From Calculator Coding to Relational Database Modeling with NC State’s Jordan Boyle

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Podcast Make Shift

A podcast about the low-code shift & the makers bringing ideas to life.

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Episode 3

From Calculator Coding to Relational Database Modeling with NC State’s Jordan Boyle

Synopsis

Are you being asked to deliver more sophisticated applications despite facing resource constraints? Demands on IT are increasing by the day with no sight of budget increases for headcount, and IT is being stretched to the limit just trying to keep systems and processes running. With a never-ending backlog of projects coming, organizations need to enable their existing workforce to deliver more with less in order to keep up with these increasing demands. Hear from Jordan of NC State and his success story of a non-developer pivoting his trajectory from business major to pro-developer to deliver incredible projects, including a revamped course registration system, that save his university millions of dollars and years of standard development time.

Transcript

/ Mark Manning /
Welcome to Make/Shift. Mark Manning here, customer evangelist at Mendix. We’re here to explore how your peers have adopted low-code, and the pain points they’ve addressed to the platform. We’ll take an authentic unfiltered look at the solutions our customers are building to digitize their processes, to deliver much needed solutions to market more quickly, and to cut down on the cost of development.

Today, we have a conversation with Jordan Boyle, software developer at North Carolina State University. We learn about his successful journey from finance major to a full-time, professional developer who’s project saved the university millions of dollars and years of development time. Jordan tells us about creating sophisticated applications to improve the university’s registration process without possessing a traditional programming background, about digitizing a time-consuming lab management process that was previously run on post-it notes and notebooks, and about Jordan’s ambitions as a seasoned Mendix developer. So just want to see if you can introduce yourself, say a little bit about your background, maybe.

/ Jordan Boyle /
Yeah, sure. I came to NC State, I came to Raleigh in 2011. And my initial aspiration was to go into finance because I thought, well, you’re dealing with money all day. That’s how you make money. I quickly found out that, no offense to anyone out there who does this, but I quickly found out it was pretty boring. And I wasn’t very interested in doing that anymore.

But I remembered back in eighth grade, I had started programming on the TI-84 or 83, and you can make little programs on there. And so I started doing programs. I would end up doing my math homework, and all sorts of different stuff, little video games. And I took a couple of programming classes in high school. And I always was interested in programming, but never really thought of it as a way to make money or that’s what I wanted my career to be.

But I started thinking about it. And my dad was in IT, and his job always sounded pretty interesting. So I decided to switch my major from finance to information technology. And I kind of convinced myself well, okay, well that way you’re not limited to being a programmer, and you can do something else in information technology. But it’s still a lucrative and promising, growing field. And so I felt like that was a good place to position myself. And so I went ahead and switched majors, started taking some database classes and whatnot. And from there the rest is history. One of my professors recommended me to an internship opportunity at NC State’s Office of Information Technology. And yeah, like I said, the rest is history from there. So that’s kind of where I came from, and how I got to NC State as an employee.

/ Mark Manning /
How do you go from sort of tweaking with graphing calculators into putting together what most would consider some pretty robust software?

/ Jordan Boyle /
I think that’s a great question. I don’t know. It kind of just happened. Things in my life have always just kind of happened to me. I’ve never applied for a job. The thing that I just mentioned with getting an internship at OIT, I never applied for that. I got a call one day, and they asked if I wanted to do it. And I said, sure. And then, I was working for them for a while. And we can get more into the RFP process, and why we chose Mendix later, but we ended up going with Mendix. And I kind of just was playing with it. And they were like, “Hey, do you want a job doing this?” And I was like, “Yeah, sure.” So I’ve always just been one to say yes to opportunities. And I guess, I’m always trying to learn something new and keep things spicy, so to speak. And so I think the combination of those two mindsets have created the opportunities that I’m currently in.

/ Mark Manning /
I think it’s fair to say, right, that you wouldn’t call yourself a coder.

/ Jordan Boyle /
Certainly not. Absolutely not. We actually have coders on our team, and they’re way more hardcore than me. We have Catherine on our team, and Chris and Shawn, I don’t know if they were all computer engineers. I know Catherine was, but Chris and Shawn both have 20 years software experience. And John, my boss is, a hardcore PHP/SQL developer. And so we do have those kinds of people on our team, but I’m certainly not one of them. They almost talk a different language amongst themselves.

/ Mark Manning /
So I guess the open question from there is a lot of professional developers use the platform. It’s definitely an adjustment for them. To me, at least it seems like they’re just learning another language, and they do it all the time. For you, what do you think was your baseline? What were you attaching yourself to to sort of build that knowledge, and how did you come to sort of know it logically? Is it just sort of problem solving skills, or test and learn? What did that look like sort of hopping from not being a coder to delivering software?

/ Jordan Boyle /
So I think the hardest thing that I had to overcome was the database portion of it. How to model and architect a database and the backend and all that. Because with the TI-83 and the crappy little programs I wrote in high school or whatever, that was a very important component of programming is learning the logic, and how one thing follows another. And you have to learn your conditionals and your for loops.

And just generally every programming language uses logic in similar ways. So just developing that portion of your brain is crucial. And you have to have it no matter what you do. And really, it’s not limited to programming. That’s just a good skill to have. But the hardest part for me was definitely the database relationships. And why can’t I pass a list into a data view? Now that’s an absurd question. I’m like, what do you even mean? That’s not even a question. But just overcoming those kinds of gaps in my knowledge.

And I think going back to your question, how did I do that? Going back to the test apps, just drawing many-to-many relationships between two things, and then wondering why everything was breaking. And just figuring out that it’s better to put an entity in between and break that into two, one to many relationships, most of the time. There’s occasional exceptions. But just little things like that.

And I’ve been doing it, I guess, shoot, four to six years. I don’t know. I’d have to think about it. But I’ve been doing it for a little while now. And it’s really just been one epiphany at a time of just failing so many times on one thing until it makes sense. And then you never forget that again. And then now that’s in your toolbox, and you’re like, okay, this is my approach. This is my strategy to this type of situation. Because in six years and with two big enterprise level software, you’re bound to run into almost every scenario you can think of. So I think at this point it’s just been the conglomeration of all those epiphanies.

/ Mark Manning /
So coming from sort of that test and learn, where you’re sort of bootstrapping your skills, you dive right into what by any measure is sort of a remarkably sophisticated app. So could you get into the course registration app that you were put on as your first project, and how you contributed, what you built, the value that that delivered to your colleagues and to the student body?

/ Jordan Boyle /
Yeah, so Reporter is by and large our biggest app on our team. And the biggest thing we’ve done in Mendix. And it was the original use-case for why we ended up choosing Mendix. And the overall goal of that application was to build a platform for our noncredit registrations at the college. So a student takes four credits, everything outside of that. So stuff like community outreach courses, they’ll take Farmer Brown and teach him how to plant better seed, or I don’t even know. There’s cheese courses, how to make cheese, and all sorts of, everything from that.

And then, two, the second component of the system, which is required training and compliance management. So you have people taking cheese courses all the way to people taking radiation safety courses to make sure that they can work in the nuclear labs on campus. And we track all that, and we provide the platform for them to do the registrations through.

And yeah, so that’s basically Reporter. There’s so many other components in Reporter that it’s just grown quite large. Now we’re doing youth camp registrations now, and that’s a whole other ball game. Because now you’re dealing with minors and there’s different compliance needs that need to be met there. And I’m happy to say we’re PCI compliant, and we take credit card payments. And so there’s a whole financial system aspect to it. And so, yeah, those are pretty much the major components of Reporter. And as the name implies, we do some reporting out of it as well.

/ Mark Manning /
I think if you’re coming from traditional backgrounds, you look at an application that touches sort of 500,000 registrations a year and sensitive credit card information, that sort of stuff. And it is substantially delivered by such a mixed team, mixed backgrounds, mixed experiences. What was your contribution to that project, and how are you still sort of enhancing it over time?

/ Jordan Boyle /
Yeah. Yes. So I like to think of us as, Jack’s team, is the Bad News Bears. Jack and Sherry and John run our team of Mendix developers and business analysts. And we’re kind of definitely the most mixed-use team in OIT at least. And we’re kind of a mix of a lot of young people that come straight out of college, and myself and Lucy and Catherine, and now Jonathan, we’re no more than five years out of college. So we’re young. And I feel like at this point we’ve proved ourselves. But we were for a long time proving that we were worthy of being on the team.

And I would say from my perspective, the value that I’ve added is I was the first developer on the team for Mendix. And it was that way for about six or so months before we hired Shawn who came over from State Farm. And he’s got 20 years of Java developer experience. And so for those first six months, it was myself. And we had a consultant, Adam Fothergill, I miss him, from Mendix. He was a lot of fun. He’s a good guy. And I feel like we had a lot of fun just learning Mendix together.

And he taught me so much about Mendix. And same thing with Marshall Worster. I don’t know how to pronounce his last name to be honest. But hopefully he doesn’t listen to this. But he taught me a lot too about the platform. We only have the two developers on the Reporter team, myself and Shawn. And so if you think of it there, I’m at least contributing 50%, I would like to think. And just getting it off the ground from the get go, developing those initial registration components and the modules for financials, I was instrumental in that.

And right now I would say my role has shifted more to a production support role. Even though we’re expanding the system still, the system’s just so complex now. And granted, a lot of that is for my own mistakes that still haunt me today I’m going back and fixing. And it’s just easier and faster I feel like if I handle a lot of those kinds of things. Just because they can tell me what the problem is. I’d be like, oh crap. That was that one thing that I did this one weird way five years ago, and it’s come back to haunt me finally. I better go fix that. And so that’s been my role in Reporter more recently.

But Shawn and I talk about everything. And so yeah, before starting another big project we’ll discuss, and then usually split up the work, or things like that. And so I’m also on another project that we started up called Lab Management. And in that one, I’m the only developer. And that one is, I would say, my pride and joy. I love that app. It has the advantage of having started years after I already had experience. And so I made all my mistakes in Reporter, and then got to start Lab Management, and that’s my baby.

In that app, basically people that run labs across campus, grad students and external users, and all sorts of people need to schedule time on the equipment in these labs, and they need to get billed for it. And so we manage all that through our Lab Management app. And one of the coolest things that we’ve done with that is we installed, it’s called an EtherTRAK system. And so basically it’s this little switch that sits on the wall, that there’s this clean room in the nanofabrication lab. And it’s got all this super high tech equipment. You got to get into a little suit with a mask before you can go in.

But anyway, there’s a switch on the wall and each piece of equipment hooks up to a port on the switch. And so we’ve rigged Lab Management now, so they can walk into and log onto a terminal. And as soon as they say, “Hey, I’m using this equipment,” it flips the switch on, which turns the equipment on, and then also starts billing them out of our system. So it’s this perfect down to the millisecond even, length of time that you use the equipment that we’re going to bill you for.

And beforehand, I think they were literally watching cameras and seeing when people would enter or exit a lab and billing them that way. So this is a much better, much more robust system, I think we’ve built. And it’s really cool. And that was a really fun project, just trying to figure out how all that was going to work and getting to put on the suit. Felt like I was in the CDC or something.

/ Mark Manning /
So you’re a regular Dustin Hoffman from Outbreak.

/ Jordan Boyle /
Yeah.

/ Mark Manning /
With Lab Management particularly, what did that process look like before? So maybe with Reporter, you just digitize the means by which people sign up for courses. But how are those labs running? How did you get equipment before you delivered that app?

/ Jordan Boyle /
Oh man. So in Lab Management, I think we have four or five facilities onboarded now. And each facility is very unique. It has their own set of needs and their own processes. But I think anything could range from, especially as far as billing goes and all that, there’s people marking stuff down in Excel spreadsheets. I’ve heard, and I wasn’t there for a lot of these early conversations, but I even heard that people were writing stuff on post-it notes. Oh, hey, remind me of the bill this guy, or stuff like that.

And so it was very decentralized. Every everything had its own process. And who knows, I’m sure that it ran fine and everything, but I like to think that Lab Management has boosted that productivity and kind of things slipping through the cracks because you lost a post-it note. I don’t really know how inefficient it was beforehand, but I like to think that it was super inefficient, and we came in and saved the day.

/ Mark Manning /
We’re getting into value a little bit. I mean, this is an odd question. But you mentioned early days, you’re proving yourself, you’re proving the technology, you’re proving the team, and that you sort of belong in the IT space at NC State. Getting to now and what the team has delivered. So sort of from an outsider’s perspective, what would you say people would say your value is? You got to go talk to Jordan if you have X problem, for instance.

/ Jordan Boyle /
Yeah. I think it’s immense and I’m indispensable. No, I’m kidding. Well, I like to think that. But I think realistically, I’m kind of the on hand Mendix expert. And I think maybe a little less so now that the other team members have had time to catch up, and they’re a lot smarter than me. So I got to keep a couple of secrets close to my chest. But no, not really.

But I like to think that people come to me when they have Mendix specific questions. All these people are really smart and they know how to program in whatever language they’re accustomed to. But they might not know how to write an XPath in the most efficient way possible. And so people come to me with those questions. And especially starting out, whenever there’s a new team member or an intern, they usually come to me with those kinds of questions. And especially now I would say, I’m the go-to for, well, you got to come to me for Lab Management because I’m the only one that knows other than at least for coding questions, or how does the process work in the back end?

For Reporter, definitely, people come to me, Sherry specifically, or Lucy and Jonathan, I was instrumental in the financial system, setting all that up, and the Moodle, our learning management system integration. So a lot of questions around that, and the general registration processes, I would say. But yeah, I’d like to think of myself as the go-to Mendix expert. I like that title.

/ Mark Manning /
So what’s next? It looks like, based on our conversation, there’s anywhere between three and seven years experience, whatever the dates actually line up for. What do you build next? Any new use cases, any particular enhancements, any ambitions that you’ve got? Anything you’d like to build?

/ Jordan Boyle /
There’s so many. And going back to the four to seven years, I graduated in 2015, but I was an intern. I can’t remember if it was one or two years before. I feel like I’ve been here forever. But yeah. So with Reporter specifically, I’ll tell you the thing that’s directly the absolute next thing is going to be the Mendix 8 upgrade. We’re going from seven to eight. And we’ve had to hold out this long because we had a unique compliance. Well, for us to be PCI compliant, I think higher education may have some higher standards.

So anyway, we weren’t in the Mendix cloud for the longest time. And we were in a Rackspace cloud, and then we moved to Amazon Web Services. And there was some sort of issue between the eight upgrade… And so anyway. Now we’ve moved back to the Mendix cloud because I believe the cloud is now fully PCI compliant and all that. So now we’re back into the cloud. And so that’s our first priority. Because, Lab Management’s been in eight for awhile now, and there’s just so much there to offer. And so many better tools in the toolbox. And there’s so much. I’m so tired of, in Reporter, being like, man, if we were in eight, I could do it this way, but I’m having to do work arounds because I’m stuck here in seven.

So that’s our first priority now. Especially during the quarantine. We have the time to do it because Reporter never stops. There’s always the next thing for Reporter. We’ve actually recently, because like I was saying, Shawn and I are the only developers on it, and I’m technically only halftime on Reporter. So we ended up hiring a consultant to take over some of the development to get what will be our biggest department on campus into Reporter and to onboard them. So that’s certainly a big project in the pipeline.

And so other than that, man, I’ll tell you, we’ve all grown so much as developers in Mendix. And I feel like now, and I’ll feel like this again two years later from now, I’ll be like, man, I was crappy back then, but I feel like we finally now have a set of standards and coding guidelines and typical best practices. And just we all understand how everything’s working together so much better now. And there’s so many processes in Reporter that need to go back and get revamped. People have just been dealing with them because that’s how they are, and that’s how they’ve always been.

And I would love to go back and just blast them with value and just be able to create so much easier navigation between things. Or make certain buttons more obvious. Because when you have a system this big, there’s going to be a lot of confusion. And just try to scale things down from the coding side and take these super complex processes that, in order to get a list of an object that I need, I used to have to go through five different steps, and maybe iterate over the list to filter out certain things I didn’t need. But now that I’m good at XPath and I understand how XPath is meant to work. I can do all that in one step. So there’s just so much of that cleanup and deleting old microflows. And I would love to really just… Did you ever play the Game of Thrones board game?

/ Mark Manning /
Can’t say I have.

/ Jordan Boyle /
Well, there there’s a step. You’ve got to consolidate power. And I’ve only ever played it once. So it’s just that phrase stuck with me, consolidate power. And that’s really what I want to do for Reporter. I want to consolidate power and just tighten everything up. Because there’s so many loose processes. Maybe we explored down this avenue and never really finished tying up the loose ends. And I would just love to go back there and do that. And especially once we get in eight, there’s the upgrade to the Atlas UI, which I think is massive.

And I would love to use that as an opportunity to give Reporter a facelift. And I think management’s on board now with going to eight. Especially like I said, the requirements aren’t as pressing because for the last year or so, we’ve been hammering down on minor’s compliance and youth activities, trying to get all these summer camps into Reporter. But they just canceled all their summer camps. So now we have a little wiggle room to be like, okay, well let’s try to get this upgrade going.

/ Mark Manning /
Very cool stuff. And I think that wraps it for my questions. Do you want to plug your band, or say hi to mom, or something?

/ Jordan Boyle /
Hey mom. Yeah. None of this would be possible without my parents. They’re so supportive. I would love to shout them out. I get my personality from my mom and my logics and thinking from my dad. So huge shout out to them. Thanks for supporting me. My band is no longer unfortunately. We were Raptor Taxi. And unfortunately people moved on, moved to different states. So we’re not a band anymore. But I’ll definitely send you something. But yeah, that’s about it.

/ Mark Manning /
We’ll plug your SoundCloud or something. All right, well thank you very much, man, for your time on this. It’s been fun.

/ Jordan Boyle /
Yeah, no problem. Good to talk to you again.

/ Mark Manning /
Absolutely. Have a good one.

/ Jordan Boyle /
All right. You too.

/ Mark Manning /
Thanks for listening, and be sure to check out Mendix.com/MakeShift to subscribe and stay updated with our latest episodes.