My name is Tom Belknap and I am a PHP data engineer. Is that a real job title? Well, it isn’t mine, but it should be. I’ve spent the better part of 20 years making unorganized data make sense for my employers and clients.
Towards the end of the 20th century, I was working in the manufacturing sector of our economy. I was a machinist and sheetmetal fabricator working for a local instrumentation manufacturer that specialized in power monitoring systems for utilities. But the economy being what it was, my manufacturing job was threatened daily until the bottom fell out of the economy in 2000 and I was officially out of a job. I found myself an out-of-work 25 year old man with skills that could have found me work 25 years earlier. It was time to make some changes.
In the meanwhile, many of my friends were working professionally in digital roles as either network engineers, developers or security experts. It was a brand-new industry, in terms of viable career opportunities, and news reports were flush with excitement about how many more people would soon be working in this fast-paced world. I wanted to be a part of it!
Because you see, while my interest in computers had taken a hiatus, it had not abated from my years as a 12 year old Commodore 64 owner with a taste for BASIC computer programming. I had been physically sat down in front of a computer in fifth grade by very forward-thinking and kind public education teachers. It was Mister Price who saw my potential as a computer engineer and Miss Lloyd who fostered it. I have a debt of gratitude to them both. Almost twenty years later, their patient work was going to start paying dividends.
Thus it was, with no marketable skills in the industry - no credits to my knowledge, no jobs that demonstrated my skills, no certificates, no degrees - I set out to find my spot on the bottom rung. I started by canvassing local businesses - I was out of work anyway - by interviewing people in-person. I campaigned by foot around the City of Rochester, handing our resumes and asking for interviews. I wouldn’t return until the evening, generally sweaty and no longer business-appropriate, but filled with new scraps of information and insight.
The bits and scraps were predictably small, at first. It’s hard to get anyone in HR to talk to a guy with no skills when there is a sea of skilled workers to fish on Monster.com. But the few kind people who chose to spend a few minutes with me gave me important tips on my resume; insights on what employers were looking for, skills-wise; tips on where to possibly get training and other insights that would prove crucial for landing work in the future.
Eventually, I learned of the Academy for Career Development. This was an academy setup purely to educate and retrain unemployed workers with skills they might use with computers. The training was tier-based, such that if you only went for a couple weeks, you would have learned basic Microsoft Office application tasks - Word, Excel, Powerpoint, Access - but sticking it out through the whole course would get you ready for a CompTIA A+ certification. That certification proved you knew how to dismantle and troubleshoot PCs. And with that coveted starting point finally achieved, I was finally able to get a JOB!
From there, I went on to gradually climb the ladder and learn new skills as I did so. I answered phones for Comcast; walked customers through installing motherboards over the phone for Gateway Computers; did deskside support for a couple of local charities; fixed computers on the side for friends. I wrote simple portal websites for help desks as quick reference guides. I remotely administered Microsoft servers for a medical transcription company. Every new job was a new education. Every new skill was a new step up the ladder.
But from the very first ACD course on Microsoft Access, I was obsessed with data. My first non-educational task when I got home from that first day of training was to use Access to organize my MP3 library. Not content to simply have hand-created setlists for WinAmp, I leveraged Access to build playlists based on the year, genre, band or other metadata I captured about each album and song.
I learned something important: data and it’s manipulation was the key to joy for me! The idea that I could create ad-hock associations between my music collection made me realize that everything could be captured and ordered in this way. And from then on, what I’ve always found the most rewarding about the work I do has been when I’m able to make a client or fellow employee’s day easier and faster with the right tool to coallate, organize and execute their jobs.
In fact, what I’ve learned over the course of years is that what connects us as living, thinking individuals is data, itself. What Mrs. Lloyd gave me all those years ago is no less than what a few merciful receptionists, guardhouse guards and HR reps gave me on the long, dusty walks of my late twenties, is no less than what I provide my coworkers and clients every single day: a means of understanding. Google is simply a means of understanding. Our CRMs, CMSs, ORMs, invoicing systems and search consoles are all just means of understanding what matters in our worlds.
And standing between unorganized, chaotic, unusable data and you? People like me. People whose life it is to marshall the data before them into usable, digestable, actionable intelligence. I am extremely proud to occupy that little corner of your information ecosystem.