Most people’s experience of online discount codes and coupon websites is purely transactional. Shoppers will use a search engine to find a discount code, go to the site offering the most relevant one, copy it and use it on the retailer’s website. The chances of the customer going back to the site hosting the codes regularly are low.

RetailMeNot, which owns the UK online coupon site, wants to break this dependence on search engines to create loyalty by enhancing user experience and allowing retailers a more attractive platform on which to display their offers.

Ex-Google lead engineer Matt Wilkins is responsible for online coupon company RetailMeNot's European arm, including Image credit: RetailMeNot
Ex-Google lead engineer Matt Wilkins is responsible for online coupon company RetailMeNot's European arm, including Image credit: RetailMeNot

The company’s European technology head - an ex-Google lead engineer - believes that technology is the way to achieve this, and has told Techworld how he has spent the last 18 months or so overhauling his software engineering team and preparing a single platform designed for the Internet of Things that will enable the company to stand out.

“Most people in our space would have built their websites as websites. But technology is now shifting to what is mobile. It’s about smart devices, in my view,” says Matt Wilkins, senior vice-president of product and engineering (EMEA) at RetailMeNot.

“I am looking at building a platform that is built not just for websites, but for smart devices. This means building a code base which can be utilised for smart devices, as opposed to adapting a set of code built as a website, and trying to adapt it for smart devices. This is our chance to look at engineering it for real growth over the next two to three years.”

Engineering for the future

As RetailMeNot in Europe grew from acquisitions, the company started with six separate code bases: one for VoucherCodes in the UK, one in the Netherlands, one in Germany and three in France. As well as these, the company has a mobile code base, which, although it will be “more tied in than ever before”, will still have some separation from the main platform.

Wilkins’ plan for Europe is to consolidate onto a single code base, creating a common back end platform for RetailMeNot’s different European brands. At the front end, he wants an engineering platform that has the flexibility to allow each country to launch different things, or turn features on and off, when they want.

“For example, if you’re looking at one product [or feature], such as ‘save for later’, you could turn it on for just the German and French property. It means you’re not engineering it in each country, and dealing with different code base frameworks. You’ve got one code framework you build from, which means time to launch is so much quicker and you can leverage a true international team.”

While the back end platform has now been built, work to develop the front end engineering platform is ongoing, with completion due by the end of June. RetailMeNot plans to migrate the first site, Dutch site, to the whole new platform early in the third quarter.

Python and PHP are the main programming languages used to rewrite the back end platform, while on the front end, RetailMeNot is working in AngularJS. Other languages used include JavaScript, CSS and HTML.

Meanwhile, the new mobile platform is expected to be ready by the end of the first quarter, with the rollout across Europe to follow almost immediately. Features of the new mobile platform include being able to host unlimited offers, improved in-store offer targeting for retailers and state of the art navigational functions.

New technological processes - and their challenges

To build the new technology platform, Wilkins found he had to implement new processes, including agile development methodologies, and formal QA and testing. This was not without its challenges.

“In software development, I’m a big believer in agile, especially as the market is changing quickly. So I implemented agile - that’s a huge shift for the business. When you roll it out, you have to roll that out with the whole business, not just with engineering,” says Wilkins.

Before VoucherCodes was acquired by RetailMeNot, the firm developed using waterfall methodologies. In addition to this, strategy came from a small group of founders in each of the different RetailMeNot businesses.

“So we tried to change the decision-making to different stakeholders feeding into an agile process,” Wilkins explained.

“Any company starting that process, I feel for them, because the first six months can be very bumpy. It feels like you’re not delivering a lot, but in order to get real velocity later on, it’s important to do.

“The challenge is you’ve also got to add to the team, because agile only works when you’ve got the right team. The challenge we had was that we had very small teams, so if somebody was off for two weeks, the process did get quite hard.”

When Wilkins first looked at the engineering process at VoucherCodes, he discovered that formal QA and testing didn’t exist. He believes that QA is essential for engineers because it allows them to focus on their work, be innovative and to develop faster, without worrying about small problems.

“Ideally you have QA and then code reviews, so you stop any small errors creeping in,” he says.

He warns that companies need to be careful about how they introduce QA, however, as there is “always pushback” from the engineers.

“They see it as babysitting their work. So you have to be conscious, as a leader, that that’s not why you’re putting it in. QA is actually a huge benefit to them. It helps them not have to worry about spending three hours checking some of the work. It’s automatically being tested as they’re going. You have to make sure you message it correctly.”

RetailMeNot Europe uses QA automation tools such as Selenium, as well as a large number of manual checks. The European team inherited an automated testing framework - written in Java - from its US counterpart, which has has been working on QA for three years. Wilkins expects his team to rewrite some of the automated testing framework to include Python as well.

“Testing in our space is also becoming more critical for user experience,” Wilkins adds.

“One of the big areas for us is how to provide value back for users and retailers. Testing is a great way for us to work with them [retailers] on things you want to work on. It can be as simple as, you’ve got two different types of offers, we can provide an environment for you where you can test those, and we can provide insight into which customers are getting those tests and how those tests are performing.”

Another important part of the new platform is the ability to use more APIs. RetailMeNot currently uses lots of APIs, but developing for smart devices will mean that APIs will be “huge” for the company this year, according to Wilkins.

“APIs just gives you so many choices and so much flexibility. You’ve no longer got one monolithic code base that only I can use. Especially with the Internet of Things, you will see APIs becoming more and more prevalent.”

RetailMeNot does all its API work in-house, including API management. Based on his past experience, it is important to Wilkins that development work is kept inside the business.

“I worked in a number of startups when I was at Google. When you outsource some of the development, it’s OK, but the trick is to have the knowledge somewhere in-house. There’s always a time when you have to come back to that API or that feature,” he says.

Creating a truly European engineering team

Wilkins had planned to develop the single software platform across Europe when he started at RetailMeNot in August 2013. But to enable it, he had to build a European engineering team that could work on anything from anywhere. This required him to use some of his experience from when he was global mergers and acquisitions (M&A) engineering integration lead at Google.

“When I started at RetailMeNot, the structure for Europe was a number of different entities. They were mostly a different set of acquisitions in each country with a very talented set of engineers, but without the processes in place to scale.”

Originally a team of 20 engineers has now grown to around 50 in Europe. RetailMeNot’s US division has about 100 software engineers.

“The first decision I made, in order to continue to grow, was that one platform was going to be the way forward for us. In order to have the growth, the tech innovation and the product launches I would expect and I’d like to push for in each of those countries, you’ve either got to build a team in each country, or you’ve got to find a way to leverage a broader European team with some things happening locally in-country.”

The Google experience

A computer science graduate from Loughborough University, Wilkins’ first job, in 2001, was with the internet services provider (ISP) Freeserve, doing IT and operations work.

One of his biggest achievements there was to implement video conferencing, which was not yet widely available, and something that Wilkins saw could be “really exciting” in the work environment.

“I asked for some budget to do some videoconferencing, which they didn’t give me at the time, so I went and begged and borrowed from Sony and a couple of other companies, calling them to ask if I could have some endpoints. I went and coded my own video conference bridge, even though I didn’t get any real budget for it, did a proof of concept, got it working and they [Freeserve] said they wanted to roll it out.”

Wilkins then went travelling for 18 months, during which time Freeserve held his job open for him. However, on his return, Freeserve had been merged with Wanadoo, which then became Orange. He found that the company no longer suited him.

“The main reason was, I was really passionate about innovation and being at a company where I felt I could shape the innovation and that was really at the front of it. Orange was doing some great things, but it wasn’t where I wanted to be,” he explains.

“Then this company Google was around, so I looked at that, and applied for a job in IT and engineering there.”

After passing 10 interviews, Wilkins started working at Google in 2006, firstly in a “hands-on IT role”, which involved writing code and building out offices, before moving to an infrastructure and operations role.

Wilkins was in the latter role to help with Google’s expansion. At the time, the search giant didn’t have staff in London, and Wilkins was looking after six different territories, helping the company to grow in Sweden, Russia and Africa. It was while doing this job that the opportunity to get more involved with Google’s mergers and acquisitions arose.

“While I was doing this work, what happened to fall on my plate was we acquired [email and web security service] Postini, and [internet ad-serving service] DoubleClick soon after. I remember being called into a meeting room with a colleague and being asked ‘can one of you own DoubleClick for Europe’. My colleague said ‘no thank you’.

“[However] I knew that Google was looking at acquisitions, so I saw it as an opportunity to really look at the fast-growing acquisition space. Technology M&A was always going to be at the forefront - that was obvious to me, anyway, so I said ‘yeah, sure’.”

Wilkins’ role in Google’s M&A work was to integrate acquired companies into Google, from an engineering perspective. The first week’s work would involve immersing the new companies into the Google culture, after which the engineering team could then focus “on the real fun stuff”. This, according to Wilkins, included things like working out what to do with the newly-acquired code, what Google was going to do with the product, and how to integrate them into Google so that they are successful.

Then Wilkins was asked to build a team dedicated to just Google’s M&A activity, because the existing process was too fragmented. For example, there were about 24 teams, from an engineering perspective alone, involved in M&A.

“The biggest thing we did at Google was we tried to professionalise the engineering piece. If you wanted to do an acquisition successfully, we needed to make sure we had all the teams aligned to work on it. By the time I left, 200-odd people were working within M&A.”

A core team of about 40 people would work on M&A engineering full-time, while the others would drop everything else they were doing when the M&A work hit. Wilkins’ last four years at Google was spent building up the global M&A team, which worked on deals from as small as one man, an aeroplane and a laptop, to Google’s $12.5 billion purchase of Motorola Mobility in 2012, which involved 26,000 people and a manufacturing element.

When Wilkins was approached to join RetailMeNot, he saw it as a chance to take his experience at Google and focus it on one organisation and its product, in an area where, he says, technology is yet to make its mark.

“It’s only a matter of time that the technology ecosystem goes outside of companies like Google and Facebook. You’re going to see a lot more technology innovation in other sectors, which is why it’s exciting to work in those sectors.”

User experience is key

A key part of the technology innovation Wilkins wants to bring about in the online couponing market revolves around the customer. He wants RetailMeNot to provide high quality, personalised user experience that will drive consumer loyalty to the brand, as well as give retailers a reason to provide exclusive content on its platform.

“We’re putting a huge focus on user experience, which is about really understanding the users, not just a case of being a utility for vouchers, which is how the space has been to date. It is about giving users the choice to make the experience the way they want it.

“Disney does a really good job of personalisation.It gives the user a choice to opt in, provide transparency and tells you why it’s using your data. In our space, there’s a lot of building of trust, and transparency helps with that. Disney also makes that experience better, whether it’s getting to the theme park, booking your hotel - we [also] want to make that shopping experience seamless.”

As well as having the “best” and “exclusive” content, RetailMeNot wants to make sure that their exposure to shoppers is “relevant, frictionless and in context”. Under Wilkins’ lead, this will be strongly supported and guided by technology.

“A lot is driven by technology in our space, whether it’s offer validation or how you personalise them. We can leverage a lot of the lessons from our US colleagues, and we’re partnering a lot with them on work they’re doing on personalisation, machine learning and all types of exciting technologies.

“The next 12 months will be really important for us, in differentiating ourselves through our product, the offers we do and how we display the offers. But you’ll see a lot more in how we connect with our customers [too].”

According to Wilkins, RetailMeNot is a company that is “really eager” to invest in technology as it reinvents itself as more than just an online coupon website. Having spent the last 18 months putting the foundations in place to enable this transformation into a technology company, it will be interesting to see if he can deliver on his promise to disrupt the market with a platform dedicated to the Internet of Things. If you find yourself accessing VoucherCodes deals on your Apple Watch or your car dashboard before the year is out, you’ll know that he will have succeeded.