By Scott Scanlon – Refresh Editor
The space is mostly open at the Applied Sciences Group office on the Calspan campus in Cheektowaga. An organizational chart with dozens of potential software design scenarios sits above two white boards in the conference room, which also contains a projector and teleconferencing system that helps this 42-person company serve clients from across the country.
Paul Buckley is the maestro here. The 57-year-old Elma resident – who holds degrees in biochemical and systems engineering from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy – became president of ASG in 1996, three years after the company was founded.
“Back then, mainly we were doing software development for the manufacturing industry; writing the software that controls the machines that make the products,” he says. “Praxair was a big client, Emerson Controls up on Grand Island. Parker International and many that have long since closed their doors in this area.
“We recognized with the downturn in manufacturing that we had to diversify or die.”
Learn more about Buckley Saturday in WNY Refresh, in my “In the field” story.
Meanwhile, I was struck by the workflow chart at ASG. The company helped developed a “smart pill” that is swallowed by a gastrointestinal patient and can record information as it travels through a patient’s digestive tract. The information can help diagnose a host of problems, including Irritable Bowel Syndrome and Crohn’s disease.
When I asked Buckley to walk me through the process he and his staff used to develop the software, he took me into the conference room to show me pictorially, using a project flow chart above the white boards.
Here’s what he said:.
We have an engineering process that is quite formal. It has to be to in order to be a high-quality system. We ask a bunch of questions and follow a series of steps. The first quarter of this (chart) is sales; you have to understand what a client wants and repeat it back to them so you know you’re both on the same page, the formulation of what we’re going to do – the what – the requirements. That’s first.
The next portion is the organizational aspects. We just got done with the whats, now we’re going to worry about the hows. How are we going to architect this? What kind of processors do we need? How much computing power do we need? How much speed do we need? Are there any user requirements? Do they want it in blue or in green? How are we going to do that?
That’s kind of the middle portion of it, along with the organizational aspects.
We create a binder that stores all the information and make a database for ourselves that stores all of the code. That’s the design aspect.
Then you get into software development. It’s the middle portion. Basically, you start creating specifications and you get the people on the computers to actually program them and create the software that’s going to run the equipment.
Then you get into the tests and scenarios, make sure that you can formulate tests that confirm that you have covered all the requirements and that you’re doing so successfully, that there are no errors.
Then, finally, there’s a post-delivery review to make sure there’s no bugs and if there are you have to correct them. So there’s a trouble-shooting stage.
There’s also a lot of little pieces that go in there. There’s a lot of meetings. You see the red (on the chart): Meet, meet, meet, meet. There’s a lot of meetings involved to make sure you’re always on the same page with the client. You’ve also got the politics, the corporate layers, the finance layers, the legal layers.
It’s all of those things. You have to be aware of them.
You have to have a rich background to work in the software field. What would that include?
The knowledge of how to use the system. The formal term is ‘use cases.’ You’ve got to understand and be able to formulate use cases. You have to understand the trade-offs of any engineered product. Trade-offs include everything from the cost of how to develop the product to the politics involved to your market spaces. There’s a lot of pieces to that.
You have to be disciplined, so you have understand the quality process, the rigor that goes into a quality piece of software.
What sort of educational background is important?
Certainly a bachelor’s degree is required, minimally. Computer science degree is good, as is an engineering degree, electrical engineering. Probably two-thirds of our staff are either CS or engineering. An MBA is useful. Any other degree are icing on the cake, as far as I’m concerned. We do have a couple mechanical engineers, one biologist, a couple business degrees, one sociology, one psychology, finance, physics.
What market spaces are you in?
When we looked at major market spaces, we came up with automation, biotech, municipalities, embedded software – which is essentially the software that runs inside little, tiny computers that are sort of invisible, transparent to users. For example, microwave ovens, the voice of a Fisher Price toy. Just about every device you have today has software inside of it. That’s the embedded software. Medical devices would be embedded software.
So the market space is essentially automotive, food and beverage, pharmaceuticals, medical, military, municipal, energy, non-automotive industrial, retail and commercial. That covers pretty much everything but financial.
What goes into writing a software program?
Oh boy. All software programs generally do the same thing: They read some sort of inputs, they process those inputs and they output something.
How did you become involved in smartphone and mobile apps?
The VA one is a mobile application that is meant to optimize the ability to get information from homeless veterans. It was a two-step process, with agents going out with clipboards to get information and going back to the office and typing it into a database. We eliminated the two-step process for a one-step process by going with an iPad to the VA database. That is an agent facing
application. The only people who have access to that information are VA employees. That is not a user facing application. We’ve also used user facing applications which also allows veterans to be able to more easily track their prescriptions.
The New Era cap one was a down-time issue. The people who work on the manufacturing floor mainly work on sewing machines and those machines can break down for one reason or another. They needed a quick way to service those machines so people weren’t sitting there idle. So we came up with a methodology that used remote applications and tablets for those to tap on a tablet and say they were down and why they were down and maintenance staff could find where they were and quickly get there to fix the machine.
What’s it like living in the Southtowns?
Other than not knowing my way around anyplace north of Walden Avenue, I love it. Growing up in Holland, I was used to those areas to begin with, and (living in) Elma was a great compromise to the point of I wanted the open spaces, my wife (who's from Kenmore) and I wanted to participate in outdoor activities, but it wasn’t so rural that she was uncomfortable with it.