In this second installment of Passion for Problem Solving, we continue our conversation with three members of the Cengage Global Technology team (to read Part 1, click here). In this discussion, enterprise architect Matthew Guilfoy, senior software engineer Paul Vaillancourt, and senior software engineer Mike Lesniak discuss their favorite aspects of their roles, key motivators, most inspiring projects, and the differentiators that define Cengage culture.
What’s your favorite thing about working in your role?
Matthew Guilfoy (MG): Collaborative design. No one person can really solve all the problems that come our way, we need to work with the subject matter experts and the people that know these systems and customers so well. All of these people are collaborating to come up with the best solution, because sometimes the best technical solution doesn’t really work for the customer, and sometimes what we think the customer wants will be very problematic to create, and we have to solve for that. That give and take is my favorite part, and it drives us to come up with the best solution.
Paul Vaillancourt (PV): Learning new stuff all the time. Every day I’m trying to figure something new out, which keeps things fresh. I’m never just sitting down and going through the motions, thinking: “What am I going to do today?” I always have something exciting and challenging to work on.
Describe the management approach or management structure of your team.
MG: I’ve had several managers here at Cengage and every single one has been very much invested in me, as a person—helping me grow and empowering me to make sure I have the information I need, and the ability to go out and do what needs to be done. Instead of managing me, they’re doing what they can to free me to do exactly what I want and need to do: to help build our business. Each team has a different approach to agile and a different way to manage; I think that’s fantastic because having one size fits all doesn’t really work in a lot of cases, so management’s ability to adapt to the teams is key to why we’re successful.
ML: Managers ask you questions like “Where do you want to go?” “How can I help you do that?” or “How can I get you working on things that help you develop?” Even if that means you’re not going to be on their team in a year, they see to it that you’re provided with career opportunities. It’s great.
PV: My manager is awesome. He’s been a developer on my current team for a long time, and he understands what it’s like to be a developer. When we run into trouble, he completely gets it.
How is working for Cengage different from other places you’ve worked? What makes Cengage unique?
PV: The transparency with higher management, like having a weekly Zoom meeting with the CEO, Michael Hansen, is pretty unusual. He’s open with the answers to questions, and if there’s something that he can’t answer for sensitivity reasons, he just tells you. I have never experienced that at any company before.
MG: The dedication to our vision of reshaping digital learning is one of our key differentiators, but it’s also our dedication to each other. I think that we’re all here to build each other up and solve the problems together. One of the key things that I’ve noticed is that, as a company, we want to keep investing in our people, and investing in our users’ learning, across the board.
ML: I think it’s the ability to schedule your day, and to work in an agile fashion. We’re working on whatever we can and trying to help each other out. We’ve kept a good work/life balance. I won’t say I haven’t put in extra hours, but then there’s always been the support from managers so that your time-off is your time-off.
What project are you most proud of in your time at Cengage?
PV: Definitely the Career Journey—it’s an application on the ed2go site (for Cengage’s online skills business) where people go and decide what they want to do when they’re looking for a career. They just type in the category of career and there’s all kinds of data on that occupation: how much they make, how much demand there is for that career, the skills you need. Then once the skills or courseware is completed, they’d be matched with employers seeking people with their skillsets. That was the first project I’ve had that I felt like it was our baby because we birthed it and we raised it; we were really proud of that project.
MG: Before I moved into my current role, I worked on Mind Tap Schools. With a very small team, we built an entire platform from scratch, and now it’s out there in production and we’ve got thousands of concurrent users in the K-12 space. We proved to the company that those services that we’re going to be using for all of our broader platforms—like Mind Tap classic and WebAssign—can work, be built on and can scale. It was a challenge, and it was a huge success, which always makes it fun to look back on.
ML: Before I was an engineer, I worked on a project that proved to be the tipping point for my career where I thought: I can do this; maybe this is what I want to do. I worked with a mentor and teammate to build out a small workgroup database management system in Microsoft Access, meant for 1-3 people, and we expanded it to be used by 40, 50, 60 people. I think I’m most proud of that, because we had fun, and we were solving problems.
Many organizations are leveraging open-source technologies, cloud ops, and implementing CI/CD – what has your experience at Cengage been like?
PV: CI/CD cloud, everybody does it right? We have a really solid Dev Ops team at Cengage, which is a little bit unique. If we really have any trouble, we’ve got support that we can go to and get it hammered out right away.
MG: Since I’ve been here, we have made huge leaps forward in this space — including things like our open-source cloud foundry which provides our cloud footprint for hosting, as well as a very robust and supported Banzai pipeline. We’ve made huge leaps forward in our implementation of a CI/CD pipeline, where you can plug in the right tests, the right deployments the right dates all along the way and be able to get that speed and accuracy of deployment.
ML: CI/CD really helps speed up working on the important things and the fun things like adding value, and decreases the costly overhead of manually doing deploys, checking things, or the feedback lag of whatever we’ve built. I’m glad that we have it, and have teams working towards the true goal of continuous deployment, rather than just continuous integration.
Software engineering requires developers to think critically and creatively; you never stop learning – what’s something you’ve learned in the past year?
ML: Developers are like doctors in a way, you have to stay current, and things change so fast. Personally, I’ve always been a learner and a curious person, so in the past year, I actually started picking up Particle.io. It’s a framework for the Internet of Things devices. I started playing around with it, not for work at all, but as a completely new thing. Very fun!
PV: In the last year, my learning has been around the business itself, and our products. It’s extremely complex and everyday I’m learning new things about Gateway, which is an interface between instructor Learning Management Systems. I’m also learning more about our back end, how courses work, and how grades get synced up between the LMS and Cengage. There are a million little details.
MG: I’ve been playing with a system called OutSystems. It’s an AI-powered, model-driven development environment. It’s a low code or no code solution, where basically developers don’t write code. Instead, they use visual tools to design how the app will work and tie things together, and it actually creates the code on the back end for you; it’s very interesting.