Computer grad “grows” as developer in new career

Michael Gall

Michael Gall is a 2019 graduate of Niagara College’s Computer Programmer/Analyst (Co-op) program. He spent a year with the Agriculture & Environmental Technologies Innovation Centre, with Research & Innovation, first as a research assistant and then a research associate. Michael started in March 2020 at Rentsync in St. Catharines as a software developer.

Tell us about where you work:

I work at Rentsync (formerly Landlord Web Solutions) in St. Catharines, Ont. They provide a wide variety of services to the housing rental industry, mostly in the form of marketing and data tracking tools. Some examples of these would be creating websites and providing ad syndication for property management companies, to distribute ads out to listing platforms (like Kijiji or PadMapper) without the client needing to individually manage each ad posting.

Describe your role and what you like about it:

My current position is a software developer on the “Feeds & Integrations” team. I work primarily with importing, managing, and exporting property data for clients. I work first-hand with clients and their developers in creating a plan to bring in their property data, and then use available tooling or create custom solutions for formatting. For the most part, I am using website scrapers, direct XML or JSON feeds, and REST API responses to gather this data. The team is a rather new addition to the company, so I really love the freedom I have, to plan and use technologies as I see fit. This has offered me great room to grow as a developer by learning new technologies, while also letting me implement things that I’m already comfortable with, that I learned while I was at Research & Innovation.

How has your experience with Research & Innovation helped prepare you for your current role?

My experience at R&I, specifically in AETIC, really gave me the ability to pick up new technologies and understand them in a fast-paced environment. When I started at R&I, I went in with very little web development experience, and ended up learning a whole slew of modern technologies. Being comfortable with learning and researching translates well to this current job I have, as it has been all about learning since I started. 

A memorable applied research project during your time at R&I?

I worked on a web portal for farm data [Niagara College Crop Portal], that was used to display point-by-point variables of soil. This project was quite memorable because I learned so much about geographic information systems (GIS mapping specifically) as well as the math and science behind the growth of plants. It was all about learning how to apply a scientific formula, then creating a user interface. Not only was it nice to learn how a data scientist views data and how they calculate it, it also helped imagining how the eventual end user would use that product as well. 

What led you to Niagara College in the first place?

I was led to Niagara College after high school as I was undecided if I wanted to pursue Mechanical Engineering or if I wanted to study Computer Science. Niagara College was recommended to me by a friend who was a recent graduate (Matthew Felice) who said it offers a lot of hands-on experience. This led me to taking my Computer Programmer/Analyst program.

Most memorable experience at NC?

The most memorable experience was seeing that a drag-and-drop designer was available in Visual Studio in my first year of programming courses. My mind was blown learning that the websites and applications I use could have been pieced together by someone dragging and dropping buttons, text boxes, and check boxes.

“When I started at Research & Innovation, I went in with very little web development experience, and ended up learning a whole slew of modern technologies.”

A faculty member who influenced you?

There were plenty of faculty members who really influenced me. Peter Vanscoy [professor, Computer Programming] gave a great introduction to programming for me as he was my first-year, first-semester teacher. Marsha Baddeley [professor, Computer Programming] and Dave Kendall [professor, Computer Programming] stick out to me as the professors who probably had the most impact on me due to them working with me through our community sponsored projects. I remember having so many “A-HA!” moments when talking with them where the solutions I was working on finally made sense. Oh! And I do want to toss a shout-out to Melissa Vanderlely [professor, Computer Programming] in there for causing me to draw an interest in getting my Bachelor’s degree with her teaching of advanced programming techniques in my third year.

A mentor at R&I?

During my co-op at R&I, Alex Davis was the senior research associate [AETIC] I worked under, and was incredibly helpful when it came to learning the technologies we used there. Angular (a JavaScript framework) is notoriously difficult to pick up for students, and he helped me turn around to being productive in less than a month. As I progressed more and more, I worked closely with Shubham Kumar [former senior research associate, AETIC] and Sarah Lepp, [former senior research associate, AETIC] who were mentors for the topic of GIS. They took me from zero knowledge about geography, to knowing how to project points onto a map, and calculate if hazelnuts would grow at that point!

What advice would you impart to current research students or future alumni?

Software development involves a lot of programming, and it’s important to learn the tools available to you inside of certain languages for you to tackle issues, but this shouldn’t be the only focus. As developers, we’re paid to be problem solvers, not to write the most trendy, or least lines of code solution. We are paid simply to solve the problem as best as we can. Try to focus on broadening your own mental toolkit, and don’t tie yourself down to a language. 

After being in the workforce, what have you learned?

I’ve learned that clients will do everything in their power to break something. The code that I write has to be impervious to people cramming numbers into where words should go, deleting random things, using an incredibly old computer, you name it! Work showed me that validation and security are equally as important as writing the code to solve the issue. I used to think “Well, no one’s ever going to put a picture in the box labelled ‘Please don’t put a picture here’” but they definitely will, without fail. 

Proudest achievement since graduating?

In terms of schooling, I was accepted to Brock University for a Bachelor’s of Computer Science program! And in terms of work, at Rentsync I’ve already onboarded my first co-worker to my team and have taken on a “mentor” role for them.

Interests outside of work?

I usually like playing video games, analysing data, cooking, and playing with my new kitten! 

If you could have a billboard message seen by many, what would it say?

We made it to today – we can make it to tomorrow.

Anything else you want to say?

Stay safe during this pandemic everyone, and get used to remote work because I have a funny feeling it’s going to be sticking around!