Make it, break it How one student turned an art, computer science and business major into a job at Groupon

Make it, break it
The lobby in Groupon's Chicago headquarters is a great place to hang out. It's also home to Groupon's famous spaceship cat (see photo gallery for a full shot of this).

Joe Girolamo ’11 made his first iPhone app in a three-week class held during Calvin’s January interim. Now, sitting in a corporate conference room in Chicago, he seems embarrassed to talk about what the app actually did.

“I think it was a Whack-a-mole game, or something like that,” he says. “It never really made it to the App Store because of copyright issues.”

While Joe’s app development efforts as a Calvin student didn’t exactly make him famous, it helped prepare him for the website and app design work he does now.

Design work seen by more than 200 million subscribers worldwide.

And if you’ve ever browsed the deals on Groupon, you might be one of them.

Make-your-own major

In high school, Joe developed websites as a hobby, so when he went to college he thought he would try software engineering and remain open-minded about career options.

“I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, so the liberal arts [at Calvin] was great. I wanted to get a taste of everything.”

But as a freshman, software engineering courses just didn’t feel right to him, and he missed the creative side of website development. So with the careful help of his computer science advisor, Harry Plantinga, Joe created his own academic path that combined the things he loved: technology, art and business.

Joe calls it the “entrepreneurial startup major.” Basically, a major that gave him the technical and design skills, tied together with enough business know-how to work in the most cutting-edge sectors of the economy. Like Groupon.

“If you go to college for something you’re really passionate about, it shouldn’t be too hard to find a place you really want to work at when you graduate.”

Back to the “board” room

When Joe graduated from Calvin in 2011, he knew he wanted to work in technology design for a company in his native Midwest. So he pursued options in the Chicago area, receiving several job offers. But going back to his commitment to follow his passions, a temporary, three-month position at a then-startup called Groupon convinced him to eschew the other more long-term options.

“I ultimately chose Groupon because I was excited about being a part of a consumer website design team in the earlier stages of the company.”

It turns out Joe made the right decision. After completing his three-month “trial job” at the company, they hired him on as a product designer. Three years later, he calls himself a “veteran” at a company that has exploded into the global market, connecting businesses and customers through great deals on products.

And as a successful startup business, Groupon creates a workplace environment that young professionals like Joe love. The “board room” he’s sitting in? It has a dart board mounted on the wall, just in case a meeting gets a little too boring. Other conference rooms contain Nerf guns and other gadgets to keep things interesting while at work. Employees wear jeans and Groupon-green track jackets to work.

“I love the tech industry and Groupon because it’s very collaborative, it’s fairly informal and it’s just a really easy environment to get into. There’s no shock going from college to the tech industry. It’s fast. You’re always busy. There’s no down time.”

Learning to work with everyone

Joe attributes the success he’s had in the fast-paced, collaborative work environment at Groupon to the kind of education he got at Calvin.

“What really helped prepare me for the real world was the unique opportunity I had, at Calvin College and Grand Rapids in general, to meet and learn from people across disciplines. As a liberal arts college, Calvin encourages cross-discipline learning, which helped me develop a more holistic skill set and prepare me for my current job.”

Even though the “Whack-a-mole” app Joe developed at Calvin never made it to the market, the experience he had working with a team of engineers to actually make the product was invaluable when he started working at Groupon.

“You have to be a liaison. You can’t just stick to your group; you have to work with all sorts of people. I work with a product manager, an engineer, other designers, editorial [at Groupon].”

And when it comes to a liberal arts education, he thinks nothing could have prepared him better for the daily grind of his work. “One of the biggest things [I learned] at Calvin was writing skills, which are huge in the corporate world. I write so many emails, which are kind of informal, but I do a lot of things where I have to be concise and explain my ideas and decisions very clearly.”

Real experience counts

Of course, Joe did more than take a cool iPhone app course to prepare for the kind of work he does at Groupon. Opportunities on campus and in the Grand Rapids area gave him real experience applying his knowledge in the work environment.

Outside of class, he had a student job at Calvin’s Digital Studio, where students and profs can get help creating websites or other online media. Joe also worked with other Calvin art/technology hybrid majors for a tech startup incubator in downtown Grand Rapids, designing concepts for apps.

“Calvin College and Grand Rapids are filled with passionate and creative young people, so it’s a great place to learn, grow and prepare you for your future career.”

His advice to students dreaming of fun jobs in the technology industry?

Be proactive while you’re in college—make things, break things and work with others throughout the process.

VERGE: fall 2014

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