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Zendesk: Tech Startups Offer IT Tips to CIOs

Big IT shops can learn a lot from small companies that started with a blank slate.

August 08, 2011
ComputerWorld
by Juan Carlos Perez

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 the latest IT tools and services.
Groupon: ‘Fluid’ IT-business Relations

Groupon, the online coupon phenomenon founded in 2008, believes that a key to its success is the fact that its IT professionals frequently collaborate closely with business managers.

“We try to create a very collaborative environment, getting engineering very embedded with the business side,” says 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 says.

To accomplish this, Groupon is very selective when hiring IT professionals. “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 says.
Zendesk: Managing Developer Collaboration

At Zendesk, which makes Web-based help desk and IT support software, application developers participate in internal “hackathons” to help spur innovative thinking and get valuable projects under way quickly.

The company also holds “stand-up” meetings that last 15 to 20 minutes and give the application development 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 projects that can be completed in 24 hours, says Zack Urlocker, Zendesk’s chief operating officer.

“You don’t want to necessarily do that all the time,” Urlocker says. “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.”
Box.net: Going to the Cloud

The use of cloud-based applications and IT infrastructure services tends to be popular among technology startups. Relying on the cloud lets young, innovative ventures control purchasing and maintenance costs and allows them to focus on developing their unique products.

For example, thanks to its liberal and savvy use of cloud-based applications and infrastructure services, Box.net until recently was able to get by with only one person devoted exclusively to IT. Its lone IT lead, Jeff Sutton, supported 150 employees at the provider of hosted content management, collaboration and file-sharing applications.

“I’m working on things I would have never worked on before if we didn’t have this cloud infrastructure,” says Sutton. “I’d be doing repetitive maintenance tasks.”

For example, Sutton is in charge of the company’s internal application development environment, and he’s leading a VMware project. “There are a lot more things I have bandwidth to do. It gives me more time to focus on new technologies,” he says.

Aaron Levie, Box.net’s CEO and co-founder, says the company looks for cloud-based applications for everything, especially for standard IT needs. “We want to free up resources to solve the higher-order issues around technology,” Levie says.

This approach has also allowed Box.net to grow rapidly, sometimes doubling its head count from one year to the next, without having to worry about its IT infrastructure buckling or collapsing. “One of the breaking points when an organization grows like this is that their IT infrastructure begins to have challenges,” says Levie. ” We try to remove as many of those kinds of limits as possible from how quickly we can grow,” says Levie.

Like Box.net, Zendesk uses a broad array of cloud applications and services. And because of that, the 70-employee company hasn’t needed even one person devoted exclusively to IT. “We run most of our business off of hosted, cloud-based software,” Urlocker says.

In addition to using its own cloud-based application, Zendesk uses business software from Box.net, Google, Salesforce.com, Amazon Web Services, Rackspace and Yammer.

Asked about the concerns that many IT leaders still have about the cloud, Urlocker says cloud vendors have significantly improved the security, reliability and performance of their offerings. “Things have really matured in the last few years,” he says. “It’s not the Wild West anymore.”

CIOs may find that the reliability and security they get from commercial cloud vendors often exceeds what they get from their own IT departments, he adds.

Urlocker recommends starting with a few small projects in the cloud. “If you have an IT organization that isn’t running any cloud-based software, that’s really behind the curve,” he adds.
SlideShare: Constant Iteration

SlideShare, a site for posting and sharing business presentations, has perfected the art of constantly tweaking its software and pushing out multiple changes per day.

SlideShare’s CTO and co-founder, Jonathan Boutelle, recommends an approach of constant iteration for software development, based on continuous and exhaustive analysis of user behavior. “When you chop work into small enough chunks, it becomes much less intimidating,” he says.

This approach is less risky than the conventional tack of spending six months or more on a major IT project and then deploying it in a big-bang manner, he says. “We don’t like big bangs,” says Boutelle. “We like to constantly make small changes and feel that’s a great way to reduce risk.”

SlideShare is now at a point where it tweaks its Web-based application dozens of times per day, he says, adding “the combination of having very good measurement of user behavior with the ability to make small changes to the site means we can iterate extremely quickly.”

Zendesk: Tech Startups Offer IT Tips to CIOs

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