How 8 Chicago tech companies help developers sharpen their skills

by Andreas Rekdal
January 26, 2017

In the tech world, where innovation tends to move at the speed of light, keeping up with recent technologies and trends is paramount. But when you're working under deadlines, how do you stay up to speed? We talked with developers at some of Chicago's most exciting tech companies about how they stay on top of their game — and how their employers encourage continued growth.

 

As one of Chicago’s biggest tech employers, Vivid Seats connects fans with tickets for live events of every stripe. To software engineer Zach Glazer, one of the best parts of working at Vivid Seats is getting to review the work of his fellow developers and learn from the unique ways in which they approach a range of problems.

What are the most interesting or exciting projects you’ve been involved with at Vivid Seats?

One of the more exciting projects was building out a core piece of our existing system as a microservice. We were able to advance our parcel delivery service from a daily update to an on-demand update for more accurate and frequent delivery notifications for customers. Our tickets often have high values, and people expect real-time updates.

What is the most valuable lesson you’ve learned from a fellow developer there?

When a problem seems unsolvable, changing your perspective can help you think laterally to find a new approach. At Vivid Seats, ‘not possible’ is not an OK answer. We work together to ask the bigger ‘why’ to find a creative solution to the right problem.

How does Vivid Seats encourage you to grow as a developer?

Vivid Seats gives me the opportunity to go outside of my development comfort zone to learn new programming paradigms. We review one another’s work all the time. Sometimes I see a clever idea and use it, or I may find an approach that reduces complexity, and I share it. Our team is open, and we mentor one another to accelerate our personal growth.

 

BMW Technology Corporation’s Chicago-based developer team builds connected car services for the German automaker. For lead software engineer Hayssam Hassaballa and software engineer Anuraag Vankayala, that means there’s plenty of opportunities to work with new and interesting technologies.

What are the most interesting or exciting projects you’ve been involved with at BMW Technology?

HH: I’ve been involved in many awesome projects. The one most notable to me personally was the 'Car as a Sensor' project that we delivered when I first started here at BMW Tech. Our newest 7 Series vehicles have the ability to process and upload images of the street signs captured by its onboard camera. I was part of the team that delivered the backend service that processed the data. I also worked specifically on a dashboard and admin page to help our colleagues see the data in real time and configure the system. From inception to deployment, the cycle was quick and my ideas were welcomed.

AV: Over the past couple of months I've been involved in revamping our map offering, which is of course a vital part of the user experience for car owners. Our solution lets owners of the BMW i electric vehicle visualize on a map how far they can go with their electric cars. I've also spent plenty of time engineering in-house automation tools.

What is the most valuable lesson you’ve learned from a fellow developer here?

AV: The most valuable lesson I've learnt at BMW is collaboration. Working in teams across the world is part and parcel of every work day at BMW. Collaboration with fellow developers and architects allows me to re-think my code design and exposes assumptions and flaws in my current strategy.

HH: When solving problems or fixing code, don't pass judgment. Focus on the problem at hand and work together to solve it. Stay persistent and keep troubleshooting. No matter what problem you’re facing, your teammates are always your best asset.

How does BMW Technology encourage you to grow as a developer?

HH: BMW is good with their employees regarding development and training. They encourage us to attend meetups and improve our craft. I was able to attend a software craftsmanship conference last year, and that was a big plus. In the two-plus years I’ve been here, I’ve learned new software development paradigms, worked on multiple cloud platforms and learned new technology stacks (both client and server). It’s hard for me to find a company I worked for where I could say that.

AV: The atmosphere here at BMW is very conducive to developer growth. The developers here, regardless of their seniority, are free to scrutinize each other's implementations at any time. We have elaborate white board discussions and enjoy doing what we do. Additionally, any concerns developers have are addressed by managers and architects alike. Overall, BMW is a fantastic place to grow and be recognized.

 

A mainstay of the current fashion tech ecosystem, Trunk Club is a company that needs no introduction. As part of the team that got Trunk Club’s new women’s apparel vertical off the ground, software engineer Ryan Prinz said he enjoyed the startup-like process of building something new.

What are the most interesting or exciting projects you've been involved with at Trunk Club?

I would say being on the team that launched our women’s trunk business was pretty magical. I joined that team about a month or two after I started, so it was quite a rush and I learned a lot in a short time. It kind of felt like joining a startup inside a startup. To answer the question from a more technical standpoint, I'd say that witnessing the introduction and full adoption of technologies like React and Kafka were supremely instructive, and I love those tools for the advantages they bring us as we grow.

What is the most valuable lesson you've learned from a fellow developer there?

At the risk of sounding nerdy, I'd answer that I've gotten crazy mileage out of applying the scientific method to debugging. I had not really applied it in any formal way before I met my mentor when I started working at TC. Debugging is a first-order skill around here. I actually "practice" debugging nowadays.

How does Trunk Club encourage you to grow as a developer?

Pull requests, lunch and learns, personal conference budgets, coursework stipends, a shared (physical and digital) library, and a robust apprenticeship program. That covers most of the learning, I think. More than half of our rooms are pairing rooms, so there's that too. I've been using my 20 percent time to take an online data structures course. I'm kinda proud that we're not just encouraged to learn, but to teach. I actually get career points for teaching here! That's a first for me.

 

Headquartered in Addison, IL, Pampered Chef has a substantial technology team tasked with building the tech platform its independent consultants use. Erin Mays, Mike Katsenos and Joe Schuttler work closely with consultants to make the sales process as smooth as possible.

What are the most interesting or exciting projects you’ve been involved with at Pampered Chef?

EM: Not surprisingly, technology has changed how people run their direct selling businesses and the ways their customers shop and buy. My experience as a kid when my mom hosted Pampered Chef, or any other direct sales show doesn’t really translate now that we have smartphones and social media. I’m fortunate to be on the team at Pampered Chef responsible for our future show experience, which involves a lot of research, testing and piloting with our consultants and customers — we’re really digging into what role technology plays and could play in the future, among other things.

MK: The most exciting project I’ve worked on originated from a hackathon concept. After leading a hackathon team to a first place victory, I acted as product owner to release a pilot to our sales force. So far the feedback and results have been absolutely amazing!

JS: Although I have only been a developer with Pampered Chef for a year, I have had more than my fair share of fun and exciting projects. I can say for sure that one of my favorites has been the gift registry we have been working on. Just as a quick tidbit of background, gift registry has been the number one requested item from our consultants since I can remember. It has been amazing to be a part of a project that will really change the way our field works and to know I am truly having a direct impact.

What is the most valuable lesson you’ve learned from a fellow developer there?

JS: Easy. Do things right. I have had the opportunity to work with so many talented developers, not to mention everyone else, that I have learned more than I could have ever imagined over the last year. One thing we strive for is to make sure we are doing things right, and by that I mean really designing things the right way, not taking any shortcuts, thoroughly testing and in the end finishing with a great product. When you start to take shortcuts and do not "do things right," you can end up with a giant mess later on.

MK: There’s always a better way to do even the most mundane of tasks.

EM: I’m reminded how important it is to create a safe space where the team can challenge business requirements and make educated guesses about level of effort without the fear of getting burned. Good developers can do almost anything you ask them to do, which means that product owners, who are often at a disadvantage in terms of technical expertise and familiarity with the software stack, have our work cut out for us in deciding what to ask for. Depending on personality and experience, some developers don’t feel comfortable pushing back on requirements or providing ballpark estimates, but I need to know if we’re adding unnecessary complexity or if a requirement would involve doing something hacky because a third-party vendor won’t support our edge case. I don’t want to waste the team’s time discussing a feature or enhancement without knowing whether we’re talking about a few days or a few sprints.  

How does Pampered Chef encourage you to grow as a developer?

MK: Professional growth is part of the culture here. We all create development plans and are given the time and flexibility to learn new things.

JS: It's really about the atmosphere and environment around me. I never would have thought I would learn this much and get to the level I am today in the last year. Without the people around me, this never would have happened. From my teammates to my managers and even to upper management — it does not matter who it has been — they have always pushed me to be my best and have helped continue my development.

 

A global provider of cloud-based portfolio management and risk assessment software, Enfusion serves financial services providers all over the world. To software engineer Dan Groman, working in such a complex sector means there’s always new and interesting things to learn.

What are the most interesting or exciting projects you’ve been involved with at Enfusion?

Our business is driven based on our clients' needs. In the world of fintech there will always be extra functionality or new data points that can be added to enhance a system's offering. In my case, shortly after starting I was put on a project that added new functionality to our system by using REST and SOAP services to connect with several different banks to facilitate short sales. I also got involved in making sure our order management system (OMS) was compliant with the SEC's equity Tick Size Pilot programming. In terms of new data points, I've also had the opportunity to add new modeling data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and regulatory information for our compliance engine from the U.K.'s Takeover Panel.

What is the most valuable lesson you’ve learned from a fellow developer there?

To make an impact at an organization and progress your career, you need to fully understand how some things work. It's easy to read an intro to this technology or how to configure that technology; it's easy to think you know how part of a subsystem works. To really understand it is a different story. You don't need to master everything, but if you have an area of interest or a heavy dependency on something, you're going to be a lot better off really understanding how it works.

How does Enfusion encourage you to grow as a developer?

We're a small team and I think that helps our chemistry and camaraderie. If you have a question you can just ask. Assuming you've done your due diligence, no colleague will hesitate to help you out. I've had the CEO, founding partners, senior developers or other developers all sit with me and help me out. Because we're so small, there is also no limit to what you can work on. If there is a new project or functionality, it is very possible that it can land in your lap. If you have an idea that you want to implement, fire up a prototype and present it. If the business case is there, chances are it will be brought into production. Your growth is completely up to you.

 

Veritas Health is a provider of medical information that is authored and reviewed by independent physicians. Senior technical lead Rob Malon said one of his favorite things about working on its publishing platform is that he was given the time to research all the options, and get it right the first time.

What are the most interesting or exciting projects you’ve been involved with at Veritas Health?

A Drupal 5 to 7 migration and a RESS-based mobile implementation of the site. Being conservative in our transition between Drupal versions was critical for maintaining site stability for our readers and backend usability for our writers, editors and publishers. Mobile implementation with responsive web design and server-side components became a necessity for many reasons, not least of which to serve our readers. As our readership grew, so did the percentage of readers who accessed our patient education sites using phones and tablets. We had to adapt.

These were among the largest projects we’ve tackled, and both exposed us to a lot of new concepts and techniques.

What is the most valuable lesson you’ve learned from a fellow developer there?

If it's worth doing, do it right. After all, you'll be likely working with whatever you did anywhere from a week from now to three years from now.

How does Veritas Health encourage you to grow as a developer?

By allowing the time to research new technologies and implement the best ones in a way that will make our online publications, our products and our company more efficient and effective in the long run — both for our users and for our staff. We aren't tied to having to do things in a specific way or on a timeline that would dictate that we choose the fast and dirty approach to get a task done. In fact, that approach is rare around here and is often only associated with something we know will be a throwaway proof of concept or prototype.

As a result of this approach, there are many more "take aways" and ultimately more career development through each project worked on.

 

Headquartered in the Loop, eshots makes data and management solutions for events and experiential marketing. Software developers Ricardo Casanova and Ryan Jessen say the company’s collaborative approach offers ample opportunity to learn from each other and grow.

What are the most interesting or exciting projects you've been involved with at eshots?

RC: There’s no shortage of interesting projects at eshots, but there are two recent projects that stand out. The first project was a refactor of a process that determines which consumers in our database are eligible for an email and sends them the appropriate email using a third-party integration. It involved interacting with an API as well as some refactor of database interactions. The second project would be a tool to track goals for the number of registrations at an event. Some of the requirements were pretty specific, so we had the opportunity to shop and play around with a couple different JavaScript frameworks before landing on the best one for what we needed. It was fun to get creative and experiment with different options.

RJ: I’ve personally enjoyed working on any project that has integrated with a third party system or API. Whether it's our own API for our new EventOS platform or a web service from another client, it's a lot of fun to be challenged like that. It’s really enjoyable to help increase our client's user experience by seamlessly connecting multiple systems and data from different APIs.

What is the most valuable lesson you've learned from a fellow developer there?

RJ: There is always room for improvement, and no one is perfect. No matter how talented you are with a certain language or skillset, there is always a way to optimize your code and improve your overall development.

RC: It doesn't work until you can prove it or demonstrate it.

How does eshots encourage you to grow as a developer?

RC: Eshots provides its developers with plenty of opportunities to think on their feet and weigh in on the design and implementation of our products and tools. It’s great to work in an environment where your opinion is valued.

RJ: Working in an environment that utilizes processes such as code reviews and paired programming really helps me as a developer, as I get many chances to learn from my co-workers. These really help my skill set and ensure that I’m always writing the best code I can.

 

Frontline Education leverages technology to help K-12 school districts take on their biggest challenges. To Bo M., a principal engineer at Frontline, one of the most exciting parts of working there is the constant need to develop the skills to meet new challenges.

What are the most interesting or exciting projects you’ve been involved with at Frontline?

My favorite projects are the ones where we don’t really know how to build the complete solution. My primary excitement right now is in defining the enterprise strategy that will take us from a .NET 4.5 shop to a polyglot technology stack organization with fully containerized and scalable services that comprise an insightful platform with a public facing API. This requires many new concepts at Frontline to be researched, developed and prototyped. Not only is this exciting from a technology perspective, but it creates the practical challenge of having people learn these new skills and how to teach them effectively and quickly.

What is the most valuable lesson you’ve learned from a fellow developer there?

From my fellow developers I’ve come to see the high value of peer programming and, really, peer architecture. I’ve learned a lot simply by grabbing people and walking to a computer or whiteboard.

How does Frontline encourage you to grow as a developer?

Every step we take forward as an organization seems to require a new technical skill! Its an amazing opportunity to find and expand one’s own limits. From a language perspective, I’ve had to learn .NET, Python and I’m currently learning Go. I’ve also become a much better MEAN stack developer. In terms of tools, I’ve learned a great deal more about CI processes and tools, AWS cloud capabilities and more. The exciting thing is that this knowledge is immediately applied to practical applications and solutions. At Frontline, a lot of new ideas go from whiteboard to hosted solution within a few days. Its an incredible pace of innovation.

Images via participating companies. Responses have been edited for length and clarity. 

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