April 25, 2011, 12:08 AM — Successful technology startups are usually keen to draw attention to their hot products, not to their internal use of IT. But companies such as Groupon, Box.net, Zendesk and SlideShare can offer CIOs lessons from what they've accomplished with limited resources, a blank slate for IT infrastructure and their finger on the pulse of the latest IT tools and services.
Groupon: IT integrated with business strategy
Groupon, the online coupon phenomenon founded in 2008, considers it crucial to its success that its IT officials establish close and frequent collaborations with business managers.
"We try to create a very collaborative environment, getting engineering very embedded with the business side," said Ivan Moscoso, Groupon's director of engineering. "There are never really strong divisions between our departments. We try to keep things fairly fluid."
By having a lot of "face time" with managers in departments like sales, editorial and customer service, IT staffers can develop IT services and tools that truly support the efforts and goals of the company, Moscoso said.
To accomplish this, Groupon is very selective when hiring IT professionals. It looks for candidates who are strong on a technical level, but also able to understand the company's business needs and to communicate well with non-IT colleagues.
"To get that close collaboration between the business and engineering means selecting the right people who can be both extremely technical as well as open to working with mixed, multidisciplinary teams," Moscoso said.
Zendesk: Managing app-dev collaboration
Zendesk, which makes Web-based help desk and support software, holds internal "hackathons" for its application developers, which helps spur innovative thinking and gets valuable projects under way quickly.
The company holds brief "stand up" meetings for its application developers. Those last between 15 and 20 minutes and give the team a chance to discuss what's new and bring up issues that need to be addressed. But for real sit-down collaboration, there are the hackathons, where developers work on manageable projects that can be completed in 24 hours, said Zack Urlocker, Zendesk's chief operating officer.
"You don't want to necessarily do that all the time, but sometimes that's a nice way to get a bunch of small projects finished all at once and give people that sense of accomplishment," he said.
Box.Net: Going to the cloud to keep infrastructure investment lean
The use of cloud-based applications and IT infrastructure services also tends to be popular and broad among technology startups, which say that it has allowed them to keep purchasing and maintenance costs down, while letting them focus on developing their unique commercial products.