Researching your family history is probably something that many of us have thought of at least once. Luckily, the overwhelming amount of historical data doesn’t scare us anymore. In the Internet world, with archives being digitized and new software emerging on the market every minute, making a basic outline of your family history or building your family tree doesn’t take longer than a few clicks. Today, Andriy Kohut, co-owner and CTO at UKEESS Software House, shares his experience of leading the development of Archives.com, a fast-growing family history website.
When in 2012 the world’s largest for-profit genealogy company Ancestry.com announced that it has entered into a definitive agreement with a Silicon Valley-based startup Inflection to acquire its competitor Archives.com for $100 million in cash no one really knew that Archives.com might have some Ukrainian roots. As a part of this sale – a number of Archive.com’s employees including core engineering group from Lviv, Ukraine joined the Ancestry.com team after the acquisition was closed. Archives.com focuses on helping its users discover their family history. The service’s archive of 11.4 billion historical records includes photos, newspapers, and vital records that can help you find information about your ancestors, build your family tree, etc.
Ukrainian engineers join the project
The story of Archives.com started back in January 2009. The project combined a vision of a low-cost genealogy service from a Silicon Valley-based startup Inflection, its enthusiastic and highly professional product managers and marketing team, and a group of engineers from Lviv under Andriy Kohut’s leadership. After graduating from Lviv Polytechnic with a degree in Applied Mathematics in 2001, Andriy has quickly excelled from software developer to lead executive. His development and management experience in different areas such as ground transportation industry, healthcare, marketing software, e-commerce helps him to lead his current company and keep up with highest industry standards to meet clients’ expectations. Archives.com development and success was a great indicator of his team capabilities and professionalism.
Archives.com aimed to make genealogy research quick and easy. At the same time, this imposed a number of challenges, especially in terms of technical decisions that had to be made when developing the service. The challenges began from consolidating digitized and non-digitized big historical datasets from different US states/counties/offices, different formats, and media, combining it in a fast and easy-to-use search engine, integrating with multiple external APIs, proving access to digitized recordsets, etc. In the end, the product had to be integrated with some 3rd party proprietary website, payment, and UI frameworks. Thankfully, the Ukrainian engineering team was free in technical decisions to take along the way and it resulted in high performant website platform not only for its clients but also for partners and affiliates. The platform included website, search engine, API and Admin tools for partners, unique UI and functionality split testing framework and great ads and affiliate programs.
Therefore, product and engineering teams executed well on the initial product idea: keeping search tools simple on the surface, but behind the scenes, extensive record collections paired with powerful technology delivered valuable results to its clients.
Offshore development teams: advantages vs. challenges
From the process’s standpoint, the core engineering team resided in Lviv under Andriy Kohut’s supervision. Believe it or not, but pretty much all website’s functionality was developed by 13 engineers, including 6-7 senior back-end engineers, 3 front-end engineers, and 3 QAs. Time difference with product managers/owners in California played very well while iterating quickly through product development short life cycles. The development team was executing new feature development very quickly during US night time. They would do demo/reviews during overlap time and get new and revised specs over nighttime – overall that reduced development time a lot and less than under 3 years the product became the third key player in the industry.
For a lot of product managers from the client’s side that was the first experience working with offshore development team. They have always positively referred to working with Ukrainian remote team in a different time zone. Strangely, but some PMs who worked with offshore development teams before noted that it was their first successful experience. It came as a surprise to us, as we had never failed with US clients while working remotely.
One more thing worth mentioning was that all UI/UX designers were from the client’s side as we believe that they have to live in the product’s target country, feel users at a native level, and test UI/UX wireframes on native speakers.
Business trips from the local Ukrainian team became the last major point in the development success of Archives.com. Very often clients underestimate the importance of such business trips from both sides. What we have learned is that such business trips not only help local team leads and developers better understand the company’s values, get to know the project better, but also get to know the client’s employees, break barriers in communication with them, and, thus, deliver faster.
The evolution of the project
Since the first launch of the service, it’s continuingly being improved, new features are constantly being added and its user base is growing. One of the key milestones during Archives.com development was that the client’s company was selected by U.S. National Archives to make the complete 1940 U.S. census available online. In April 2012, both local and client’s engineering team made it happen. For a few days since the launch, the website became the most visited web page in the world.
From the technical standpoint, it evolved from custom 3rd party proprietary frameworks since the initial launch to clean ASP.NET MVC and utilizing latest modern technologies like Angular 5, Mixpanel, Elasticsearch, New Relic, etc. Currently, it’s undergoing .NET Core transition and being part of the overall corporate migration to AWS – migrating to AWS with utilizing a lot of modern features like DynamoDB, Amazon Route 53, AWS Lambda, etc. Again, as the project is constantly growing, improving, and utilizing new technologies, Ukrainian engineering team is completely trusted in technical decisions that have to be taken along the way.
The project itself is subscription based with a 14-day trial. After entering your credit cards details, you get a full access to the website, including building your family tree, saving records, access to unique scanned historical books and largest digitized newspaper database with a search feature.