“I felt proud seeing our platform and technology really reach people. This year we could definitely see and feel the value our platform has.”
This is how Euivin Park, chief technology officer at popular messaging platform Line, summed up how she felt about the role the company played in 2020, a year when the global coronavirus pandemic made connecting people online more important than ever before. But getting to this point required a lot of fast, decisive action, and coping with a vastly increased sense of responsibility.
Speaking online to Digital Trends on the first day of the annual Line DevDay 2020 developer conference, she gave a unique insight into how the coronavirus pandemic increased demand, pushed the team to work faster, and accelerated the development of key features. It transpired that speed was definitely of the essence in 2020.
Line, for those who aren’t familiar, is a social messaging platform similar to Facebook Messenger, WeChat, and WhatsApp. Although it doesn’t have a big presence in the U.S., it is the top messenger app in Japan, Taiwan, Thailand, and Indonesia with user numbers in the hundreds of millions. You probably know its famous cute characters from the Line Friends stores, like the one in Times Square, New York.
I attended Line’s DevDay 2019 in person, but Developer Day 2020 is the first time it has taken place online. Obviously, given the global situation, this was a necessity, but it also fits neatly in with the fast, collective transition to an even more online life.
“The pandemic has pushed the digital transformation forward,” Park explained. “This was going to happen, but the pandemic brought it in faster. Now everyone is exposed to this digitalized society, I don’t think we will [return to a less digitized world] because everyone is becoming used to it. Line has to be in step with that.”
But as we’re all acutely aware, getting in step with 2020 has not been an easy task.
“For the past six or seven months, we worked really hard,” she told me. “All needs really changed. The services, the priority, the schedule, and the time limits all switched. Accordingly, developers had to focus and prioritize better.”
Developments tailored for 2020
During both our conversation and her keynote presentation for Developer Day 2020, Park discussed the many new features introduced by Line specifically tailored to the changing needs presented by the pandemic, along with skyrocketing demand for certain existing services. It all added up to showing just how much, and how quickly, the company adapted to demand.
“Video chat was most popular from February to May,” Park highlighted during her keynote. “Video calls increased 235% and we saw 16x traffic at peak, which is the upper capacity limit of Line’s Tokyo data center. To support this change we optimized load balancing, and utilized data centers from other regions dynamically.”
Beyond this, Line saw a 140% increase in the amount of Line Official accounts between March and April. Line’s team developed new features that would have been unheard of in 2019. Using the Line Mini app, where businesses can set up a dedicated home page inside the main app, a queue management service was introduced, which saw some of the most popular cafes and restaurants in Tokyo deal with virtual queues up to five hours long. This same method was extended to pharmacies, where prescriptions could be reserved without queuing.
Line Pay was implemented into more services so it was easier for people to pay online, Line Group Chat’s capacity was increased to 500 people, and Line worked with the Japanese government to implement a national survey system, right down to including a health status check using the Line Chat bot.
Working with local governments was important, and partnering this way accelerated the introduction of Line Doctor, an online health platform where clinic visits could be booked and paid for, and virtual checkups could take place using a Line Video Calls. Line approached the Japanese Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare about the concept at the beginning of the pandemic, and went on to work with 24 different local governments and provided the consultation service for free.
“Things that were done offline before, were all shifted online,” Park said, highlighting the scale of the effort.
Speed was of the essence
Bringing the offline world online in a short space of time requires a solid platform, and adding specific features to it at a fast pace required fast decision making. Park was surprisingly candid about the challenges this presented for both herself and the development team.
“The platform technology needed isn’t made overnight. you have to build it up ready for use. We expected this merger of online and offline, everyone predicted it would come, we just didn’t know it would happen this fast. So we needed to work faster,” she told me. “I had to make decisions quickly, as the faster I decided the faster developers could start working, I didn’t want to be the bottleneck.”
Because Line is widely used in several different countries, local requirements made this more complex.
“The things I had to decide on happened more often, and at the same time [compared to 2019], she continued. “There was a step-by-step process and it was very natural, but what was different this time was things had to be decided even faster, and simultaneously we had different requests coming from different countries. We had this overflow of requests.”
Understanding the small, specific local differences, which those outside the country could simply not be aware of, made a big difference to a new feature’s eventual usability. Park said context was essential, but the pandemic had made getting it more difficult due to the development team being unable to meet in person.
“Before, we would meet offline and sync up together, but because we couldn’t meet, everything was done online. The tech that supported this had to be improved as quickly as possible. We had already worked remotely, but before, whenever new projects started, we had global team members come together in one place, then go back to their respective bases to start work. It was so difficult to do cross-country projects. We’ve tried really hard to solve that for the last six months.”
To get past this, Park had to lean on one of her strengths to ensure the company kept up the pace.
“It’s one of my strengths, I could make quick decisions so I could push developers to start quickly. But the minute I decide then that one little detail that was important for that country may have been missed. Listening to each country was really important for me to make my decisions. I think I was a little too focused on making quick decisions sometimes. I reminded myself to listen to team members a little more closely from now on,” Park admitted.
Park’s concern over making Line’s platform even more robust, which she repeatedly touched upon in our conversation, forms the basis of what she wants to achieve going forward into 2021. The pandemic still continues, and the demand on Line’s platform is unlikely to lessen. She said building up the platform and utilizing the data already inside it will help Line add to, and improve its services, even faster.
“What is most important is the platform. For developers to be more efficient, we need a very solid architecture at the very basis of the platform. This is not very visible but it’s really important.”
The shock of 2020, and the acceleration of offline services becoming online ones, is pushing Park and the company to a higher level of technological, and personal, preparedness. More than once she emphasized how she felt personally responsible for the speed with which Line reacted to events over the past months.
This same emotion came up once again as our conversation came to a close, when she summed up what life was like as the CTO of a messaging app in 2020:
“I felt nervous and pressured at the same time, and I was hectically busy, but I was always reminded of the responsibility that I have to carry on and give back to society.”