Working at Sapo - The first couple of months

As you might have deducted from my last post, I've been working at SAPO for the past couple of months. For those who don't know SAPO, it's basically the biggest "web centered" Portuguese company. It's owned by the "giant" Portugal Telecom and its one of the references when it comes to Web Development here in Portugal.

Another peculiarity of the company is that the Open Source ideal is deeply rooted into SAPO's DNA. With a couple of small exceptions virtually every project that's created at SAPO is supported by one or more Open Sourced technologies. As an "almost direct consequence", Open Source programming languages also rule at SAPO - from PHP, to Python, Java, Ruby, Perl, ... name a language and you'll probably find someone who's an expert at it there (if not a contributor for the language).

I'm the most recent collaborator at SAPO's channels team. My team is responsible for developing and maintaing a set of websites that gravitate around SAPO - usually involving a set of external partners for content and whatnot. A couple of examples (where I can proudly say that a isty bitsy amount code behind them was developed by me) are SAPO Sabores and SAPO Fama.

We usually deal with small, "isolated" websites and like all things in life this has both positive and negative consequences.

The best thing is that we're not "stuck" on any project for too long. There's always a new challenge a couple of months from now and a new chance to start things from scratch and do things better than we did last time.

Obviously this kind of work also has his own downsides. Projects with a short development times also mean that there's not much room to mess around with new stuff. As much as I'd love to make use of that "want to try-out technology pool" consistently at work, there's pretty much a recipe laid out in front of me - a way that things should be done and a set of tools that should be used. Every project has that specific challenge that you need to address (the "fun" part), but at the present time for those typical "CRUD" websites we have an "almost mature" framework* (*officially it's just a set of libraries, but it has grown into a pretty decent framework - the guy who wrote it doesn't like to see it called a framework though) that abstracts most of the headaches and gives us foundations for pretty much everything we'll be needing.

The fun part is that you're invited to pitch in and develop whatever you consider fit to enter the set of tools that lay the foundation for every website. I've personally started by writing some tests for the "framework" I've mentioned before and most recently I've written a "code generation" utility that tries to look at your database schema and spit out the basic skeleton of a model class for every table (round 2 will be to automatically be able to generate the relations among the Models just by taking a look at the constrains that are in place on the database).

But enough about me, so how's it like to work at SAPO?

Well for the first week or so, I must confess its a bit intimidating. I mean, I'm an interested guy and although I'm no genius I see myself as an fairly intelligent guy. I'm a decent learner, I love to try out new stuff and what truly makes me want jump out of bed in the morning is to have one of those "I have no f*cking clue how I'll solve that" type of problems.

And yet I'm surrounded by people who are truly great at what they do. For the most part, if you want to know what an highly skilled, motivated, self- confident software engineer can do - just walk a couple of minutes within SAPO and you'll know. To be called a "geek" is the greatest compliment you can get there and I think that that says a lot.

So I must confess for the first week or so I've panicked a little. Looking back I was introduced to a LOT of new stuff in a very short timespan - new CMS, new framework, new search server, new javascript library, new queue messaging system, new bug tracking software, ... I confess that it happened to me oftenly to be having a conversation about something that at the time I thought I should know about, just to discover a couple of minutes after that it was pretty much the first mention I've heard of that platform/technology/whatever.

SAPO is a big reality, with a lot of stuff going on - both internal and third- party projects are deeply rooted into the organization and you're welcomed to use many of them on your own projects. To have a clear overview of everything that's going on takes a bit of time.

After getting past that initial blockage and get a hold of how stuff works, I can honestly say I've been having fun. We are currently working in teams of 2 (I'm trying to implement code-review habits in my "micro-team", unsuccessfully so far I might add), where each team is assigned to a project.

We regularly have training sessions that cover an wide range of topics - from Regular Expressions, to Python evangelization, to statistics, ... - although I must confess I'm having an hard time finding out when these are happening (my current guess is that they are announced in a very SPAM prone mailing list).

Social skills are definitely not my strong suit, but with a minor exception so far everyone has been extremely accessible. Everyone truly seems eager to produce awesome services, products and websites. If you happen to have been to any Codebits, I can attest that the environment produced there is pretty much a reflection of what SAPO is - a bunch of people interested in hacking their way through whatever problem its thrown in their way.

So what now?

Well I've taken my first "big project" in hands (until now I've been fixing wholes and adding features in already existing applications). I've been toying around with Bricolage and consequentially burning my eyes out with Perl (programming languages with onions as their logo do that to you, true story).

I was hoping to be allowed to preform a small "hack" on Bricolage's source code and integrate an internal service within the CMS, unfortunately the guy who has already done this one for another project is back from his vacation and therefore my solution won't be used (we're in a tight schedule and I'd take some time to get this right - I don't know Bricolage nor am I familiar with Perl for that matter).

I'm prepping up a data migration from an old, old, old CMS (and when I mean old, I mean its code base is 12 years old) into Bricolage via its SOAP API. During the process all the images that are currently stored on a folder in the filesystem are also to be migrated to a new internal service (via yet another web service).

As the website's frontend won't be directly served by Bricolage (yeah, it kind of trims down what the CMS can do for us, but right now its a battle I'm still not confident enough to take on), I'm also drafting the data model for the stuff I need to store on my side.

From there the plan is to write out a decent API to sit on top of the ORM we're using and build up the rest of the application from there.

Looking at the "bigger picture" for now the objective is to consolidate my position within my team. I'm still the "new guy" and I'm the youngest (and I'm pretty sure I'm also the least experienced) developer in my team.

And for now, that's all folks. Stay tuned for further news... :)