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Inside Pivotal Labs, the Agile Force Behind Twitter and Groupon

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Pivotal Labs is a name that comes up often in regards to web startups, but it’s sort of an enigma. The company’s San Francisco office is home to the hyped-up distributed social networking effort Diaspora; its work has been credited for shaping Twitter’s development culture; and its clients include Groupon, Gowalla and Best Buy’s “Remix” API project. But what exactly does Pivotal Labs do?

All those mentions were enough to get me intrigued, so last week Chris Albrecht and I paid a visit to Pivotal’s San Francisco office to find out more. The office has all the trappings of a startup incubator: Ping-Pong games, ample snacks, big computer monitors, bike racks and clumps of scruffy young dudes. But Pivotal’s services are different from an incubator’s: It’s a consultancy that brings technical teams into its space to grow them, train them and help them build their products. Rather than Pivotal investing in companies, the startups and enterprise clients pay Pivotal for the service.

Pivotal has actually been around for 20 years, but in the last few years, it has created a sort of focused training program for technology startups and projects within larger companies. Say you have an idea for a company and raise funding for it. You then come to Pivotal, which takes on any developers already working on your project and hires new ones to round out the team. Your technical folks come into the Pivotal office every day at 9:00 a.m., sit down at a desk with a “Pivot” from the company’s team, and work in tandem as pair programmers for the full day until 6:00 p.m. At the end of period of about 2-7 months, you have a trained agile development team for building products with Ruby on Rails, as well as lot of progress on your product.

Pivotal charges by the hour for its programmers’ time, and throws in lots of perks: computers and monitors, breakfast, desks for founders and Ping-Pong. Companies pay Pivotal between $150,000 and $600,000 on average, according to VP Technology and Principal Ian McFarland.

Current Pivotal clients include Best Buy (s bby), EMI, Groupon, MavenLink, and goBalto. Recent clients include Twitter, Gowalla, Urban Dictionary, Indaba Music, CitySearch and the Associated Press. In the video, McFarland explains the arrangement with Diaspora, which currently operates out of the Pivotal San Francisco office. The Diaspora founders, who didn’t go back to NYU this fall, are using the Pivotal space for free because the company is interested in their project. McFarland also talks about former client Twitter, which has been effusive in attributing improvements in its development culture to its work with Pivotal. I ask McFarland if that’s really such a good thing given Twitter’s widely known technical problems.

A few more reasons you may have heard of Pivotal: Pivotal Tracker, which the company developed to help clients plan and execute projects, is a free agile development tool that has hundreds of thousands of users. And, the company’s New York office is going to be the home of the new TechStars edition there starting in January. Check out the video to get a better idea of who and what’s behind all this.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Lisa Brewster.

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11 Responses to “Inside Pivotal Labs, the Agile Force Behind Twitter and Groupon”

  1. To build on Clay’s comment below, I can also see how people may read this article as a “sponsored” corporate speak.

    I’m the founder/CEO of goBalto (mentioned in the article above) and came to Pivotal initially because we were looking to build out our product in the shortest amount of time possible. Coming from a non-engineering background, I was initially skeptical of their approach towards pairing, access to ping pong tables and early departures (6pm) from the office. Particularly given how much we were spending on them!

    However, after being their client for 3 months, I am a convert. The environment they foster is highly productive and in the end has provided us with a higher quality product. Plus, their processes simply work.

    The only caveat I would give anyone to working with someone like Pivotal, is to ensure you have done your customer development upfront. Ideally, you would want to have achieved Problem to Solution fit (or close to it). This way, you can leverage Pivotal’s core skills in building great applications, versus churning on wireframes and designs.

    Just my 2 cents.

  2. I’ve worked closely with Pivotal Labs for over 4 years, both as a partner and a client. I can’t say enough good about them. We’ve partnered to bring a number of apps (web and mobile) to life. Great guys who do some really great work.

  3. Very interesting reading!

    Related, companies seeking business capital may also want to join – a leading online hub dedicated to helping private companies find financing.

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  4. Clay Shentrup


    I can understand your point of view, but as an engineer on a team that became a client of Pivotal Lab’s less than two weeks ago, and all I can say is that the work ethic and culture that Pivotal Labs promotes is very relevant to lots of people in the startup world. Particularly if they are fans of hot technologies like Ruby on Rails.

    A lot of the things I say to my friends about my experience at Pivotal Labs probably sound almost like a verbal form of sponsored ad. But it’s just because it’s very exciting and inspiring to work in that kind of environment. You come in right before 9am, and there’s always a great breakfast for you to eat. You have a company-wide standup and learn from problems and solutions proposed by lots of really smart people. You find a new person to pair with, and then you pair ALL DAY. You barely check email or stray from your task. You stay focused and engaged, and learn a ton. You write tests for essentially all the functionality you create. (As Ian McFarland says, you test “anything that can break.”) A few times throughout the day, you take a quick break to play ping pong, and you take a 1-hour lunch. At 6pm, you go home. Virtually no “overtime” or late nights or working on the weekend. You get to watch cool tech talks during lunch (every Wednesday, I believe).

    Check out what Twitter had to say about their experience at Pivotal:

    • I thought it was a very interesting post and video. I’ve used Pivotal Tracker and knew they were involved with Diaspora, so it’s great to hear this kind of background. It would have been nice to explore the point about Twitter in more detail, for example hearing more about some decisions that look wrong in retrospect and what the learnings are, or getting their take on what Twitter’s new CEO should do to improve quality and security. Oh well, maybe next time. Still Pivotal’s got a great track record so it’s not surprising that this should be so glowing.