Open & Candid: Aaron Sutula

Aaron Sutula has previously worked at the National Weather Service, working on an agency-first project to deliver weather info directly to consumer’s mobile devices. At OpenPlans he’ll be working to make Bus Time faster, more responsive and just plain better.  Aaron sat down to talk about where he’s been, what he’s been doing and where he plans to take us.

How have you liked OpenPlans so far?
It’s been great. It’s nice to work in an environment where there are a bunch of self-motivated people working on cool things. It feels like everyone is here because they want to be. It’s inspiring.

What projects were your working on prior to OpenPlans?
Before OpenPlans, I was working with the National Weather Service doing weather-related research and development.  My background is in meteorology, but the longer I worked there, the more I got into software, data, and design.  For a few years, I was working on software that the NWS uses to verify and improve their weather forecasts and numeric models. After that, I got more into the data and dissemination side of things. My main project was called iNWS.  It was a system that allowed people to register and receive customized weather alerts via SMS, email and web based geographic location.

Was this one of the NWS’s first forays into communicating directly with people versus communicating with larger disseminators like news outlets and such?
It was. It was a challenge is a few technical ways, but mostly a huge political and cultural challenge. It was a fun project for all those reasons.

Do you see it being similar to the cultural changes that might have to occur at the MTA for Bus Time?
The MTA’s customer has always been the transit rider and they know that. They do a lot in terms of marketing, outreach, and education and they view Bus Time as a project that will greatly improve the rider experience. On top of that, they are really into open source and open standards. They want to get other developers and organizations to get involved in extending the service.  Pretty cool for a huge organization like the MTA.

When you were you studying meteorology – did you envision that you would end up developing apps and user experience things?
No, not really. We had to write computer programs, but always with the goal of solving some weather problem. It wasn’t until I was working at the NWS that I really got interested in apps and design.  It wasn’t long before I wasn’t all that interested in the meteorology side of things. I just wanted to make cool software.

What are your areas of expertise now on the software side of things?
I feel really comfortable working with databases and server-side frameworks and code. Most of my work has been with Java and PHP. I can help out with front end code and design, and I’m working really hard to get better at that. I have a lot of experience working with geographic, multi-dimensional data, so I guess that’s another strength of mine.

What will you be working on here at OP?
Some back end stuff, but not completely. It’s one of the reasons I’m happy to be here.  I’m getting the chance to branch out and work on front end stuff too.  So far, our development has really beed driven by features we need in the web app as Bus Time is rolled out all over NYC.  So, as we’ve been improving the web page, I’ve been adding service-level features to the server. The most recent was an autocomplete service that the web users when a user starts searching for a bus route.  Performance was the number one concern since the thing will be called every time someone touches a key on their keyboard or phone.

What do you wish to accomplish over the next year here?
Over the next year, I’m excited to see Bus Time get rolled out across the entire city.  I think there is quite a bit of work to accomplish that, so I’m guessing that will take most of my time. There will be surprises along the way.  Problems that we don’t know about now, but will have to fix as they come along.

There’s always suprises.
It’s just the nature of a project like that. Other than that, I plan on soaking up as much knowledge as I can from the awesome people at and around OpenPlans.  I think it will be a great opportunity to learn a lot and collaborate on some exciting, non-Bus Time projects.

How do you keep yourself busy outside of work?
Lately, I feel like I just work on logistics for settling into my apartment, but once that’s all done, I’m looking forward to getting back to biking, playing music and exploring the art and music of NYC.  I have a lot to see here.

Which other places have you lived in?
I was raised in LA and then the Denver area.  During college I moved from Colorado to Bozeman, Montana and then to Salt Lake City. I spent the last 10 years in SLC.

You’ve made it back to a ocean shoreline.
Wait, there’s an ocean here?
Its somewhere under all the asphalt…

Any nicknames that you’ve picked up over the years?
I’ve never had a nickname.

No way…
I swear, I know, weird.

We’re gonna have to get the OP private eye to research this…
That would be fun to see what they come up with.

Say an interesting fact about yourself and your favorite color?
I can combine these… Favorite color is green, but it’s ironic because (this is my interesting fact) I’m actually red-green colorblind.

So you can’t see green or do you confuse the two?
After a lifetime of being color blind, I rarely think about or notice colors because I don’t trust myself with them.  I can see colors, including green, but at times they look very neutral.  Its very hard to distinguish one color from another.

You are an asset to everyone here who may be doing user testing!
And a poor person to choose the colors in a design [we have other people to do that].


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