From Farm to Computer Coder: Living a life of resilience, love, and grit
Whenever I interview someone for a Spotlight Post, I’m surprised, even awestruck by their life stories. Talking with Rusty Reese, we covered so many remarkable and even miraculous segments of his life’s journey: From his childhood on a small organic vegetable farm to his adult obsession with baseball and baseball collectables; to his deeply personal journey of fatherhood; and his multi-faceted career at Synergis.
Rusty’s “intellectual grit is his superpower” exclaims Charlie Smith, his former manager in Applications Development. He’s also got tremendous emotional intelligence and a steadfast positive outlook. He spreads his warmth, smile, and good humor to others.
He’s someone you want on your team because he’s so darn talented and brimming with integrity. His heart is huge. His desire to learn is unlimited. And well, his laugh is crazy wonderful.
Meet Rusty Reese.
A Childhood on the Farm
Rusty describes his childhood on his grandfather's farm in Mount Cobb, PA as idyllic—the perfect setting for him, his sister, and his working mom. It’s easy to imagine little Rusty with a big round smile, picking strawberries and filling up quart-size green molded baskets. Or scrambling around on a thick bed of soil, hand digging potatoes, never knowing what was going to be under that grass and dirt (like snakes or some other undesirable creepy-crawlies.)
“My great grandfather bought a huge farm when one of his oldest boys developed health problems,” recalls Rusty. “He moved his family here for the fresh air. Then he split up the farm and gave all of his children land. So, I grew up on my grandfather's land. We had a house in the back with my mom and my sister. It was awesome.”
An early organic gardener in the 70s, Rusty’s grandfather, Joe, was buddies with a neighbor who’d been featured in Organic Gardening magazine. “My granddad’s passion was organic gardening. He’d research and study all about it. He planted raised beds and never used fertilizer.. We had a huge six-foot-high compost pile, and he would teach us about adding layers of green and carbon with scraps of eggshells and coffee grounds to the pile.”
The farm was a small operation. No big machinery or anything. Everything was hand dug and tilled by his grandfather. The family mostly sold the strawberries and potatoes to local neighbors and such.
Today, his mom still lives on his grandfather's property and his relatives live on a large part of the original family property. All in all, their farm business has exploded. His cousins run the very successful Ritter’s Farm Market. And besides selling produce, the family operate a restaurant and make their own wine.
His great uncle also built Ritter's Cider Mill, which he opened in the 70s. It is one of the last places around that still sells unpasteurized squeezed cider, pies, donuts, and other homemade items, along with local produce and decorations.
“It's a great home, let's put it that way,” says Rusty. “It's good to go back and visit my mom and my sister, Maria. Maria is a schoolteacher at North Pocono in the elementary school. She’s married and has three children.”
“My mom is an amazing woman. I wouldn't trade her for the world,” Rusty chimes. For a kid in the country, she also had a dream job at Gertrude Hawkes Chocolates, where she worked for 40 years.
“She would bring us home candy from the second store because she got a discount,” recalls Rusty. “One of my vivid memories as a kid, is my mom coming home with her work smock on. I remember hugging her and she smelled so good, like the chocolate factory. I can still smell the chocolate when I think about it.”
“To be honest, my mom was a single parent,” Rusty continues. “Looking back, I realize how hard she worked for us. I'm really proud that both my sister and I were able to go to school, be successful. and really help people in what we do. We were able to break free of any financial limitations. We would never have been able to do it without my mother’s help and support.”
Rusty’s lives in Salisbury Township, Allentown with his wife, Crystal, their eight-year-old son, Cooper and have three rescue cats - Ruby, Louie, and Momma-girl--all of whom, Rusty admits “are spoiled rotten.”
“Marriage changes your life,” reflects Rusty. “But, Cooper, in particular, has rocked my world,” Rusty’s laugh breaks into a quiet sniffle and then silence. “Sorry. I get choked just thinking about it. Give me a minute.”
“Cooper is such a great kid with a big heart. He’s got some sensory issues and epilepsy that makes it a little bit challenging for him.”
Rusty resumes his story with a papa bear resilience and joy.
“My little guy, Cooper. He’s my greatest accomplishment. He's doing fine. My only goal for Cooper is to be kind, respectful, and caring person. I know everything else will fall into place.”
“He's eight years old now and he's full of opinions and one-liners. He’s at the age where he knows what he wants and how he wants to get there. And still, he’s really well-behaved.”
“It's amazing when he sees things. . . like when we travel or even just go to a baseball game or something. It’s just remarkable the way he asks questions and sees thing as really unpolluted. He’s just so innocent. It kind of refreshes you.. Everyone's his friend. In school, it doesn't matter what class he's in. Everybody is ‘my friend, Cliff; my friend Chad.’ He loves and cares about everyone So, I hope that doesn't change.”
“Because the world can be a downer sometimes, right? But he doesn't see any of that. It's so pure and just so full if only everyone could just have a little bit of that open, unfiltered view of things, like a kid. Oh, my gosh, it amazes me.”
Since Cooper was born, Crystal Reese has been a full-time Mom, especially early on when Cooper started experiencing seizures. Every day she shuttles him to school and manages his busy after school sports and therapy activities.
Says Rusty, “Crystal is one of the strongest people I know. Unstoppable. That's just her. She helps everyone and will not stop until she succeeds. Whatever she has to do to make mountains move, she’ll do it.”
Rusty’s First Computer Crush
Rusty’s love for programming started at North Pocono High School in the mid-90s. The school was technologically ahead of its time with computers, a programming teacher, and advanced electives in Visual Basic, Cobol, and Fortran. Rusty burned through all three language classes. “That's where I first knew that I loved coding.”
He was also fascinated with electrical boards, wiring and electronics and thought about becoming an electrical engineer. But halfway through his first year as Electrical Engineering major at the University of Scranton he switched to Computer Information Systems. The computer software industry was really taking off and Rusty was hooked. For the next three years he immersed himself in programming and business courses.
After graduating, he remembers feeling “on the fence” about pursuing computers or becoming a teacher like his sister.
“Teaching was one of the other things I always thought about doing. And I was ‘this close’ to just going for a teacher's degree as well. But I think I made the right choice. Computers and software was the best decision ever. I really love what I do.”
A Winding Road to Synergis
Rusty’s programming career took off when he started at a software company in Bethlehem. He worked there as a programmer and manager for 14 years and enjoyed the comradery of a tightknit team of coders. Ultimately, the owner decided to sell the company and the new management fired all but three people shortly after the acquisition. While Rusty survived the cut, after a year of working remotely for the new company he realized he needed a change.
“I wanted to work for the right place where I could grow and have opportunities and take my career further any way I could. I didn't feel like the new company was headed in a good direction.”
He interviewed at a couple of places, but Synergis caught his attention.
“Synergis was the only place where I actually talked to someone,” laughs Rusty. “Right off the bat, I knew Synergis was different. I reached out to Becca in HR, and she gave me her number. We started chatting and Becca was just amazing. She got me my first interview for the position of Solutions Architect with Scott Lamond and Chris Fabri.”
The last leg of the interview gauntlet was a software demo.
“It was my big audition, I demoed the performance analysis software for IT companies from my former company, sitting on one side of this huge conference table across from the entire sales and marketing team.”
Rusty passed with flying colors. For the next three years, he worked closely with Chris Fabri (“we were thick as thieves”) and the sales and marketing teams, giving demos and presentations of Adept online and on-site at companies across the country.
“I learned so much about the software during this time. Chris and the sales team would give me these objectives for a presentation to different groups of people. I did research to figure out, ‘Okay, how do I do this demo, so it make sense to these folks?’ Yeah, those times were fun.”
“Rusty has energy that is crazy contagious,” remarks Chris Fabri, now Product Owner at Synergis Software. “His stick-to-itiveness and follow through are the gold standard. I so appreciated and valued our work together.”
Once a Programmer, always a Programmer
Much to my surprise, Rusty applied for a programming position in the Application Development team. I knew him as an irrepressible performer, with a smooth voice on video or in live presentations.
Rusty admits he really missed programming: The problem solving and getting his hands dirty in code—creating software, fixing bugs, and learning new technology.
And with a young son, Rusty longed to get off the road and create a better work-life balance.
“As I now have my son Cooper, I realize more and more that a work-life balance is so important—spending time with your family, making sure you support them and are there for them. I’m forever grateful that Synergis recognized the importance of this and supports us in making this a priority. “
Rusty Gets His Groove Back
As life would have it, a programming position opened Synergis Application Development (AppDev) team, and Rusty reignited his programming career, alongside Wayne Hank, Sean Swope, and Rashmi Chinnawar.
Turns out Rusty was able to work closely with customers in his new role.
“As a Solutions Architect I did demos and videos. I had to figure out how to show the customers Adept's value and how do we help them solve their problems? In AppDev I was able to do development, which is more technical. But guess what? I got to talk to customers, understand their problems, and help them actually deliver a solution for the problems.”
As a member of AppDev Rusty was gratified by helping customers solve problems, automate processes, and gain business efficiencies. But it was migrating customer’s data that became his passion.
“I think people underestimate migrations. Unless you do them and are involved in the project, you don’t understand how intense they are. The most valuable part of our product is our data and file integrity. At the end of the day, you really have to make sure a migration is done well, can be verified, and the customer is happy.”
Rusty’s project list is significant. He’s worked with Cardone Industries, Gillig Bus, Buzzi Unicem, and Con Edison.
Here are a few highlights from his favorite projects . . .in Rusty’s own words.
“Gillig bus was one job that I remember being a challenge. Scott Cleveland wrote the original custom program and handed it off to me. I spent a lot of time with the Gillig team making changes, helping them improve business and workflow processes. That project a memorable one and we spent a lot of time with Jim M. and Jeff R. They were wonderful guys to work with.”
“For Buzzi Unicem, a cement manufacturing company, we wrote a really cool document versioning program. They wanted the program to find older versions in Adept and match them up using a wizard. They had files that came in from either vendors or customers, and we created built-in algorithms that could search their Adept database for documents with certain criteria and either move them to another library or archive them off. The program also gave them a way to manage their documents and clean up their environment.”
“The biggest, most time-consuming custom program and migration I ever did was for Consolidated Edison, Inc.(Con Edison). I worked intensively on that project with Nick Bogart, Synergis Application Consultant, who worked on-site at the utility for six months. We actually reverse engineered their Team Center database to get all Con Edison’s files with their metadata into Adept. TeamCenter made an offer to do the migration, but Con Edison asked us to reverse engineer the database and get their files and information. So, we went for it."
“The entire migration project took me close to two months. But at the end of the day, we were able to do the job.
“That was a really long project. It was fun and intense. We had to get it all right and make sure the folks at Con Edison could validate the data in their environment. I worked closely with Theresa Lau, who was my right-hand person and a technical wizard about everything to do with TeamCenter.”
Reaching New Heights
As a lifetime learner, Rusty always looks to stretch his skills When an opening came up in the Core Development team, they didn’t have to look far to fill it. “Charlie, Paul and Todd knew that I really wanted to get on the core team, do web development, and get some new and updated skills,” explains Rusty. “In time they needed another developer and they asked me to apply for the position.”
“I learned so much about Adept and about the database during my time at the AppDev team. It helped me tremendously for my work on the core team. Honestly, everything I learned from those custom programs and migrations was a great foundation for my work now.”
Rusty is immersed in the new world of web development. He’s learning and using Angular and TypeScript and other web development languages.
“It’s a whole other set of skills just to keep learning, moving ahead and discovering more about Adept. The more I can learn the better. In software, things change so much, you can learn something new every couple of months for the rest of your life. But that's the fun part about a new role—you’re always learning new things!”
Adds Rusty,“I really enjoy improving the product in any way I can to give the user a better experience, help them do their jobs better or more efficiently every day. As a Web Application Developer, I still think of myself in a user-focused role--even though I’m not interacting with customer directly. I’m still working with the team to make Adept the best it can be to help our customers.”
Rusty has nothing but praise and admiration for his cohorts on the development team.
“Working with Bill and Tony and Paul, Sean, and Juan--all these guys--if you have a question, they don't hesitate to help. Even when you make a mistake, they just explain what to fix and have a good laugh over what I did wrong, so any trace of embarrassment evaporates. They've all been there. So, it's just fun to work in an environment where your peers are truly companions and they're sharing what they know. It’s so much more enjoyable when you can interact with everyone, and not have to have your guards up.”
And how does Rusty gauge his own contribution to Synergis?
“I think it’s always trying my best to staying positive and hoping to make other’s smile,” he says. “I hope others know how much I care about their success and that I’m willing to help in any way I can. They may not need my help, but I hope they know I’m willing.”
There’s a definite synchronicity to Rusty’s goals for Cooper—kindness, compassion, and being a good person—and his own essential nature.
“Rusty’s greatest contribution is his caring support for other team members. He is one of the most accepting and approachable people I know.” Charlie Smith, Product Owner, AppDev
“Russ is always ready to help with a problem, support a customer, or collaborate on an idea. Somehow, after you work with him, whether it’s a zoom meeting or a back and forth with text chatting, you just feel better. That’s the energy Russ has, and we are fortunate to have him as a coworker and friend.” Bill Stamp, Chief Architect
“Russ is willing to work on whatever is needed and is eager to learn new areas of Adept. He thinks about ways to improve the product and what he can do to make things the best they can be. He thoroughly learns new technologies so that he can use them to their fullest. He is a joy to work with and I'm thankful to have him on the team.” Paul Ligowski, Software Development Manager
My conversation with Rusty was heartfelt, open, and vulnerable. While he’s had his fair share of challenges, he’s always pulled through with strength, resilience, and greater self-awareness. That’s what makes him wise beyond his years.
To wrap up, I thought I'd share some Rusty-isms in his own words. . .
The Challenges of Fatherhood
“I think most parents will say this. . .when you have a child, you just hit a different gear when you’re faced with a challenge. Your main goal is to make sure that they're okay. I just want Cooper to be healthy and live a good life, a happy life.”
“Even with problems, you block out everything else and really you focus on his needs. It's another way of problem solving, right? Almost like coding. Crystal and I are both hyper focus on doing the best we can for him. And from there, you realize how strong you really are.”
“I always tell Crystal, when it's me, I let things fall off my back. I can take the punches. But when it's a loved one, I'm ready to fight for them more than I would for myself any day of the week. It's just that mentality and realization that you you're willing to do whatever it takes to help them”
On Losing His Dad
“My first experience with grief was with my grandfather. He was like my dad. Actually, he was my dad. One of the most amazing, caring guys. Joe Ritter never had a bad day. He was always smiling, laughing, and joking, every day I ever knew him. It was contagious. He was my best friend.”
“I remember how much my grandfather loved music. He played the guitar and the accordion and played in a band at weddings and such. He loved country music, waltzes, polkas and all the standards. He taught me how to play the guitar. I have his Martin guitar that he gave me before he passed away.”
“I had never experienced absolute grief before my grandfather passed away six years ago. Those were probably the toughest days that I experienced in my life. You can't explain it unless you go through it. You think you know, until it happens, and then it doesn't seem real. It's just so hard to fathom.”
“After my grandfather died, at first there were certain memories of him that I couldn't think about . . they were happy memories, but I just couldn't think about them. But luckily over time, all the memories that made me sad turned back into wonderful memories of how amazing he was and how much I cherished him.”