“The Path” by Ryan

It’s not so obvious a path that has brought me to where I am as the technology VISTA at the Bonner Center. Before my time started here in May 2015 I didn’t have any real experience with technology beyond typing on a keyboard and whatever random skills I could throw on a resume about using Microsoft Office. Despite my lack of skills I applied for the position because I had wanted to be in a university setting again.


Not to mention that I had been unemployed for eight months running up to this position. I wasn’t being too picky at that point.


But I wanted to be at a university again because I believe it is one of the few settings that I have encountered where learning is the primary focus. Having been out of college myself for three years at that point I was missing that feeling of being around people who were actively learning. Whether or not those people want to learn is a completely different conversation, but regardless the underlying principle of the college or university institution is the pursuit of knowledge.


So I channeled my community organizing, construction, food prepping, and hotel experience into an application for a technology position. And it worked.


Even before I got here it was apparent that I had a lot to learn. My soon-to-be supervisor kept talking about this thing called Salesforce when we spoke over the phone. I would tell him confidently, “Sure, I can learn whatever it is you need me to. I love learning,” not really knowing at all whether or not I could. But at the very least I was committed to trying.


When I arrived here I literally spent the first month of my time holed up in an office alone, forty hours a week, teaching myself how to use this Salesforce thing. I would comb through the internet reading training documents, watching YouTube videos, and generally not knowing what the hell I was doing. Weird jargon kept jumping out at me around every corner. Words like objects, workflows, app picker, instance, and so many more as I tried navigating the Salesforce maze. Luckily there was a student intern here who had been working on this project for a while before I came and she was able to serve as a guide some of the time. Lauren is her name and she was invaluable to my journey.


But ultimately I needed to get to the point where I not only knew how to navigate the maze but had to be able to build on to the maze myself. My role was to be the administrator of this system managing not only what things were in there but also how the system was built to store that information. After the maze was built I had to start taking four other staff members through the maze so that they would know how to get from one corner to the other with the hope that by the end of my time they could do this blindfolded.


All while coming in I didn’t even know what Salesforce was, had never heard of it, and never dreamed that I would be spending most of my days staring down a computer screen. But it is where I ended up after eight months of unemployment and no clear direction on where I wanted to go; back to college, that place of learning which I had walked away from years before.


Reflecting back on the year I certainly didn’t get what I thought I was going to get out of it. Don’t get me wrong, I got a ton out of the year, just not what I thought I was going to get. When I started I had goals of trying to understand more of how a service-learning center on a campus works from the administrator perspective. During my final college years I was deeply involved in service-learning but I still wanted to learn more about it as I considered a long-term future of working as an administrator at a service-learning center myself. That was what I was looking for when I took the position. While I did learn a lot from that angle, it was very quickly eclipsed by Salesforce as a system and an ideology.


Salesforce as a system is an incredibly powerful data management platform which organizes information in very precise ways allowing for highly efficient data manipulation and interpretation processes through reporting. It is also the number one software of its kind considering market share. But to me it represented something much more concrete: a skillset. With my experience over the past year I have built a robust skillset in Salesforce as a system including becoming certified as a Salesforce Administrator. That market share that I mentioned is now an area in which I can penetrate as a Salesforce professional, one which is competitive, challenging, and constantly evolving. My kind of place.


Even more than the system and the skillset I have gained through it is the ideology piece I have engaged with. Salesforce is a platform built to increase efficiency of data management and process while equipping organizations with powerful tools to harness the collective power of that data in order to inform decision-making. That ideology is powerful to me. It revolves around the efficient collection of information which is a huge task in a world where we are literally drowning in data because in that collection process we have to be very particular about what information we actually need to avoid drowning ourselves. The second piece of the ideology is focused on powerful data analytics tools which allow for more than just collection of data but the interpretation of that data into meaningful packets of information.


This is huge.


Because, let’s be clear, data is not information. Just because I have 600 spreadsheet filled with over one million individual rows of data does not mean that I have any information. Until I am able to organize and analyze that data (and even before that determine whether or not it is even the data I need to be looking at) the huge swathe of data is largely meaningless. It may be valuable. But only to the person who can make information out of it.


Data analytics is not just part of the internet revolution, it is its own separate revolution. To put things into context, consider Facebook. In 2014, Facebook reported that they have a daily intake of 600 terabytes of information. To put this further into perspective, let’s think about the average size of a photograph as around seven megabytes. This translates roughly to Facebook having a daily intake of 89 million photos a day. Every single day. I promise you, Facebook isn’t just storing that data and forgetting about it, they are working everyday to turn that incredibly massive amount of data into information which is going to help them generate a profit. That’s the world we live in and data in increasingly going to be at the center, whether or not people are aware of it.


I want to be a part of framing this data analytics revolution because information is power. And power is only as useful as the people wielding it are good. I want to bring my social justice and service-oriented mindset to the world of data analytics and technology, and continue to learn about these systems. I believe this revolution is absolutely and irrevocably changing the world we live in for better or worse. And I believe that I was brought to Tennessee and my position as the technology VISTA for me to engage with this reality.


It seems fitting that all of this immense learning and perspective change would happen on a college campus as a college is a place of growth and development. My time here is winding down and my direction moving forward could not be more different than what I thought it would be when I started. Now I am interviewing and discussing opportunities with people that are in an industry that a year ago I wasn’t even really aware of and certainly wasn’t qualified to be a part of. Still the path isn’t quite so obvious as to what will be encountered next, where I will be living and working, and how my Salesforce skills will be further developed.
And yet I am very clear on one thing: that this path is my own, the one I am meant to be on.


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