At Pure, making academic software development fun — and meaningful
Meet the people who are helping universities manage and showcase their research
By Thomas Jorgensen Posted on 15 March 2016
Thomas Jorgensen is one of the co-founders of Pure, an online tool that helps institutions pull together information about their researchers, research output, funding and collaboration, report on it and share it publicly. Elsevier acquired Atira, the software company that developed Pure, in 2012.
Here, Thomas writes about the people who develop Pure and work with customers to make sure it’s giving them what they need.
Over the last 14 years, we have developed Pure into a system that’s helping universities showcase more than half a million researchers, their work, funding and collaborations, giving them an overview of what is going on within institutions, the quality of their work and how they comply with various rules and regulations. It’s a huge piece of software, with over 5 million lines of code – more than the Mars Rover. There is, of course, a big technical aspect to this work: the portal has to function with institutions’ own systems and external databases, and it needs to be intuitive and responsive.
The secret to this is the people behind Pure – those who develop the product and those who work with our customers to make sure it’s giving them what they need.
When we started Pure in Denmark in 2002, we were working with the local university to make a portal that could showcase the university’s expertise and attract more collaborators and funding. We started working with other universities in Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Belgium and Germany, and soon there was big uptake in the UK.
At first, Pure was a tool to help the institutions showcase their experts and research. But soon the system was also being used to document ongoing research and the outcomes of earlier work. With the Research Excellence Framework in the UK – an exercise to determine the quality of the UK’s research output – requiring institutions to provide all sorts of information about their work, reporting became an equally, if not more, important part of the product.
Translating needs into software
Mads Trier lives in Svenstrup, a small town just south of Aalborg, Denmark, with his wife and three children. It took him a few years to figure out that being a developer was the right choice for him; prior to that he studied to become a teacher. He has worked as a developer for six years, four of these in the Pure implementation team. Mads spends a lot of his spare time playing computer games, especially with his two eldest children (ages 4 and 6) – “indoctrination should start at an early age.” Besides sitting in front of a screen, he also enjoys going skiing and snowboarding.
We started out with three people in Aalborg, Denmark. Since we joined Elsevier in 2012, the Pure team has expanded from 35 to more than 60 employees spread around the world. This gives us even more scope to work with our customers and develop the product in a way that helps them the most. We work in three main teams: one works on the core product, another on the modules and another on the implementation. The people here are so important for the product, as they translate customers’ needs into software.
Mads Trier has been in the implementation team for the last four years. He works with customers to improve their data and set them up with Pure, and to understand their needs and take them to the developers. For him, it’s all about cooperation. He said:
I like the customer contact – to be in this team, you need to like communicating with people. For me, it’s a hybrid job: you get to talk with customers and you also get to program. Some of the assignments and tasks are more simple; some are more in the belly of Pure – it’s a gigantic program. It can be challenging, as there’s a lot of context shift – one minute you’re in one role, the next you’re in another. It’s nice having this middle way, where you get to do a bit of everything.
Tommy Winther lives in Ellidshøj (about 20 km south of Aalborg, Denmark) with his wife and two dogs. He has an AP degree in Computer Science from University College Nordjylland. He has been programming for a long time (“pretty much all my life”), professionally for about 15 years. In his spare time he works on home improvement projects, hobby programming and editing family videos from past and present. He likes to go for a run, he enjoys a good single malt and beers of all kinds (especially his own home-brewed beers) and spending time with friends and family.
At Pure, Fridays are for everyone to work on their own development projects – things that benefit the product but aren’t necessarily part of their day job. Tommy Winther has been with Pure for six years. He’s on the team that develops modules based on the customer needs translated by the implementation team. He worked on the Talkback component as one of his Friday projects. He explained:
Talkback collects information on any problems customers have with Pure – it stores them in a central system so we can see all the details, like what version of Pure they’re running. It helps us support the customers. An intern set up the project initially but I spent a lot of time on it on these Fridays. It’s great having the time to explore new technologies and try out new things that are hot in the development scene to see if we can use them for Pure in the future. It’s a good way to learn about new things.
This program, which we call Ignite, has worked remarkably well so far. People enjoy it and it brings creative solutions we might not otherwise have thought of. We can also use it to attract the right people with the right mindset – something that happened with Mads:
When I came here for my job interview four years ago, it was one of the things that caught my attention. We’re encouraged to take part in the program. One of the targets we have as a team is to do one Ignite project a year. The idea is that people try stuff out, and if it’s good, it’s implemented into Pure. The developer has a chance to come up with good ideas and try them out, then make them official.
Maintaining the startup vibe
The atmosphere here still reflects our roots as a startup. We try to keep it like that by being informal. Instead of having procedures for everything, we rely on people to do the right thing. This has a big impact on the people behind Pure, as Tommy explained:
It’s very friendly and easy-going here. It’s still serious and very helpful, so it’s easy to get help from colleagues; we try to always take time to answer each other’s questions. We try to do our work as best we can and have a lot of input on how things should be done. It’s very enjoyable.
Mads has a similar experience:
The atmosphere is one of the things that keeps me here. It’s a flat hierarchy, so you can go to anyone in the office and everyone is friendly. There’s also a great sense of humor in the office.
It’s the employees that bring this humor every day. We have many social initiatives, such as mountain biking, a movie club, clans for online gaming and a (not too active) football team. At our julefrokost (Christmas party), a few people give funny presentations about the company or the work they’ve been doing; Tommy brings some of the beer he brews too.
Some things did of course change when we joined Elsevier, but most of the developers and other employees didn’t see much of a change in their day-to-day work. The upside is we have a much more global reach – we’ve gone from one customer in Denmark to more than 200 all around the world. We also have the opportunity to plug into some of Elsevier’s powerful systems and products. We’re currently working on developing a version of Pure that’s pre-populated with an institution’s data taken from Scopus. That would reduce implementation time from 9 months to just a few weeks.
There’s lots ahead for Pure, and the success of the product will continue to be down to the people behind it. I’m sure we’ll continue to grow, and the people will be a big draw for potential colleagues. As Mads said:
It’s a great place to come in as a new developer; there are lots of very experienced people here. When I joined Pure, I was told there’s not a question too small or big and I should always come and ask. It’s a great approach to onboarding and trying to teach new people developing and programming. I’ve learned a lot in the four years I’ve been here.
Watch a video about the Pure International Conference 2015
This international conference brought together speakers from leading institutions and organizations to discuss key topics in research assessment and administration.
Elsevier Connect Contributor
Thomas Jorgensen was one of the founders of Atira A/S – the Danish company originally behind Pure. Thomas served as Managing Director until the acquisition of Atira by Elsevier, and he has since transitioned into the role of Director of Product Management for Research Management at Elsevier. While working across more products in Elsevier, Thomas still spends the majority of his time keeping Pure and the team behind it fit for purpose. He lives in Aalborg, Denmark, with his wife and two kids.
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