In today’s installment of our rapid developer profile series, we’re featuring Bart Tolen, a Mendix MVP and architect, researcher and performance specialist at Mendix partner Mansystems. Hear how he uses Mendix’s flexible development platform to build client solutions quickly and make regular improvements based on feedback and evolving business needs.
1. What is your education and professional background? Did you have any prior development experience?
I studied Applied Physics at the University of Delft in the Netherlands. After military service, the market for researchers proved difficult, so I extended my job search to IT. I found a position at ESD Networks, a predecessor of Mansystems and went from networking, to network management, to service management and the Remedy ARS platform.
I started programming at 15 years old, doing Sinclair ZX Spectrum Basic. During college I learned programming, hardware and software architecture and design. My thesis on model fitting and resolution required a lot of programming in FORTRAN. Due to the long durations of the calculations, I created nightly batches and optimized the code a lot. You could call that my first performance optimization experience.
2. How were you introduced to Mendix? What was your initial reaction?
Every few years Mansystems looks for new platforms to use in our projects. We’ll do an impact analysis and maybe follow up with a small project to see how it performs. In 2010 some colleagues found Mendix and decided it was a good alternative to Remedy ARS. Mansystems decided to rebuild our ExpertDesk solution on the Mendix platform, and I was the lead of that three-person team.
For the most part, Mendix felt like an enterprise tool. I found right away that you could produce a nice domain model and the microflows were good. Compared to ARS, it was much better. The forms editor wasn’t really that special early on, but now, with layouts and snippets, it’s a lot better. The widget layer has also improved a lot since I started using it. Overall, the platform has grown a lot. It used to be good. Now, it’s great.
3. What was most helpful learning Mendix?
Personally, I believe just using the platform is the most helpful way to learn Mendix. The documentation and the forum help, but I’m not a person who does a lot of formalized training or watches a lot of videos. I like programs that speak for themselves. I like platforms that are easy to learn, and Mendix has been easy.
4. What have you built using the platform? What are you most proud of?
I’ve worked on ExpertDesk and built many modules in there from scratch. I’ve also built our APM tool in Mendix and Java. That’s the project I’m most proud of.
As one of first people in Mansystems using Mendix, if we had a performance issue, I had to learn how to troubleshoot Mendix and measure performance. So I needed tooling. Over time that tool became something we productized and started selling to customers.
5. Have you had any “aha moments” using Mendix?
Since I do everything based on trial and error, the ‘aha moments’ become normal after a while. There was one, when we were rebuilding ExpertDesk, I was gearing up for a very long project. We started in May, and in September we had our first version. By December we were able to start selling. ExpertDesk is quite a big product. It surprised me we could do it that fast.
My standard measure is, you can do things six times faster using Mendix. You can do the basics very, very fast. Difficult parts like integration take time. The big trick is to keep your systems understandable and manage the complexity.
6. What advice would you give to other Mendix developers?
Just keep it simple. Something I’ve learned over the years is that you start a project thinking it needs to do this and that. You make it too complex. The main goal is to let the function do what it should do and nothing more. Then you can look at it later and keep making it better, to have it do what you need.
7. How has Mendix made your life easier or better?
With Mendix I could create more complex business logic than before. I also push systems to their limits to find out what is really possible.
8. How would you describe Mendix in your own words?
I’d call it a rapid application development platform that uses visual models and executes them with a single click. The visual aspect is really important. If a picture is worth 1,000 words, seeing what you’re doing makes it much easier to understand. And if developers understand the platform, they will keep on using it.
9. What are your interests and hobbies outside of work?
I spend most of my spare time with my wife, son and our two Italian water dogs. Programming was a hobby before I made a job out of it – and it’s still a passion of mine. Now I like to pick certain topics and play around with them for a while. A couple of years ago I worked with the language Haskell. Now I’m trying to learn more about machine learning. Last year at Mansystems I got to work on a research project on predicting characteristics of helpdesk tickets based on the description. That helped me get a start in the domain of machine learning.
Bart is one of the many speakers at Mendix World 2016 who will share insights and best practices for driving digital innovation with Mendix.
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