I was going to write a second part to my ‘the data of death’ blog but that will have to wait for another time. Instead I want to focus on two specific events that have happened in the last couple days.
Over the past several nights I’ve been staying up waaaaay to late watching the Olympics. I’m a sucker for track and field events and am always captivated at the back stories they have about the athletes. But the truly incredible part is watching those elite athletes compete. Four, eight or sometimes even 12 or more years of training can come down to just seconds of competition. In one particular event, the margin of difference between gold and silver was a mere 0.001 of a second.
In the midst of the Olympics, another amazing event was the successful landing of the Mars rover Curiosity. After an eight month journey, it all came down to a complex series of events during a seven minute window that NASA admitted they had no control over from mission control. That series of events included slowing from 13,000 mph, entering the Mars atmosphere, enduring temperatures over 3,800 degrees F, dropping the heat shield, deploying the parachute, deploying the sky crane from the capsule, firing retrorockets to slow the craft to 2 mph, free Curiosity from the sky crane on support cables, release Curiosity’s wheels, touch down at less than 2 mph, release the support cables, have the capsule fly out of range to land and then have Curiosity begin initial post-landing check procedures.
Meanwhile, here on the ‘3rd rock from the sun’ approximately 352 million miles from Mars and several thousand miles from the Olympic stadium in East London (depending on where you are sitting when reading this), we as data professionals go about what we do far from the spotlight, many times even seemingly invisible to the client or project team we are working with. Although the data profession is finally getting some recognition, it is still far from a streamline IT job in most agencies.
But all of these events are tied together by the ‘teams behind the glory’.
Michael Phelps may be the greatest Olympic athlete of all times but rest assured he did not earn that title by himself. Bob Bowman, his coach, and a long list of supporting names developed his natural talents into the athlete we have see over and over again on the highest podium over the last several Olympics.
Over the next two years the Curiosity will roam around the surface of Mars, processing thousands of soil samples and sending back some jaw-dropping photos but NASA can’t take all the credit. The companies that built the parts that became the rover can be equally proud of their accomplishments.
As data professionals most of our work is as part of the team behind the glory. A data modeler will seldom, if ever, get the accolades for a business system installed and functioning properly, but without a good model to build the database from, the system might never function properly. We don’t usually decide what technology product the agency will utilize for a specific function, but without good ETL and quality check routines, that legacy system replacement could result in an inability to find a single complete record in the new system. We may not always be first on people’s minds when things are working properly, but they know who to contact when things aren’t working properly.
We are one of many supporting teams in information technology. The things we do every day may sometimes seem ‘mundane’ or ‘routine’ to us and not always seen as being very important in the grand scheme of things. But remember that Michael Phelps swam hundreds of laps a day under the watchful eye of his coach to prepare for every competition. The coach didn’t swim with him. The coach instructed on the fundamentals. He ensured the basics were understood and the techniques were right. Then he stood on the side and celebrated when all of that instruction and technique was put to the proper use.
Rest assured that our work is neither mundane or routine. Our work is essential to the performance of the team that is information technology and the ultimate winners - those that benefit from all we do behind the scenes.
As you watch the Olympics or marvel at the results coming back from ‘the Red Planet’, raise a glass and toast all of those behind the scenes that make the winners what they are. Here’s to you!