Intro to Data

I would like to start out with the disclaimer: I am not a classically trained database guy. I was a programming major for 1.5 years in college, then graduated with a business degree. I was taught conceptually what a database was and what it could do, but not how to build, manage or use one. What I know beyond that I have learned from experience and collaboration. I accept that there are plenty of things that I don’t know and I will happily learn those things as they cross my path.

Shortly after graduation I was hired by a company that collected and interpreted chemical data. I was hired to manage the network but immediately I was asked to help with data collection on customer sites. Data was written on paper forms and eventually entered into Excel. That data was used to write interpretive scientific reports. That was a good start, but some of the processes used to interpret and summarize the data were time consuming, repetitive, and increased the chance for human error.

I knew that there was a better way, using databases, but I didn’t know the specifics. I was not the only forward thinking person there, and several of us began trying new things.

Initially, we met with some resistance to what we were doing. For a short while we did everything twice, our new way vs the old way to make sure that the database results matched their Excel spreadsheets and field data notes. Adoption happened pretty quickly as it was a fast paced environment and a rapidly growing company.

I know that since I’ve left that company that the IT Department has grown and they have taken it to a whole new level. I’m proud to have been a part of the beginning of that.

I have met very few people who enjoy change. Being the one who initiates change is not always fun depending on your personality type. But I can promise you that there are rewards.

When I began my current job, the owners showed me their point of sale (POS) software. It was an older (but solid) UNIX server running a FoxPro database. They said they knew that the software could do more or have better reporting but they didn’t know how to use it. I remember getting excited and hoping that I could communicate to them that I understood what I was seeing, and it was a relational database at work. I knew that I could take that HUGE dataset and make it dance and sing.

My point is that every company will have some sort of data. Inside that data is the potential to make more sales, better decisions, or to move the vision of the company forward. Even if you work for a bait shop, examining sales data can inform your decision making. Predicting future inventory needs by examining past sales, identifying products that aren’t selling and sending out targeted marketing are all tasks that you can achieve from even the simplest data set.

Identifying where your company is will determine where you have to start. For instance if you run an old fashioned cash register, or keep a paper ledger, you probably need to upgrade your sales system. QuickBooks makes a phenomenal point of sale system in a box. I’ve set one up and I was pretty impressed. Not where you want to end up but it’s a pretty solid start. Or maybe you get lucky the way I did, walking into a situation where a company has a content rich database just waiting to be mined. It really almost does feel like a gold mine when you finally have that AHA! moment, when you find the data that management has been needing for years.

Wherever you begin, you want to end up at a place where decision makers can quickly get the data they need to make informed decisions. Making decisions based on a “good feeling” or “that’s the way we always have done it” can work just fine. However in my opinion the work of IT is to make business more efficient and effective, and that can be greatly helped by good and timely data.

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