For almost two years, a half-dozen software developers at Environics Analytics (EA) dedicated themselves to creating ENVISION5, the new platform that provides business intelligence on customers and markets anywhere in Canada. They developed innovative approaches, created new interactive features and spent countless hours poring over complex computer code. Finally, on June 9th, their hard work paid off when EA formally released ENVISION5, with its web-services architecture, redesigned user interface, interactive dashboards and enhanced mapping.
As the development team breathed a collective sigh of relief, if not exhaustion, no one was more cognizant of their technical achievement than team leader and Senior Developer Andrew Schuster. “Every now and then in recent weeks, I’d look at the time stamp of an email message from a developer and see that it was sent at three in the morning,” says Andrew. “But I’m extremely happy with the results. I think ENVISION5 will become the gold standard of marketing software, bringing users an enhanced level of functionality, real-time analysis and, most importantly, quality insights into their business challenges.”
At 33 years old, Schuster brought to the challenge of building ENVISION5 a potent combination of programming prowess and leadership skills. He holds degrees in both geomatics and urban studies, an advanced diploma in GIS from the Centre for Geographic Sciences in Lawrencetown, Nova Scotia, and a master’s degree in Spatial Analysis from Ryerson University. Since joining EA nine years ago, Andrew has proven time and time again his passion for both geodemography and programming while creating custom solutions to business challenges based on spatial analysis.
For Andrew, developing ENVISION5 represents the pinnacle of his career, but achieving that goal wasn’t always smooth. Though well-versed in almost a dozen programming languages—including VB, PHP, C and Python, to name a few—Andrew was confronted with myriad challenges in rewriting ENVISION’s software. “From one minute to the next, things changed,” says Andrew. “First, everything worked and we’d think it was going great. And then we’d update code or push code to a new server and all of a sudden there would be IT issues we’d have to deal with. It was just constantly up and down.”
And yet, Andrew says that, were it not for the challenges, creating ENVISION5 wouldn’t have been as much fun. “If you’re not coming across any problems, you’re probably not innovating enough,” he observes. “You’re just doing what’s been done before. So why even rewrite the software?”
Programming may not be everybody’s idea of fun—even Andrew admits it can be a rigid and technical discipline—but he enjoyed a measure of creativity in “playing around” with the coding and features. And thanks to his inventiveness and team collaboration, the static reports and maps that had been part of the platform’s early version became history, replaced by a wave of interactivity. With ENVISION5, the ability to analyze data, build reports, produce varied maps and understand customers has never been easier.
“By integrating best-of-breed GIS and data analysis software within the ENVISION platform we have been able to dramatically increase functionality and improve upon the user’s experience,” Andrew says. “More than ever before, our clients will be able to quickly and easily answer mission-critical questions to help drive their success. We’ve embedded our industry’s best practices and packaged them together in a way that will simplify their day-to-day workflows, while at the same time providing them with rich insights.”
Andrew is quick to note that none of these enhancements would have been possible without his team. “They’re not just programmers, they’re a collection of subject experts—some of them having been in this industry for years,” he says. “They understand that when there’s a task, they’re not just following steps. They understand why they’re doing it and what they’re trying to accomplish.”
Even old hands learned new skills while shepherding the ENVISION5 update. Gary Wood, EA’s Vice President of Software Development, served as Andrew’s mentor on a project that he would have directed just a few years back. “I’m unused to the role of mentor, and I found it challenging at first to give up control of the design and direction of the project,” says Gary. “But I quickly realized that Andrew knew what he was doing. And I’m proud of the job he’s done, not only with the product itself, but the way he managed the team and schedule. It was a seemingly impossible challenge, and he rose to it with enthusiasm.”
Andrew especially enjoyed the opportunity to learn from Gary, who served as the chief architect on a number of marketing software development projects. “I was lucky to have Gary as a guide and teacher,” he acknowledges. “He’s created the most successful marketing analysis packages over the last twenty years—products that have been used by hundreds of analysts.”
Jan Kestle, EA’s founder and president, is particularly pleased with the results. “It enables us to make available to a large number of users not only the data, but our approach to doing many kinds of consumer analytics,” she explains. “It makes it easy for customers to use big data, best practices and good methodology—and get good answers. And I’m very proud of the fact that the team was able to incorporate all of that into a solution that represents good statistical processes and data.”
With ENVISION5 already in use, Andrew notes that EA can easily add to its capabilities. Because of the way the software was developed, EA can add functionality without requiring an extensive rewrite. Although this constant enhancing means that Andrew and his team’s job is never done, they may be able to enjoy a full-night’s sleep for at least a little while.
And if you asked Andrew if he’d take on another challenge like building ENVISION5, he says his answer would still be an enthusiastic yes. Expressing a sentiment that only hardcore programmers might understand, he says he wouldn’t even mind the 3 a.m. emails.