Behind the Scenes With Groupon's Developers, Talent Scout

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When you drive into Chicago to visit Groupon corporate headquarters, you take exit 51A off the Dan Ryan Expressway and eventually turn on Chicago Drive. The office is just past The Chicago Tribune building, over the bridge and to the right.

It doesn't sound like a big deal until you realize what 600 W. Chicago Drive is-the former 2-million-square-foot Montgomery Ward Catalog House. The catalog house operated continuously from its construction in 1908 until Montgomery Ward's bankruptcy in 2001. As it turns out, the home of the 20th century's major market innovator may be home to the innovator of the 21st century.

Right now, 600 W. Chicago Drive is not "The Groupon building" per se. It is a sort of a virtual mall, with coffee shops and restaurants on the first floor and office space above. The company currently occupies space on floors three, six and seven and, most recently, took out the entire fourth floor.

(Top) A view of 600 W. Chicago Drive from the Chicago River. (Bottom) Snarf's, the ground-floor coffee shop.

I meet my hosts, Julie Mossler and Nicholas Halliwell, on the ground floor next to the coffee shop. They take me in elevator to the fourth floor. As we walk, Mossler explains that the data center and mobile groups are located in Palo Alto, while the traditional site engineering, programming, sales and corporate offices are at corporate headquarters.

Groupon has about 800 people in its software development ranks, with around 300 based in Chicagoland. "But that's a hard number to pin down," Mossler explains, "as we grow by an average of 150 people a week."

On the fourth floor, I see the newly remodeled reception area, including a receptionists desk, "bubble" chairs, a giant spaceship cat and, believe it or not, an enchanted forest. The forest, she says, gives people a place to meet to be productive. "We want to be fun and lively, not ostentatious or goofy. There are no ball pits. The forest is for meetings."

(Top) Groupon's reception area offers bubble chairs for those who wait. (Bottom) The enchanted forest looks whimsical, but it's really a seating area for informal meetings.

While the enchanted forest is the most extreme perk, the free soda and coffee machines are everywhere-and there's at least one Tiki bar.

That had me wondering what it was like to work for Groupon.

It was time to meet the software people.

(Top) Groupon's Tiki hut offers free coffee, tea and other drinks. Refrigerators full of free soda are also a common sight. (Bottom) So are flags. Here the North Carolina sales staff works under the flag of Charlotte, the state's largest city.

Scaled Right, Right From the Beginning

After our coffee chat, Mossler shows me more of the office. In the hallway, I run into developers Mike Cerna and Marek Dzik.

When I ask what they have been working on lately, Cerna says, "research and development, prototyping." After spending the next minute trying to figure out their specific roles-everyone is a member of the technical staff, and developers are not title-centric-I realize I'm talking to the first programmer and first project manager that Groupon hired.

Marek Dzik (left) and Mike Cerna, programming leaders at Groupon.

The company's platform architecture company started with a hosting partner, EngineYard, which provided a full Ruby on Rails/MySQL stack out of the box, Cerna says. Groupon did recently build and convert to its own data center in Palo Alto. To do this, the company essentially implemented a carbon-copy of its technology stack in the data center, without any architecture changes. The systems ran side-by-side for two months before the Engine Yard servers were turned off and the home-grown stack stood on its own.

While Ruby on Rails has traditionally had scaling problems, the company continues to rely on it successfully. Cerna tells me Groupon closely monitors actual performance and looks for bottleneck. He uses the term "inflection points" to describe times when the system approaches a bottleneck.

"We've had a few inflection points, yes, but at this point we can essentially scale Rails to any size," Cerna says. To do this, he admits, the team had to reach inside Rails and modify it. This is a mixed blessing; such changes make massive scale possible, but, if they aren't added back to the source code, they can cause merge problems when upgrading to future versions of the Rails platform.

Groupon scales its development teams by splitting the business domain into four components: Deals, users, customers and purchases. Each of these pieces can be accessed as a Web service. Today Groupon have more than 20 services and is starting to form an architecture group. The company has scores of development teams, while the architecture group has about 20 people.

Hiring at Groupon: On the Lookout for Passive Candidates

Once I finish with Cerna and Dzik, Mossler ushers me into the "Allergic Reaction" room, where I talk to John Hundreiser, director of recruiting for engineering and IT. He walks in, gives me a firm handshake, points to the table and asks, "What would you like to know?"

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