JOHN STOKVIS

Technical Product Manager
Chicago, IL
Joined: 2011

What’s your favorite conference room?

Vim or emacs?

It’s not every day you get to interview a Product Manager whose secret talent is being able to balance 3 chairs on their chin…because they were once a circus performer. Talk about making big career moves!

What’s your favorite Groupon memory?

My favorite Groupon memory isn’t something big or grand. It was actually a small act, but it’s resonated with me ever since. It exemplifies what I think is special about Groupon and is the source of a lot of our success. Around 2013, I was working as an analyst building dashboards. Unprompted, a more senior employee gathered a group together (analysts and non-analysts) for a tutorial on SQL. He created a whole powerpoint presentation and walked us through concepts and small tricks he had picked up. He even scheduled several follow-ups with the group and was always available to answer questions and learn tricks. He wasn’t even on the same team as I was, but saw an opportunity to help us all improve. He’s no longer at Groupon, but I constantly think back to what he did for me. I try to keep that part of the culture alive. Supporting your teammates and making each other look good is pervasive at Groupon. It’s what I love most about working here.

So before joining Groupon you were…

An actor and circus performer. I did some theater and circus around town, as well as the occasional temp job. An actor in one of the shows I was in helped me get a job in customer service and I’ve been here ever since.

If you can remember back to 2011…what was your first impression of Groupon?

I remember it flashing across my consciousness before I started working here. It was this super cool way to get a great deal with your friends. And it just showed up in your email inbox! It’s been crazy to see where we’ve come from there.

You have an interesting career path here…tell us about it!

I started as a front-line Customer Service Rep, helping folks find their Groupons, cancel purchases, and solve issues with merchants. We had a ping-pong table in the office and there were about 10 of us who got pretty good. We all started talking about who was the best and on my breaks, I built a spreadsheet in Google Docs to figure it out (I Googled a bunch of formulas and read about the ELO ranking system – the same one that Nate Silver uses a lot on FiveThirtyEight). Then I got people to enter the results of their matches to determine who was the champion (hint: it wasn’t me). About a year in, there was a special project to use predictive analytics to predict which deals would be likely to have lots of refunds. Because of the ping pong spreadsheet, they gave me a shot and I loved it! I learned all about SQL and analytics, ended up joining the fledgling Risk Management team as their first analyst (there were 4 of us at the time, now it’s a global department!).

From there I moved to Global Operations to help build dashboards and analytics for our efforts to take Groupon’s global footprint and streamline it; at that time, we were operating in almost 50 countries, sometimes it seemed like 50 different companies, all called “Groupon.” After that, I learned about Product and moved over here. I worked on our backend merchant database for about a year and half. When Groupon acquired LivingSocial in late 2016, I joined the small core team to lead the Product effort to rebuild LivingSocial on Groupon’s infrastructure. We launched our MVP in June 2017, and I’ve been working on improving LivingSocial and the multi-brand platform ever since!

What do your parents think you do?

I asked my parents and they got it pretty spot on. My theater friends always give me blank stares when I tell them I’m a PM. So I just tell them I’m like the director and the developers are like the actors – they’re real stars. I just put myself in the mind of the audience (the customer) and point the engineers in the right direction. Then my metaphor breaks down and they nod and change the subject.

What’s unique about Groupon’s Engineering culture?

We’re scrappy. A lot of people forget that Groupon’s origin was as a hack on top of The Point, which was like a proto-Kickstarter. The very first Groupon was a deal for 2 pizzas for the price of 1 at the bar downstairs at our office, but people could only get it if enough people “pledged” to buy it. That sense of “let’s try this and see if it works” and then iterating on that is part of our DNA.

The local commerce or online-to-offline (or whatever the kids are calling it these days) is really tricky. What works for one kind of business doesn’t work for others. Everyone in Product and Engineering is game to try new things, then take the feedback from customers and merchants and learn from it. I think that’s one of the main reasons Groupon has stuck around while others haven’t. Even large companies like Google, Amazon, and Facebook have tried to get into this space and haven’t been able to crack it.

Ready to launch awesome products?

And more specific to you, what’s unique about Product Management at Groupon?

The collaboration. A lot of people think of PMs as “mini-CEOs” and some companies have PM cultures that are cut-throat and every-PM-for-her/himself. At Groupon we’re constantly sharing thoughts, partnering with each other on projects, and bouncing ideas off each other. Not all PMs come from a product background. Some do, but many come from Customer Service, Sales, Account Management. There’s a variety of experiences and backgrounds that we collectively draw from and a lot of cross-pollination.

What’s your favorite programming language?

Ruby on Rails. Because it sounds like the name of a small town in northern England.

What’s the most challenging thing you’ve worked on at Groupon?

That would be the project to rebuild LivingSocial on the Groupon platform, what we referred to internally as “Project Gemini.” Looking back, it was a truly massive undertaking. We were modifying everything, from backend to frontend, how customer service took incoming calls to how we processed payments. It touched five different departments, impacted more 300 different individuals directly, had more than 60 different workstreams. The core team that I was a part of had to not only keep track of all this action but see how the decisions we made in one place would affect things somewhere else and make the right call. It was super challenging and when we ultimately finished our MVP and cutover from old to new LivingSocial and the 6 months of work that everyone did finally pay off, it was an amazing payoff. Someone even brought a “cutover cake” that we ate at 3 am with some champagne. And that was just the MVP – getting us to the starting line!

Tell us about what your job entails and what you love about what you do.

I’m the Product Manager for LivingSocial, so I focus on the modifying and adapting the Groupon platform for the LivingSocial brand. I work closely with our Engineering, Operations, and Marketing teams to make sure the customer experience is as great as it can be.

My favorite part of the role is simply the breadth that I get to be responsible for. Most teams have a specific area they focus on (the deal page, redemption, or a single vertical like Goods or Things To Do). With LivingSocial, the team gets our hands in every part of the site. This means we often have to work together with other teams to come up with solutions. Every day I get to solve a huge variety of interesting problems, so it’s never boring. LivingSocial is the first time Groupon has tried to run a second brand on the platform, we get to tackle all sorts of new problems that the company has never had to solve before. On top of it all, I’m getting a big picture sense of how the whole system works, I get to see all the connections, which is super cool.

Tell us something about you that might surprise us.

I can balance three chairs on my chin.

What is your favorite part of your team’s software development process?

Our retros. We really dive into the task of constantly optimizing our process. Talking about what worked and what didn’t. Why issues happened and what we can do to avoid them in the future. We try to keep a sense of psychological safety so we can be honest with each other.

Show us your favorite view from the Chicago office!

How does your work impact Groupon’s mission of building the daily habit in local commerce?

With two brands in the portfolio now, my job is to think about what LivingSocial customers are looking for when they visit the site and help them find it. Groupon and LivingSocial were competitors for most their existence but now they can work together to help customers explore the amazing things to do and see in their neighborhoods.

Tabs or spaces?

Tabs all day long.

What’s your favorite local business?

Antica Pizzeria in Andersonville. Amazing Sicilian pizza (thin crust, not “Chicago style”) fresh out of a brick oven. The best crust in the city. My favorite one is arugula, pistachio, and speck (kind of like prosciutto) and a drizzle of olive oil. It’s delicious!

What keeps you busy outside of work?

I do the occasional on-camera acting gig. My wife is an actor and I’ve still got friends in the Chicago theater scene, so I get to see a lot of really interesting theater. Chicago’s also a great biking city so I try to bike to work as much as I can (it also helps feed my podcast obsession). I love to bake (my favorite is sourdough bread) and we keep chickens in our backyard so we get fresh eggs (no, we won’t eat them and yes, they’re fine with the Chicago winters). Fresh eggs and toast definitely make breakfast my favorite meal of the day.