CTOs to know: SpotHero's Larry Kiss on tech, parking, and Chicago's tech scene

January 22, 2016

“Don’t get stuck in traffic.”

Sage advice for any Chicago commuter, but it’s also a mantra that

— a local tech company much more interested in parking than actual traffic standstills — holds near and dear to its heart.

The philosophy acts as a daily reminder to not let anything stand in the way of getting something done. Its efficacy is proven with a quick glance at the company’s stats: 70-plus team members, 250-plus operating partners, 1,000-plus operating facilities, and 2,000,000-plus cars parked in a little over four years.

No one knows the truth of that mantra better than Larry Kiss, SpotHero’s co-founder and CTO who sits at the intersection of all the company’s tech and product innovations.

Since 2011, he’s helped steer SpotHero to success in an increasingly packed parking lot of technology geared at improving the experience of car drivers and passengers just about everywhere.

We caught up with Kiss to check in on how things are running at SpotHero — and what we might be able to look forward to from his team in 2016. 

What technologies power your business?

There are three components that power SpotHero:  

  • We use Django/Python so we can quickly set up new admin pages for the business team to get all their work done quickly. Django makes this super easy, and we like to keep things simple. 
  • We have a specialized algorithm that helps our team calculate parking rates as quickly as possible. We are highly focused on getting drivers the information they need in the shortest amount of time so they’re not waiting while we calculate how much it will cost to park.
  • We have an analytics dashboard (think of it as Salesforce for parking) for our partners in order to show them how busy their parking locations are. If a location isn’t at optimal capacity, or if there is a low customer review rating, they need to know about it in order to act quickly. Without this, a lot of people would be flying blind with their business.

What technologies are playing the biggest roles in SpotHero this year?

SpotHero has two different audiences that require specific technology in order to provide the best experience possible. The first audience is our partners who provide an inventory of lots, garages and valets. We are currently building out complex data science models to help them with pricing strategies based on demand. The other audiences is our drivers. We’re studying their usage patterns, so we can make intelligent recommendations for where they want to park the second they open the SpotHero app. 

What are the biggest tech projects your team is working on this year?

There are two major technology initiatives at SpotHero in 2016. The first is moving from Rackspace to AWS. The second is shifting entirely to microservices. Adopting microservices is a huge move for a tech team since it requires rearchitecting things from the ground up. However, once you’re there, it allows you to scale your technology with the current number of users, and also allows for easier developer onboarding.

What are the biggest technology challenges you've faced in the past? How did you overcome them?

The biggest technology challenges we’ve faced at SpotHero and continue to grapple with are transitioning from a “startup” tech stack to a “grown up” tech stack and finding the right people to help us do that. When you create a tech startup, your focus is primarily on getting product market fit and less on getting the underlying technology stack right. So you move quickly, making micro-pivots, constantly building new things, with less focus on scale.  

Now that SpotHero is growing and expanding rapidly, we are focused on getting the right technology in place. In order to do that, we need the right team. We’ve definitely managed to build a lot with a small team of amazing engineers, but we’re constantly looking to bring more people on, and we interview almost every week.  

Finding developers that want to work at SpotHero isn’t hard, but finding developers that have what we’re looking for, both culturally and technically, is very hard. We care about our culture too much to hire anyone that isn’t a great fit all around.

What are lessons you've learned about working in Chicago that other local entrepreneurs can learn from?

Chicago is an amazing city. With differing levels of exposure, I’ve been around the tech ecosystems in Chicago, San Diego, Los Angeles and San Francisco. By far my favorite has been Chicago. Chicago is full of scrappy entrepreneurs and technologists that are relentless about building a better tech culture.  

There are a number of things I’ve learned during my time in here that may be useful for newer tech entrepreneurs or recent transplants. First, the developer work/life balance here in Chicago is absolutely different than SF. In SF, I’ve seen developers working day and night to get their product out the door. Chicago is much more laid back. A lot of CEOs and CTOs try to fight this, and they end up losing. A more effective approach is to build a good culture, and give your developers interesting projects to work on so they are intrinsically motivated. I’ve seen developers ask to work through the weekend because their project was both challenging and interesting.

Second, networking in the Chicago tech community can be a challenge. I’ve attended a number of tech meetups that have been too focused on recruitment so I’ve stopped going unless there is an interesting presentation. To counteract this, people have started creating private meetups that aren’t published anywhere but a mailing list. Network enough to get invited to these private meetups, and you’ll find yourself much more satisfied with the people you meet, and the quality of the content presented.

What trends do you see happening in your industry over the next three years? How is SpotHero anticipating those trends and working towards them?

A lot can happen in three years. The economy within metropolitan cities will continue to grow, bringing more individuals into the city. Since these individuals will need to park, SpotHero will be there to help them out.

SpotHero will also play a major role in improving the parking experience at garages. Soon drivers using our app will be able to pull up to a garage and the gate will automatically open. This is possible with OCR technology that reads your license plate and opens the gate if you already have a reservation. Right now this type of technology is in beta. In three years, I foresee many more garages upgrading their gate systems to support this, and SpotHero drivers will truly feel like they’re getting a VIP service.

What else do you want the Chicago startup community to know about SpotHero?

2016 is going to be an amazing year for SpotHero! We are currently growing at a rapid rate and hiring for more than 22 positions in Chicago alone. We are scaling our service in new cities and improving the user experience to make life even easier for drivers around the country.

Photo via SpotHero. Answers may have been edited for length/clarity.

Do you know of any Chicago tech companies we should be covering? Send us an email at [email protected].

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