Steve Jones recently asked: what were your best days at work, and what was your worst? He also issued a challenge to write about our typical days at work. In terms of writing about a typical workday, I have the first of four (per Steve’s challenge instructions) draft articles warming up in the bullpen; hopefully, I’ll crank that one out sometime within the next week or so. But in the meantime, for this article, I want to take a moment to address the best and worst days.
In terms of the worst day, I don’t think there is any contest. I think it’s pretty safe to say that 9/11 was my worst day at work. (For the benefit of those of you who don’t feel like clicking my article link, I worked for a company that had an office in the World Trade Center — when 9/11 happened.)
In terms of the best days, however, that requires a little more thought. It’s not that I haven’t had any great days — that isn’t true — it’s just that there are a number of them, and having been a working professional for (cough! cough!!!) years, trying to pick out a few that stand out over the years is difficult for me to do. So what I’ll do is pick out a few project victories that I’ve had over the course of my career. Granted, I’m picking these from the top of my head, and there very well might be others that were more significant that I’m not remembering right now, but for purposes of this exercise, I’ll write about some projects with which I was involved and take a measure of pride.
I’ll start with a project related to the worst day that I mentioned above. One of my tasks was to maintain an inventory of the servers in our data centers. For a long time, this was a tediously manual task. I went through our data centers with a clipboard, checking to see what servers were in each rack, noting any changes and adding new servers and racks that I found. I drew a map of each room in Visio, even going as far as to count the floor tiles so that I could draw them to scale. I populated the maps with boxes representing server racks and came up with a naming scheme directly tied into a row-and-column location scheme, making it possible to identify and label each rack so they’d be easy to find. Included with the maps was a listing of servers within each rack. I maintained the Visio file on my PC, making sure it was backed up to a departmental file server, and keeping hardcopies in each server room as a reference for various IT workers.
Because this was a manual process, the maps were never completely accurate — I have no doubt that new servers were continually added in-between map updates — and it was a tedious process. All the while, I kept thinking, “there has to be a better way to do this.” Sure enough, I found one!
I discovered that all our servers included a product called Insight Manager. Among other things, it included the ability to collect server BIOS information and store it in a format suitable for importing into a database such as SQL Server. Using the Insight Manager data structure as a template, I set up a SQL Server database on one of our departmental servers and created a system that enabled it to import data from any server on demand through Insight Manager. I now had a central database with server data that could be updated at any given time!
Of course, data isn’t information unless it can be interpreted and understood, so the next step was to create an interface for it. I was responsible for maintaining a departmental intranet site; although it was an internal intranet, I treated it as though it was a full-blown web site. I created a web site to display the server data stored in my back-end. I took my Visio server room maps and created image files from them. From the image files, I created image maps that enabled a user to click a server rack on the map, drilling down to a list of servers in that rack. Clicking on a server displayed data for that server — serial numbers, IP addresses, applications, and so on.
My server inventory system, which I previously had to update manually, was now automated!
This project was a major milestone for my career. It was my first significant foray into SQL Server. (At that time, I hadn’t yet learned about data normalization; had I known about it, I could’ve made the back-end even better.) It gave me some experience with image maps, HTML, and classic ASP (the technology used on that intranet server at that time). Most of all, it was my first taste of what it was like to be a web applications developer.
Memories of this project also reminded me of another good day I had on the job. One particular day, I traveled to remote offices in Yorktown Heights and Middletown to survey their data centers for the server inventory system that I just described. I hopped into my truck (I owned a small Toyota pickup truck at the time) and drove to Yorktown. It was a gorgeous picture-perfect day; the sun was out and it was comfortably warm with low humidity. It was comfortable enough that I left the air conditioner turned off and drove the entire trip with my windows rolled all the way down. It was the kind of day where I wished I owned a convertible! My route between the Yorktown and Middletown offices took me through the Bear Mountain area, including traversing the Hudson River over the Bear Mountain Bridge. If you’ve never driven through that area of New York State, it is an absolutely picturesque and beautiful drive. The entire trip was so fun and relaxing that it did not feel like a business trip at all; I actually felt as though I was on a vacation!
Finally, I want to talk about one last project in which I had a hand. In one of my first jobs out of college (my second job out of school, actually), I was responsible for supporting my company’s document imaging system at a client site (a client that eventually ended up hiring me directly). One of the system’s components was a WORM optical platter jukebox that was in constant use and occasionally needed operations maintenance, which ranged from simple tasks such as inserting an optical platter to complex ones such as restarting it when it locked up. The device had to be operational 24/7, even at hours when we were not in the office.
I was tasked with putting together a small set of instructions — nothing big, just a few pages — that explained how to perform these tasks, including the correct way to insert a platter, what to do when (unfortunately, not if) the machine stopped working, and so on. It needed to be written in such a way that the night maintenance staff could maintain the device. So I sat down in front of my PC with a blank MS Word file and said to myself, “if I was a member of the night staff, what would I want to read that would enable me to perform these tasks?”
I had intended for the document to be a simple three to four page quick reference. As I wrote and came up with more ideas that would help the readers who would be using it (including the innovative — for me — use of illustrations), the document kept getting bigger and bigger. I don’t remember how big it eventually became, but I think it was somewhere in the ballpark of thirty pages. I had absolutely zero technical writing experience at the time; I wrote the document completely by instinct. I didn’t really know what I was doing; I just did things (illustrations, headers, subject organizations, etc.) that made sense to me.
The final product was a huge success — so much so, in fact, that management developed a training program based around this document.
A couple of years later, I discovered that nearby Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute had a Masters degree program in technical communication (note: I am not entirely sure if the program still exists). I had been interested in pursuing a graduate degree, and I thought the program sounded interesting, so I decided to apply. During my application interview with the faculty, I brought along a copy of that operational jukebox document I’d written. I explained that I’d written the document completely by instinct and with no knowledge or experience in technical writing whatsoever. The faculty seemed to be impressed with my effort on that project.
I was accepted into the program. I now have an MS from RPI hanging on my home office wall and listed on my resume.
This article ended up being a lot longer than I expected. Looking back on this exercise that Steve assigned, I suppose my good days at work were more significant than I thought. These projects were major events that ended up shaping this professional career. I suppose the moral of the story is not to underestimate job achievements. You never know where they might lead!