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From writing code to EMT: A CTO's journey

Making the move from writing code to becoming an EMT was the best training for success as a CTO.

In his first computing job, Greg Zilliox wrote COBOL programs on a Honeywell 5600 using a card punch and coding sheets. After years of writing books of code for a living, he took a break to be a paramedic. Ironically, that's where he learned about automated coding tools, which he now uses to develop applications for P&A Group, an employee benefits and financial services firm in Buffalo, N.Y.

Zilliox' long career in software development almost didn't happen. In 1977, his father urged him to change his college major from chemistry to computer science, a specialty not offered at his school. His dad worked at Westinghouse, which was computerizing at a rapid pace. "Guys he knew at IBM said they didn't have enough people to run their computers," Zilliox said. So, off to a technical institute he went.

Greg Zilliox Greg Zilliox

The change of major put Zilliox into a career sweet spot. Right out of college, he worked as a programmer for Merchants Mutual Insurance. Since then, he has held lead development positions at a major national bank, a telecom and other firms before becoming CTO and IT director at P&A Group a decade ago. Along the way, he has developed software using RPG, PL/B, COBOL, BASIC, DB and, nowadays, modern programming languages.

Obviously, years in corporate development honed Zilliox' skills, yet he credits his 12-year stint as a paramedic as his best training for a software engineering career. "There, I learned how to rapidly diagnose an issue," he said. During those years, he developed a 911 application for his fire department. His intense work schedule led him to seek labor-saving tools, and he discovered Alpha Software's Alpha Anywhere product for automating coding.

In another sideline project, he used Alpha's tools to develop software for himself and his fellow pigeon racing enthusiasts. His TauRis racing pigeon management application delivers reports on pigeons' breeding, genetics, size, longest flights and more. Used by pigeon fanciers all over the world, the apps are sold by his company, Baseline Software."For this project, there was no coding involved," he said.

The words no coding are music to his ears. "Hey, I was a COBOL programmer. I can appreciate no coding because writing a COBOL programs is like writing a book," Zilliox said.

Since then, Zilliox has taken a low-coding approach to projects ranging from migrating database management systems to setting up state employee benefits systems to financial application development. In a project for a bank that was being split up for sale to multiple entities, he moved a database management system from a mainframe to servers.

"I wrote a COBOL program to extract the bank's data into text format, and then I sucked it into the Alpha IV Version 2," he said. "It took one day, and no coding." Since he joined P&A, he has written several applications that aggregated and organized state and local government records.

Automated coding software does the heavy lifting in most development projects, but some situations still call for traditional programming, Zilliox said. He recalled a revamp of a payroll system that required 12,000 lines of coding because it handled 26 different file layouts with multiple different rules.

At P&A Group, Zilliox heads a team of only three developers -- himself, one trainee and one engineer dedicated to Hyland Software imaging applications that allow claimants to send photos to P&A on their phones. Recently, the team converted most of P&A's 40 servers to Windows Server 2012 Hyper-V with replication on another server. "Clients are amazed that we get so much done with so few people," Zilliox said. "Automated coding is our secret weapon."

P&A's cloud projects are focused largely on databases, where the development team uses Microsoft Azure and the Alpha Five relational database management system to create and manage cloud instances on a searchable grid.

Moving more than a handful of P&A's applications to the cloud isn't on the agenda now or anytime soon. "We have to be very careful because of HIPAA in our medical services work and other compliance issues on the financial services side," Zilliox said. Cloud providers' security measures -- especially encryption -- don't meet most financial organizations' requirements, in his opinion. The security of financial applications is so important that Zilliox still writes manual code to ensure application and system security. "For example, you bet I write my own SQL injection code when necessary," he said.

Relying too heavily on a cloud vendor is another risk of cloud computing for financial services businesses. How can customers police what's going on behind a cloud provider's closed doors? "If the federal government suddenly shuts the cloud vendor down for tax evasion, where does that leave us?" he asked. "Sure, Microsoft and Amazon are huge, but things can happen."

While P&A's involvement in the cloud will remain minimal until risks abate, it will increase its activities in mobile development. "Everything has to have responsive design today, because you never know [on] what device your application is going to be opened," Zilliox said. Will it be a phone, tablet or 21-inch monitor? "Who knows?" He sees mobile pushing systems vendors and businesses into more manageable appliance computing. At P&A, he brought in Dell's Capture Recovery appliance for disaster recovery.

In the future, cloud services and cloud computing are going to have staying power for "certain applications," Zilliox opined. "But mobile is here [and] is never going to go away."

Automated coding will also expand and have staying power, Zilliox said. He expects to see advances in interface-based programming, innovation by ISVs like Alpha Software and open source projects like Programming without Coding Technology, or PWCT. There's no reason in this age, he said, to spend time writing code that often just reinvents what other programmers have done.

Question: Free the code slaves! What alternatives to coding do you and your organization use?

This was last published in September 2014

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