Deciding what I wanted to be when I grew up was probably one of the most difficult decisions that I had to make in my young adult life. I knew that obtaining a college degree would provide me with the most opportunities in the future. The tough part is knowing that once you start going down a particular path, you’re pretty much locked in. Your choice in professions determines which college you should attend and classes that you need to take in order to satisfy the requirements for your degree. It’s scary to think that this decision could end up locking you into a particular path for the rest of your life.
I suppose that I had a entrepreneur mindset early one. I struggled with this decision and wrestled with what career would provide me with the most satisfaction throughout my life. I decided that I wouldn’t do something just for the money. I didn’t want to spend the working days of my life waking up and going to a job that I hated. I had a passion for helping people, and my personal evaluation led me into pursuing the field of special education. My college career began at the Harrisburg Area Community College where I took the general education classes that I would need before transferring to a four year school to finish my degree. That was the plan, but of course plans change…
When I was attending West Perry High School, I had the opportunity to take courses to become a Cisco Certified Network Administrator (CCNA). Computers had always interested me and I appreciated the opportunity to understand the interconnectivity and communication from one device to another. It was also an opportunity to gain some experience to fall back on if I suddenly decided to move out to Silicone Valley. While I enjoyed the CCNA program, and ultimately became certified, I really enjoyed my Turbo Pascal class much more! It was incredibly gratifying to write code and watch the computer execute my commands.
As most college students do, I was working part-time. It was more like full-time with four different part-time jobs. One of my part-time jobs was with a regional grocery store chain. I worked in the 90,000 sqft store in several different capacities. This not only gave me the opportunity to be scheduled for more hours, but it was an opportunity to learn a little bit of everything that was happening around the store. I would build promotional displays, breakdown the nightly delivery truck to prepare it for stocking, jump on a register as a cashier, work in the dairy department stocking and rotating product, and work on special assignments from management. I was told at one point by one of the managers that I was welcome to come in anytime to work because I was always productive and found something that needed to be done.
I would regularly browse the job postings that were in the break room to see what kind of positions were available at the corporate headquarters. I had come across a listing for an internship in the Information Systems arena. I had the CCNA certification from the program in high school and I was taking college courses, so I figured that I had a pretty good shot. I figured right. This was only a six month internship, but my plan was to do my best to remain at the office and not go back to working in the stores. When I asked my manager if I should turn in my uniform shirts, he said “keep them, you’ll be back.” That was fuel for my fire to ensure that I succeeded. I wouldn’t be back…
The internship experience was much like my store experience in that I was able float around and experience the different IT departments in the office. I was like a sponge soaking up as much information as I could. I took full advantage of the opportunity and always worked the optional 40 hours a week. It was definitely an awesome experience to see how the support office interfaced with the stores and how new technology was implemented and trained. There are also polarized perspectives. The stores feel like the support office is out of touch with their needs and that they sit in the “silver palace” without a clue. The office associates feel like the stores are slow at adopting new processes and make their lives complicated by resisting change. All that I knew is that at the conclusion of the six month internship, I wanted to be on the office side of the organization.
Desperate to find a full-time position, I was willing to take any opportunity to simply get my foot in the door. There was an opening in the mailroom and I applied for the position. When I was contacted by the HR manager explaining that I did not get the role because I was overqualified, I was extremely disappointed. However, she quickly followed up with telling me that I would have been bored and that she had a different position in mind for me. Needless to say I was thrilled and surprised. The surprising part is that someone took notice of my ambition and they took the time to help me find the appropriate direction that would set me up for success. I am grateful in so many ways for the opportunity that I received and individualized attention that I received from that HR manager.
The role that she had in mind wasn’t higher on the pay scale than the position in the mailroom, but it gave me the chance to continue to hone my skills and build rapport in the organization. I was hired as the administrative assistant for the retail strategies and pricing director. One of my primary roles was a taking the competitive price checks and chart them across our different market areas and departments to benchmark our indices against our primary and secondary competitors. This information was then passed along to the merchandising teams and the executives. As I performed this duty, I discovered that it was an extremely manual and arduous process. It was also a fairly short sighted look into the data. Everything was being aggregated by department and market area, but we were receiving the information at a store level by SKU on a hardcopy report.
This became my first real project where I could make an impact and improve our insights and analysis. I only had a small introduction into programming in high school and no relational database experience, but I knew that I could doing something if I could receive the data contained in these reports electronically. At the time, the company was what I would call a mid sized retailer. We had just under 200 stores. My idea was to create a data repository with a user interface so that the merchandising teams could slice the data by any competitor or group of stores. They would also be able to drill into the department to see the category, sub category, and segment level indices based on their selections.
I didn’t really know where to start. I just knew of Microsoft Access which had the database and UI functionality all contained within a single instance. No one else in the company had spent much time with using Microsoft Access, so I purchased a book and began teaching myself during the downtime that I had throughout the day. There were definitely moments of extreme frustration and doubt that I would be able to figure out what I had set out to accomplish. After all, I didn’t have anyone else that I could talk to. All that I had way my book and a few sparse forums on the Internet.
The good news is that I was able to do what I set out to do and the competitive pricing application was well received. I began seeking other opportunities to convert manual paper processes to a digital format. The conversions improved productivity through input validations, integration of known information, and the electronic transmission of data. An example of one of the solutions was a report that we used to email to all of our stores on a weekly basis. The report was a large file and the stores had to filter through the document to find the information that was pertinent to their particular store. I developed a program that would parse the data, create a store specific file, and automatically email the stores their individualized report. I can still feel the excitement upon successfully executing this program.
Merchandising Systems was born. I had gone from a store associate to an intern to an administrative assistant to a merchandising systems analyst. The merchandising systems analyst was a brand new role created specifically for the work that I was doing within the organization. This is an example of entrepreneurship within a multi-billion dollar company. Identifying a need and working to fill it. I have been fortunate throughout my corporate career to rarely hold a “job” where I would repetitively do something day in and day out.
Needless to say, my aspirations for continuing my higher education in elementary special education dwindled. I had a taste of the business world and I was hooked. While it is significantly different, I was helping people and improving their day to day work-life. I could positively impact people and the bottom line through software at a magnitude that I could have never imagined. I was fortunate to be in the right place at the right time with the right background to grow within a company during this evolution into a digital world. Gone were the days of mainframe reports piled on desks and filling up filing cabinets. All of the information that associates needed was available on their desktops in a clean user friendly interface with dynamic views of the data. I eventually grew the merchandising systems department of one to a team of 22. We moved from Microsoft Access to more powerful database servers and .NET for application development.
We were highly innovative and focused on the user experience and productivity. The amount of time and money that the merchandising systems department saved in man hours by automation was equivalent to hundreds of workers and hundreds of millions of dollars that would have been required to complete the work in the past. Not to mention the increased opportunities that and business growth that resulted from our solutions. I like to believe that I would be a millionaire from the solutions that I helped to implement and think about what I could have done differently. Unfortunately, if I were a third-party consultant, I wouldn’t have had the insight to the opportunities that helped me to grow the team that I grew within the company.
I am an entrepreneur and I always have been. I have now had the opportunity to work within a fortune 500 company and leave a legacy that will continue on long after I have moved on to my next venture. I am now working in the capacity of a Business Consultant within the organization. It’s a gratifying experience to be able to walk the floor of the office and see the tools that I built being used to drive the company forward and helping to make people’s jobs more enjoyable, productive, and rewarding.