Sunday, June 24, 2012

My Robot Side

My son Luke often calls me on his drive home from work. We usually spend a couple of moments catching up and then dive into whatever topic is on Luke's mind. Most of the time, we talk about software and databases. 

Luke recently transitioned from being a sales-and-support guy for a large corporation to being a database-and-software guy for that same corporation. He did it in a way that is almost unheard of nowadays. As a sales guy, he started fixing software-based things that were broken.

It started with Excel workbooks distributed to the sales people to help them calculate their compensation based on sales they made. When the numbers didn't add up the way he thought they would, Luke would dig into the Excel formulas and macros to see where the errors were.  He'd find the bug, fix it and then mail the workbook back to the IT department.  

Sometimes the developer would be a bit nonplussed; rather than taking Luke's work and redistributing it, she'd redo it herself. Luke would know this because the redistributed workbook would still have a bug or two. He'd fix it again and send it back.

After a while Luke realized that it might be more effective to send the repaired workbook to his boss rather than to the IT department. One day his boss walked into Luke's cubical and asked him if he could develop a spreadsheet to help manage a rather complex relocation of all the sales people into a new cubicle structure. Luke replied, "Sure!" and then called me on the way home to talk about it.

Luke and Jack
Luke had a good idea on how to do it from the perspective of logic and structure, but he wasn't sure on how to implement that logic and structure in software. I talked a bit about options and then Luke began asking questions. Forty-five minutes later I heard the voice of my grandson Jack greeting Luke at the door. Look said, "Thanks dad. I gotta go."

The next morning Luke emailed me an Excel workbook that implemented everything we'd talked about. On the way home that night, he called to ask me more questions. He'd noticed that Excel had limitations that made doing what he wanted to do harder than he thought it should be. I suggested that he might want to try Microsoft Access (a database program) rather than Excel (a spreadsheet program).

Luke asked more questions. I answered them. Jack greeted Luke. Luke had to go.

The next morning Luke emailed me an Access database. He'd got up after Sarah and the kids had gone to sleep and stayed up til 3:00 AM teaching himself Access.  He'd implemented the same complex algorithm that he'd implemented in Excel, but using a completely different set of tools. He hadn't stayed up because he'd felt he'd had to do it. He wrote in his email that it had been so much fun, he'd had to make himself go to bed.

When Luke called the next day he said, "Dad, I don't really feel like I'm doing that much. I just google examples of how to do different things and then write similar code that does what I want it to do. Sometimes the examples are overly complicated and long, so I rewrite them to make them more efficient and simple, but I never just write a bunch of stuff from scratch."

I said, "That's pretty much how anyone I ever worked with learned to code."

Luke said, "But shouldn't it be harder than that? I mean, if it's this easy, why doesn't everyone just do it?"

I said, "I don't know. Maybe they make it harder than it is? Maybe they don't have fun with it?"

Luke said, "I just can't believe that it's this easy. It gets harder, right?"

I said, "I guess that'd be up to you."

Luke continued doing side projects for his boss, and then for other sales managers, and then for people in the marketing department. One day the marketing director walked into the sales break-room, looked about, and then walked up to Luke. He asked if he was Luke. Luke replied affirmatively. The marketing director said, "I have a problem and I hear that you're the guy who can help me with it."

Luke called. We talked. Jack greeted him. Luke had to go.

A few months passed. Every couple of days we'd talk.  

One day Luke called and said, "Dad, guess what!"

I said, "What?"

Luke said, "I'm now officially a database analyst and developer."

Later in our conversation, Luke mentioned that there was one thing bothering him. He said that there were times when he felt like he should be getting more emotional about something, at least more anxious about it, but that he didn't because it seemed to be so impractical at that point. He said, "It's like I've got this robot side of me and this human side of me. I'm not sure that's a good thing. Is it?"

I woke up this morning thinking about Luke's question. Playing gigs over the last couple of days, the topic of stage-fright came up in several discussions. As we talked about it, it occurred to me that I never get stage-fright. When people asked me what I did to overcome it, I realized that the answer was, "nothing." Stage-fright always seemed so impractical to me that any time it looked as though I might be experiencing it, I just decided not to. It just wasn't useful.

I guess I have a robot side too. Is that a good thing?

Happy Sunday,

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