If you’re ever in the lobby of Cars.com’s building, don’t be surprised if you run into a stranger with a sketchpad in one hand and a Starbucks gift card in another. As part of its efforts to accelerate new feature delivery, the Chicago tech titan encourages its designers to get their ideas down on paper and ask passersby what they think.
The Cars.com tech team deploys new code 30 times a day, up from 30 times weekly just a few years ago. At any given time, the company is running hundreds of experiments, testing features and new ways to leverage its treasure trove of data, accumulated over nearly two decades. And to keep the ideas fresh, the company measures teams by performance metrics, rather than planned out feature deliveries.
We sat down with the Cars.com tech leadership team to learn more about how the company is shifting its processes to stay nimble in the face of an evolving industry and changing consumer expectations.
CARS.COM AT A GLANCE
EMPLOYEES: 700 in Chicago
WHAT THEY DO: Maintain a two-sided online marketplace that matches car shoppers with dealers and other sellers — like Match.com but, you know, for buying cars.
SO, THEY DON’T SELL CARS? No.
NEED FOR SPEED: Often used with cellular connections in dealer lots, Cars.com’s platform is optimized for minimal load times.
HUMBLE BEGINNINGS: Prior to launch, Cars.com bought its domain from someone using it to sell their Chevrolet Corvette.
ALL THE DATA: Twenty years’ worth, used for everything from matching buyers with dealers to nudging sellers to take photos at the right angles.
HACKATHONS: Combine ideas with elbow grease to push them into production.
Millions of people are familiar with Cars.com, but they may not be familiar with your scope of work. What are the main projects your team works on?
Tony Zolla, chief product officer: To start with, we actually don't sell cars. We’re a two-sided marketplace platform, like StubHub or eBay, which brings buyers and sellers together through technology. We work with 20,000 local car dealers in the United States, and our platform gets 30 million visits per month. A lot of what my team works on is creating features that facilitate meaningful relationships between buyers and sellers.
We’ve found that, when looking for a car, shoppers consider their options along four dimensions: what kind of car to get, how much to pay, which dealer to buy it from and the actual salesperson to work with. Each of our features addresses one of those dimensions.
For example, in the past year, we’ve invested heavily in algorithms that guide shoppers on pricing. But we have also built machine learning technologies to predict how far along the shopper is in the journey. Most car shoppers are in the market for anywhere from a couple of weeks to a handful of months. By understanding where the customer is in that process, we can tailor the experience to them.
What challenges make your work interesting?
Zolla: Consumer behavior is changing rapidly. We used to just have a website. Then we got an app. Now we’re looking into chatbots and using technologies like Amazon Alexa to meet people where they are. Users are also increasingly expecting streamlined experiences in everything they do. Today, consumers expect to take a picture of the car and have information pulled in automatically instead of typing it.
Greg Heidorn, senior manager, software engineering: Since we essentially have two user bases — dealers and consumers — another big challenge is managing changes in our platform that affect both groups. But because we’re sitting on 20 years of data, we have a ton of knowledge about how to improve the experience for everyone.
Finally, there's also a big push for performance. A lot of people use our products from mobile devices on dealership lots, making it important that our site loads as quickly as possible.
Read more here