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November 4, 2013

When your project’s canceled, stay valuable with Pluralsight

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PatoMergers and acquisitions can be an uneasy experience for employees of either company involved. Lots of questions immediately come to mind when news of a drastic change spreads, especially when it comes to whether or not your job is safe. But when Patricio Burbano learned that the company he worked for was getting acquired, and that his project was going to be phased out, he didn’t flinch. Instead, he saw an opportunity to ensure he and his team would have lasting positions in the restructured organization, and he made this wild proposition: Patricio and his team would take on the replacement project set forth by the new company and build it from scratch in less than four months, using languages and technology they knew very little about. How did he pull it off? He used Pluralsight.  

Dana Gagnon: We’d love to hear a little bit about your history in the tech world. Can you tell us how you got started, and how you got to where you are today?

Patricio Burbano: I’ve been doing this for a long time. I got my Master’s degree back in 1993, so I’ve been working full-time in software development since then. It’s been a long time, but I have focused primarily on Microsoft technologies. I started with Microsoft foundation classes (MFC) a long time ago, and I kept going with that until about December of last year when the company I worked for got acquired by the competition.

The company I work for is a satellite company. We do commercial imagery. There were two commercial imagery companies in the U.S. that satisfy both commercial and government, and the two companies had the same contract. In particular, myself and my team, we worked on the web dissemination of pixels. But we are talking terabytes of data. It’s a lot. So we created this platform that we sold as software as a service via subscriptions, where we provided all the hardware and the web technologies to disseminate imagery — pretty much like you would see in Google Maps with a lot more tools to work around the imagery. It was all written in .NET, and was deployed both commercially and for the government about two and a half years ago.

So, the competitor basically had similar products. But they happened to focus more on bulk rather than user experience, so their application didn’t have all the bells and whistles that we had, and the competitor had a completely different stack. They were Linux and Java, and we were Microsoft Windows and .NET. So after the acquisition, there was a lot of back and forth over which of the two apps we were going to keep. But obviously, being the acquired company, our product was shelved. And there was a big push. They had a lot of work and we had to pick up on Java, Spring, Tomcat, Apache and all of that pretty quickly. We were game with that and we took a trip. Two lead engineers and I flew to Colorado where the headquarters is located to find out what tasks we were going to be assigned. When we got there, my team was assigned the task of making sure that their web application works on mobile devices, which at the time wasn’t working. After I dug a little more deeply, I found out that they had used a framework by Google called GWT for developing the web application.

Dana Gagnon: Could you describe what GWT is, and your experience with it?

Patricio Burbano: Basically GWT is a Java framework. Google wrote a Java framework as a subset of the JRE which allows you to write a Java-based user interface and handlers for events, and when you compile that thing you get JavaScript. The JavaScript is loaded on the browser and at runtime it renders the HTML for you. So basically, it’s meant for old-time Java developers who don’t know web technologies to get into the web world.

It comes with a lot of limitations, one of them being it doesn’t run on mobile devices very well, at least maybe the way they were using it. And also it’s not very modular, so all the code you write, it ends up generating this huge JavaScript file. It takes a long time to load, and it takes a long time to render because you don’t write any HTML. It’s all just creating elements via JavaScript. On the other hand we have here a lot of experience with more modern web technologies like we JQuery and Bootstrap. We are very familiar with HTML5, so our application was completely different. When they offered that task to me I said to them that there wasn’t much I could do other than put a ticket in with Google, and that they probably wouldn’t do much about it. Then I offered to instead rewrite it and use a similar stack from what we were familiar with in Java. We had written our old application using .NET, MVC, JavaScript and HTML5. So I told them about MVC frameworks for Java via Spring, even though I didn’t know anything about it and I was not familiar with Java. (I had done Java a long time ago, but very little.) They said OK. So we had about 3.5 months to get something running on mobile, and at the time we were just two engineers, and we were going to start this whole thing from scratch.

Dana Gagnon: Sounds like a challenge. So how did you approach this project when you weren’t that familiar with Java?

Patricio Burbano: I had taken courses before on Pluralsight, so I really liked the way they were implemented. You can either go hands-on and just start coding along with the instructor or just listen in. So, I found that there was a Spring MVC class. I got a subscription for that month and we took the class for a week, hands-on. We were actually writing all the code and trying it out. That gave us a huge head-start during that class. The instructor set up a framework for having an MVC application — a web application with AJAX calls and the whole thing. Everything that we needed basically was given to us on a platter there. So we had a shell where we could start a whole application, and then just start coding with the stuff we know.

But we were given a bit of a hard time for wanting to use JavaScript because of the required unit testing, and we were being pushed to figure out how we were going to perform these tests. I had never done unit testing on JavaScript, and there happened to be a class on unit testing JavaScript on Pluralsight. So we took that class as well. Three frameworks were listed, and one of them is Jasmine. Again it was hands-on, and we implemented that thing too. So, three and a half months later we had an application that had more features than the other application, and we finished it with three people who got it to deployment, and actually to the point it is right now. Our application works on desktops and desktop browsers; it works on tablets, it works on phones, and it does the same thing and more than the other application. So now we’ll be figuring out what we need to do to sunset the older application. This was a huge win for our team where we got validation not only as a team, but as contributors to the new company. I really appreciated having had the access to Pluralsight courses for that.

Dana Gagnon: When did you first start using Pluralsight?

Patricio Burbano: I used Pluralsight the first time, maybe four years ago, and I learned WCF on Pluralsight. At the time there was a contributor from Microsoft MSDN, so MSDN had a whole set of articles on the Windows Communication Foundation, and at the end of the text there were links to WCF classes and they were all on Pluralsight. So that’s the first time I used Pluralsight. I’ve been using Pluralsight on-and-off for the past four years.

Dana Gagnon: Are there any other instances where the training that you’ve acquired on Pluralsight has helped you in your day-to-day job?

Patricio Burbano: When I started this job in 2009 (which was at the company that got acquired) there was a new chief technology officer who had envisioned this platform to deliver imagery via the web, but in heavy quantity. At the time, the company was using contractors, and they had developed a prototype just to get an idea of what features they were going to provide. They had written it in Java, believe it or not. Then I was brought in, and I was the first employee of this group, and with the idea that we were going to collaborate with the contractors and bring the project to fruition. But there was a lot of friction, and after two or three months of that, our team had grown to three or four people, and we realized we couldn’t work with them.

With the contractors gone, and since we were not familiar with Java, we decided to build in .NET. I had done a little bit of Windows Communication Foundation, but not at the level that was necessary for the project. So if it had not been for the Pluralsight courses, it would have taken me much, much longer to come up to speed on that. I remember I took two or three classes on Windows Communication Foundation on Pluralsight. That helped us establish the framework for all of the web services that were implemented for the application that took us three and a half years to develop. That application was extremely performant, and the client loved it, but after the acquisition it was unfortunately shelved.

But that was a big win for us. So, I love Pluralsight. I use it any time I can. Whenever I have a need I usually get a one month subscription on my own.

Dana Gagnon: Have you used any other training options, either online or classroom-based? Can you talk about why you think Pluralsight is set apart from those?

Patricio Burbano: I just like the way it is structured and how you get true people that are out in the field delivering the courses. It’s not something that is like a PowerPoint presentation; it’s really hands-on, and that’s something I like a lot. I have taken many courses. That month that I had the subscription at the beginning of this project, I took several courses on website performance and how to measure it. I also wanted to learn Scratch, the programming language that came out of MIT, because I wanted to start teaching my kids how to program, and you had a whole class on using it. There are plenty of other sources for information about software development on the web. I use a site that has articles about specific topics, but they’re not like courses where you just go and learn. There are also classes that you can go to offsite, but that just takes you away from work. You know, it’s just more comfortable on the computer at home following along with an online course.

Dana Gagnon: Can you talk a little about what you like most about working in this industry?

Patricio Burbano: I was lucky because I knew I wanted to work on computers very early on. I focus more on front-end, and I span to the back-end a little bit, but the reason I like software development is because there is immediate feedback. You can write code in a couple of days, run it and get feedback. That is very important to me. There’s not a long investment before you see anything in return. It’s not like building a bridge where you have to wait a whole year before you see the bridge there.

There are a lot of interactive processes where you see your product grow, and that is one of the reasons I also like the agile process. It has a lot refactoring and the user stories that are manageable within small sprints and all of that. To me this is all very important because I’m goal-oriented, and I need to see results quickly in order to keep motivated. So, I enjoy that a lot. It’s why I’ve been doing software development for as long as I have.

Dana Gagnon: That’s awesome. And thank you so much for speaking with us. You have a great story!

Patricio Burbano: Thank you. And just you know, I love your site, so keep it up.

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