Intern Experiences: Zach

My name is Zach Cross, and I am currently an intern at SpanishDict. In a few days, I will be returning to Chapel Hill, North Carolina to finish my last year of undergrad at UNC, where I study Computer Science. The goal of this post is to reflect on my experience at SpanishDict, both for my own benefit and for communicating what it’s like to work at this great company.

I started here with two other interns (Hari Ganesan and Maria Bajzek) in late May. Moving from rural North Carolina to Washington, DC was an interesting transition, but I quickly settled into a comfort zone both at work and in the city. We have a company culture that creates a low stress, personal atmosphere that encourages productivity and helps us achieve our ambitious goals. From day one, I have learned an increasing amount about the company, our product, and the people here. In the context of engineering, I have benefited from the torrent of knowledge that is Ryan Roemer, our Director of Engineering. I have learned not only as a direct result of my project work, but also in asking Ryan questions about his own work. Additionally, I have learned about our business model through our weekly team meetings and in everyday conversations with other members of the team.

My primary project relates to both managing changes to the schema of our database in response to regular changes to the website (especially with the addition of our Node.js API) and maintaining the quality of our content. The fundamental problem I sought out to solve was managing database state (both schema and data) in a flexible, controlled manner that still allowed for sweeping changes. The secondary problem was creating a better interface to our database for content maintainers.

To solve this problem, I used the Django web framework with the Django app South for data and schema migrations. Because I wasn’t working with a clean slate – that is, the database already existed – I relied on Django’s database introspection tools and some manual (and scripted) tweaks to model our data. Several iterations of work later, a handy schema diff tool confirmed that my Django models captured the schema of the current database properly. From there, I modified Django’s built-in admin web interface to suit our needs. We now have a number of schema and data migrations in the teens, in response to needs for new features and data quality control. That is the long and short of it, but I should say that using Django’s ORM (object relational mapper) to programmatically handle data migrations was much more convenient than sanitizing and validating huge batches of SQL commands.

Having very much simplified my primary project in this post, I do want to elaborate on one particular set of migrations I worked on. We are a data- driven company, with tons of log data at both the application and server levels. I wrote a few data and schema migrations to facilitate the viewing of user query data via the admin web interface I mentioned. In addition, I wrote a few normalizations for our Hadoop MapReduce jobs that boiled down our logs into feasible quantities. The exposure to big data (something that once seemed nebulous) was a great learning opportunity, although it was pretty easy given our in-house tools for big data analytics. Now, we have the capability for team members who aren’t developers to add and make changes to our site content. Most importantly, we can react to what our users are searching for and better serve their needs. The web interface reflecting this analytics data was also constructed in such a way that progress is trackable without hassle.

As I wrapped up my primary project, I asked Chris (our CEO and a fellow developer) if there was more project work that needed to be done. He gave me two terrific projects related to a new product of ours… but I can’t go into detail on that just yet! The point is that there is always exciting work to do at SpanishDict, that we are continually seeking to improve our existing and new products. This sense of zero stagnation is probably one of the best parts of working here. New features are being created every day, and old ones are being improved. Not to mention, there is no shortage of ideas between our brilliant team members!

For anyone considering working here, whether or not you are a developer, if you are looking for exciting work and great co-workers, look no further! We have great people, great products, and great purpose! Y para los que hablan español, o quieren aprender, tengo que decir que esta oficina está llena de gente cosmopolita que traen todo tipo de experiencias internacionales y culturales al equipo. ¡Hay mucho que compartir y aprender!

And for the developer-types considering working at SpanishDict, know that there is an abundance of challenging (and therefore fun) problems to solve. That and very intelligent and creative coworkers who will no doubt be a source of knowledge and motivation. To end this post, I’ll throw some technology buzzwords to capture some of what I’ve seen and learned about (in varying degrees) at work:

Django, Python, Boto, MySQL, PHP, MrJob, Node.js, CoffeeScript, Loggly, Scout, NoSQL, MongoDB