Business Hardware

Dirty Tech Jobs: The Muck Stops Here

Done Dirty

Dirty IT job No. 3: Data cleansing drone
Wanted: Detailed-oriented individual to pore over endless amounts of repetitive data looking for errors. Requires high tolerance for mindless drudgery; clinical diagnosis of obsessive-compulsive disorder a plus.

Data is a harsh mistress. The same name spelled two different ways or slight variations in addresses can wreak havoc with your inventory, screw up your billing, break the supply chain, make customer service a living hell, and cause the suits to make bad decisions. That's why thousands of organizations hire drones to comb through company files looking for inaccuracies, inconsistencies, discrepancies, duplicates, and other data glitches.

[ Beware the perils of dirty data. ]

"We call it the 'Monk factor,'" says Stefanos Damiankis, CEO of Netrics, a maker of data matching software. "Like the detective in the 'Monk' TV show, every organization has obsessive-compulsive guys who pore over the data and try to make it perfect."

Forget perfect data. Getting the data to where it's usable is hard enough, he says. "The job is dirty because the data is relentless. You're just sitting there looking at the same things over and over. It's mind-numbing, and the tools available to do the job are typically antiquated."

Even if the data is consistent across all fields, organizations still need people to figure out what it really means, says Leonard Dubois, senior vice president of marketing and sales support for Harte-Hankes Trillium Software, maker of data quality solutions.

"In large organizations there are hundreds of people poring over Excel spreadsheets and Word documents trying to determine what the business meaning of a specific term -- like 'customer' -- might be," says Dubois. "And every silo in the organization might have a different definition. If I order a book from Amazon for my wife, who's the customer? To the billing department, it's me. To marketing, it's my wife. To shipping, it's the address where the book got sent."

The data drone has to go in and figure out which definition is the correct one for each group -- an expensive and time-consuming process. Data quality software like Netrics' or Trillium's can automate many of these tasks, detect errors, and reduce guesswork. More often than not, though, you still end up with outliers that have to be handled by humans.

"They call it data cleansing for a reason," Dubois adds. "It's a tedious process to go through data files and figure out the meanings of each term."

Dirty IT Job No. 2: IT mortician
Wanted: Morbidly minded individual sought to gather up dead or discarded electronic equipment and perform last rites; excavation and embalming experience preferred.

In every organization there's always somebody who has to go in and deal with the dead parts of IT -- whether they're reclaiming infrastructure from companies that are no longer in business or simply disposing of machines that are too old to use, even if they're not quite dead yet.

As with disconnect/reconnect specialist, the job can be literally dirty, says Dimension Data's Lawrence Imeish. "This stuff can be pretty disgusting," he says. "You're dealing with years of dust, grime, and neglect. A guy gets back from one of these jobs, you'd think he worked in a coal mine."

Sooner or later, someone will demand you take possession of their "extremely valuable collections of IBM AT look-alikes, Pentium-1 knockoffs, and 'does 386 sound familiar?' artifacts from the Mesozoic era," says Bill Horne, a systems architect with William Warren Consulting.

Horne says he patiently explains that the best resting place for such systems is a local charity that will take them off the company's hands without charging a recycling fee, but most clients remain unconvinced.

"You'll be rewarded with angry demands to remove them that very minute, no matter what you thought your plans were for that day," he says. "The rear surfaces of at least one machine will be razor-sharp, and that's the machine you will make the mistake of grabbing as it starts to fall off the shelf where it was balanced precariously for centuries."

Worse, every machine will have at least one virus on it, and the software will be unsalvageable. "The best you'll be able to do is get a couple of 'free' Windows ME serial numbers," says Horne. "But you'll have to resign yourself to your fate, put bandages on your hands, wipe the blood off the face plates, flatten the hard drives, and deliver them to the Disabled Veterans' collection point."

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