Eugene Lee ’15, Spry, Inc.

The first day of our Princeternship, the six of us we were brought to the spacious offices of Spry by Marketing Director Meg Nacios, who told us briefly about the company on our drive. After we arrived, we spoke with Brooke Stevenson ‘01, CEO of Spry Inc., who walked us through the company’s methodology and philosophy. Several other employees spoke with us, elucidating the structure and technical side of the technology.

Spry’s Agile Analytic approach to data management works through a fast-paced, or ‘agile’, development cycle, taking advantage of semantic ontologies to link disparate databases which enhances flexibility while maintaining the analytical power of traditional methods. To explain more simply, Spry uses a novel way of connecting data with semantics, specifically ontologies. An ontology works by connecting objects to subjects with predicates, like “Bob is a student of Princeton University” and “Bob is a Computer Science Major.” This allows the structuring of data through logical “triples,” which is much like a human mentally structures information. Because a major part of their work involves semantics, Spry employs the interesting combination of Computer Scientists and Philosophers. Like other data analytic technologies, Agile Analytics allows for making connections between different data sources. For example, with enough student data, you could assume from the two previously given properties of “Bob” that he studies Computer Science at Princeton, almost definitely lives on campus, is probably between the ages of 18 and 22, and is most likely a member of at least two student groups. However, one major difference is that Spry’s technology allows for real time updating when the source data is changed, does not require reworking of the ontology when adding new descriptors, and is simple enough for non-technical workers to edit the ontology.

After extensive explanation of the company’s workings, we began to work hands-on with some of the software the company uses, allowing us to gain a more intimate understanding of how the technology is run and what kinds of activities are performed by employees there. First, we looked at with Meg, a website developed by partner company Revolytics, which allows for the creation and storing of ontologies online. Several major projects are on Knoodl, including BioBIG, a database currently under construction intended for pharmaceutical companies that can be used to analyze drug information. Next, we learned RDF, a standardized method of writing ontologies, and wrote our own ontologies in Turtle, a more streamlined method of writing RDF, as RDF is a rather difficult language to read. We were guided by Christina, as well as other members of the company, including Michael, another Princeton alum, who in addition to teaching us the new language, gave us valuable information for the future, as well as their individual experiences during and out of college.

Eugene, Brooke Stevenson, and Princeterns

Our time at the offices of Spry went from about 10 am to 4 pm each day, and we were offered lunch from the office’s kitchen. During lunch, employees (and we) had an opportunity to take a break and chat freely or use the ping pong table. Spry in general is rather informal (although the work they do is very serious), as there is no dress code, few restrictions on how you work, and opportunities to work on something outside of your niche. Employees also can schedule weekly massages and apparently have group yoga sessions. Clearly, there are some advantages to working at Spry, in addition to the interesting positions here.

The second day was filled with SPARQL – a specialized query language for data ontologies. We were guided by Christina, again with other members of the company talking about other sections of Spry that they specialized in. We used SPARQL queries to go through the BioBIG database – and retrieve the number of drugs in each category listed in the database. While challenging at times, particularly due to our lack of experience in this new language, we were all able to successfully pull this off, and create a program that uses actual data to perform a practical task.

Our third day, we went in early to watch a ‘stand up’, where the analytics team of Spry have a short conference where they ask each other about any problems they may have  encountered the previous day, and others offer potential solutions to their problems, preventing any one person from suffering from a particularly annoying problem for more than a day. This is an integral part of Spry’s ‘agile’ development process, as it allows them to overcome obstacles, and avoid problems that pile up as the project goes on. The rest of the day was spent writing in another language called MDQO (Model Driven Query Ontology) which is so specific to Spry that internet searches come up with no relevant links. This program is used to convert user input from the UI to send custom SPARQL queries to the database. Our task was to modify a completed MDQO program used to search through a military mission database for the Department of Defense so that it would work with the BioBIG database. This was very difficult, as we were not given much instruction on the workings of the program, which is understandable. It is necessary to learn a program yourself if you know you will be unable to easily get help. Thus, we had to charge head first into the code, resulting in many stumbles, but also a very fast understanding of the program. Fortunately, we were able to talk with some of the employees who had previously undergone this same struggle. The program we edited will be used by Spry as a starting point for the UI they will be using as a demo for future clients. We also were able to talk with Christina, Topher, Andy, the leader of the analytics team, and others about their opinions on college, education, differences between college and work environments, and the realities of what the future held.

This Princeternship affirmed my plans to study Computer Science, but helped me change my mentality towards how I should treat my college education, what I should focus on, and how I should approach the end of my college career when it comes. It also showed me a better picture of what life would be like working in a small company, where everyone is very close, work is fast- paced, and employees’ roles are far less restricted than at a larger company.

I would definitely recommend this Princeternship to anyone interested in technology; however, I would like to stress that ANY Princeternship would be extremely helpful for anyone looking towards getting a job or lengthy internship in the future. Even if one has plenty of prior work experience, getting a Princeternship at a different company will reveal a very different set of people, environment, and work methodology.

I would like to thank everyone at Spry; Christina for instructing and guiding us through our code, Meg for helping organize the Princeternship, both online and in person, and Brooke for giving us this great opportunity to come to Spry in the first place, as well as continuing to offer future Princeternships.

Christopher Kennedy ’13, Spry, Inc.

Day 1 – 3/19

Today Brooke Stevenson ‘01, the CEO of Spry, talked to us briefly about what the company is and how it operates.  She was very kind and welcoming, which was indicative of the general office environment we would later encounter.  Afterwards, Christina (who stayed with us the entire time) began teaching us basics on how the company operates and the querying language that it uses.  Tristan, a recent Princeton graduate, later joined her.  He had a lot of good insight on the differences between our college and post-graduate experience, notably the changes in expectations for work and the type of knowledge that is actually applied to the real world. We spent most of the day learning about the database, Knoodl, that they had constructed to interpret the language of semantics that is Spry’s trademark.
Day 2 – 3/20

Now that we were briefed on the basics, today was more in depth.  Having a stronger background on what the company itself does, we began to dive into more technical details of the languages and methods they use.  The atmosphere of the office became more apparent, and I began to appreciate the casual workplace demeanor.  We got to talk to a lot of the employees about how they operate on a day-to-day basis, which was very helpful.  In particular, a lot of the advice we got was related to our future and the key differences between the college and workplace experience.  Towards the end of the day, we talked to two very recent Princeton graduates from Revelytix (a company that frequently collaborates with Spry) and their take on post-college life.
Day 3 – 3/21

Christopher, Brooke Stevenson, and fellow Princeterns

We finally got to dive in and really explore the tools that employees of Spry use regularly, especially in the analytics department.  Christina continued to guide us as we did more work in Knoodl as well as Sparql, a relational database query language that Spry often uses.  We even got to apply some of these queries to a project that Spry was working on, to see how they are implemented.  Toward the end of the day, Andy, the director of analytics, came in and talked to us about the advantages of working at a small start-up like Spry as opposed to the government.  His knowledge and advice was very credible and valuable, and his military background allowed him to give us a good perspective on the value of places like Spry.  Brooke bid us farewell and we went on our way, content with what we had learned about the company and the start-up environment in general.

Stephanie He ’15, Spry, Inc.

The five of us were picked up each morning promptly at 10 am by Meg Nacios, the sister of our host Brooke Stevenson ‘01. Our Princeternship began with a tour of the office, which was large and spacious, especially considering that the startup had only 22 employees, but had a close-knit and comfortable atmosphere. In addition to the offices highlighted by brightly colored yoga balls, there was a kitchen area, a ping pong area, as well as a yoga and conference room where we would be working.

We spent the first two days immersing ourselves in the technologies. Given presentations from a couple of employers from Spry Inc., we learned about semantics and in particular, ontology triples and RDFs. Armed with information packets provided to us, we created simple RDF files and used online validation services to make sure that we were on the right track. From there, we moved on to learning SPARQL, a programming language similar to SQL for managing relational databases, and how to query for the RDFs we had just learned using OWL ontologies. In addition, we signed up for Knoodl accounts, which helped manage information using the technologies we had been learning. Through Knoodl we were first introduced to BioBIG, which was the focus of our final project that we worked on during our third and final day. In terms of technologies learned, this Princeternship was breathtakingly fast-paced. As soon as I began to grasp one concept or language, we quickly moved on to the next, all with the patient advice and help from various employees who took time out of their busy schedules to mentor and teach us.

Stephanie, Brooke Stevenson, and fellow Princeterns

This fast-paced learning was balanced with a number of breaks that occurred throughout the day. During the office lunch break when food was delivered and everyone in the office would come out and socialize, many of the workers would migrate towards the ping pong table. Although there were limited “ping pong hours” throughout the work day, over time many of the employees at Spry had clearly honed their skills and had become very impressive at the game. The playful, energetic atmosphere of this small startup company was most clearly captured during these ping pong tournaments, where large groups gathered to watch their friends and coworkers battle it out on the ping pong table.

We also talked to a large number of people, which was without a doubt the most valuable part of my Princeternship experience. Throughout the course of the three days we had at Spry, we came into contact and actually talked with every single person in the company! Some employees dropped by to give us a presentation, some came to explain a technology they were familiar with, others simply came to talk, and all of them answered any questions we had and offered us advice on college, jobs and life in general. Being able to talk to so many talented individuals, including our host Brooke, the directors and chairs, as well as a number of other Princeton alums, we learned more about what to do during college, life after Princeton, and the hiring process from the perspective of those recruiting and interviewing for those positions. It was an eye-opening experience to hear advice from people with such a range of perspective and experiences.

I would enthusiastically recommend the Princeternship program to everyone. Although the duration of the program was short, throughout the course of my Princeternship I learned more than I could have possibly hoped for and had a great time meeting and talking to so many wonderful individuals.