[Chicago] Jobhunting and a past assignment

Jonathan Hayward christos.jonathan.hayward at gmail.com
Tue Mar 9 19:29:32 CET 2010

I'm jobhunting now, and instead of just listing skills, I wanted to talk
about one of my favorite assignments from a recent job. (I thought that
might be a more colorful way to connect up.)

My first real assignment was to get a revenue assurance auditor off major

I was introduced to him and I winced when I saw how he was working. It's not
that he was solving a problem badly, so much that the tools he was working
with *forced* him to solve the problem badly. I respected him for what he
was doing and considered him a team player, but he had tools that were not
intended to support anything like what he was doing, and he was working
overtime doing the equivalent of cutting a steak with a screwdriver.

In broad strokes, I was trying to solve a hard user interface problem, and
trying to make a tool that would do easily and gracefully what he was doing,
and I did this via a CGI script written in Python. We worked iteratively and
cooperatively, and some of the things I did were:

   - Take information that was stored in separate databases and accessed by
   very different tools and bring it to a single point of access, so as much as
   possible of the gruntwork connecting dots was offloaded from my co-worker to
   the script.
   - Take figures that were originally displayed on their own webpages and
   display them in a compact grid.
   - Make the customer's telephone number a clickable link that would load
   elsewhere in the page basic name and contact information for the customer
   (again a matter of offloading busy gruntwork to my software so that my
   coworker could have all basic information easily and in one place, instead
   of scrounging multiple sources).
   - Sort so that the accounts most likely to be interesting appeared at the
   - Replaced the numbers, which required reading, with a grayscale setup so
   that a basic signal would jump out at a glance. (I did re-add the numbers as
   a hover.)

Overall, my goal was to set things up so that the information that
interested him would jump out at a glance and he could drill down, and less
interesting things would not be a distraction. (On top of trying to
eliminate busy work steps that he had to do because different tools would
not talk to each other or gather basic information in one place.) I tried to
make iterative improvements like Tufte outlines in Envisioning
My goal was to get him from cutting a steak with a screwdriver to cutting
butter with a hot knife. Partway through the iterations, I told him, "The
only reason I ever want you doing things the way you were doing them is
because you want to." He replied immediately, "I don't want to!" And I got
him off overtime relatively quickly, and before we were finished refining
it, he was getting better results than before, and he didn't need his whole
workday to do this: I freed him to take on other things.

What interested me so much about this was that the challenge was not so much
about what I could get the computer to do, as what I could enable a user to
do. The specific UI problem is different from many others, but I'm
interested in the human side of computing (IA/UI/UE), and this kind of
challenge is what I've enjoyed most. My past couple of positions I've worked
on both the front- and back-end and I enjoy both, and I definitely like a
good back-end language better than the good language and terrible language
rolled into one known as JavaScript, but I like the things done with Ajax
(or, more humbly, with Web 1.0 frontend stuff) more than I dislike
JavaScript's sore spots.

Do you know of any jobs, including Python or not, that would benefit from
this kind of strength?

→ Jonathan Hayward, a Senior Web Developer who cares deeply about usability
→ www.linkedin.com/in/jonathanhayward • jonathan.hayward at pobox.com
→ Ajax, CGI, CMS, CSS, HTML, IA, JSON, JavaScript, LAMP, Linux, Perl, PHP,
Python, SQL, UI, Unix, Usability, UX, XHTML, XML
→ With a good interest in the human side of computing and making software
and websites a joy to use
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