Tuesday, September 16, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

Philly as Big Data tech center

Monetate ceo Brussin, IT head Janofsky on hiring software engineers in Philly

Philly as Big Data tech center

Christmas retail sales may have been weak this year, but retail software data action is way up: "Just about every metric we look at has doubled this year -- revenue, customers, emplyee count," says David Brussin, CEO at Monetate, the First Round Capital-backed, West Conshohocken-based retail shopping data software and strategy firm that cliams Dick's Sporting Goods, Frontier Airlines, Macy's, Patagonia, PetCo. QVC, Tommy Hilfiger, and unnamed "publishing and social media and airline" firms as clients.

"Thanksgiving to Cyber Monday, we influenced over $1 billion in transactions for our customers, a new record for us, and a second straight year of more than 20% of U.S. retail flowing through our platform. Cyber Monday, we did about half a billion page views. Yahoo's biggest-ever day was 400 million, with that [British] royal wedding. So we beat Yahoo's biggest trafic day by 20%," Brussin adds. He won't share hard revenue numbers. But he says emplyoment has doubled, to 130, since last year. "And we're profitable.'

How can data services thrive when underlying retail sales are hobbling along? "This is a really interesting inflection point for the business. The market has become much more broadly aware of the space where we work," Brussin told me. "Harvard Business Review did a story on Big Data," all the customer information now pouring into corporate IT listening posts via smartphone location, transaction, search and social media preference data.

So "it's become a topic in every board meeting across the country. Boards are asking executives, 'What are we doing to leverage the kind of technologies talked about in the Obama camp?'" which famously out-algorithm'd and -databased the Romney campaign's kludgy voter-targeting software. "'What are we doing to take advantage of all the new customer data?' Big data movement has become a strategic priority. It means the broader market will catch up with what our customers already do."

Oracle lately acquired retail software developer Eloqua, but Brussin says that's "in an adjacent space, the more B2B market formation space. It's a little bit last generation. They're missing the Big Data aspect." If he's right, Monetate will attract offers with fat multiples. Brussin says he's building the business to last.

Monetate expects to double its hires again in 2013. "About a quarter of the team is engineering, a quarter is stratetgic (client) services, a quarter is sales, a quarter is marketing-administrative-finance-HR," Brussin says. "For most of these roles, the people we are looking for are here" around Philadelphia. "Engineering, we've found amazing people here. We've turned down folks who've gone in to work at Google.

"But the challenge with (hiring engineers) is that it's never quite as fast as we'd like. It always takes a little longer than we'd like to find that next person... The challenges we're working on are brand new -- the scale we work with, the number of transactions we're processing -- people who work on those problems are very excited coming here."

Philly is already a retail tech center: "We've got Kynetic, eBay-GSI, QVC, we've got new pure-play companies like Revzilla that sells high-end motorcycle gear and equipment online...

"What else we'd like to see is a big investment in this region that would enable graduates from our great schools to stay here to work on software development. Not just marketing. SAP has a lot of great people here, but a lot of them focus on marketing. I think they do their development in Germany, India, California. While our engineering graduates are being recruited by companies in other regions.

"I'd like to see SAP and Comcast put their next development group here. Look at the small exciting technology companies that grew up here in the last ten years: Traffic.com, Mapquest, QlikTech, Planalytics... Guys like Bob Moul, Philly Startup Leaders, they're helping put together our grassroots tech community. What's missing is something at a larger level designed to tell the story, stand up and declare what's already here.

"We probably have a bigger tech community than, say, Austin, which gets a lot of press. We're comparable to Boston. We belong with New York. If we can get that recognized, if we can get more companies to develop here, there can be 20 Monetates in Philadelphia."

Tom Janofsky, Brussin's vice president of engineering, head of a staff of 40 engineers, plans "to add another 40 egnineers this year if we can." The U of Scranton grad, who spent his early career building "large-scale, Web-facing transactional software" for EMC, Pearson, FEMA and other clients, now spends half his time recruiting, and says he likes it.

"So, say you're coming out of NYU right now. You have some really obvious choices: you can work at Wall Street, or you can work at one of these great startups, these popular innovative companies up there, say Foursquare. All right. But say you're graduating Drexel, after you've done two or three years as a co-op at Lockheed or Unisys. Do you know you can stay here, in Philadelphia, and work at a pure software company that has a lot of opportunity?"

The Philadelphia region is studded with previous-generation big tech companies, some of which have been shedding engineers. Why not hire veteran talent?

Monetate has picked up veterans of Microsoft and SunGard. The challenge for big-firm veterans preparing to try small firms, Janofsky says, "is keeping your skills fresh. At larger companies you are often updating the database, working with existing applications and predictable problems other people have solved. But our industry really does change very quickly. (At fast-growing small firms) you have to be willing to throw out these very specific techinques, what you learned six years ago, that is not as applicable today."

He relates to the independent developers at IndyHall and the other coworking spaces, and to companies that are breaking through to build professional staff -- "Relay Networks, Curelate. The problem we all have is awareness," getting young developers to know "that we're all here...

"We've had a lot of luck meeting people through our advertising, through media coverage, in-person event stuff. We're very active in the local technical commuity. We started an engineering blog... Each person we meet is like a happy accident."

Joseph N. DiStefano
About this blog

PhillyDeals posts raw drafts and updates of Joseph N. DiStefano's columns and stories about Philly-area finance, investment, commercial real estate, tech, hiring and public spending, which he's been writing since 1989, mostly for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

DiStefano studied economics, history and a little engineering at Penn, taught writing at St. Joe's, and has written the book Comcasted, more than a thousand columns, and thousands of articles, and raised six children with his wife, who is a saint.

Reach Joseph N. at JoeD@phillynews.com or 215 854 5194.

Joseph N. DiStefano
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