Pivotal People—Mark Secrist on Big Data Education, Open Source Software, and Free Training

May 13, 2015 Adam Bloom

sfeatured-msecristAs the first U.S. based trainer for the Spring Framework at VMware, Mark Secrist spent a number of years teaching thousands of developers how to more productively develop applications in Java. As one of Pivotal’s Technical Education Managers, Mark brings over 25 years of experience as a software developer and trainer. His team covers training and curriculum for Pivotal Big Data Suite products.

In this Q&A style post, Mark talks about Pivotal product education, explains the differences between learning about open and closed source products, and touches on how our big data products work with Spring. He also mentions our cutting edge data science classes (Data Science in Practice and Data Science and Big Data Analytics), free introductory training classes (listed further below), and certifications.

For like-minded trainers who are passionate about helping others succeed with technology, Mark also points out that Pivotal is hiring four training curriculum developers for Pivotal Big Data Suite and Pivotal Cloud Foundry.

Could you tell us how you got into software, training, and education?
It’s interesting how our careers can be led certain directions based on the experiences we have growing up. First, it seems I was more technically oriented as a kid—my parents told me that, if I was given a toy truck, I would enjoy taking it apart more than playing with it. We were also a military family and traveled a lot. At the time, I didn’t like moving again and again, making new friends each time. Travel eventually became something I really enjoyed with work. As well, the personal computer was emerging as I moved into college, and computer science became a big interest for me and a logical career path to follow. Out of college, I started working for HP and stayed there for about 25 years. Most of my work there was as a developer and consultant. At one point, the group I was in started consulting with other groups and doing more knowledge transfer types of work. I found this really satisfying—to teach and help others. I went back for another round in the trenches as a developer, and I had an opportunity to help demo our product to customers, support the beta program, and do training. After that, I realized I was more excited about explaining what a product does for developers than developing. Soon, I started working on a team that would evangelize Java in the early days. That turned into more Java-related training and education roles. I really enjoy explaining a technology and seeing the light bulb go off in someone’s head about how it helps them—that is the coolest part about training.

Would you tell us more about your work background in terms of how you ended up at Pivotal?
Well, these interests of mine were merging together—figuring out technology, doing development, traveling, and teaching others. I had left HP and was doing Java development with the Spring Framework for about two years—the advances in productivity really got me excited. Whenever I learned something new, I immediately wanted to share it with others. An opportunity showed up for me to become a Spring trainer and help build the curriculum for Spring Source, who VMware had just acquired. So, I started as the sole U.S. trainer on Spring. Worldwide, there were four of us doing training delivery and building courseware. It was great. I had been using Spring in the trenches, and it was really gratifying to teach others the ins and outs of how it works and how to be successful with it.

When Pivotal was spun out of VMware and EMC, I came with the Spring team. Along the way, I’ve helped build training and train people on a number of products like Pivotal GemFire, which is a very powerful product that we just open sourced as Project Geode. As Cloud Foundry was first announced at VMware, I saw the connection between it, Java workloads, and Spring apps. So, we started demonstrating some of these pieces in class to show how seamless it was to move apps to Cloud Foundry. Now, I spend time managing a team and contributing to the Pivotal Big Data Suite training. This includes Pivotal HD, Pivotal GemFire, Pivotal HAWQ, and Pivotal Greenplum.

What do you love about working in Pivotal’s Training organization and why?
As I’ve alluded to, I really enjoy helping others accomplish more with technology. Our whole team gets excited about helping people learn about our products and become successful with them. If you are reading this and feel the way we do about training, please know we are hiring four training curriculum developers for Pivotal Big Data Suite and Pivotal Cloud Foundry.

As far as why—there are so many times over the years that I have had customers show up in class after digging themselves into a hole with a technology. Then, they go through training and say something like, “Oh! If I had only known about this before.” They finish training, go back to the office, take a few steps backwards to undo what they did, and re-implement what they learned. Products are complex, documentation can be limited. Training rounds out the perspective and often gives people real-world labs to work on. In my experience, this always leads to fewer mistakes, less grief, and less risk on projects.

Lastly, I think we run a very current department that is constantly motivated to help others learn, helping career advancement in high-growth technologies. With our company’s focus on data science, I think we have a pretty awesome Data Science in Practice course that covers content, tools, and real-world exercises. We have a series of free, hands-on, web-based courses, and these 1-day sessions allow people to kick the tires and take the first step towards certification (listed at the end of this post). We have certifications across our product lines—Spring, Big Data Suite, and Pivotal Cloud Foundry. Of course, we also offer traditional, instructor-led and virtual training options as individuals move through our curriculum paths.

Having trained with open and closed source products, what do you see as the differences?
With closed source products, getting an answer about how something works can sometimes be a challenge. With open source, I can teach students to go browse the source code and find the answers themselves. The entire process for product lifecycle, feature management, and development is very different.

If you think about the open source impact on software and education, open source is much better understood because you can look at the code. It is easier to teach, learn, adopt, extend, and contribute back. Nothing stops people from contributing ideas and code.

Spring intersects with Pivotal GemFire (Project Geode) and Pivotal HD, could you tell us why that is cool?
Well, when we started off with Spring Data, the objective was to take complex stuff and simplify it or standardize it. This is what Spring always did, and now it was being done to access data stores. If I am using a regular RDBMS, Redis, GemFire, Apache Hadoop®, MongoDB, REST, or others, it is really not that much different to access these systems with Spring. I definitely get excited about linking Spring with our other products, and we do it wherever we can. For example, our Pivotal GemFire Developer course covers some of this well. Similarly, SQL on Apache Hadoop® is very popular, and I think the HAWQ Architecture and Implementation class is another good example of where technologies intersect. Data scientists are often interested in classes such as the Greenplum Database Architecture Administration and Implementation because they can use SQL to explore massive amounts of data in parallel.

These types of product intersections also offer a lot to our customers. In fact, our Big Data Roadshow is sharing a reference architecture for the Internet of Things (IoT) and uses the connected car as an example. The underlying stack pulls together sensors, mobile apps, Spring XD, GemFire, and Pivotal HD.

Since I’ve spent a lot of time teaching Pivotal GemFire classes, I think most people show up knowing the distributed object store architecture and in-memory speed that creates at least a 10x performance factor over disk-based access. While you might land a lot of sensor data in Pivotal HD for analytics operations, there are times you want to do something in real-time with the data. Pivotal GemFire fits this space—when you want to be as fast as possible, like doing on-the-fly analytics, continuous querying, or MapReduce types of jobs in-memory.

Alright, thank you for spending time with us. So, what do you do when you aren’t playing with cool technology and teaching others about it?
Well, I have a lovely wife, two kids, and a couple of grandkids now. I love spending time with them. We live north of Denver, Colorado and enjoy the outdoors. I try to play guitar when I can and have played for years. It is very therapeutic. Recently, I’ve gotten really into wine—the history, processes, regions, types, and more. I love tasting and experiencing the different varieties. Bottoms up!

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Editor’s Note: Apache, Apache Hadoop, and Hadoop are either registered trademarks or trademarks of the Apache Software Foundation in the United States and/or other countries.

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