The Synaptica solutions team comprises a mix of taxonomy and ontology solution architects, NLP and categorization experts, relational and graph database administrators, and software engineers. For this Insights interview, we shift our focus to product development and talk with Software Architect, Sean Maslow. Sean is part of the software team and explains his role in improving our suite of tools and enhancing customer experiences. Sean joined Synaptica over 10 years ago and has a wealth of experience in software development.
Tell us about your early career.
SM: My degree is in Aerospace Engineering. I wasn’t sure exactly what career I wanted to focus on initially, but I did have strong computer skills. I could also type really fast, up to 122 words a minute. My first permanent role was with Coors Brewery company looking at database projects and managing their distributor contracts. Within this early role, I was introduced to Microsoft Access, creating a database and managing data entry.
In the late 90s, I lived and worked in Seattle for a while working with a Boeing supplier developing a process control manual for ISO9001 certification. My analytical skills led to a move into the Information Systems department. At this stage of my career, I started to write code. I also got involved with working on intranets and writing web-based applications using an SQL Server database.
How did you move into software development?
SM: In 1998 I joined a well-known camera company based in Denver, Robert Waxman Camera and Video. They had one of the largest stores in the western part of the US. We were part of a team supporting the product replacement side of the business with insurance companies. We worked on an application for insurance carriers and adjusters to find and evaluate products that needed replacing. These could be items that were lost, stolen or damaged, often camera equipment, videos and TVs. The application was installed on the adjusters’ computer. We mailed out software versions on floppy disks and provided full technical support.
During this period I had my first exposure to Synaptica KMS as a product. Colleagues were using this early browser-based version to manage data in the database. They would enter in the model number plus all product information, reference numbers, and individual features like screen size. All the details insurer adjusters use to identify models when customers advised the type of product or make, they had but no concrete details.
By the 2000s I had shifted further into programming. I joined another Denver-based company, Spectrum, who provided HR information software. From this role, I eventually started to work with Synaptica working full time on developing code.
How do you structure your work?
SM: Our time is split between working with customers and the design and development testing, the real nuts and bolts of application development. We also spend time dealing with other issues including sales support or document preparation. I catch up with colleagues on most days. This can be more frequent if we are solving a specific issue.
Which Synaptica products do you focus on?
SM: We look after the full KMS suite of tools, web interface for KMS, and all of the Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) are also under our development review. We support the Indexing Management System (IMS) and the SharePoint Connector. The last tool, SharePoint, is an area where we have been working closely with Search Explained to optimize how SharePoint can leverage rich taxonomies managed in Synaptica KMS.
Can you tell us more about your involvement in customer support?
SM: Providing technical support to existing and prospective customers, as well as well as designing enhancements to meet specific customer needs, is a big part of my job. It’s about gathering client requirements, putting them together with specifications and then writing the code. We review the documentation and undertake thorough quality assurance (QA) testing as we shape the tool.
Our customers need effective resources through online help, and they also need robust user training from the beginning. There are lots of moving parts to the portfolio of Synaptica software tools. There might be something they were learning to do; maybe the tool can do this, they try it and it doesn’t quite complete the task but it’s close. They will contact us and ask can we do this. It may be that the tool is missing a step they need, or we can introduce another piece of functionality that’s a really nice idea. If the enhancement is beneficial to other clients, we can incorporate it as a new feature for the next software release. Customers are the driving force for feature development.
What unique customer requests have you received?
SM: One of our publishing customers dramatically influenced the feature set in Synaptica KMS. We enhanced the existing tool to utilise RDF standards and SKOS-XL. The client was dealing with extremely large volumes of data for which we had to re-engineer parts of the application. We updated how the import tools worked to load the data quickly and make sure the user interface displayed what they needed to see. We wanted to understand exactly what they required to accomplish as high-end users. We came away with a quality tool and we continue to work closely with taxonomy managers to enhance the capabilities of KMS through this type of user collaboration. We also built a framework to allow for KMS customers to modify style sheets in the front-end interface to match company branding. Several Synaptica clients use this style sheet.
Working closely with colleagues from other teams has exposed me to a variety of other skills and disciplines such as Information Architecture, Library and Information Science, Linked Data, Data Science, Natural Language Processing and Text Analytics. As developers, we have experience with a wide variety of other tools. Comparing the different ways these products implement positive user experiences shapes how we develop for Synaptica. As a company, we are set up to be responsive to adapt to what customers and users want and need.
What makes a good software developer?
SM: Understanding how to code might seem obvious. Coding is just a kernel of what a developer does. My kids are learning to code. It’s a language but what really matters is how you use this language.
To be a good programmer you have to be able to work with people. It really comes down to that. To be a good or great software developer it’s about understanding what the machines are going to do to help people do their job. You can’t just make something cool for you, it needs to be useful for others. I think good developers are artists. There are lots of ways to make a machine do something and a good or bad way for users to interact with tools. It’s always an evolution. I like the front-end development side. I like the database element too – there are problems to solve on both sides. The back-end components are often cut and dry. If it’s not working, it’s a logic problem to solve.
To be a good programmer you have to be able to work with people. It really comes down to that. To be a good or great software developer it’s about understanding what the machines are going to do to help people do their job.
What do you feel are the biggest challenges for the sector in the future?
SM: The exponential growth of data and information. The volume of data that needs to be managed and finding the right tools to manage it. It’s an issue that’s been around for a while and while AI and ML have a role to play, I think that taxonomy and semantic web technology have a absolutely crucial role to play in managing this growth.
Synaptica Insights is our popular series of interviews with customers, partners, influencers and colleagues.