Groupon is hiring, and it wants YOU

Faith Merino · April 14, 2011 · Short URL:

An interview with Groupon's CDO Mark Johnson on Groupon's hiring plans and its tech strategy

If you live in the Bay Area and drive to work on the 101, you might have noticed the billboard that recently went up (assuming you notice changes in billboards) advertising tech jobs at Groupon’s Palo Alto office. Upon further probing, Groupon announced that it is, indeed, looking for 100 technologists.

“Yes, we are looking for exactly one hundred,” Groupon’s chief data officer Mark Johnson told me, adding: “no, not really.”

Johnson probably has one of the toughest jobs at Groupon: he’s in charge of the data. Think about that. When you consider Groupon’s insane hypergrowth and the fact that it’s done more in one year than most businesses do in five, you’re talking about a lot of data—data that’s constantly changing. I have a hard enough time keeping up with Groupon’s latest numbers, but Johnson and his team are responsible for keeping track of that data and using it to help the company make informed business decisions.

Johnson joined Groupon back in March 2010, around the same time that Rob Solomon joined as COO and President. At that time, Groupon had 200 employees and was operating in 45 markets. Today, the company has 6,000 employees and operates in more than 500 markets. To shuck my journalistic integrity for a minute--that’s a buttload of data to process. Which is probably why Groupon hired an expert number cruncher.

Johnson has a Ph.D. in Applied and Computational Mathematics from Princeton University, so he’s no dummy. Since receiving his Ph.D. from Princeton, Johnson has been a tech advisor to several startups, he’s worked at Yahoo, he’s been a baseball analyst for the Cardinals, and before coming to Groupon, he was the VP of software engineering at Netflix.

“The challenges are different when you’re at a company that’s been around for 10 or more years, with infrastructure laid out for hiring and building systems, whereas it’s a big change coming to startup like Groupon which has done things in one year that few companies do over five years,” said Johnson. “I came from Netflix, which is data-driven company, to spread that approach and bring a lot of the methodology there to Groupon.”

So why is Groupon hiring 100 technologists and who exactly is it looking for?

“There’s a real chance there will be more than that, but our goal for the year is to hire 100 people,” Johnson explained. “We’re looking for Web developers, ruby on rails developers, high performance systems engineers, algorithm engineers, product managers, user experience designers…it’s really across the board, we want folks that have experience with customer-facing web products, data-driven algorithms, and so on.”

But to be clear, Groupon isn’t only hiring in Palo Alto. It’s also hiring in Chicago and overseas. But given the company’s specific need for technologists and developers, Silicon Valley is the most fertile ground to search. The problem is that most people don’t know that Groupon even has an office in Palo Alto. Indeed, when Johnson joined the company, it didn’t. He was Groupon’s first Palo Alto hire and at the time, the company didn’t have an office in the area, so Johnson was charged with the responsibility of building up the company’s Bay Area presence from the comfort of his own home.

This explains the billboards, then. It seems like a low-tech way to recruit technologists, but the objective of the billboard campaign was twofold: 1) alert the Bay Area that Groupon is there, and 2) get people to apply.

But why the push for technologists and developers in the first place? What is Groupon’s plan here?

“We think the opportunity here is to become the company that figures out that local commerce technology problem. Facebook connects you with friends, Zynga is social gaming, we’re the folks that are in the local commerce space, but there’s a scaling problem of connecting with local merchants. It’s a big problem to solve and we need people who can do it, so we’re making a huge investment right now,” said Johnson.

This, of course, is the key to Groupon’s expansion. The more people it has on the ground, scouting out merchants and services, the more deals it can dish out. But when you’re talking about connecting with merchants in more than 500 markets, that can become a problem.

Some daily deal services like DealOn (which was recently acquired by ReachLocal) are looking towards open platforms as the future of daily deals. DealOn’s OfferEx platform allows other daily deal sites and publishers to supply or resell deals on an open platform. DealOn’s research found that 95% of consumers are not going to sign up with more than 3-5 group buying sites, so a single platform could spread the wealth much more efficiently. Similarly, Tippr is championing an “open deal format” that would allow for open exchange of group deal information among deal providers, thereby allowing advertisers to promote deals across multiple platforms to various audiences.

While Johnson declined to get into specifics regarding Groupon’s overall tech strategy, he did confirm that the idea, at this point, is to raise Groupon out of the sea of copycats. In a race of clones, it isn’t enough to simply have a headstart. You have to be different to be the best (think Lance Armstrong’s weird superhuman heart).  

To that end, Groupon recently launched Groupon Now, a mobile app that will allow you to find nearby deals under two categories-- "I'm hungry" or "I'm bored." Merchants will be able to specify exact time frames for their deals so that, for instance, restaurants that normally don't get customers between 2 pm and 5 pm can specify that window of time for their deals to get more traffic.

After inventing the social commerce space, which has since been flooded with Groupon copycats, Groupon Now will finally launch the company out of the water to set it apart from the clones. Of course, one could argue that other daily deal sites can just create real-time apps of their own, but the service is so time-specific that Groupon's Andrew Mason believes that merchants will only be able to use one or two services, max.

“Groupon Now start of something very big, very big opportunity for matching customers with deals,” said Johnson.

As to how the hiring is going so far, Johnson said it’s going very well.


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