Focus on user experience drives Joe Fitzsimmons' work for college website 

In this issue’s Spotlight, meet Joe Fitzsimmons of the Office of Communications and Marketing, who strives for ease of use, constant improvement in developing the user end of the new

Q. Where are you from?
A. Oswego, west side. I grew up on Liberty Street right down from Breitbeck Park. It was a good location for Harborfest growing up.

Q. What can you tell us about your educational background?
A. I did two years of graphic design at Mohawk Valley CC. I got my associate’s degree at Cayuga Community College in Fulton. I came to Oswego to get my bachelor’s—I had a major in information science and a minor in computer science. I’m now working on my master’s in human-computer interaction (HCI).

Q. Why did you choose SUNY Oswego?
A. I’ve had friends in the past who have gone to school in computer science or technology-related fields, and they seemed to be doing well. I was living in Oswego at the time. I saw Oswego had a computer science program. So I took a shot. I couldn’t be happier with the professors that I’ve encountered here.

Q. At what age did you realize you had a special talent in programming?
A. Around middle school, in the late ‘90s. The web was just becoming big. I taught myself how to make websites. I learned how the web worked, how HTML worked. I found it very interesting. I kind of went away from it for a little bit, but I found my way back to it and couldn’t really imagine doing anything else.

Q. As a student, what do you think of SUNY Oswego professors?
A. The professors in the computer science department exceeded my expectations for what I thought I was getting into here. I knew computer science was challenging and the professors really lived up to that; they challenged me in a really good way. It was life changing—it changed the way I thought about computers. A lot of people, when they use computers or their phones, there’s this is sense of magic: “Nobody really knows how it works.” Once you get into the field, you get a glimpse behind the veil of how things really work.

Q. How did you first get acquainted with web-related projects at Oswego?
A. I worked in what was then Public Affairs as an undergraduate student. I heard of the job from professor (James) Early in the computer science department. That was when it really kind of clicked: This is the setting and the job I wanted to do.

Q. When were you hired full time in Communications and Marketing here?
A. It’s coming up on two years ago, in November. I got hired after I was working in Binghamton for a few months. I heard that a job was posted that was essentially the same as the job I was doing in Binghamton. All of my family and friends are here, so it seemed like kind of a no-brainer to apply for it.

Q. What’s your title and what does your job entail?
A. My title is front-end developer, and that means, for Oswego, that I maintain the template code for our website, what it looks like, the user experience and I have an influence on the direction that it’s going. On top of that, I’m also doing whatever we need done in Drupal to move forward with that (content management) project. Drupal by itself is just a bucket of parts. It’s been my job to figure out what parts we need and, with the help of Rick (Buck) and Tim (Nekritz) and Kelli (Ariel), figure out how to put those parts together.

Q. Has there been a challenge in the Drupal project you’ve been proud to solve?
A. In a lot of such projects, there’s an unveiling: “Here’s the new website.” We wanted to come up with a way where we can say, “Here’s the new website, but we are going to continue to improve it, continue to take feedback and use that feedback to improve the functionality and the design.” I came up with some ways that allowed us to quickly make iterations (programming updates) and not get stuck in a certain template or a certain look. We can push the changes live and keep moving on. The web is never done. There’s never a dull moment. You’re always responding to new technologies, to feedback, to what works best for users.

Q. What’s a real strength you bring to the position?
A. Versatility—the fact that I can jump between different programming languages. I also do some back-end (data access) stuff. On any particular day, I could be going from PHP to JavaScript to HTML to CSS. With the beginning of the HCI degree, I feel like I’m more positioned to help the project in terms of usability and making the website more user friendly. I also try to keep up with what the industry is doing. I try to make sure that Oswego doesn’t fall behind in technology.

Q. How do you like working at SUNY Oswego?
A. I love working here. I like to be so close—this might sound cheesy—to learning minds. The buzz on campus when students are here is awesome. I like the fact that I have a direct impact on something that thousands of students use every day. It’s a great opportunity to make their lives better or easier in the long run. This campus is just beautiful. It’s a great place to work.

Q. How do you see yourself advancing in the next five years?
A. I see myself becoming less concerned with the code and more concerned about the big picture. That’s something the HCI program has really opened my eyes to. There’s a lot of opportunity to make things easier to use and to have somebody who takes a step back and looks at software capabilities. In five years, I do see myself still writing code, but looking more at the big picture.

Q. What are your interests outside of work?
A. I like to spend time with my wife, Maggie. She’s a graduate student here, too, in mental health counseling. We like to go for scenic rides. We like to cook. I tend to make things up as I go, but as far as a single recipe, I make a pretty good chili. My wife and I try to cook dinner together as much as we can. I watch a lot of Netflix. (Laughs.) I like to go hiking, spend time outdoors. I tinker with things at home—I have different electronics, like a Raspberry Pi minicomputer I like to tinker with and see what I can do.