Coloring in the Lines

My first lesson to the undergraduate interns: “Some of the most important things you need to know you learned in kindergarten.”  So much can be accomplished quicker and with greater accuracy by cut and paste.   Also, sometimes we really do get a better picture by just coloring within the lines.  Clearly, there are those who did not do well in kindergarten because they can’t seem to respect lines enough to not scribble all over them.   Some important lines to recognize in life are the lines that separated confession and bragging and the line between taking responsibility and taking credit.   As far as sinning goes, any time someone tries to convince you that they were the worst sinner or the best sinner they have crossed the line into bragging.  The line between taking responsibility and taking credit is not always so boldly printed, so I will give you an illustration from my professional experience. 

I took a job that required me to be full stack database developer and administrator. I inherited some data that was in bad shape: It was not properly structured and it had a sub-optimal user interface. (That is polite understatement for I inherited a crap fest of mangled and tangled data).  The person who initially built the database underestimated the importance of unique keys (i.e. lacked a basic level of understanding about data management) such that a single person was represented several times within the database often with different spellings of name, and different descriptive trait information attached.  (In first grade we learn the importance of unique identity by writing our names on our paper before turning them in).  Further compounding the problem was the use of a tabbed interface that allowed data entry personnel to inadvertently attach information belonging to one person to another; some instances of this were easy to detect by such things as pregnancy information being attached to a male while others could be easily lost in the mix.  When I was hired I heard the boss complain the previous research team produced inconsistent results, and seeing how the data was managed I could see why. 

The first rule of taking responsibility is that it is always your fault when things go wrong.  Knowing I needed to produce reliable data sets for analysis, I immediately began to upgrade the database to an enterprise system from a flat file system.  In the new system I began fixing the integrity keys.  I exploited an algorithm developed at a previous job to identify duplicated subjects and merge them.  During my first year I was often responded to requests for data with generous time estimates to allow for clean-up of legacy data.

Fortunately, during the second year our department received funding specifically to upgrade the database as well as design and deploy a new web interface.  The good news was that I was in charge of design of both the new data structure and the new web interface. I also wrote the code for both. Given that I was doing all the design and coding I was the one that would be blamed if the web site was down, or if the data was not accurate.  If you do the work you are responsible and if you have control you are responsible.   By the third year when my new data system was up and my data acquisition team was entering data, I could no longer blame my predecessors because the data was now mine.  Responsibility means taking ownership.  The data was now under my administration.   

You know you are responsible when you are the one losing sleep when something goes wrong. Recently, while upgrading a data storage system on a Friday night, I mistakenly executed a hard reboot when a restart seemed to stall causing the disk array to crash.  I felt a profound wave of anxiety come over me seeing an error message on boot.  The 15TB of data represented years of work by multiple persons.  I instantly checked my mirror system in another building. Even though it had all the data except the previous week I could not quickly move it online because it was rebuilding its array with a new disk and the file permissions were not duplicated. It was an anxiety filled weekend.  I knew if data were lost or work flow was interrupted I would be held responsible.  That anxiety did not stop until Monday when the file system was repaired and the data was online.

In managing data I am in control of a highly important and valuable asset of the company.   At one company I had a boss who proudly advertised that the company had the largest database of its kind in the world.  He used that claim to bolster his other claim that he was the foremost authority in his field.  However, he was not the one who spent four consecutive weeks including weekends running ETL processes to incorporate data to build the data from 3k unique subjects to over 50k.  He was not the one who eventually set up a system by which we had 125k records incorporated.  He wrote none of the extensive procedures and triggers that checked data quality and integrity. However, his name was on the door of the company so he was entitled to take credit.   He owned the work in a different way. 

Yes, give and take exists as far as credit is concerned.   I have to give credit to Zombie and Pickles.  Zombie was working at an administrative role but he had a desire and aptitude for programming.  He ended up developing some apps that were invaluable in moving our key data elements from his administrative domain into our database on a daily basis.  At first I coached him along but eventually I learned some tricks from him. He became a first class developer, but the boss was not willing to recognize his level of skill with commensurate compensation so he left to a more lucrative opportunity. Before leaving he coached Pickles, a young computer science student, into becoming a quality developer. My job burden was lighter when Pickles reached the point where I could write out specs and hand off programing tasks to him.   Likewise, Pickles left for a more lucrative opportunity.

Taking credit and taking responsibility have different burdens.  If I fail the boss looks bad and he might respond by firing me and blaming me for the failure.  If I succeed he proudly puts his name on my work and leverages that to make a profit.   Taking responsibility seems to possess some inherit virtue and therefore intrinsic reward.  However, after five years of moving the numbers forward and not getting rewarded with a raise, I finally realized that I needed to give myself credit for being a full stack developer on my resume and monetize that elsewhere.

Enough of work, let’s examine taking credit versus taking responsibility in another context, a phone call I got at 3:45 on a Thursday afternoon.  Brother John, the large group teaching leader for the children’s Bible club at my church was calling to ask me to sub in for him for the 6:00 pm session that evening.  He was catching me at a bad time because having been reduced to forty percent time and only working Tuesdays and Thursdays I was preparing for the last two hour sprint to complete the week’s work.  My initial response was, “I just can’t do it; I am at work and have two hours to complete all my work for the week.”  I must confess, I felt a sense of weariness that club had stretched into summer when it was usually limited to the academic year (fall to spring).  I felt a bit of resentment that I was being called upon with only two hours to prepare and get online. Then I was hit with a sense of responsibility.

Three weeks prior in the post-club leadership discussion one of the leaders had mentioned how much benificial activity was taken from the lives of children because of the pandemic. They had lost hours per week of structured time at sports, summer camps, choir and even social time on the playground. Therefore the hour and 15 minute condensed club time we spent with them had value in their lives.  The pandemic had provided an opportunity to be impactful in the lives of the children.  The same sentiment had recently been expressed by Emeritus Pastor Marv Fogleman during an encouraging phone call.   Instead of being burdened with a responsibility I was being given an opportunity to take responsibility for insuring that the children had a quality experience.

My true burden was the realization that I had a lesson in my head regarding grace based upon the grace that I had recently experienced.  I already conceived an Audio Daily Double lesson, Jeopardy style.  The audio daily double was Donny McClurkin and Yolanda Adams singing, “The Prayer” with two sets of answers: 1) These attributes of The Lord are displayed in “The Prayer”; 2) These things are requested of The Lord in the song based upon The Lord’s attributes.  The jeopardy questions led into a discussion of how faith keeps us safe.  This led to my testimony on how just a week before faith kept me from panicking at work when it looked like I had crashed the data storage system.  In the lesson we revisited the lesson with the video of a tortoise attacked by lions which was an analogy of the shield of faith.  The tortoise could have panicked and tried to run away from the lions, but in faith the tortoise trusted his shield to protect him.  Panicking for me would have been removing the disk array and trying to do disaster recovery in another machine to rebuild the file map.  On Sunday I lay helpless waiting for the manufacturer’s engineers to log in and check the system, just as the tortoise lay helpless when the lions rolled him on his back.  Likewise, as the tortoise received grace when a lion came back and turned him over on his stomach, I received grace Monday when I inadvertently re-seated the disk causing the file map to be found on reboot.

Some curious events at club that night included the club director, Brother Robert, having also prepared a message about grace in his five minute wrap-up. (Was that coincidence or part of a higher order plan?)   Also, that evening we had a boy join us online from out of state who had just found our club through the web.  After the wrap-up that young man responded to Bro Robert’s invitation to accept Christ.  By taking responsibility I had the privilege to share in that moment. Brother Robert’s wisdom in recognizing the opportunity to minister to our children over the summer had led to that moment.  I could not and would not dare take any credit for it.  God’s work was accomplished despite my initial reluctance and bad attitude. I am merely God’s workmanship created in The Lord to do the work that God has prepared in advance for me to do.   To God goes all credit and all glory.  God does not have to take credit because it is freely given and truly deserved. 


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