This website, and therefore this blog, has fallen by the wayside since I graduated from library school with my MSLIS in the spring of 2020… in the midst of a global pandemic. I wasn’t really sure what to do with the site, beyond letting it exist and adding some projects here and there, but I recently decided that it was time for a revamp (and rebrand/redesign). I wanted my personal website to say “working professional”, not “overly enthusiastic grad student” - though I am keeping all the old posts so the “overly enthusiastic grad student” is not going away. But it has been 3 years (wow!) since I was in grad school, and I have managed to get some professional experience under my belt - though with the pandemic raging as I entered the work force I had a bit of a rocky start.
My last semester of grad school was not the best. There was before spring break, and there was after spring break. Before spring break, everything was continuing on as usual, with some masks starting to appear. After spring break, everything shut down. All classes and work went remote. There was no graduation ceremony. I had no idea that the last time I saw my professors, classmates, coworkers, and firends, it would be the last time I saw them ever. While in undergrad I could not care less about the graduation ceremony, for grad school - a place where I really found my academic home - I was looking forward to the chance to see everyone one last time and say goodbye. Instead, there was just endless isolation.
After graduating into a pandemic with no job offer yet in hand, I did what everyone seemed to be doing - I moved back home. My mom was living alone, I couldn’t afford to pay rent without a job, and after the isolation of the previous months I was looking forward to forming a little family bubble. I put most of my stuff in storage, sure that I would be moving soon to wherever I found a job. And sure enough, within a few months of graduating I got a job offer… with one big catch. I would need to get my security clearance. I was so excited to get a job offer, I ignored the perfectly reasonable advice every entry level professional is given (and ignores): don’t accept the first offer you get. I was told that the process would take about 6-12 months, and I hoped that my previous security clearance (for my internship with the State Department in undergrad) would help speed things up. In the meantime, I could find some short-term contracting gigs to start advancing my data skills and developing experience. So that’s exactly what I did.
Pretty much as soon as I had some income coming in, I kept a promise that I had made to myself years ago at the end of undergrad (when I knew I was going to be doing a lot of traveling). I finally adopted a puppy. I adopted my sweet girl from Saving Grace, a rescue in Raleigh. At the rescue, the name on her tag was “Genuine Risk”. I named her Bella, after the loyal pony Bela in Wheel of Time. She was about 14 weeks old, the last of her litter, and shy as could be, but after 5 minutes of me sitting cross legged in her pen she crawled into my lap and fell asleep. That’s when I knew - and my mom really knew - that she would be coming home with us.
I also took up knitting (I know, such a classic pandemic hobby). The very first thing I knit was a blanket for Bella. My reasoning was: (1) she won’t care what it looks like, so it’s fine if it turns out awful and ugly, and (2) it’s getting cold, she’d probably appreciate a blanket that smells like me. (Actually I lie, the first 4 blanket squares got combined into a blanket for Molly, our much smaller and much older family dog). Sadly, that blanket no longer exists - it got slowly torn apart and consumed because… I gave it to a puppy. C’est la vie. But while the blanket slowly got smaller, I kept on knitting, and eventually started knitting shawls as wedding presents. (6 shawls and 5 weddings later, I’m finally now starting on a shawl for myself)
A year came… and went. Still no word on the security clearance. I had done all of the steps (including going in person for the drug test, polygraph, etc) and I got no updates, no estimated timeline, nothing. I knew that I wanted to kick off my career properly - in a full-time position doing data work as a part of a larger team focused on public service - and the contracting gigs had only been meant as a temporary stopgap until I could join such a team. I had been applying for data librarian jobs and even got to the final round of interviews a couple times, but no dice (actually, my Carpentries lesson was a side product of one of those interviews!).
Finally, in late fall of 2021, I hit gold. A mutual on twitter pointed me towards a posting for a data engineer at the City of Boston’s Analytics Team. It was perfect - data work, in public service, and a genuine way to really start my career. I applied, made a streamlit app for extra credit, and by the end of the year I had accepted a job offer.
I kid you not, a week after accepting that job offer, my security clearance came through. But I knew that the data engineer position in Boston was a better fit for me, so I stuck with it and moved to Boston in January of 2022. Almost a year and a half of waiting on that security clearance… well, sometimes, timing really is everything.
My first year as a Data Engineer on the Analytics Team was a true learning experience - exactly what I was hoping for from my first job to kick off this new career. In grad school, I had learned SQL and how to design databases in 3rd Normal Form. At my job, I learned about analytical data warehouses and how SQL was used in production code, and I leveled up my SQL skills substantially (can you believe we learned about subqueries but not CTEs?). In grad school, I had learned about automated workflows as related to improving data quality. At my job, I learned about data orchestration (hello, YAML files and YAQL) and the pros and cons of different workflow design paradigms. In grad school, I mostly wrote my own python code from scratch to finish. At my job, I learned how to work with a team of engineers and contribute to an existing codebase. I learned how to work and contribute within a larger analytics team - rather than doing every part of the analytics flow myself.
I also made sure to focus on my professional development in other ways. In March I took CoRise’s course “Analytics Engineering with dbt”, taught by Emily Hawkins. In August I took GovEx’s course on Data Governance. Both were valuable and what I learned in them I could immediately apply in my work.
During my first year, I focused on learning how the Analytics Team, and the Engineering Team especially, worked, and how I could best contribute within the existing framework. I learned so much from my coworkers, and I found the experience of having fellow engineers that I could lean on and collaborate with invaluable. But in addition to learning how to contribute to what was already there, I was also starting to identify new ideas that I wanted to add to the mix. Primarily: dbt.
For my second year on the Analytics Team, I wanted to make a substantial impact to improve how the engineering team worked. This involved a lot of thinking and iterating through designs and strategies before I brought my proposals to the team. I wanted to make sure that when it came to the actual implementation of these plans, that it would go as quickly and smoothly as possible. It also meant communicating with my team and building interest and agreement in my proposals. I had been talking about dbt almost since I joined the team, but in a “this is a cool tool” way, not in a “let’s do it” way. If I was going to ask everyone to learn and use this new tool, I wanted to make sure they believed it was worth it too.
I don’t want to go into too much detail about what dbt is and how we are implementing it - I’ll save that for a future blog post. But suffice to say that the project got started early in 2023, and after 6 months we are finally in a sprint of building models and adding to the project, with almost all engineers onboarded and starting to onboard analysts. I’m very excited to see what further progress we can make for the rest of the year - and I’m especially excited to be able to share this experience of implementing dbt for a city analytics team in a talk at this year’s Coalesce (dbt Lab’s annual conference).
Besides the dbt project, this year I’ve also been working on larger and more complex projects that have involved a lot of data architecture/design work. Without going into too much detail, the city has a lot of legacy systems that don’t talk to each other, when city workers really need for information to be passed between those systems in order to do their work well and efficiently. I have been involved in a couple projects this year that have been focused on how to integrate these systems (or at least have all of the data in one place and able to be joined together), particularly for housing and development work. I love building ETL pipelines, but I know a project will be special when I get to do system design and data architecture work before building the pipeline. These projects are always bigger, longer, and trickier, involve working with more stakeholders and teams, and are just so rewarding because you can see the difference your contribution is making and you can build relationships outside of your team.
Another high point for this year on the team is that I’ve had the opportunity to start teaching Carpentries workshops again. I taught a workshop on git because the analysts on the team have been writing more code and wanted to preserve and collaborate on their code in a GitHub repository, and I taught some sessions on python and pandas as a part of a Data Culture pilot program focused on python. Later this year I’m planning on teaching a [SQL workshop](https://swcarpentry.github.io/sql-novice-survey/ and a session on querying APIs with python. Teaching computational skills is something I really enjoy, and it was the one thing I was really missing in this job last year.
Finally, if you think that working on a city analytics team sounds interesting, I will plug the fact that we are currently hiring for several positions - if you live in Boston or want to move to Boston, apply!
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