Who We Are
SparX is a skunk works team in Staples, operating with an exceptional degree of autonomy. We are tasked to design and engineer the products that will shape Staples’ future.
This setup provides us with the nimble and flexible environment of our startup roots, combined with the backing and the scale of the 3rd largest internet retailer, Staples. We love it!
Use data and technology to drive eCommerce to the point where every business process is optimized, and where every customer experience is special, personal, “indistinguishable from magic”.
How We Work
Data Science & Engineering Excellence
Our expertise is in applying technology, innovative engineering and state-of-the-art data science to the field of eCommerce with products that can drive both sales and margins. We leverage these skills and experience to attack challenging problems such as dynamic pricing, shipping estimations, personalized marketing, product recommendations, and multi-variate testing to name a few.
SparX is a driver of innovation and change within Staples, but we do not work in the abstract; we are not a research lab. We design and build actual products, deploy them in production, where we measure their impact on the business with rigorous testing methodologies.
This approach provides numerous benefits:
Business buy-in: you do not have to wait 5 years for the business to understand the potential of a novel idea. You can demonstrate its value early on, in production, on a portion of the Staples customer base with rigorous A/B testing. Not only is the solution already built, but you can quantify its impact on the top and bottom line: we find it a great way to bypass committees and analysis paralysis!
Having an idea is easy. Ironing out all the kinks, executing on it, overcoming setbacks, making it scale: this is where true talent and excellence come into play. By deploying our ideas early in production on actual customers, we get speedy and direct feedback. This allows us to discover the main challenges early on, progressively shape the idea to its full potential, and converge quickly to something that actually works at scale. We love this opportunity to flex our engineering and execution muscles.
We strive to maintain an environment where everybody can perform at his or her best, with maximum engagement and impact.
In our experience, this is not something you can achieve if your teams grow beyond 10 people, especially if creative work is at play. We are not alone in this analysis; there is a lot of empirical evidence that supports this conclusion. For instance:
After devoting nearly 50 years to studying team performance, the late Harvard researcher J. Richard Hackman concluded that four to six members is the team best size for most tasks, that no work team should have more than 10 members, and that performance problems and interpersonal friction increase “exponentially as team size increases.” – http://hbswk.hbs.edu/item/7317.html
For this very reason we architect our software services in “team-size” pieces, involving no more than 6 people. These services and units of execution can evolve at different paces, pioneer different methodologies, make different technical choices, or be deployed at different rates: they all meet at a well-defined API1 and SLA2.
This setup enables us to scale while keeping a level of excellence, engagement and impact seldom found in the industry.
In the same vein, we keep our management extremely flat, team interactions are extremely fluid and decisions are made based on facts not roles.
At the forefront of SparX’s values are ownership, impact, excellence, freedom and innovation.
We focus on results, not rules, titles or processes.
Ownership & Impact
Our teams roll up their sleeves to get the job done, from start to finish, with no artificial boundaries. They are egoless, and plain-spoken. They hold themselves directly accountable for the success of the overall project.
So if you design a software service, you will also build it, deploy it to production, administrate its underlying infrastructure, monitor it, and even get paged if it breaks! This will give you the freedom and the leverage you need to maximize your impact, and avoid local optima: you are forced to consider the system end-to-end, and you have control over it end-to-end too.
Similarly our data-scientists fish for data-sources, clean-up the data, build and debug models, monitor the models while they are running in production, and report on their business performance. Some of our data-scientists can even implement the runtime code to execute these models in production with a 1ms SLA!
Finally our product people decipher the industry, reverse-engineer Staples’ business and data flows, build bridges with important partners, secure top executive commitments, keep projects on schedule and on track, all while keeping an eye on our business metrics!
So, at SparX, ownership is not an empty word, we all do care intensely about accomplishing great work.
The best thing about being a part of a team with that level of commitment, responsibility and accountability is that it is an amazing enabler. When everybody is willing to pick up whatever trash is on the floor, it fosters everyone’s capacity to truly innovate.
Bias for Action, Results & Fact-based Decisions
Speed matters in business and to get tangible feedback you need to execute. This is why we have such a strong bias to action, we minimize meetings and emphasize fast delivery. We release to production multiple times a week. We quickly start our projects on a small scale, then grow them progressively to their full potential, learning along the way.
We also focus on great results, rather than on rules or on process. As long they can demonstrate great results, each team gets a lot of freedom in how it operates and in its technical choices.
Being result-oriented also means that we measure what we do, look at the data, and surrender quickly to evidence when we are wrong. We are not afraid of making mistakes and changing our course of action, based on the facts.
Finally, another benefit of basing decisions on facts & data is that it makes hierarchy and roles completely irrelevant. The most junior person in the team can win a debate with the head of the Lab.
Freedom to Excel
We seek excellence in all we do, and work hard in forging an environment that nurtures it.
The first way you get a unique opportunity to excel is by getting a chance to work on extremely challenging problems – day in and day out. For instance:
- Modeling customer behavior on an individual basis, to the point where you can literally predict their action.
- Boosting brand, sales & margin at the same time.
- Shaping customer behavior and current traffic in order to align them with where Staples’ wants to position itself for the next 10 years.
- Conducting a lot of concurrent experiments at any point in time, and quickly reaching statistical significance, but without sacrificing significant traffic or profits.
- Building near real-time machine learning services with a 1ms SLA[^SLA] – as in 99% of the API requests complete under one millisecond.
These problems cannot be brute-forced; they require creativity, intelligence, and impeccable execution. Wherever you currently stand, you will feel challenged, and discover that you can achieve things you previously thought impossible.
The second way we foster excellence is by providing you with the freedom you need to learn and experiment:
Our small team size means that you do not have to convince 30 people before you can start experimenting on an idea at a small scale. Secure buy-in from a few people in your team and run with it. Not all teams need to go at the same pace or in the same direction: this is the whole point!
Since you know everybody has your back, you can focus on doing your best as opposed to worrying about trying to look good.
We are ego-less and silo-less when searching for the best ideas: you can contribute effectively outside of your specialty or current assignment.
We provide sustainable working hours, so that you can recharge, learn new things on your own, think about it in the shower, and come back the next day with your all your curiosity and brainpower.
We support rapid, eager and active learning by taking the time to help our colleagues, by sharing information openly and proactively, by getting frequent & direct feedback from our peers, by leveraging pair-programming when appropriate, by taking our role in coaching other people very seriously, and also with a bias for colocation and in-person communication.
Finally, the last thing that makes SparX is a great place to seek excellence is inspiration:
We are obsessed with finding, recognizing and recruiting exceptional talent. This makes SparX a great workplace, with stunning colleagues, who never fail to inspire you with their skills and their thrust for excellence.
This natural dynamic is further reinforced by our flat structure, where people lead by example.
With great power comes great responsibility. We provide the freedom to experiment, innovate and excel. But, at the same time, it must come with a lot of operational rigor and discipline for things to be sustainable and to avoid harmful outcomes. Especially when you are experimenting in production, with real dollars!
- So the fabric of our team is the capacity to, at the same time:
- thrive on freedom
- be worthy of freedom
- We monitor all experiments with rigorous multi-variate testing and abort them early if necessary: before they become too harmful to the customer experience or bottom line.
- We automate all the boring processes to minimize the risk for error.
- While we think big, we introduce changes in a controlled and gradual manner. Be it at the code level, the system level or the product level.
Dive Deep & Simplify
When applying your knowledge to challenging real world problems and pioneering new solutions, you cannot just stay at the surface, you cannot just settle for the canned package.
Our teams have the capacity to dive very deep, operate at all levels while staying connected to the details. This also means that we expect you to challenge prevailing assumptions when warranted, to see beyond the symptoms and pinpoint the root causes.
This capacity to dive deep, reformulate conundrums, and focus on fundamentals is a great way to discover practical solutions to hard-problems. But we do not stop there. When we are done, we relentlessly find ways to simplify. It is this quest for getting down to the essence, and keeping complexity under control, is what keep us nimble as we expand our scope.
SparX is filled with people who love what they do, and care intensely about the products they design and engineer. This is what gives us the drive we need, and fuels all our other values.
Here are some of the tools we love and use: