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CTO juggles multi-tasking, picking mobile app development tools

CTO Alva Powell discusses the ins and outs of his job, including how he manages people and selects mobile app development tools for projects.

In addition to driving development of a new mobile application series for users, often starting from scratch with new tools, Alva Powell manages multiple development projects for internal use and operations, too.  

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"About 40% of my day is spent in management and architecture work on both processor or software solutions, and about 80% of my day is spent on coding. Yes, that adds up to long days," said Powell, CTO of the Center for Autism and Related Disorders Inc. (CARD). Powell said he is working overtime for his heart and not his pocketbook. He was compelled to leave retirement to work on the technology side of CARD's mission of assisting people with autism.

"I had had a full career of IT, reaching back to the punch card days," Powell said. A friend told him about CARD. "It's probably been the best job of my career. It's been a lot of fun to bring to the hands of the people that are helping kids."

Managing application development and employees

Alva PowellAlva Powell

That technology isn't kids' play. As DevOps leader, Powell manages a staff of about 25 software development and IT operations employees. Currently, he is juggling development of several applications for internal and external consumption, including a SharePoint workflow and information-sharing project, development of a games series for patients, an online training course and more.

For internal use, a SharePoint project will produce website-located tools to help clinicians track research progress. Streamlining users' workflow, as well as an easier-to-use interface are two goals. A complementary tool, Skills Book, helps clinicians document day-to-day work with patients.

Powell also manages CARD's Game Development Group, which is creating a series of games for autistic children. The framework for games development is similar to that of the Skills Book, first in the sense that the games can be used on iPads. And second, the data that's pushing into the clinical system is similar to data the clinical staff tracks in Skills Book. "The games mirror the way clinicians do therapy work," said Powell.

My goal is cutting complexity in projects, to deliver an easier solution.

Alva Powell

Powell's closest team members are two project managers and an administrative assistant. "I'm always in the mix," he said. First, he's an adviser, approving, nixing and modifying ideas the team presents. "My goal is cutting complexity in projects, to deliver an easier solution," he said. Second, he is the negotiator between development, operations, business and clinicians. His most-explained concept is that 100% requirement fulfillment is often not the possible path.

While requirements, graphical user interfaces, team leadership and other such tasks are important, Powell's first concern is data. "Everything stops at the data layer, so I spend a lot of time with the DBA and senior development staff," he said. "We're focused on working on the data layer to make sure that all of the data merges and comingles properly."

Beyond getting data secured and moving smoothly, Powell helps senior clinical staff to understand how to look at the data and the options for slicing it to provide meaningful results. "They key is starting with an understanding of what kind of information we want to be able to find out in the end," he said.

Selecting mobile app development tools

Choosing the right mobile app development tools has been the biggest challenge for Powell’s team. They performed development iterations using different configurations on options, including straight up HTML 5, JavaScript 2, native iOS, native Android OS, IBM tools, Kony Development Cloud and Xamarin MonoTouch. 

For mobile application development, CARD's team chose MonoTouch, largely because of its cross-platform capabilities and affordable cost. MonoTouch enables writing code in C# and doing further development in Microsoft Visual Studio and iOS and deploying to the iPad platform.

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Powell's team liked Kony's approach of building once and deploying across multiple platforms' mobile devices. Speed and efficiency of development were tops on Kony, too, but total cost of ownership was too high for CARD, a small organization. "If I was back in Warner Music Group, where I once worked, Kony would be the choice for speed and ease of deployment and application control," Powell said.

Once the mobile app development tools were chosen, Powell's team ran into networking issues, largely caused by inadequate tools. "Mobile development solutions are still fairly immature in the industry, and so there are just bridges that haven't been built yet," said Powell. "We had to build our own connectivity solutions. Building-your-own is common in new technologies."

Developing technology that helps autistic children is also a new endeavor, and it calls for close collaboration with clinicians. That relates closely to today's call for business and DevOps to join together, Powell said. At the end of the day, the business goals are what counts. He finds CARD's goals very fulfilling. "Sure, I have that they helped the company be more profitable," he said. "But the reality is what I've done has helped therapists put more of their time into working with the children and less of their time into the administrative overhead. That feels good."

Jan Stafford plans and oversees strategy and operations for TechTarget's Application Development Media Group. She has covered the computer industry for the last 20-plus years, writing about everything from personal computers to operating systems to server virtualization to application development.

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This was first published in March 2014

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Essential Guide

Enterprise architects' guide to success with mobile apps for business
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