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Writes apps, will travel: a Q&A with Groupon Director of Mobile Engineering and Alumnus Mike Burton

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Alumnus Mike Burton is an avid traveler and the author of the "Android App Development for Dummies" book. 

San Diego, Calif., May 12, 2015 -- Alumnus Mike Burton is Director of Mobile Engineering at Groupon. He also is the author of the "Android App Development for Dummies" book and of an open-source library for Android app development that is currently used by Microsoft, Skype, Starbucks and Nike. He has traveled around the world and rode a motorcycle from Alaska to Mexico. At UC San Diego, he was a master's student working with computer scientist William G. Griswold and bioengineer Andrew McCulloch after earning a bachelor’s in electrical engineering also at UC San Diego. He also was part of the original team that put EarthKAM on the space shuttle and International Space Station for Sally Ride Science. The program allows the public to take pictures of the earth from a camera located on the International Space Station and is still in operation today. In this Q&A, Burton talks about his time at UC San Diego, his travels and his book.

 

What are some of the things you learned here at UC San Diego that were useful to you throughout your career?

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Burton is the director of mobile engineering at Groupon.

As an undergraduate, one of my favorite classes was a robotics course I took as an electrical engineering major. It was taught by a guest lecturer from industry and there wasn’t really a curriculum. He taught us to be very scrappy. The class also gave us a lot of experience working in small teams.

Another one of my favorite projects was EarthKAM. A friend of mine was a mechanical engineering major and invited me to come to the inaugural meeting. There was free pizza, so I went. We were just these kids who didn’t know anything and we had to build everything from scratch. A couple of guys built a mission control center from scratch, replicating the one in Houston from donated materials and parts. I was running the software team and we had a to build software from scratch to run these missions. We built a timeline tool that took a NASA mission plan and turned it into digital form. Sally [Ride] actually took that tool and showed it to NASA. I went to Houston a few times to help manage the missions that were launched on the space shuttle. Sally was one of the most amazing people I worked with. She was there full time for us. It’s crazy to think about everything else she was doing at the same time: she was an advisor to Bill Clinton and the CEO of her own company.

In grad school, Bill Griswold was my advisor and I also worked on a project for bioengineering professor Andrew McCulloch. I redesigned a FORTRAN app his lab was using to use template metaprogramming in C++. Graduate school taught me about being self-driven and self-motivated. That served me really well in industry.

How did you land at Groupon?

I’ve been working with start-ups since 2000. After I got my bachelor’s, one of my friends from EarthKAM asked me to work with him, but I turned him down because I wanted to go to grad school. That friend’s start-up got acquired by eBay for $165 million. So when he asked me to work with him again when I was doing my master’s, I dropped everything and moved to the Bay Area that weekend. I finished up my master’s remotely. It took me 1 ½ years. I worked at that startup for about five years. We didn’t get acquired, but I learned what it was like to work at a startup in Silicon Valley.

In 2008-09, another friend started a start-up and asked me to join. We were acquired by Groupon in 2010.

Now that I am in charge of the company’s mobile engineering unit, I don’t do any coding anymore. I’m just really enjoying being where I’m at. I’m in charge of an app with 100 million downloads and generates more than half of Groupon’s transactions. We’ve grown so fast.

How did you become an expert in Android app development?

I started out with server-side software. But at the same time, smart phones started taking off. The iPhone had been around for a couple of years and Apple announced you could develop apps for it. The first Android phone had just come out. I knew Java, so this was a natural step for me. We were doing outsourcing contracts for other companies and that’s how I got to program the Android apps for Digg, TripIt and OpenTable.

What was it like to write the “Android App Development for Dummies” book?

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Burton wrote the "Android App Development for Dummies" book.

Actually, I wrote most of it remotely from Argentina. I spent about a year traveling the world and working remotely for Groupon. I went everywhere, Berlin, Scotland, Rio, New York, London, Buenos Aires, etc. I didn’t know anyone, so when I was done working for Groupon at the end of the day, I would switch over to work on a few chapters for my book in the evening!  Some countries were better for working remotely: in Buenos Aires, people at dinner at 10 p.m., so it was easy to go out and have fun after work even though the time zones meant I was getting off at 8 p.m..  London was harder, because all the pubs closed up by around 10 p.m. during the week.

You took a trip on your motorcycle from Alaska to Mexico. How did that come about?

My best friend and I had been dreaming about this for years. So I invited my little sister and my friend invited her spouse. It was amazing, we rode from Anchorage through the Yukon, down through Yosemite and stopped in Tijuana. I had never been to Alaska before. I learned a lot about bison. I always thought they were shy and mild, so I would just get off my bike and shoo them away if they were blocking the middle of the road. Later I learned that they can run faster than a horse and can charge a vehicle if they’re scared. I’m just a California boy. I didn’t know.

What advice would you have for a senior or recent graduate looking for a job?

I always look for something about our candidates that really makes them stand out. What are they passionate about? What are they driven by? So I look for extra curricular activities, like robotics, captain of the debate team, personal apps they’ve build, it could be anything, but I look for different ways they demonstrate their passion.

How about professionals who are mid-career and are taking stock, maybe wanting the change directions?

One thing that has served me really well was getting into open source. I wrote a library for Android programming called RoboGuice and made it open source. It was a pain I encountered in my job and I wanted to solve it. Now Microsoft, Skype, Starbucks and Nike use it. People really like it. I got on the talk circuit and I met my publisher this way.

Any other memories of your life here on campus?

We had awesome teachers. I remember one guy who taught humanities at Revelle and wrote “Who Wrote the Bible.” [Editor’s note: Professor Emeritus Richard Elliot Friedman, in the Department of Literature]. I still have a copy of that book. Revelle was so much work but I got exposure to such a variety of things. I learned so much.

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Burton is a motorcycle enthusiast. 

 

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