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The Tao of DARS

DARS Gang.jpg
With Tom and Kathy at a Washington State DARS conference in Ellensburg probably in the late '90s (Photo by the fourth member of our team, Susan)

Yesterday I cleaned out my desk in Schmitz Hall, and amongst other things I discovered this photo from a long ago work conference. December 31st was my last day as a University of Washington employee. I'm now officially retired, and I've specifically applied for a disability retirement, although that hasn't been approved yet. This, however, is the story of how an English major ended up working in the Academic Data Management Office. Not that my trajectory is all that unusual for the early days of the Information Revolution.

My first job in the Office of the Registrar, which is currently located in Schmitz Hall, was a temp clerical job in the Graduations Office in 1988. The supervisor there, Virjean, liked my work well enough that when a credentials evaluator position opened up in the office in February 1989, she hired me. The cred evals processed graduation applications, which meant we determined whether students had completed their degree requirements and could be granted a degree. So in four years in this position, I became thoroughly familiar with the University's undergraduate degree requirements.

A few years after that, around '91 or '92, the U bought a license to the Degree Audit Reporting System (DARS), which was a software package that allowed schools to encode their degree requirements, feed a student's classes into the system, and let the program determine whether the degree requirements had been fulfilled. Since I was familiar with the degree requirements and was considered a pretty smart guy, in 1993 I was given the job of implementing DARS from the degree rules side. Susan (who took the photo above) was the COBOL programmer in charge of installing DARS on the mainframe and figuring out how to feed the requirement "encoding" and student records into the system.

The mainframe version of DARS came with screens for entering the requirement encoding, but the mainframe team was short-handed in those days. They didn't have the bandwidth to implement the entry screens. The first stage work-around was to have me manually create text files in which each line and each position within each line was mapped to the DARS data structure. Needless to say, this wasn't a very user-friendly solution. So they decided to have me develop an Access database with forms that allowed me to enter the data in a more intuitive way and then export it into a flat file like the text files I'd created earlier. I don't think I had any knowledge of Access at the time, or if I did it was just a couple of entry-level training courses that introduce you to the concepts of tables and queries, forms and reports. I'm not sure why they thought I'd be able to figure Access out on my own, other than they thought that I was a smart guy with good analytical abilities.

So I spent six months learning how to use Access, including how to write procedures in Visual Basic. This was definitely one of the strangest periods in my working life, because I was essentially being paid to learn. I spent all day, every day, reading Access manuals, trying to figure out how to do what I needed to do. Eventually I developed a database with data entry forms that allowed me and others to encode the degree requirements for DARS in a relational database and export them into flat files for upload to the mainframe every night. If there was any kind of error in the data, the upload would abort. However, it worked well enough that eventually we were able to hire two more encoders to begin the job of putting all of the UW's undergraduate degrees into the system. I also developed a diploma back-order database for the Graduation Office, and I was pretty darned pleased with myself.

The first woman we hired to encode turned out to be mentally unstable. She had scars on her wrists from previous suicide attempts, and she tried to commit suicide while she was working for us too. The story she told us of that attempt is actually pretty funny in a morbid way, because everything she tried failed, including closing the garage doors and starting up the car, only to have it run out of gas. Anyway, it was less funny when she accused me of emotional abuse, and we had to go through a long, painful process to determine that I wasn't actually being cruel to her.

I think by that point we had hired Tom, who was a gay man from Minnesota. He was tighter with his money than anybody I know, except for maybe my brother's friend, Steve, who funnily enough is another Lutheran-raised Minnesotan. Tom's partner loved opera and had hundreds of CDs that he loved to listen to at top volume, which got on Tom's sensitive nerves. So, like my Mom, who insisted that they add a room on their house in Crooked River, so that she didn't have to listen to Fox when my half-deaf father had it on full-blast, Tom and his partner had a grandmother apartment separate from their house where Tom's partner could listen to loud opera to his heart's content.

Eventually, much to everyone's relief, Kimberly moved on to another job, and we hired Kathy to replace her. Kathy was a much more down-to-earth, no-nonsense person who was also taking care of her sick mother. Things in DARSland stabilized for a while until Kathy's mom started going downhill and Kathy had to look for a less demanding job so she could spend more time caring for her.

I'm not sure why I went into such detail about these folks, other than to give some context for the photo. In the meantime, because I needed to pull in representative students to test our requirement encoding against, I learned how to write queries against our student data and started to learn the structure of the relational data warehouse of the mainframe flat files. I even took over the creation and maintenance of the official degree codes for the university, because I had become so familiar with them through using them in DARS. Also, once we hired Maggie to replace Kathy, we were well into the maintenance phase of DARS, and I started to lose interest in the project. While we were in the implementation phase, it was the first time that I had ever felt I got my greatest sense of fulfillment in life from my job rather than from my hobbies and pastimes. This was also the point at which a client-server version of DARS came along, and all my Access work was scrapped.

By this point, my knowledge of student data structures and Access query writing were good enough that in 2007 I was moved over to a job in the Academic Data Management Office essentially writing ad hoc queries as well as running stored queries and processes that more knowledgeable people had written. Eventually through a process of attrition through death, retirement, and post-Great Recession layoffs, I became the last person standing on the data side of the office, which also included some non-data functions such as desktop support. I always felt like a total imposter, because I didn't know how to write SQL from scratch, but I kept reminding myself that nobody knew the underlying data structures better than I did. By the end of my career in that department I was *the* go-to guy on the campus for questions about which tables had which student data and how to join the tables. If I didn't know the answer to the question, I knew who did know the answer. Needless to say, this stuff wasn't written down anywhere, and our data dictionary was always a work in progress. So I guess I earned my keep despite my lack of SQL proficiency.

And that's the long-winded story about how an English major ended up in a semi-technical job. Aside from my knowledge about the data structures, accrued over time, my other important skill was the ability to problem solve in a methodical way when things weren't working. I was good at analyzing where things were breaking down and then working my way toward a solution by a process of elimination. At least one person I worked with who was far better at SQL than I had no ability to trouble-shoot, because when she started getting bad results, she always jumped to the idea that there was something wrong with the underlying data rather than accepting the more obvious possibility that there was something wrong with her SQL. Of course she was also mentally unstable, so there's that.

Anyway, needless to say this career path was not anything I had in mind when I earned my English degree and started looking for work. But I wandered along the way, going with the flow, and found my own idiosyncratic path.

Name Plate.jpg



( 14 comments — Leave a comment )
Jan. 19th, 2017 07:51 pm (UTC)
That's not a "semi" technical job at all. Very technical!
Jan. 19th, 2017 08:07 pm (UTC)
I guess I still have a bit of Impostor Syndrome. It's hard to shake.
Jan. 19th, 2017 08:27 pm (UTC)
That's a pretty standard career path for mainframe database report writers. I recognize the similarity to my own path from medieval history major to financial analyst to database programmer.

My favorite piece of programming as a consultant was always the troubleshooting part of conversions, because that's the part where one gets to be a hero. Normal processing where everything is going well is dull.

Congratulations on understanding the business data so well. That's crucial to making sure the processes work, and it's a piece that lots of programmers I worked with over the years were impatient with.

And additional congratulations on being retired with a cleaned-out desk.
Jan. 19th, 2017 08:34 pm (UTC)
I feel that a lot of SF fans have followed this basic career trajectory, and one of my other theories is that there's something about the minds of people attracted to science fiction that will cause them to drift toward technical careers unless they have specific ambitions in other directions.
Jan. 20th, 2017 09:11 am (UTC)
I wonder if that's just because many of us were looking for work during the era of increasing IT technology, so our unwanted literary qualifications coincided with an insatiable thirst for technical workers. I'd be interested in some memories from fans who entered the workforce before 1970, and to see what happens to fans who enter the workforce after 2030 (if the trend is even over by then).
Jan. 20th, 2017 05:47 pm (UTC)
We were undoubtedly filling a growing need, and we were a cohort who were likely to have played with Commodore 64s when they were the hot new toy. I wasn't one of those myself, but some of my best friends ...
Jan. 21st, 2017 05:22 am (UTC)
(It's Lesley!) I followed the same trajectory myself. My theory is that I spent four years analyzing the word choices of poets from the 1800s and earlier, even giving up and reading the entire Bible at one point so I'd be closer to where their heads were at (I drew the line at learning classical Greek). SQL queries and globs of inconsistent data are a plate of pumpkin scones in comparison.
Jan. 19th, 2017 08:43 pm (UTC)
I am impressed with all that you did at UW. I never knew....but I remember meeting you at Schmitz Hall for lunch or drinks after work.
Jan. 19th, 2017 08:44 pm (UTC)
Anon? This is Robyn
Jan. 19th, 2017 08:47 pm (UTC)
Jan. 19th, 2017 08:48 pm (UTC)
Oh yeah. You were still a student at UW when I started working there.
Jan. 19th, 2017 09:17 pm (UTC)
Interesting, and far more elucidating on what you actually do - did - at work than anything I've previously read.

Your period of learning Access reminds me of how one of my employers decided to put me in charge of the department web site, and sent me off to a class to learn HTML. This was raw HTML, before client interface programs had become common, and also before dynamic HTML or cascading style sheets became the thing, so it was pretty basic, but it certainly was useful, and I still maintain my personal website (which I originally created as a class assignment) the same way.

However, in general my work history doesn't match up with the path you describe as common. I always set out to become a librarian, but I'd had no intention of becoming specifically a cataloger, which is by far the most technical-heavy branch of the field, until I happened to get a job doing it. I'd learned the basics in library school, but there was a lot of re-learning on the job. However, my first job was slow and simple, and within a few months I'd picked up enough to become an off-the-cuff whiz.
Jan. 19th, 2017 10:26 pm (UTC)
My sister always wanted to be a teacher, partly because that's what our Dad became when she was a formative age. She lived her dream, and retired a few years ago at age 52 (if my faulty memory is right) after putting in thirty years in one school district. The only thing I ever wanted to be was a writer, but I could never imagine wanting to do it for a living, not that I was ever in any danger of that!
Jan. 19th, 2017 10:29 pm (UTC)
By the way, I also learned raw HTML and used it right up to the end for a series of pages I maintained on a Unix server using pico as my editor. Old school! For my personal site at randybyers.net, however, I use Wordpress. HTML still comes in handy on LJ sometimes.
( 14 comments — Leave a comment )

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