Last month Salesforce made a splash, as it typically does, with its announcement that it upgraded Heroku, the Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS) that it owns, to enterprise status.

There are a lot of goodies in Heroku Enterprise, including governance and identity features and access to languages beyond Salesforce's Apex.

It also has a new process model called Dogwood that cordons off space for various applications — the so-called Private Spaces feature.

All of which is enticing and exciting to a developer, but what if you're just a business owner who wants to know how the thing can be of benefit?

To answer that, we talked to  Yasir Anwar, head of Digital Technology and Group Vice President at Macy's and founder of Macy's Labs, which is focused on experimental digital initiatives that are quickly executed via the group's lean development teams.

No Heroku Hero

In a way Anwar is a poor spokesperson for Heroku. As you talk to him about what he and his team are doing, he barely mentions Heroku. It is just there — ready to take on what the team throws at it. This is as it should be, of course. Tools and platforms are not really conversation worthy, unless they fail.

It is also a testament to both the group and Heroku that much of what Anwar and his team has accomplished has been on the earlier iterations of the platform and not January's Enterprise release.

In 2012, Heroku was making its mark with the unveiling of a new process model for applications, based on a platform called Cedar. It was the beginning of a journey that Heroku wanted to take all the way to the enterprise. Which the company eventually did — but Anwar et al at Macy’s couldn’t wait and began using the platform for their experiments in digital customer service innovation. 

Fast forward some two years later: Macy's has come off of a highly successful online and digital sales holiday period and Anwar's group had a good bit to do with that success.

Yes, I know. The retailer announced last month it was cutting some 4,800 jobs after a miserable holiday season, according to the Associated Press. But as that same AP article noted, Macy's online sales posted a very strong performance. In November and December, and filled nearly 17 million online orders, up 25 percent from the same year-ago period, the story explains.

Small Teams, Big Ideas

For all this build up, you might expect an elaborate description of a massive consumer purchase database from, say Visa, with its training data tested against the best of deep learning technologies in Amazon’s cloud. Something big, something that has executive buy-in at the highest levels, something that costs a lot.

But, no. Macy’s been forging ahead with its digital initiatives by giving small teams the go-head to try something new on a regular basis.

"We have built an organizational DNA that allows us to innovate frequently," Anwar said. "We are able to easily build something and experiment and make changes quickly so the shape of the product we are creating is defined by the customers."

The "something" that the teams build out is called "a lean start up." It begins with an idea that a researcher has to improve the digital customer experience. That idea is then tested in a sandbox environment and rolled out on an experimental basis so that users can give feedback. Then, if there is general agreement among the researchers that the idea really does have legs, it is made available to all users.

One of those ideas was m by Macy's, an experimental mobile optimized website in which curated deals are offered in various categories. It is a reflection of Macy’s Inc.’s desire to build more vertical offerings on mobile, Anwar said.

Another experiment that is proving successful is Spark Light, a new subscription service for cosmetics. Two weeks after its beta launch more than 11,000 people had signed up, Anwar said.

Now they are playing around with ideas to complement the Apple Watch platform, he said.

The first lean start up was launched in 2014.

In 2015 the team pushed out 12.

This year they are gunning for 18.

Common Themes to Success

Looking back over the past months and years, Anwar can see clear reasons why Macy's Labs has succeeded, beyond, of course, the sheer technical talent of the team and Salesforce's platform.    

One is that the team is always, always listening for the customer signal as it tinkers with its concepts.

Another is a supportive corporate culture.

There is a saying in Silicon Valley that culture eats the process for lunch, Anwar said. In Macy's Labs case, that is very much true.

When Macy’s decided it wanted to ratchet up its online and digital presence, the team knew would need a wide latitude from management. It got it. This has allowed the team to experiment with its ideas, unfettered by most approval processes and internal controls that can hinder most other IT pilot projects.

So, that businessperson who is trying to understand what Heroku can do for him? The answer is anything and everything that he can imagine.