June 7, 2020
After roughly 40 years of professional work, what is not in my resume that can best explain my strongest skill?
Presumably I am “retiring” in a few months. Yet I find myself not ready to slip off to the beach, but rather seeing the coming transition as a career change. What other opportunities are out there? Do I bring to the table skills and experience that would help others in a different context? Is their a unique challenge waiting for me?
Anyone who reads my resume will see a lot of technical skills applied to a range of positions. If they read far enough they may wonder what connects the guy who got a Master’s degree in Agricultural Economics with the guy who ended up being a performance analyst for a national enterprise computer network? I have been in a lot of job interviews in the past few decades and the question sometimes comes up. “Why the career change?”
I have to admit I have also wondered about my so-called “career change,” migrating from economics to IT. But on looking at my life I discovered there is an element that ties all the jobs I have had to that graduate degree. I have this gift for taking a vast range of information and reducing it to manageable components. I reflected on my graduate school experience and noticed a peculiar tie between myself and many of my colleagues. Economists love math and computer programming! Economics moves on data. In other words, there are lot of things economists can do because the fundamental problem of economics is making sense out of a sea of data.
My first professional job was as a grain trader. It did not take me long to learn the specific aspects of the job. It was rather mechanical, if not boring. But I was bored because I wasn’t challenged. It wasn’t until I gained enough experience to notice the lead merchandiser was grasping at straws, attempting to make decisions based on very incomplete information. He assigned me the task to give him a position report so he could gauge how much grain we had on hand to sell. Once I did that, I noticed that what he did not know was the scope of profitable sources of the grain. He needed to know which markets were competitive. So I developed a matrix that demonstrated how much grain could be moved profitably. I did this for five grain commodities, emerging from about 50 locations, to six terminals, over truck or rail.
That was a great job and it is a pity that the recession of the early 80’s roughed up the grain industry. I ended up forming a computer consultancy, fascinated with the upcoming personal computer revolution. I designed software applications that literally reduced tasks that took days to hours. As with the grain trading position, I organized information from numerous sources involving dozens of personnel, transforming their business operations.
After about ten years, I decided I wanted a check every two weeks with health care benefits. So “I got a job.” (Owning a business is not a job, it is a dairy farm!) I was put to work immediately designing a clinical research database, but I soon transferred to a department IT management position. I transformed a fragmented support system into one with standards, less down time and faster response. While it was only a small network of about 110 workstations, it was about 100 different people with unique needs. I designed an inventory system and introduced tools that are today common elements of enterprise system management: security scanning, centralized management of software deployment, automated printer installations.
And so I am now today doing more or less the same thing except it involves about 3000 servers deployed over the entire country! Talk about a lot of numbers! It was just my kind of job. I saw 3000 times about twelve key measurement variables that evaluated system performance and risk of failure. Add to that special case studies, I calculated one afternoon that I was trying to make sense of 45,000 pieces of information. And don’t ask about where that information came from. For each of those elements was about 300 pieces of data: 13.5 million. All in a days work.
The economist understands that problem. It is not the quantity of information that overwhelms us, but the failure to identify what information is significant. It’s an art, but it is painted with mathematical and IT tools that can be used to identify what is important and provide possible solutions. As I undertook the task of performance analyst I realized that I had come full circle, that the statistical tools I had picked up in economics were applied to all those numbers. I reflected on how the different pieces that make a server perform were no different than the five grain commodities I had to track.
If there is one more challenge out there – it will be that sort of challenge. Something that seems too big. Something with too many moving parts. It does not have to be related to IT. It could be anything: agriculture production, medicine, global networking, logistics. Or simply “surprise me.”
Photo courtesy of Abiola.