Big challenges, big solutions: 4 tech leaders share what their teams are working on

February 22, 2018

CTO, vice president of engineering, lead architect — whatever the title, top technologists play an outsized role at their companies. In addition to evaluating new technologies and setting business strategies, these leaders are also responsible for shaping culture and helping their teams hit new heights.

We caught up with tech leaders at four Chicago companies to learn more about some of the challenges their teams face and what they look for in engineers.

Be sure to check back next week for part two of this series!

 

Payformance Solutions CTO Kevin Mehta

Payformance Solutions is working to transform healthcare payments via its cloud-based platform, TrustHub. The platform makes it easier for healthcare payers and providers to build value-based reimbursement contracts that better align financial goals with patient outcomes. CTO Kevin Mehta said cutting the time it takes to analyze data has been one of his young team’s biggest priorities.

 

What technologies power your business?

Our cloud-based TrustHub platform utilizes the AWS scalable infrastructure to boost performance and support high-performance computing. For our frontend, we use Vue, Node, GraphQL and Docker to power TrustHub’s data visualization engine, which runs on Plotly and D3. Given the volume of data and necessity to process data quickly, we run a variety of back-end technologies, including: Java, EMR, Elasticsearch, Kafka, Python, Kubernetes, Kinesis, Hbase, Spark, Scala and Athena, just to name a few. For DevOps we have Ansible, Terraform, Jenkins and the Atlassian suite.

 

How did your team overcome its biggest technological hurdle?

We’re a young startup, and in less than one year we’ve successfully stood up a HIPAA-compliant AWS cloud environment to analyze protected health information claims and electronic medical record data. Our original product was set up to batch process claims data and sometimes took days to analyze all the data we received. We successfully redesigned the environment, cutting our processing times to hours and are currently enhancing the platform to generate output in minutes. Our goal is to be down to seconds by the end of 2018. We’ve also automated our entire platform, so once we receive client data the entire application runs end-to-end (input-to-insight) seamlessly and even communicates with our Slack account so we can monitor progress remotely.

This year will be all about decreasing our compute times and increasing automation. We want the bulk of our time spent on developing innovative products and solutions, not maintaining the existing product or environment.

 

What sets your team apart, and what makes an engineer a good culture fit?

We’re backed by a large non-profit, the Altarum Institute, so everything we do is mission-driven. We seek to be a catalyst for payment transformation in the healthcare industry, developing software solutions that enable payers and providers to focus on what really matters: providing patients with access to care that yields the best health outcomes at the lowest costs.

What sets us our team apart is that we strive for full transparency. Every engineer has the opportunity to make mission critical software and web development contributions. Everyone has a voice in driving the direction and strategy of the company. Healthcare is complex enough, which is why we like engineers who can cut through the complexity to develop beautiful and functional code. We look for team members who are curious and have an aptitude for learning and implementing new technologies. We also look for people who push boundaries to solve complex business problems innovatively.

 

Optiver CTO Pierre Salverda

Optiver is a global, tech-powered trading firm that focuses on pricing, execution and risk management. United States CTO Pierre Salverda said what sets his engineering team apart is that they’re focused on solving trading problems, not on what the latest trends in tech are.

 

What technologies power your business?

We often describe ourselves as “old school” engineers. We rely primarily on technologies which are simple, reliable, well-known, and often, quite old. When necessary we carefully select and apply new technology, such as our growing use of field-programmable gate arrays.

 

How did your team overcome its biggest technological hurdle?

Evolving away from our legacy trading system to handle changing market dynamics was the biggest hurdle our team has had to overcome. Over the years we have iteratively improved, incrementally replacing bits and pieces of the system. We replaced nearly our entire legacy system over the last eight years while avoiding a large transition project.

 

What sets your team apart, and what makes an engineer a good culture fit?

We stay relentlessly focused on solving trading problems, rather than being distracted by new technologies. We hire curious engineers who constantly ask “why” so that they can zoom in on the real underlying problem. Their passion is to solve the problems that really matter to the business, and they take pride in the quality of their solutions.

 

SwipeSense Chicago health tech company

SwipeSense helps hospitals stop the spread of infections via smart hand hygiene devices. In addition to fighting disease, the company also develops software that tracks hospital equipment and nurse rounds. The company’s tech team doesn’t have a favorite when it comes to languages, which is why co-founder and lead architect Jori Hardman said his team values engineers who are as comfortable with teaching new technologies as they are with learning them.

 

What technologies power your business?

SwipeSense runs in the AWS cloud and enjoys being an early adopter of its newest technologies. Currently, our data pipeline streams IoT data through Kinesis Streams, which triggers evented Lambda microservices written in Go, Python, and Node, which run our data processing algorithms. Our data storage layer features a suite of different stores, including DynamoDB for high-write throughput workloads, RDS for aggregate data storage and S3 for long-term raw data storage. For our user-facing web applications, we utilize Facebook’s React JavaScript library backed by a GraphQL API.

 

How did your team overcome its biggest technological hurdle?

The SwipeSense suite of solutions are all built around real-time location algorithms that operate on IoT data in real-time. The raw location data is generated by over 30,000 individual IoT sensors that operate within our installations. Reliably ingesting this data and designing systems that can scalably process it with high accuracy in real-time is a big challenge. Amazon Kinesis coupled with Lambda serverless microservices allow us to keep our data-processing code concise and focused, while Lambda’s strength of abstracting away the underlying servers allows us to scale without managing a large fleet of servers.

 

What sets your team apart, and what makes an engineer a good culture fit?

SwipeSense engineering prides itself on utilizing the cutting-edge and using the right tool for the job. We’re not a “Ruby shop,” a “Node shop” or any kind of shop. We utilize the best language for each project. Because of this, building a culture of teachers and learners is essential for designing best practices for each language, framework and architectural platform we use. Engineers who pride themselves on their ability to both pick up and teach new technologies will find that they have a lot of freedom when approaching new projects here.

 

ParkWhiz Chicago tech company
JOSH KROHN (L) AND JEFF JUDGE (R)

ParkWhiz lets drivers find, book and pay for a parking space using their smartphone, by talking to an Alexa-enabled device or even while browsing the Groupon app. VP of Engineering Josh Krohn and CTO Jeff Judge said that when it comes to picking languages and frameworks, their team doesn’t play favorites.

 

What technologies power your business?

Our infrastructure is hosted by AWS and we leverage EC2, RDS, SQS, DynamoDB and Elastic Beanstalk. For application development we leverage Ruby on Rails, Go and React. We aim to pick the tool most suited for the job at hand, rather than shoe-horning everything into one or two boxes.

 

How did your team overcome its biggest technological hurdle?

To really be able to serve partners such as Ticketmaster at scale, we've had to figure out ways to re-architect and rebuild legacy systems into scalable components without disrupting existing services or plans. This required migrating hosting platforms as well as rethinking and rebuilding our tech stack. To accomplish this, we had to engage the team as a whole and flesh out what we wanted the end state of our systems to be. This included identifying a path to get there as we couldn't just drop everything and start rebuilding. Following that we needed continuous, focused execution by the team to ensure we could constantly make progress towards our ideal system state.

By allowing the team to to help determine the future of our systems and empowering them to make opportunistic technical investments during the regular flow of work, we've been able to both effectively serve the business and transform legacy monolithic systems into highly performant and scalable systems at the same time. Companies often have to live with legacy code because it can sometimes be "impossible" to take six months or a year to re-platform. By having everyone on the same page, we were able to do precisely that without having a negative impact on our product roadmap or business goals.

 

What sets your team apart, and what makes an engineer a good culture fit?

From top to bottom, our team is capable, individually, of dissecting large problems, designing appropriate systems and solutions and executing those visions. We really challenge everyone to embrace the products and services they work on and contribute in all aspects of building and enhancing those products. Engineers who want to play a large role in owning and establishing the direction of a product are those who are most successful. Often that means treading into areas that are unfamiliar or solving problems that may not have a clear solution. We look for people who embrace those challenges and push to make sure we're building the best systems for today and for the future.

 

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