A Work Life (part 1)

Once upon a time, I did have a viable career, as the IT guru of a small company.  And when I say small, I do mean small – never more than 8 employees.  We did management consulting, which always invokes a puzzled look, as no one knows what that means.  You probably don’t either, so let me explain in a way that is not long-winded.  Management consulting is basically a job of being a go-between management and technical experts, handling questions and concerns, translating bureaucratic/techno-geek-speak into something the other party can understand.  It is a complicated and nuanced job straddling two cultures that often talk past each other.  Adding to the complexity is trying to balance everyone’s wants and needs.  Anyway, that is what the company did, and how I started as a jack of all trades, and one could argue, a master of none (which is probably an unfair statement, even for me).

When I started at Orion, back in “the day” (meaning the Jurassic age before the Internet became du jour, and Google and Facebook-owned everyone’s identities), we had three or four PCs, none of which were networked, and suitable only for basic word-processing.  There was also the ability to program systems to do limited things, such as stripping text out of files, or running calculations on banks of numbers.  Minimal stuff, but tasks which gave me the chance to get my foot in the door.  Later I expanded into creating and editing of advanced technology reports, on subjects that I only had a passing familiarity with, but required a deft touch.  As time passed, so did the technology; computers got faster and more capable, and we started toying with the idea of networking systems.  That is where my job kicked into a higher gear.

As I said, the company was small, and skill sets were diverse, though they did overlap a bit.  The problem was that no one had a definitive computer science background, except me.  I had a bachelor’s degree in computer science from Mary Washington College (now University of Mary Washington).  By virtue of that background, and the fact that no one wanted the odious task of setting up or maintaining a network of systems, I inherited the duties of a network administrator, without the formal title.  In all the 22 years of service I had with Orion, my official job title never changed much, except perhaps from “analyst” to “senior analyst.”  Yet, I acquired additional responsibilities that better suited my college-derived skill set than trying to create and edit technical documents on subjects I had very little background in, knowledge of, or an ability to contribute to, in a significant way.

The technical reports the company produced often mystified me. In retrospect, I should not have been too terribly surprised.  Government documents tend to be Frankensteinian creations, structured to meet strict requirements of nebulous regulations and directives that no one can find or understand, but which threaten imprisonment if they are not met.  Even more dubious is that sometimes what has to be done makes no sense on any rational level. So, what do you do? The wise old sage says, “sometimes you get paid by the hour.”  Isn’t that a rather comforting statement?  It evokes same sort of sentiment that the military lives by, “Always remember, your weapon was built by the lowest bidder.”

For me, what I found most confusing, besides the structure and format, was the vocabulary, primarily consisting of governmentese. A conjured stew of acronyms, titles and names of processes and regulations that, unless you had a dictionary or Federal register handy, was like trying to translate ancient Greek into Esperanto.  The other aspect of those reports was the stifling manner and style in which they had to be written.  High on technical accuracy, and low on anything that might keep the reader awake.

However, the process of writing, and more importantly, revision of these documents forced me outside my collegiate and personal comfort zones, particularly for writing.  To be perfectly honest, writing was not high on my list of interests going into college, and to be even more honest, was not a skill that I believed I could build a career around.  Coming out of Galesburg Senior High, I could barely write anything that anyone would want to read. To make matters worse, my poor writing skills trailed me into college and helped contribute to my less than stellar start to my college career (a story for another day).

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