Assess – Recommend – Improve – Educate

Little did I realize when accepting a one year contract position in United Airline’s Cargo Division in 1999 that I’d become not just an Excel Power User but also an expert in automation, data tools, and most importantly a Metrics and Reporting Specialist.  Here is my story of The Journey to Here.

From Vision Inspired Conversion to Hardware to Software

The Teacher playing at a Christmas Student Recital

I can trace back the origins of The Journey to Here almost to the day if I took the time to look into it.  It was an early Saturday evening in September of 1997.  I was house sitting for a friend including taking care of his dog. The Bulls were going to play within the hour; in the back of my mind I knew Michael Jordan would almost always find a way to pull it off, the anticipated excitement was how was he going to do it this time?  I had been jamming in my friend’s music studio and was powering it all down getting ready for the game.  Then it hit me like a Bolt of Lightning; “Do you want to be teaching Nirvana when you’re 75 years old?”  I was living my passion as a successful guitar, keyboards, and music theory teacher at a local music store and was supplementing that variable income with working at a friend’s restaurant.  I had never ever considered that after teaching for upwards of ten years, what the next 35 years would be if I kept on this path.  It was a Mind Blowing experience that set me on an eventual course of a Major Life Change.  The following month found me in Hawaii for 10 days to attend my little sister’s wedding.  I used the beauty and various adventures of that get away paradise to ponder this revelation yet had no idea what direction to go; if not teaching music, what new passion would take its place?  It was a suggestion from my other sister that I go into computers as she thought I would be good at it that set me on a path that eventually led to discovering the exact local education program I needed to get started.  This program would prepare me to become an Entry Level Novell Network Admin that also included acquiring A+ Certified Technician along with learning Windows 95 and Office 95 with a little Mavis Beacon thrown in for full corporate readiness.  In the interim my sister also informed me that software was where it’s at, not hardware, in both employment and income opportunities; little did I realize just how prophetic that advice would be.  It’s a good thing I paid attention as not only did Novell eventually lose its market share but also hardware has been outsourced over the years.

The Innocence of New Beginnings

United Airlines Employee Photo circa 2000

The actual Journey to Here started on Monday April 12, 1999 when reporting for what I thought was a temporary role as a “foot in the door” opportunity in this major corporation where my new career in Entry Level Network Admin or other IT related role would eventually occur.  Although the prior year’s training prepared me for this, little did I know I was about to embark on a long and continuing passion for Excel, VBA, Data Analysis, and Metrics and Reporting along with automation and documentation skills.  Fast Forward 13 months and I’m turning down the efforts of my manager to find me a permanent internal IT role.  For the past year I had done this “metrics thing” with Excel and even got to travel twice as a contractor and really liked it especially in contrast to an entry level IT role in a 24/7 company.  Eventually I travelled around the world talking about metrics, seeing my metrics on display and learning the value that metrics play for a company in determining and resolving issues and rewarding successes.  I used to joke that my name was literally known around the world, even if it was only in the United Airlines Cargo facilities.

Being Bullet Proof as a Precursor to Advanced Automation Skills

During a meeting with my manager at UA, he told me that the work I was doing had to be “Bullet Proof” because of the nature of the goals associated with it aka bonuses.  That produced something of a “GULP!” from me because it wasn’t so much that I couldn’t figure out how to use Excel for Error Checking and Prevention, it was the nature of the mainframe data and issues with its aggregation of which I was never totally privy to primarily from the lack of understanding its programming mechanics.

I learned early on that quality is essential when so many business decisions can be made on those “chart pictures” I produced regularly that my work has to be Bullet Proof because so many things depend on them, the least of which were Performance Bonuses.  Thus began the Battle of Discernment between the data as extracted, the rules by which it’s aggregated and eventually displayed to which Goals and Targets have been associated with using these Visual Representations of Company Performance the results of which Paychecks and Bonuses are attached to.  These Battles of Discernment eventually came head to head with the Dogmas of Diplomatic Metrics Negotiations whether by calculation or “adjustment” to results and/or targets.  It is a delicate dance between Data Reality and Objects Displayed and is sometimes not for the meek when the constant question will always be “Are you sure this is correct?”  The more Onus on the Bonus that is put upon it the more resistant to these “bullets” one must be.  There is no greater application of what my MS Office teacher said, “Excel is a powerful program.  Work smart, not hard.”  toss into that a Bullet Proof Vest and you’re good to go.  This led to evolving design techniques to eliminate redundant activities and ensure the highest level of consistent quality all done on the job; you can’t teach this stuff so you DIY grind it out fine tuning it all along the way.

Complex Functions Evolving to Coding by Design

One day someone was looking over my Excel work and commented that the way I use formulas was like I was “coding in Excel”.  I wasn’t quite sure what meant until some time later.  My DIY On The Job Automation Design Elements eventually went from utilizing the macro recorder to take care of rote motions to needing a Message Box.  I bought one of the Dummies series of books and was off with the “Magic of VBA” first doing the “Hack your way through VBA” including some Spaghetti Code to listening to others talk about better methods of coding then more books and more DIY design elements until you start being able to conceive of potential tools or processes not knowing exactly how to do it, just that it’s possible and you know you can figure it out along the way.  To date, the only time I tell you it can’t be done is that Excel itself cannot do it, other than that, “where there’s a will, there’s a way”.

“Excel is cumbersome.  Let’s use this tool instead”

Fun at United Airline's Skybox

Bulls Game at United Airline’s Skybox

Towards the end of my time at United Airlines Cargo I was informed of a new tool to be implemented called Business Objects.  All reporting will now be out of WebI and Crystal Reports.  I took all of the required training and listened to all of the onsite gurus as I was guided on transferring my Excel based reporting to this new “less cumbersome” format.

The Luck of the Draw of the first report I went to convert to Crystal Reports clearly demonstrated that everything was not as it seems with these supposedly less cumbersome tools because I broke Crystal Reports.  What I mean by that is there was an Excel Calculated Column in this report that when I went to implement it in Crystal Reports I got an Error Message.  No matter what I did the result was the same.  I then spent close to two days researching this issue to eventually come to the conclusion that it was never going to work unless I separated some of the data into another column in the company’s database itself.  Management wasn’t willing to do that resulting in a conundrum if Excel was supposed to be on its way out with Business Objects to be its replacement.

What this taught me is that each and every tool has its purpose and to believe that one and only one will serve all of the company’s reporting needs is limiting.  Use tools, whatever they are, for what they do best and use multiple tools to ensure all of your reporting needs are met in the best way and most accurate way possible.

Give me data and I’ll give you a report

jeff_staebellNot every company I have worked for always used Excel as its main reporting tool including those who moved away from it once I started.  Off the top of my head, I’ve used Cognos, Crystal Reports, WebI, Crystal Excelsius and various other “dashboard tools”.  Then there’s the data extraction interface which has been different at every company.  It’s kind of amazing how many ways an interface to data can be created.  Just like the reporting tools, these are Graphical User Interfaces aka GUI’s.  Software design indicates that the functionalities are to be “User Friendly” as in learn how it works and you’re good to go.

My innate ability for analysis coupled with my technical background has never really been all that challenged by these various reporting and data interfaces.  All it takes is some diligence and a Learning Curve and eventually you’re creating reports and analyzing the results including the Data Integrity of the database.  This resulted in the phrase that I’ve used at various interviews, “Give me data and I’ll give you a report”.

The Local Help Desk; Employee Skills as a Service

Little by little as my automation and design skills broadened resulting in faster and more accurate report production, I began to notice how the techniques of others were actually slowing them down whether that was Excel techniques or easier ways to do things on the computer.  I offered assistance wherever I could.  Eventually word got around well enough that I was the “Go To Excel Guy”.  I made it generally known that “If you think something is taking too long and that there’s got to be a better way, there probably is.  If I don’t already know how to do it, I can figure it out pretty quick”.  I started to refer to this as being a “Local Help Desk” which could be creating a fast table for a VLookup formula to knowing that all your computer needs is a reboot versus opening a Help Desk Ticket.  Although this is overall very personally rewarding, it’s had other rewarding perks at various places of employment.  Kindness always has unending rewards.

Alternatives to Cloning

Is is not uncommon for there to be comments about having more than one copy of me around aka cloning me.  The combination of both my Local Help Desk and automation and data tool skills is why there are many times a vacuum in my absence up to and including being considered an irreplaceable loss and shutting all my complex work down.  One of the best things about Quality Services from The Cloud is that it’s the equivalent of cloning my skills because they are always there in the form of the Virtual Ad Hoc On Demand Online World that many have come to just refer to as The Cloud.

The Shift to the Gig Economy

All Dressed Up

My last role prior to the creation of OTJ HelpDesk was as a contractor for two years at a company that utilized CMMI for Dev.  I was to assist with getting Measures and Analysis (M&A) up to speed in preparation for a 2016 CMMI L3 SCAMPI.  My previous Pharma experience came in very handy due to the similarities of documenting processes and ensuring they are followed.  I called it “Pharma Lite”.  Due to company policy I was informed that when my contract ended 3 months after the SCAMPI, that it would not be renewed but was encouraged to apply for one of two M&A roles that had been established as part of a company re-org.

Never put all of your eggs in one basket even if it appears you are a perfect fit.  I ended up applying for 4 additional roles at other companies for a total of 5 employment possibilities.  Two of these five were standard corporate Metrics and Reporting roles, one was an indefinite contract at another pharma company, and two were for full blown consulting agencies, RCG Global Services and Cognizant.  I was not offered roles at either of the standard corporate metrics role, the pharma was going to pay 38% more than my current wage but just disappeared, and the two consulting companies were offering between 60%-80% more than my current wage both of which were turned down due to some complications.  This was the very first time that my skill sets attracted the attention of major consulting companies, it was something of an honor.

Once the dust of these five roles settled down, I actually ended up with nothing, which then got my gears turning.  My comprehensive analysis of this experience came to the conclusion that the corporate roles I was getting out-priced for.  My extensive experience can command higher dollars and not all companies are willing to go that route and settle for someone with less experience.  Yet on the flip side, consultants were now being very interested in me.  How can I convert this experience into something positive?  Late in 2015 I discovered an opportunity to create online courses and was planning on doing it to create additional income.  This is actually where OTJ HelpDesk was first named in order to give my courses a “brand element”.  The question now became how can this be converted to a more full time role?  The problem is that the courses I had Mind Mapped would take time to first create and then spool up the student counts.  Time was not working with me in contrast to my savings account.  Then I realized that my skills have been needed everywhere I have worked including looking over the shoulders of co-workers and offering help.  It’s very common for me to take 4-5 hours of grueling effort and automate it down to 1 hour or so.  If a company had an employee creating a report that was taking over half of their day, would it be worth a one time cost if I could permanently alleviate that including increased data integrity that would return most of that time back to the employee for other endeavors?  Everyone I brought this scenario up to agreed that it was a good idea.  One person said that this would be part of the up and coming Gig Economy; I didn’t realize I was being such a Trend Setter.  I decided to go for it as this would allow me to assist a greater diversity of people than just one company plus continue bringing my passion for Excel and Metrics and Reporting to a wider customer base and thus OTJ HelpDesk in its current format was born.