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February 22, 2005: The nerd inside

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Back when I was a database nerd (back when I traveled around the country and worked for big soulless companies who didn't care if I lived or died as long as I churned out billable hours) I used to routinely be given tasks to do that involved things way outside my scope of knowledge. My very first 'real' project - and bear in mind this was when it was still a small organization (and therefore possessing of a soul, and nice people who actually cared) was on Microsoft Access - a project for which I was given the software a full two weeks before actually meeting with the client because I had never used Microsoft Access before this in my entire life. Somehow I scrabbled through a 'Teach Yourself Access in 20 days' book in about one week, and spent a lot of time frantically pouring through online tutorials and help sites and code samples, and managed to keep one step ahead of the client throughout the project and thereafter became labeled an 'expert'. Another time I was sent to a project and found out later they'd told the clients I was an expert in database tuning, and really, while the things I could do with AT-SQL were the stuff of visions, a database tuning expert I was not. So I spent another few frantic weeks scrabbling through anything I could get my hands on, including reading the server manuals cover to cover and somehow staying just enough ahead of the game to get their databases running in tip-top shape after all, and from the reviews I got after the fact, it turned out that no one was the wiser. No one, that is, but me.

I loved doing all the writing of code. That part of my job was the thing that would wake me up at night from dreaming stored procedures; would make me lose track of time at the office when I was neck deep in a procedure so convoluted that I would lose track of where it started and where it ended. But the part of my job that eventually led me to quit (aside from the whole being bought by a soulless corporation and being treated like a nameless peon thing) was the part where I felt as if I was forever hanging on by my fingernails and no matter what I did I would never quite catch up because no matter how much I learned there was always far more I was somehow supposed to know (by virtue of being 'sold' as an expert in those fields) but did not, and I got really tired of feeling as if I was always one step away from a rather spectacular failure.

In my current job we're in the process of revamping our intranet, and somewhere along the line it became known that I know HTML, and so I became part of the revamping team. And then there were other software programs tossed into the mix, including a certain proprietary online information management system, and then, because there is only so much one can do with this particular system from their web-based editor, yet more proprietary software was required. It showed up in the mail, I installed it, and then spent a few days reading tutorials and pouring through knowledgebase articles and white papers and bookmarking pages full of hints and examples and code samples, and doing my very best to figure out how to make changes to objects in a software I do not yet understand very well. And today for a short moment in time I started to feel that old panic welling up inside me - the feeling that I was doomed to always feel one step behind the rest of the world and that I was never going to feel like I had this all mastered again.

But then I found a way to make it do (mostly) what I was hoping it would do and all the pieces fell into place, and even though I am not an expert in these new systems by any stretch of the imagination, what matters is that I know just enough, and there will be time for me to work on all the rest of it when, and if, I need to know more later. And a little thrill went through me when I sat back and looked at what I did - things that maybe the regular non-code nerd might never even notice because all the hard stuff always happens behind the scenes, and I thought to myself that there was a reason that I was good at what I did, in that other life, and that even though I have no desire to ever go back there again, sometimes it is good to have these little moments of nostalgia when I can actually see what those managers saw when they billed me out as an expert in software I'd never touched - because they knew that I'd always figured it out before and by golly, I'd likely do it again. And what do you know. I did.

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