Melanie Nelson is a project manager and data geek with a PhD in bioscience and a tendency towards setting up websites. Up until recently, she was a group leader in scientific informatics at a midsize biotechnology company. Now she is a contractor and consultant providing services in scientific informatics and project management. She's been a contractor before, and also a scientist, a database architect, and a department head at a small biotechnology company. She blogs at BeyondManaging.com and recommends short ebooks at TungstenHippo.com. She also writes books- two for kids and two for grown ups. So far.
I almost talked myself out of submitting this post because I don’t usually think of myself as working on the web.
And then I realized that is exactly why I needed to submit this. I absolutely do work on the web, and have done for years. My first site for the web went live back in 1997. It is still up and running, although I have no involvement in it anymore. I built it in graduate school. It is a site about EF-hand calcium binding proteins, so its audience is pretty much the definition of niche. But I built it more than 15 years ago and it is still live on the web, in a form that looks a heck of a lot like the original one I built. It was built before the domination of cascading style sheets, so it didn’t use them in its first incarnation. It had a PostgreSQL backend and web pages built by CGI. If I remember correctly, switching to using CGI was a step up for me. Before that, I was writing plain Perl scripts to read my database records and print out HTML.
My thesis committee didn’t really know what to make of my website. I was only allowed to include the database and website in my thesis because my committee deemed that I had enough other work to graduate— the website didn’t count at all in that regard. When I finished the research that represented my actual PhD project, I defended my thesis and left my first website behind. It has been maintained and no doubt updated by other people working with my PhD advisor. I went to work at a biotechnology start up, and then another one, and then another one, and then another one… There was a diversion to work at a contracting firm in the middle there, too. I worked with tech a lot, but didn’t do much for the public web. My work, if it persists at all, is behind a firewall. During the diversion to a contracting firm I also diverted into the management of projects and people, and that diversion stuck. I fought it for awhile, but then realized that (1) I am good at management and (2) projects and groups that have someone who is good at management do better. So I stopped fighting it and became a manager who got to dabble in some tech things from time to time.
A little over a year ago, I started to miss the joy of building a website, though. I decided to build a site about short ebooks, a topic about which I am strangely passionate. It was a lot of fun, except for the part where I had to come up with a name for it. Luckily, "Tungsten Hippo" has grown on me as a name. I wanted to learn about Drupal, so I built my site on that. I had fun designing the information architecture and finally learning enough CSS to modify the theme I chose so that my "book cards" would display in the way in which I want. I have some ideas for further development, but I find they never make it to the top of my to do list.
This is the root of my doubt about whether I can really claim to be "working on the web." My dirty little secret is that I cannot get interested in learning anything tech related unless I need it to help solve a problem I am facing or build something I want to build. This has always been true, even when I was 13 years old and programming my very first computer— a hand me down Tandy. I wrote a program to make it play "Ode to Joy" and then couldn’t figure out what else to have it do, so abandoned it. I could make prettier music with my viola. Years later, in college, I struggled to maintain interest in an Introduction to Programming course in which the most practical of the problems involved writing simulated card games. It wasn’t until I got to graduate school and wanted to complete certain in depth analyses of sequence and structure data about the EF-hand calcium binding proteins I mentioned above that I finally found a problem that made me want to really learn how to code.
Even that first website evolved out of the solution to a specific problem— this was back in the day when computer graphics required a special computer, and I found that when I was at the graphics computer my notes where on my desk upstairs, and when I was at my desk upstairs my notes were at the graphics station. I got a lot of exercise running up and down stairs until someone finally suggested I put my notes online. First I created static HTML pages for my notes on each protein, but soon discovered the inadequacies of that approach, and switched to a database backend and CGI.
I left graduate school with my web skills not far from the cutting edge of technology, but they did not stay there. I learned new technology as I needed it, usually well after first hearing any buzz about it. Over the years, the gap between the state of my knowledge and the cutting edge state of the art grew to the point that I stopped considering myself much of a techie at all.
For me, technology is a tool to be used. Just like I don’t feel the need to go buy the latest drill when the one I already have will do the job, I don’t feel the need to chase the latest trends in tech. I will learn about them when it becomes clear that they are the best way to do what I want to do. As much as I enjoy that learning process, though, I know better than to try to learn something in tech just because it is there. I might start, but I won’t finish.
I love technology for its power but will never love it for its own sake. I am rarely using the cutting edge tools, and it is extremely unlikely that I will ever advance the technical state of the art. This is neither better nor worse than being the sort of person who loves technology for its own sake and is constantly pushing our capabilities forward. It is just different. The web needs both types of people. Without the tool developers, I would still be laboriously writing CGI scripts. Modern tools certainly make publishing information on the web much easier— perhaps so easy that people like me don’t feel like we’re working on the web anymore. The improved usability is definitely a good thing, but those of us who use the spiffy tools should remember that our role matters, too. Without us, the web would likely be a much less varied place. Wonderful tools can build a framework, but it is not really a website until someone adds some content.
So, yes: I work on the web. It is great to be here.