Episode 275  on September 3, 2018Behind the Screens

Behind the Screens with Matthew Saunders

Matthew Saunders, the Engineering Lead for various programs at Pfizer, talks about managing a distributed team of developers across the globe, his work with the Colorado Drupal Community, and theater!

Transcript

Chris:
On this episode, we're going behind the screens with Matthew Saunders here at DrupalCamp Colorado. Matthew, you're currently the engineering lead for various programs over at Pfizer. Tell us a little bit about yourself and what you're doing there.
Matthew:
Sure. I've been working in the Drupal community since about 2007. My roles have ranged from being a project manager to managing development teams to architecture across a variety of different organizations, ranging from small agencies to groups like examiner.com.
Matthew:
Currently, my main role is at Pfizer as engineering lead for a program called the Healthcare Provider Portal, which is a package that allows countries to set up a portal that allows for educational opportunities, for information about different products that are available, and other interactive elements for each of the countries that want to make use of it. I'm responsible for managing the underlying software that drives each of these portals, which have unique content in and of themselves. Currently, that is in Drupal 7. We're in the process of sorting out how we're going to move that into Drupal 8. There are 40-some different countries that are making use of the portal in a variety of different ways.
Matthew:
My other role is working on a system called Smart Suite, which is designed to capture all of the different Pfizer assets, web assets across its ecosystem at different break points, across all of the different environments that these sites live in. The reason that that's important is that the pharm business is highly regulatory. If you have a situation where content changes on a page, it can change what's called a claim. It can change the idea of what a claim could be. You could be in a situation where suddenly it seems like Advil, the claim isn't that it's for muscle aches and, say, fever. Maybe by some accident, it is claiming that it helps with healing of bones or something like that. That would be a violation of regulations.
Matthew:
What we've done is we've built a system that takes a snapshot of each of the live assets and there are a variety of different environments that support that asset, different dev environments stage and production. We're able to automatically compare before and after, whether it's yesterday's capture or today's capture or if we're doing an upgrade, we can compare a before upgrade, an after upgrade, and it'll give us a percentage of difference and allow us to take a look at a visual of what those differences are. That allows us to send our regulatory folks in and tell us whether a change is significant in terms of regulatory practices or whether we need to go through what's called an RC review, a legal review to make sure that it's still cool with the lawyers in the company.
Chris:
Wow. For what we're used to in Drupal, at least for my role, it's a lot of publishing and the workflow is very different from what you just described you're using it for. Is Drupal used in both these situations you just described, both the projects?
Matthew:
It's not. Drupal is used for the portals. For the Smart Suite product, it's a variety of different things ranging from AWS services that are being combined using Laravel and also, we've got a custom asset system that we pull information in that informs how the system works. It's running on Laravel for the most part.
Chris:
Have you found it difficult to transition between Drupal and Laravel or Drupal and these other systems or to work with them together since your background is primarily in Drupal community?
Matthew:
It wasn't so difficult. The reason is that most of the engineers that are involved in the Smart Suite project are also expats to the Drupal community. They've got a good sense around how that stack works. Not to mention because most of these sites that Pfizer is involved with our Drupal, we need to be able to make sure that the capture software is able to access Drupal in intelligent ways. For example, it'll scan the XML sitemap and it's expecting the format that Drupal provides us out of the box with the XML sitemap module. There are all kinds of elements there that really have to fit together almost like a puzzle.
Chris:
Wow. That sounds really challenging. You're not working directly in this code anymore though. You're managing a team of other engineers, other developers. Is that right?
Matthew:
Yeah. I work with the development teams to identify backlog of features that we're going to tackle next. I also work with end users a fair bit to figure out what features they need, whether it's on the portal side or on the Smart Suite side. There's a whole group of people that support those endeavors. We've got product managers that are engaged in that product manager-y activities. I act like a bridge between the technical team and the management team, making sure that as we're making choices, those choices will fit within the technologies that we're making use of.
Chris:
What is your background before this? You were primarily in the code, right?
Matthew:
Not really. I primarily have been a project manager in the past and an architect and a site builder. If you look at my drupal.org profile, for example, you only see four code commits on my profile. What I've been mostly, for my career, is a technology translator, figuring out how to explain to engineers what it is that a client needs. On the other end, explaining to a client what it is that the engineers are going to build and how they would interface with it. I've been involved with information architecture. I've been involved with technical architectures. I've been involved with site building and content management and those kinds of things. Probably the most technical job that I had was with Examiner when I was the technical project manager where I was really engaged in binding very, very different teams together in order to produce a final product.
Chris:
I see, okay. Working with Pfizer now in these roles, so it's not too much of a departure from what you were doing before, but it sounds like you're working with more groups of people, from end users to the different development teams up through product. What's been the most challenging piece of adapting to that role?
Matthew:
Time zones, to be honest, because our team really, the extended team is all the way from Mauritius all the way across Europe, keeping on going all the way through India and then back into North America. We actually cross I think pretty much every time zone.
Chris:
My gosh.
Matthew:
There are times when people need to make a choice. I'm going to be the guy this time that's going to take the hit and have the painful meeting because either I'm getting up at 4:00 in the morning or somebody else is staying at work until 10:00, 11:00 in the evening. I think the time zones have honestly been the toughest part of it.
Chris:
Are there any particular tricks that you figured out to managing those time zones other than just getting up at 4:00 a.m.
Matthew:
Somebody takes the hit. You make sure that as you're going through that those hits are rotating.
Chris:
Yeah. It’s not all on somebody. That seems fair. I think I would appreciate having it go you just have a turn in the order.
Matthew:
Yeah.
Chris:
Wow. That sounds like a massive challenge to try and coordinate. We have a few different people, few different time zones we take into account for the company I work for, Lullabot, but definitely not as vast as that. That sounds a really hard challenge to try and figure out.
Matthew:
It's pretty nutty. The entire team is so great that I don't think that anybody really minds that much.
Chris:
That's awesome. I want to talk a little bit about your role with DrupalCamp Colorado because that's where we are today, here at the King Center for … Man, what is this, the 11th, 12th now?
Matthew:
This is the 11th year.
Chris:
11th year.
Matthew:
We skipped one year, and that was the year after DrupalCon Denver because we're all burned out because it was the local community. That is still when the DrupalCons were being driven by the local community. I think that might've been the last one. By the end of 2012, we were all just a hot mess. I've been involved in the camps since 2007. Back then, it was about 14 people that were attending. The year before DrupalCon Denver, we hit a maximum, the largest number that we'd ever had, which was 600 and some people. It was a very large camp. I feel like we lost momentum after DrupalCon because we skipped that year. We've been having modest sized events since then, ranging between 130 and 170 people, which that's not a terrible size camp, but it's definitely smaller than the vast number of people that came in, in 2011.
Matthew:
I've been acting as the director for the camp for, oh gosh, I guess since it was in Boulder. This year, we expanded our volunteer pool quite a bit. I've been a little bit more hands off this year, which was really good because last year, it was pretty intense. We had about 10 or 12 volunteers, and it was a significant amount of work for the people that were involved. This year, we ended up with about 30 people who were actively involved in helping put the camp together. I think it shows.
Chris:
Yeah, that's amazing. I've seen everyone is wearing a green shirt if you're a volunteer for this year, volunteer shirts, so you're very easy to spot. I've seen so many green shirts coming around. It's really great to have that many people come out because when more people volunteer, each volunteer’s responsibility is a little bit less, so it almost doesn't feel like you're working to an extent.
Matthew:
Well, and it never feels like it’s work anyway. Once the event happens, these things tend to take on their own life. As long as you've got the room set up, if something goes wrong, almost anybody is willing to jump in and figure out what's going on and how to solve the problem. In this community, this local community is just terrific. They all understand if something doesn't go quite right, but by and large, once we get to the event, they just run themselves.
Chris:
That's amazing. I love hearing from people who are in the middle of organizing or have been a part of organizing a local event or a local camp and even the people who aren't part of organizing it value the camps and these events, these local communities so much. It's great to hear that the vibe is like that. I would agree. If something were to drop, there'd be a million people right there ready to help out. It's just the nature of the community.
Chris:
I like to flip things around a little bit. We've talked about some of the work in the community now. Matthew, if you woke up tomorrow and found the internet had just vanished, what's the first thing you're going to do?
Matthew:
I think I would probably find the local theater company and see whether I couldn't get back into doing lighting design. That was my previous life before I got into technology. While a ton of that stuff is using some pretty sophisticated electronics these days, let's say that that all went away, I could still run a manual board if I had to. That's what I think I’d probably do.
Chris:
Wow. What are some of the shows that you've worked on in the past?
Matthew:
Oh my, goodness. Probably a half dozen different Shakespeare festivals I've worked on, but maybe the most interesting thing, most fun thing that I ever worked on was a traveling show of Mr. Dressup. Now Mr. Dressup is like Mr. Rogers neighborhood in the United States. In my previous life, I lived in Canada. At one point, this guy that did Mr. Dressup did a tour around Canada. At that point, I was working in a road show. Out of the blue, I found myself doing the follow spot for this traveling show, which was weird and wacky and strange. It was odd seeing all these tiny, little children showing up in the theater and a ton of fun. It was good.
Chris:
Sounds like a fun job. Wow. I'm going to poke you for a little bit of your Drupal knowledge now. What is your spirit module?
Matthew:
I think it's probably the bad judgment module. I think that that would be it. Sometimes, decisions that you make on the surface seem like maybe not the smartest thing, but then you find that they morph and end up being just the right thing, just the perfect thing that you couldn't have imagined prior to making that decision.
Chris:
I like that. That’s another unique answer. I get so many great unique answers to that question. That's wonderful. Finally, I always wrap it up with if you could give a little thanks and gratitude to somebody along the way, we've all had a little help I think in our careers. It's hard to pick one person sometimes, but if you could think of anybody, who would you like to say thank you to?
Matthew:
In the Drupal community, honestly I would say chx. A number of years ago when I was working for a small agency, the opportunity for me to work on the Examiner project came up because Karoly recommended me to Mike Meyers as being a project manager that could help shepherd that project along. If he hadn't made that recommendation, I believe that my career would be in a completely different place than it is today. That experience catapulted me in a way, sort of in stature in the community to a point where I was able to take on pretty much any project that I wanted. It was also one of the ways that I ended up cycling onto the Drupal association board. I think I would have to say thank you very much, Karoly. You've been a good friend.
Chris:
That's great. Wonderful. Thank you for taking a few minutes, Matthew. I really appreciate it.
Matthew:
Yeah, no worries.
Join the conversation
newsletter-bot