerous times.
What’s your background? How do you think it affected your leadership style?
I have a computer science degree with a software engineering background. I spent the first dozen years of my career as a developer, which included working with quality assurance, infrastructure and product management. From a leadership perspective, having experienced product deliveries from the trenches as a developer has provided me with great insight and empathy for all the roles in my organization, because I can identify strongly with what everyone is going through in developing, launching and supporting products.
I’m a servant leader. I believe in providing the teams with everything necessary for them to succeed.”
What is your style of managing?
I’m a servant leader. I believe in providing the teams with everything necessary for them to succeed, which could be anything from the right tools to the best work environment. This seems simple, but at times those needs and desires are not always aligned with larger corporate initiatives. I also look for opportunities to provide mentorship and offer guidance when needed.
What is the next big step for your team?
We’re scaling across the board: growth in our customer base, growth in the number of products our team will build and growth in our organizational size. The team’s focus will turn to optimizing application performance, effectively and efficiently scaling our products, as well as improving our product operations.
As we take on more product development and grow our teams, I think the company will become more creative regarding our organizational structure and potentially adopt a different model, like the Spotify model.
What’s the toughest challenge you’ve asked your employees to tackle?
For much of my career I’ve been brought into companies that are in transition and are looking to scale their businesses, but are hindered by a plethora of issues, from sales and marketing to staffing challenges or limitations with their current products. I’d say the biggest challenges have always been refactoring legacy code to a contemporary architecture without impacting the current business. It’s like doing maintenance on an aircraft while it’s in flight.
The challenge for the team is the decomposition of the “big ball of mud” into a scalable, reliable and maintainable product, which is extremely difficult as many of the developers who authored the code are usually long gone. Institutional knowledge is nonexistent and technical documentation is spare at best. My assistance starts with the diligence and planning required to determine a strategy for the refactoring, then setting an expectation on deliverables with senior leadership and finally, getting the right people and the right tools in place to execute.
What is a threat to your industry? What opportunities do you see?
One of the most prominent and relevant threats across all digital businesses today is maintaining the trust of the customer and protecting their privacy. Hallmark is a hundred-year-old company with a well earned reputation and a trusted brick-and-mortar brand. Our challenge at Hallmark Labs, is to ensure that we preserve and enhance our Hallmark reputation in the digital marketplace as we create highly innovative and disruptive digital products.
‘Labsters’ have very diverse backgrounds — they don't come from a particular type of company or have a specific skill set, but they do have a desire to succeed.”
What are the backgrounds of people on the team?
“Labsters” have very diverse backgrounds — they don’t come from a particular type of company or have a specific skill set, but they do possess a desire to succeed. Their enthusiasm and engagement stands out during interviews and is very obvious on their first day on the job. It’s always great to have candidates who are a phenomenal technical fit, but we look for that excellent cultural fit as a primary indicator.
What traits do you find impressive in a job candidate?
I’m impressed by people who have a passion for what they do. Their craft is part of who they are and goes beyond technical competence. Candidates should also have a high degree of emotional intelligence and be excellent communicators with the ability to work well in teams.
What question are you likely to ask job candidates?
I always ask candidates about the toughest challenge of their career, and I’m impressed when someone can provide a detailed account of how they approached and overcame that challenge. I want to know what their strategy was, what adversities they faced, what lessons they learned and how the experience changed who they are.