The ramblings of an Eternal Student of Life
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Sunday, March 17, 2013
Psychology ... Technology ...

I learned the rudiments of computer programming while in college, back in the mid-1970s. That was back in the dark ages of computers, when we keyed our programs on punch cards and brought them to a desk to be run. The output would come back in the form of a stack of thin 11 x 18 inch pages, listing all the stupid errors you made, along with all sorts of other computer system gibberish. So you’d re-punch some of your cards and try again; maybe in an hour or two you’d get your next set of results, hoping for a column or two of output numbers that made sense. That was my introduction to Fortran.

I didn’t make a career out of computer work, but knowing basic computer logic did help me in my various jobs over the next three decades. Still, I really only knew one half of the world of computer usage, as I never took a class on databases (COBOL, back then). To me, databases were like the dark side of the moon. I figured that they really weren’t all that important, and even if they were, how hard could it be? You just put numbers in indexed boxes, according to rows and columns. How complicated would it be to retrieve the number in row 1035, column 215 — say, sales of washing machines on July 23, 1974 at the Wichita store?

Only later in life did I come to know just how important the world of databases is. In 2000 I took a mid-life career hiatus and went through some classes at the now-defunct Chubb Top Gun program, which gave me just enough techie skill to crudely manipulate SQL (Structured Query Language, successor to COBOL and other previous database languages) and VBA (Visual Basic for Applications, a souped-up, Microsoft Office-ized version of the Fortran that I learned back in college). A quick one or two-day lesson using MS Access to put together a mini-database system let me see these two language tools work together to give Access designers the power to apply big-league database techniques to minor-league business problems.

Since I was destined to the minor leagues of the business world (i.e., the Business Administration Unit of a county Prosecutor’s office), familiarity with MS Access became a valuable tool in helping me to make a living and stay employed. I jumped right in, volunteering in my first month to design and implement a new Access system to keep track of employee attendance on a daily basis. Someone had previously set up a crude system, but the timekeepers didn’t like it. Well, I was in a bit over my head; but after a couple of months, I had a system going that the timekeepers decided would suit their needs. It took a lot of back and forth with them, but after a few more months, I had the new system working to their satisfaction.

Actually, I got some people upset by doing this. I did not work for the IT Department manager, and he got a bit miffed that someone outside of his realm would set up a relatively important database application without his blessing. Someone told me that he voiced his complaint directly to the big boss, the Prosecutor himself; supposedly the Prosecutor asked him if the database worked. I’m not sure how the IT manager answered, but the truth was that the database DID work. Bottom line, the Prosecutor told the guy, if it works, don’t bother me.

Given that my system did work, I went on to more such projects, and to this day, I still spend one-third to one-half of my time setting up or improving the mini-databases that various people and units use to keep track of their operations. One of the IT sub-managers told me way back then that my work was great, but that in a few years they would be buying and setting up a powerful “enterprise” database system that would make all the individual, customized Access mini-systems obsolete. That was about 11 years ago. We’re still awaiting that powerful enterprise system.

I feel that my most important secret to success in the mini-database area is an appreciation for relationship. Access databases are known as “relational”, a kind of database that allows the designer to set up multiple tables of indexed data, and cross-reference those tables so that they can work together through “queries”. Thus you can “pick and choose” / “mix and match” data from more than one individual “flat file”. This is a more modern database design than the old big flat file systems used when I was in college, or their original replacement, the “hierarchical database”. Relational databases are more powerful than flat systems and more flexible than the hierarchical scheme. If nothing else, Chubb gave me a rough working knowledge of how to use database relationships. (They didn’t teach hierarchical schemes, but eventually I had to learn it on my own, in order to start running custom programs on the NJ State Promis Gavel network for my employer.)

HOWEVER, this is not the kind of relationship that has allowed me to pass as a mini-database designer at work, despite the initial objections of the IT manager and the occasional consternation of the professional database programmer that he later hired. Despite the fact that she is much more technically proficient than I am, some unit managers still ask me to get involved with their database needs despite her availability (I have nothing but respect for her, let that be said).

When someone asks me to do a database for them, I consider it an invitation into a personal relationship. I want to help the people in question to meet their needs. That make take some time and patience on my part. When they come to me and describe their needs, I realize that the program managers may not really know the fully extent of their problem. I will deliver them a product, but I know that it won’t be what they really need. Once they start using the new or upgraded system, they will think about it some more. There will be more to to. Furthermore, they may not grasp all the “support functions” that I will build in. Sometimes they will come to me for little things, such as changing a list of approved users, or a password. Things they could do on their own.

When this happens, I respond to their need. I don’t tell them that they should know what to do, or that I’m busy with another database request. That wouldn’t help the relationship. It’s important to keep a good relationship going with the users of what I design. Sure, sometimes it’s a pain in the butt. And sometimes, you bust your own butt in setting up a new system or feature in response to a user request, and they never actually use what you give them. That has happened more than once to me, much more. But you have to keep on taking them seriously. That’s what a relationship is all about.

If I had to leave one bit of advice to young programmers working in mid-level organizations who develop small, customized applications — I’d say, never under-estimate the power and need for human relationship with and commitment to the user. Don’t think you can stop when you give them what they said they want. Expect them to come back to you wanting more. And then give them more, as best you can. Keep your skills sharp (unlike me, an old hack just trying to make a few more years), but never disregard the power of database relationship. HUMAN database relationship.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 7:18 pm      

  1. Jim, Intereating how, even though the technology changs so much, at the heart of it is/are the human relationships–which really don’t change. In the end one has to get along with people to be effective in anything. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — March 18, 2013 @ 1:39 pm

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