College of Engineering News • Iowa State University

Engineering senior develops cutting-edge software

Growing up around R & D Industries, Inc., a computer network engineering and solutions company owned by his father, Christopher Van Oort, senior in Christopher Van Oortsoftware engineering at Iowa State, knows the ins and outs of computers. To gain practical experience, he has spent the past four years interning for Thinix, a small division of R & D Industries.

Van Oort, originally from Spirit Lake, Iowa, first set his sights on Iowa State because of the university’s chemical engineering program. He later switched his major to software engineering and soon after began interning with Thinix.

He says the best part of his work in industry has been the opportunity to use the knowledge he has gained in the classroom on the job.

“This past year especially I’ve had phenomenal opportunities to bridge the two worlds and apply things I’ve learned in class at a high level in industry,” he explains. “Quite literally, I was able to take an idea drawn on a white board from research, to marketing, to development, and then to public consumption.”

That idea-turned-to-product, called RetroUI, is a bypass to the new Windows 8 desktop that allows users to maneuver directly to the standard desktop each time they log in. Van Oort began working on developing the product in mid-August and provided Thinix with functional code by the beginning of September.

While the process to develop RetroUI was not easy, quick turnaround allowed Thinix to be the first company to offer such a product, something he appreciates about working for a smaller firm.

“Being a small company from Iowa and beating many larger tech companies to the market with a product like this was a pretty big accomplishment,” he says. “Thanks to the flexibility of our organization’s set up, we get to work on unique and cutting-edge projects that other companies might not even consider developing. It’s been a great experience.”

Van Oort also improved his management skills this summer, as he moved from the primarily independent role of researching new technologies and developing code to managing a group of interns.

He says this responsibility involved managing goals, deadlines, and general strategy, as well as communicating and collaborating remotely between two offices. “It helps that I’ve had significant management experience in campus organizations at Iowa State,” Van Oort adds.

More recently, he has been heavily involved with developing RetroUI v2, a nearly complete re-write of the product since its first release. With this task, he has been performing initial research as well as developing prototypes of code and applications to explore technical options.

Van Oort has also been organizing work schedules for a team of interns on the RetroUI v2 team, who have been busy fixing minor bugs, doing design work, and code modifications. From here, he will be building and designing the installers for the application.

Along with these major projects, Van Oort created a time management system for billing that included a mobile interface for phones, a desktop interface, and a desktop application that runs through the mobile interface.

“A user may spend five hours with one client, two with another, and 15 minutes on the phone with a third. This billing system provides them with an easy way to bill those customers by logging into the desktop interface and dragging and dropping events they put into the computer into a time sheet,” he explains.

Van Oort says continuing work with Thinix will be a bit easier this semester, as the company now has office space at Iowa State University’s Research Park in Ames in addition to its headquarters in northwest Iowa.

With graduation set for December 2013, Van Oort is keeping his options for after school open at this point. He feels his theory classes within the College of Engineering coupled with his extensive intern experiences have put him in a good position when it comes to the job market and hopes to find an opportunity that maximizes his knowledge when the time comes.

“Iowa State has taught me how to manage software projects, architecture design, and styles of development. And I’ve learned through my internship the challenges of engineering a product,” says Van Oort. “Between the technical knowledge I’ve gained and the programming fundamentals learned, I’ve had an opportunity as a student to develop a product from start to finish. I’m appreciative for that and also proud to have accomplished it.”