From social worker turned data analyst/engineer and this is Eric’s journey into the tech industry.
Please introduce yourself
My name is Eric Burden, I’m an IT Senior Principal Consultant for NTT DATA Services in the State Health Consulting group. I’m currently serving as a Technical Analyst on a state Comprehensive Child Welfare Information System (CCWIS).
My main role is to shepherd the ETL process from the legacy system to a newly procured system, making sure to maintain (or hopefully improve) data quality in the process. My time is generally split between working directly with stakeholders (both from the state and the system vendor) and writing/evaluating ETL code and data quality reports.
What was your background before learning to code?
I started out as a nonprofit employee working directly with teens aging out of foster care, helping to prepare them for life (relatively) on their own. I’ve worked for various other child welfare and social service agencies and nonprofits, moving from direct service roles to quality improvement roles, where I really felt the need to start learning the skills I utilize on a daily basis today.
Prior to my current role, I served as an Associate Director for Data and Quality Improvement for a United Way (mouthful, I know).
What got you interested in coding and how did you learn to code?
I’ve been interested in coding since high school, to be honest, but it didn’t really amount to much until I needed it a few years ago. In my last two years of high school, we wrote some simple programs in some dialect of BASIC and HyperCard. I dabbled a bit with Python here and there, but never seriously.
My first professional use of code was writing Visual Basic into reporting spreadsheets for monthly reports for that non-profit and setting up a shared BitTorrent Sync server to share reports across regions.
I was later employed in the Data Reporting unit of a state agency as a Data Validator, and worked my way up to Division Director. In that role, I often needed information from the database much more rapidly that I was able to request it from the department that handled that information, especially when miscommunications and multiple refinements were factored in. So, I learned SQL. And I hated it.
The bit of programming I did know was very imperative, and SQL was very different and tough to get my head around. A colleague suggested I try using R to refine and analyze the data, and that’s just what I did.
Using some broad and very basic SQL queries to fetch data sets, I was able to use R to both get answers and, leveraging RMarkdown and Shiny, provide rapid information and dashboards in a way the agency hadn’t utilized before. That work eventually blossomed into a full-scale reporting platform for the entire agency (where I got to serve as lead developer for the project), statewide, with data exploration and Dockerized for scalability. That was a big win, and it definitely helped boost me along this path.
How did you get your first job in tech?
I guess in some ways, I’ve never had a real tech job, or at least not one where developing software/writing code was more than 50% of the job description.
My current role is the closest I’ve come, but I’m honestly most comfortable straddling the fence between the business and technical sides of an agency. My “lead developer” role in the dashboard project I mentioned above didn’t come with a title or pay change, just spending 50% of my time on that project and the other 50% on managing my Division Director duties.
How did you prepare for an interview?
I always research companies I want to interview with, and ideally find someone I know or can reach out to for a conversation about what it’s like there. I’ve had the opportunity to conduct a number of job interviews and hire staff as well, so I try to put myself into the mindset of an interviewer and consider what it is they’re looking for.
I explicitly don’t try to make myself fit into roles or cultures where I don’t. I try to treat interviews as a conversation: I want the interviewer(s) to get to know me and my accomplishments/experience, and I try to learn about them and their organization.
I haven’t needed to do any whiteboarding or coding homework for an interview yet, so I’m not sure how I’d prepare for that.
Any obstacles that you have to overcome in learning coding?
Time was the main one. Coding was always something that I saw could be used to make the agencies I worked for more efficient and effective, but it always took some convincing and showing what could be accomplished. This meant tackling my regular job duties really quickly (helped often by code), then spending that “down” time learning new skills and technologies.
I’ve recently gotten over a real case of imposter syndrome as well by joining and interacting with other developers on a local Slack channel. I’d always had this idea about what “real” developers were like, that turned out to be really blown out of proportion in my own mind.
Tips for newbies?
Learn your business. One of the biggest reasons I learned to code was dealing with programmers who didn’t know the business well enough to ask the right questions or fill in the gaps when someone from the business side made a request. The more you understand about the business side of things, the better you can anticipate and respond to needs in the agency.
Get out there. The days of being an introverted programmer in a closet are over if they ever existed at all. It doesn’t matter how good you are if you can’t talk to people, and you get better at talking to people (one-on-one, in small groups, in larger groups) by talking to people.
Don’t feel like you need to boil the ocean. There’s a ton of technologies, tools, and languages out there, and you can get yourself in a really unproductive place by deciding you need to learn A-Z to get started. If you can use a little Git and know enough of one language to get by, you’re in a good place. Use those skills, stretch yourself, and grow from there.
What are your plans for the future?
I currently do some independent consulting in addition to my full-time work, I think one day I’d like to transition to doing just that, but we’ll see. I’d also like to focus a bit more on training.
I feel like there are a lot of business analysts and other folks out there who spend all day in spreadsheets that could really benefit from knowing enough about coding to make their work faster, more intuitive, and more reproducible.
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