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Talent Spotlight - Gary Gilbert

Kate Valenti: Hi Gary, thanks for sitting with me today. As you know, we have the pleasure of celebrating our work anniversary together each year, and this year marks 21 years, so congratulations on that milestone! What has kept you interested and engaged in this space for so long?

Gary Gilbert: If I think back on it, it's definitely something that has evolved over time. When I first started with Unicon, it was really about the technology, and writing code. It didn't matter that we were working in the education space. It was about having some interesting problems around technology that I could solve. That was really my focus. Over time, that focus and the reason why I enjoy doing this work has changed. As we evolved as an organization and became more consulting-focused instead of development project-focused, I became more of a subject matter expert in the edtech space.

This gave me the opportunity to learn new things, try new things, and find answers to questions that our customers had. That was always changing, and what kept me engaged. In the last few years, it has shifted again. I think about something Tom Brady said toward the end of his career. He was asked, “how can you play at this high level, even though you're in your 40s?” He said something to the effect of “I have the answers to the test.” I think for those of us who have been doing this for that long, we don't necessarily have the answers to the test, but we know what the questions are going to be. We also have a pretty good idea of what the right answers are. I enjoy knowing that I can go to the customer, have a pretty good sense of what their problems are going to be and what the right answers to those problems are, and then help them apply those answers.

Kate: I appreciate that sentiment. That’s a significant part of the value proposition of Unicon, where we average 10+ years tenure for our employees. When you retain engineers and managers at 10 plus years, 21 years for you, they've seen and solved these problems before, right? They may be new challenges for organizations, but they're not new to us.

Gary: That’s right. 

Kate: Speaking of your impact over the span of your career, as a software architect you’ve built and led integration and technical services teams, developed hundreds of integrations, delivered evaluations, contributed to standards, and designed and built products. What’s been the most rewarding? 

Gary: I think all of it has been rewarding in its own way. Some of the most interesting and rewarding projects I've worked on focused on integrations. Those are also some of the most fun projects that I've been on, mostly because of the people that I was working with. I have, from some of those integration projects, made lifelong friends. That's really valuable to me. But now, I enjoy working on product development. As you know, my background before I came to Unicon and before I even got into technology, was in economics and finance; my undergraduate degree is in economics and my first jobs out of college were in finance. I love this idea of product development where you have a fixed milestone and a finite set of resources. You have a finite budget. You have a finite set of individuals that are working on it. I find it rewarding and challenging to be able to apply thoughts, ideas, patterns and techniques to that finite set of resources to get something built in the necessary timeframe. 

I also love the process of iterative refinement. We tried something. We built something. It worked, or it didn't work. Now, let's make it 1% better, and let's continue to do that over and over and over again. I enjoy brainstorming new approaches to solve problems and improve processes with our customers; same idea, how can we maximize utility in this unique situation. For me, super challenging, super rewarding, and a lot of fun.

Kate: You happen to be working with a client on product development at the moment, so, I'll dig in there. Do you have any observations for the most effective ways for product and engineering teams to work together?

Gary: I've been thinking a lot about this on my current project. There's always a bit of tension between product development and engineering. I think that tension is healthy if it aligns with your organizational principles. Product development wants to get something built, they want to get it out the door, and engineering has a finite set of resources, and they want to successfully build something in the timeframe they have. It's always going to be this push and pull of product and engineering, time and resources. If organizations can create a set of principles, such as prioritizing developer experience, or security, or scalability, or whatever is important at their organization, then you can give and take as long as everyone adheres to those principles. If you don't compromise those principles, I think there's always some room for healthy debate between product and engineering to get to a common consensus on what should be done, how it should be done, and when it should be done.

Kate: Room for healthy debate as long as the core principles or values are in alignment - very insightful.  All right, so this is the point of the interview where you get the obligatory AI question since that is on everybody's mind these days. Are you using it? Are you using AI, generative or otherwise, in your current client work?

Gary: We're not actively using it, but we talk quite a bit about it. My expectation is over the next 6 to 18 months it'll become part of our roadmap. There are some specific use cases that I think make a lot of sense, especially around organizing content, applying metadata, and creating like sets of content. AI isn’t going away, it’s just about finding the sweet spot for when and how to use it.

Kate: Okay, I saved the fun question for last. It's almost opening day for the major league baseball season for 2024. Do you think you will make it to a Red Sox game this year?

Gary: I think this answer will probably surprise you, but probably not. Don’t get me wrong, I still love the Sox. Last year was the first year I didn't make it to Fenway, in a very long time, outside of COVID. I think there are a couple reasons. One, the team just isn’t very good right now. Two, my son plays baseball at a pretty high level. He plays a lot of games and I enjoy watching him and his friends, a lot of whom I coached when they were coming up. That doesn't leave me a lot of time to get down to Boston, but ask me again in a couple of years.

Kate: Thanks so much for spending a bit of time with me today and sharing your insights. Congratulations again for 21 years of making an impact in education technology.

Gary Gilbert

Gary Gilbert

Software Architect
Gary Gilbert is a Software Architect at Unicon where he provides technical leadership to the integrations and learning analytics practice. He has 18+ years of experience designing and developing learning systems for clients ranging from small community colleges to global publishers.

Gary has been involved in numerous open-source software projects including Sakai, uPortal, and Moodle as well as open standards efforts such as IMS Learning Tool Interoperability. Gary has been involved with IMS LTI since its inception. Over the last 10 years, Gary has led dozens of IMS LTI based integration projects and has experience developing integrations with every major learning management system. Additionally, Gary has led the development of several integration platforms that support open standards-based integrations as well as custom integrations and managed the entire integration lifecycle from implementation to client on-boarding and support. Gary is particularly interested in the intersection of open learning technology standards and open educational resources. Gary specializes in Java, PHP, and Javascript. He is experienced with most mainstream application frameworks with a focus on the Spring Framework.
Kate Valenti

Kate Valenti

Kate Valenti leads the senior executive team and all aspects of corporate operations. Kate is responsible for the profitable execution of the firm's business strategy, balancing outstanding service to our clients, significant impact to learners, and enjoyable work experiences for our employees. Throughout her 20+ year career at Unicon, Kate has previously held key leadership roles including Chief Operating Officer and Senior Director of Integrations and Analytics. Previously, Kate worked at Cap Gemini Ernst & Young as a management consultant with a focus on enterprise application integration. Kate is passionate about the impact that well-designed and well-integrated technology can have on the learning experience. During her career in education, Kate has designed and developed integration strategies, programs, and technical services teams, and has delivered dozens of integrated solutions to the market. Kate has both participated in and facilitated industry panel conversations and holds the EDUCAUSE Review Author microcredential.