Craving to know more about EatStreet? Kelli Klippenstein, IT Candidate Relations Specialist at Carex, sits down with Erik Nielsen, the Director of Engineering at EatStreet for a behind-the-scenes look at how this growing startup tackles development.
Did you know? EatStreet, one of the largest independent online and mobile food ordering and delivery services in the U.S., is the smartest shortcut between hungry and happy. Founded in 2010 by three UW-Madison students, EatStreet is now in over 250 cities nationwide connecting customers to more than 15,000 restaurants. We here at Carex are some of their biggest fans and practically know their entire delivery team by now.
Carex Consulting Group is an IT talent matchmaker, curating the very best candidates for top companies seeking battle-tested performers with a first-class pedigree.
Erik, let’s start off with a little more info about your background. What was your path to your current role as Director of Engineering at EatStreet?
I was in biotech for about 12 years, and, in that time, I did a lot of cluster and database administration, scripting, programming, and data analysis. Then I worked for CDW for 3 years in the managed services division. There was a lot of legacy, maintenance work, but I also got to learn a lot of networking and IT operations. I realized working for a large company wasn’t for me – I like to get involved in a lot of different things, and usually small companies are the way to do that – so I started my MBA and went to work for EatStreet.
I started on EatStreet’s iPhone app. As I tell people, I first did Objective-C on NextStep in 1997, and then started again in 2015. I’ve since finished my MBA, and now I get to be involved in lots of projects, technical and otherwise. I mostly try to balance keeping up with new technology and applying my experience to both mentor others and help cross functional teams at EatStreet work together effectively.
I often hear candidates considering whether to pursue an MBA. Have you found that it’s opened doors for you?
The MBA is losing its luster these days, people are going for more specific degrees like Data Analytics, focused Finance, focused Marketing, but I think the general MBA still has a place in that it really gives you an understanding of what all the other components of the company do.
I’ve been in IT and Product Development for most of my career, but this helped me see what Marketing does, what Finance does, how they make decisions, how to run a support operation, for example. Those are things that you don’t really get insight into unless you study them or work in that part of the organization.
What’s your team’s biggest technical challenge today?
I think the biggest challenge isn’t really technical so much as having limited people to do big things. The challenge is somewhat pedestrian — it comes down to a make vs. buy decision. What core competencies do we need, and what can we outsource? For example, we outsource logging and fraud prevention solutions. Similarly, the decisions are about what frameworks to use that make use of the team’s current skills or which new frameworks do we need the team to learn?
What are some of the factors you weigh when deciding whether to do something in house or look externally?
Generally, I’m considering whether there’s a put-together solution that’s more cost effective than having that function in house. One example, we started working with Test.IO for outsourced functional testing. To get the amount of coverage they do, we would have needed to build a substantial testing team in house. We’d like to eventually be profitable some day and can’t spend all our money on a testing team so working with Test.IO was the right decision for us.
What kind of challenges do you encounter that are unique to the eCommerce industry?
For any ecommerce site and apps, the challenges are user experience, performance, and security. There’s also velocity — how fast can your team deliver new features and fixes relative to the competition. From a marketing perspective, what new features are going to incentivize customers and grow your business?
How have you seen these challenges change over time?
Security has become more and more of an important issue. The legal landscape is changing, and attacks are getting more frequent and it doesn’t seem to be slowing. If people aren’t concerned, they should be.
What skills are at a premium for your team? Security sounds like one of them – are there other areas where you’d like to see more expertise in the Madison area?
I’m a bit biased here, but having a broad Linux system administration background is helpful, even for developers. AWS experience is a bonus.
Beyond that, it’s really the mix of skills and aptitude. The skills you’re hiring for today are probably not the skills you need in an employee in 2 or 4 years, so general curiosity and willingness and ability to learn are the real premium. For hiring a Software Engineer, you really want someone with a good base understanding of many different things who’s not afraid to get their hands dirty and learn new things. You can’t always hire an experienced developer, but we’re very willing to bring someone up to speed if they don’t have too much experience in a given area.
Another factor to consider is the size of the team. The smaller the team, the more generalists and adaptiveness you need. Once the team gets bigger, you have more room for specialists with particular skills.
How’s your development team structured?
I’m not sure how outdated I am with my terminology, but “T-shaped” is probably the best description. Deep in one area but having a broad experience and/or willingness to work in other areas. For example, we have an on-call rotation, and app, front end, and back end developers are expected to know enough to start debugging issues anywhere in the stack and escalating accordingly.
My team is mix of onsite and remote people, but generally the remote people are within driving distance and in the office every other week. We have a data analytics that’s mostly based in Europe with one holdout in Philadelphia.
How do you stay updated with the latest in tech?
I listen to what my team tells me is the hot new thing! Otherwise, we also pay attention to tech and frameworks that are at end of life and proactively look at replacing them. The challenge with a small team is always between spending time on new development in an old framework or making time for a major rewrite.
Oftentimes in tech I hear a focus on the cutting edge – the new, flashy innovations, but not much discussion about the other end of the spectrum – things that may be reaching the end of their life cycle and are on the way out. How do you balance keeping an eye on both ends when making decisions for your team and product?
You’re only really working with the latest technology when doing the initial development, and then the product is in maintenance mode. Unless you want to spend a lot of money to continually update the product to each newer and better framework you have to trade off doing that versus adding new features and maintaining the product as is. So really, 90% of development is maintaining existing features and 10% is developing new products and features. So that’s probably what people should expect over time, unless they develop a career when they just focus on new products and leave after that. People can do that in their career, but you can’t necessarily do that within one company because there’s not a next product, there’s the existing product that you’re working with.
Thank you so much for your time today! It’s been great hear your perspective and learn more about EatStreet.
Are you looking for technical opportunities in the Madison startup scene? Or, are you a startup looking to connect with the best and brightest in town? Reach out to Carex at firstname.lastname@example.org to learn more!