What I do at my day job

I’ve worked at my day job now for nearly 17 years. (Indeed, less than three weeks and I’ll have been there for exactly 17 years.) I started at this company 3 months after graduating from the University of California, Riverside back in 1994.

I work for a public policy “think tank” and that means there is a lot of research done there by many very smart people. I don’t talk about my work very much outside of work. This is because I like to draw the line between my job and my life outside. Many of my closer friends, however, have taken this to mean that I must be doing some kind of work that I can’t talk about. I’m sorry to disappoint folks, but that just isn’t the case.

When I started at this job, I worked on the company help desk, answering phone calls from people who were having some kind of computer problem or question. This was at the dawn of the Internet. I didn’t know what the World Wide Web was when I started. I knew nothing about computer networking. All I had was some programming experience and the fact that I played around with computers a lot growing up.

Over the years I moved into different roles, managing technical projects and then managing staff. About 9 years ago, I moved out of line management and into software development and I have been doing that ever since. I am cautious about what it means to be an “expert” in something. I see the word “expert” so often on resumes as to make it virtually meaningless to me, but if I have any particular area of expertise in my day job, it is as a “data architect”. I don’t particularly like this term, but it does describe fairly well what I do. I help organizations within the company look at the their data, organize it, analyze it and present it in useful ways that allow them to make important decisions based on what they see.

This type of work involves a number of different skill sets. You have to understand data models. You have to understand how the data is used by the business with whom you are working. You have to have a grasp of statistical analysis. You have to have some experience with data visualization and how the data is presented to the people who want to use it. This is obviously not a cutting-edge type of job, but there is a certain satisfaction in seeing an organization improve itself by making better use of the information that is available to it. I have been involved in such successes from time to time.

I am often working on at least 2 fairly big projects at the same time, with a retinue of smaller, satellite projects appearing here and there. Not all of the projects are specifically related to data. Sometimes I am helping to built user interfaces that are easy for people to use. Other times I am managing a project but not doing the development or analysis work myself. But more often than not, I am elbows-deep into data of some form. Over the years, this has made me realize the value of data, the value of data organization and the value of generating new information from existing data by looking at it in a different way, or mashing it up with other types of data. I find these to be the most interesting aspects of my job and it is making this “new” information useful and accessible to others that I find exciting in its own way.

My degrees, incidentally, had nothing to do with this work: political science and journalism. I’ve learned mostly by doing. There are formal aspects to data architecture with which I am poorly versed and it is for this reason that I don’t like the term “data architect”–it implies someone with formal training. (For the same reason, I don’t like the term “software engineer” as applied to what I do because I don’t have an engineering degree.)

So if there’s anyone out there who has been wondering what I do at my day job, now you know. I sift through databases. I write lots of SQL code. My white boards are often full of data model diagrams or statistical equations or mock-ups of interfaces for presenting information. My meetings involve things like establishing taxonomies, or tweaking reports. It is almost always interesting work (to me) but once the day is over, I try to put it out of my head until I arrive back into the office the next day. I’m not always successful, but for the most part that works for me.

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