Dave Solomon's Gettin' Down to Business: Well-rounded education helps state IT worker solve tough problems
CONCORD — Michael Gilligan is living proof that STEM skills may get you a good job, but technical expertise alone will not make you an exemplary employee.
The systems specialist assigned to the Department of Transportation was recently honored for two initiatives that saved the state thousands of dollars and employee hours. He credits much of his success to the fact that he spent his last year as a computer science major studying psychology, art, philosophy, music and film.
Why would someone so skilled in science, technology, engineering and math bother with the now-marginalized liberal arts? To Gilligan, it's all about having a well-rounded education and being a well-rounded person.
And it paid off for the state of New Hampshire.
In the past year, Gilligan has single-handedly kept the state's online permitting system for overweight and oversized loads from being taken off line; and he solved a bug in the state's new online payroll system that was driving human resource departments crazy.
In each case, he acted on his own initiative, based on what he saw and heard around him, as an "embedded" IT employee in the Transportation Department, not on the basis of some assignment from a supervisor.
A native of Hopkinton, Gilligan started at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in 1999 and decided to transfer to St. Michael's College near Burlington, Vt., for his senior year.
"I saw it as an opportunity to round out my education and focus on the liberal arts as well as the technical side that I had been focused on up to that time," he said.
He graduated from St. Michael's with a B.A. in computer science, and exposure to what he called "seemingly unrelated fields, like philosophy, art and music."
Why waste time on philosophy, art and music on your way to a career in technology?
"I got that question a lot," he said. "You'd be surprised how useful it has been in my work. Consider psychology, for example. As a programmer, you deal a lot with customers. You are anticipating what their needs are, understanding them some times even before they realize them. Having some understanding of psychology can be a great tool to foster productive communication and working relationships with them."
OK. We'll give you psychology. But art?
"Something like art is very helpful in designing interfaces for applications," he said. "You need to understand the aesthetics of a website or an interface. You have to understand how the mind works as it expects certain elements of a page to be located in certain spots."
One discipline at a time, Gilligan checks off the links between the humanities and the sciences.
"You can apply a lot of different fields to your work if you are crafty enough to see the connections," he says.
Gilligan had to be pretty crafty when auditors discovered a potential security threat in "Overhaul," the proprietary software used by the DOT since 2004 to process permit applications from large-load carriers.
Tens of thousands of such permits are issued annually, and having to revert to manual processing would have been a nightmare.
"We were at the point where we were at risk of having to take the application off line, and that would have had a huge impact on the trucking industry and on the DOT," he said. A fairly quick and automated procedure could have turned into a labor-intensive, hard-copy process that would bog down the whole system.
The DOT was only a week away from the disruptive and costly process of finding a replacement and training everyone on a new system.
"We were down to the wire," Gilligan says. "Independently, unbeknownst to most everyone, I had been looking into the code behind the application and doing my own research on techniques to try to secure it."
He kept his work under wraps "because I didn't want to give them false hopes," he said. "I didn't know at the time that I could come up with a solution."
But he did, and modified the code to eliminate the vulnerability. The application process was uninterrupted, and thousands of heavy-load truckers never knew how close they came to a paperwork nightmare.
That was in 2013. Later in the same year, the state shifted from the Government Human Resource Services Company (GHRS) system for managing payroll and other personnel functions, to something called the NH First Time Management system.
Any transition of that size is bound to be problematic. It was, and Gilligan took notice.
"I work for the Department of Information Technology, but am part of an embedded group at the DOT," he said. "We are working side by side with the customers we support in the same building. I see them in the halls. I see the difficulties and challenges they experience in their work."
He saw administrative workers pulling their hair out as they began to manually reformat all supplemental job descriptions because non-alphabetic characters in the Word documents (like dashes, asterisk, etc.) would crash the new system.
"I caught wind of this whole ordeal just randomly," he said, "just passing through the office and seeing how stressed out they were at having to work this way. I hadn't been asked to pursue this project, but I was confident that I could come up with a solution."
He went back to his desk, did some research, figured out the cause of the problem and in three or four hours had developed a tool in Java to automate the scanning of the text and replacement of all incompatible characters. It took the task from 15 to 20 minutes per job description and trimmed it down to five seconds.
For his efforts, Gilligan, 33, and now a resident of Pembroke, was recently recognized by the Governor and Executive Council with two Extraordinary Service awards, each with a check for $500.
His biggest contribution to state government may not be the particular efforts for which he was recognized, although they were certainly laudable and substantial. Gilligan's success speaks to the benefits of embedding IT experts in the Davedepartments they serve and the value of those so-called "soft skills" once they get there.
In his nine years as a state employee, Gilligan has been steadily promoted but keeps a healthy perspective on his career goals, perhaps acquired in part from that study of philosophy.
"Here's the dilemma I am in," he says. "The higher you go, the more your position shifts toward kind of a management role, and I've always liked working in the trenches, being the coder, being the person who is working directly with the customers. I'm not as interested in having a team under me telling them what to do. I like to be the one who solves the problems."
Dave Solomon's column is published each Thursday. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.