Last month I got the opportunity to spend an hour with the Database Programming I class at Irmo High School (Irmo, SC). I talked about my career in technology, and I presented some challenges that I have faced in using databases. My dear friend Randy Mecca is obviously doing a great job of helping the students learn how to use database technology, because they demonstrated excellent insight when I posed some tough questions I had encountered while normalizing a table with hundreds of columns.
I shared with the students that I had never studied technology formally. My Princeton transcript contains nothing but liberal arts classes and two semesters of second-year calculus. My introduction to the power of technology was the result of something far more compelling than a classroom experience; I had to figure out a way for one person to do the job of four.
At the time, I was the administrative director of a small non-governmental organization (NGO) called Doulos Community that was trying to get involved in a nutrition and health education project in West Africa. The project was just a couple of months away from being shut down, and the Mauritanian Red Crescent Society, the local partner in the project, wanted our organization to assume the administrative role that had been previously fulfilled by a large, well-known and well-funded international NGO. We agreed to give it our best shot; we wanted those children and poor mothers to keep getting the help they needed.
The other NGO was very gracious in allowing me to see how they performed project administration. As I walked around their office, I saw some hired hands using pencil and paper to keep records. They even had one employee whose chief job was to summarize the data from the pencil-pushers into reports for management. And I had a headache: how were we supposed to accomplish the same work when we didn't have the funds to pay for pencil-pushers?
Struck by a flash of insight, I went to our director with a proposal. Joseph Cumming was (and is) a bright, energetic and wonderfully idealistic man whose chief inspiration was Mother Teresa. No complaints there: if I had wanted to work with a different sort of colleague, I would have been enduring the competition for law review editor at a top ten law school, instead of the poverty and dust storms in West Africa. There was a problem, however; Mother Teresa's idea of using technology did not go beyond using a manual typewriter for writing official letters--anything more would violate her vow of poverty. And I was asking for 2 laptop computers and business software!
Being the visionary type, Joseph took a while to come around, but he eventually realized that he couldn't ask one person to do the same job as four people in the same old way. Honestly, I work hard, but no one can work that hard. Being as kind as he was visionary, he relented, and we got our laptops, and I immersed myself in learning how to use Lotus 1-2-3 and dBase III+.
Within a couple of months I completed spreadsheets for managing all the resources (food and money) that were handled at the Red Crescent centers. I also drew up a specification for using dBase to track the height and weight of the 15,000 poor children enrolled in our program. I desperately wanted to code the system, but due to the lack of time I handed the spec to our resident propeller-head and CalTech escapee, Jerry Roth, who delivered a robust and reliable system on time. I didn't even realize at the time just how miraculous that was...
So in the end, not only did our computer-based administration allow one person to do the work of four, but also it was more robust and reliable than the manpower-intensive process. It is a lot easier to analyze your data in new ways when it's in a database, rather than on paper. Doulos Community was soon delivering reports that USAID regarded as models for the big NGOs to imitate.
So my message to Randy Mecca's students was very simple: learn how to use technology, and you'll be able to stay ahead in today's economy. You don't necessarily have to be a gearhead. But if you're going to manage a business, you have to understand technology well enough to know how the business can take advantage of it. And if you're working with people, you have to know how to use technology to collaborate. On the other hand, if you don't know how to use technology, you're going to be left behind.