Today was "career day" in my daughter's 3rd grade classroom. A few privileged parents were invited to attend and answer questions about their professions, press-conference style.
Among those on a panel of nine parents, the panelists that saw the most action included the Dog Trainer, the Duke Life Flight Nurse, and...the SAS Software Manager.
If it surprises you that the software manager profession is very interesting to 9-year-olds, welcome to the club. Personally, I wanted to hear more from the CFO of Carquest and the car dealership owner who specializes in Hummers and Porsches (and who has an EVO on his lot -- that revelation prompted excited gasps from many of the boys).
Still, I was honored to answer the students' many questions. Here is a sampling of their questions and my answers.
What is software?
Software is a set of instructions for your computer. You know, computers by themselves are really stupid. They require instructions to tell them exactly what to do. Every time you play Webkinz or work on a school paper in your word processor, your computer is using the instructions in the software to do its work. Software developers, people like me and my coworkers, are the people who put those instructions together to make the computer do what you need it to.
How did you get interested in your profession?
I've always been interested in computers. When I was just a little bit older than you are now, I used my savings to buy my first computer. [Note to the reader: it was a TI-994A.] I liked how I could write programs with instructions and make it do what I wanted it to. Computers have come a long way since then. That first computer was about as big as a microwave oven, but today a computer with the same capabilities could easily fit in my wristwatch.
When did you start your job, and have you always done what you do now?
I first began working for SAS about 14 years ago. My first job at SAS was as a writer: I wrote books to help people understand how to use our products. After a while, I changed jobs and became a software developer, helping to actually create our products. And now I manage a team of software developers, and we all work together to make our products. But I still like to write: in fact, I recently helped write a book about SAS software called SAS for Dummies. But there are no dummies in this class, are there? I brought a copy to show you. [I hold up a copy of the book and the children seem impressed...or they are just being polite.]
What does "SAS" stand for?
When the company was first started in 1976, "SAS" stood for Statistical Analysis Software. The main product was called the SAS System. But since that time, the company has developed many more products, and now "SAS" is simply the name of the company, and the letters don't really stand for anything.
How do you get along with the people that you work with?
We all get along very well. Everyone that I work with is professional, meaning that we all work together to get our jobs done. Now, that doesn't mean that we are all friends. You can choose your friends, but you can't always choose the people that you work with. That's why it's so important to be professional at work so that you can get your job done, even if your coworkers aren't the sort of people that you would usually hang out with. But sometimes you do make friends at work, and that's great too -- it's nice to work with people that you like.
What is the hardest thing about your job?
Remember when I said that software is a set of instructions that tell your computer what to do? Well, sometimes when we put those instructions together, we accidentally leave something out. Or we put the instructions in the wrong order. And then the software doesn't work exactly as our customers want it to. That's called a "bug" -- when the instructions are incorrect and the software doesn't do the right thing. We have a team of testers that work to find all of the bugs before we let our customers use our software, but sometimes we miss a few. And sometimes finding those bugs is really difficult, especially if a customer is having problems with it and we can't figure out exactly what's going wrong. Our customers rely on our software to run their businesses and to get their own jobs done, and it's very important that our software has high quality. Finding those tricky bugs can be very challenging.
What is your company's workplace like?
Many of your parents here know that SAS has reputation as a great place to work. And it's true. My coworkers and I each have our own office...with a door...that closes. Most software developers at other companies work in cubicles and don't have private offices, so this is a nice benefit. We also get treated well during the week: fresh fruit on Monday, M&Ms on Wednesday ["oooh, cool!" and similar remarks from the audience] and breakfast goodies on Friday. These are small things, but they help people feel like SAS is a good place to work, and when you are happy where you work, you tend work harder and do a better job, right?