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for the Blind

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IBM Mainframe Programmer, John Carty, Emphasizes the Importance of Having a Mentor as an Employee with Vision Loss

John Carty sitting at his desk, facing the camera

My name is John Carty, and my career as a computer programmer began when I graduated from El Centro College Computer Programmer Training for People with Disabilities in the spring of 1997. This training was comprised of intensive classroom training in TSO/ISPF, JCL/Utilities, and COBOL/CICS. At the end of the eight-month course, each student was assigned to a two-month internship with a company in the Dallas area. Successful completion of the internship was required for graduation and gave me a taste of what working as a programmer is like as well as valuable professional experience. Overall, this program was excellent preparation for me to begin a career as an IBM mainframe programmer. Due to the Y2K scare of the late '90s, the skills I learned were in great demand in the job market.

Internship and the Importance of Mentors

I was assigned to the Army Airforce Exchange Service (AAFES) for my internship. AAFES operates the military retail stores located on every military installation around the world, including some level of retail support anywhere there are at least 30 U.S. military personnel. During my two-month internship, I completed a training course for all new hires. This was an overview of the training I had at El Centro, so I completed this training without difficulty. I was hired by AAFES at the end of my internship. In hindsight, I can say I was perhaps immature and/or naive as to what I should expect on this new job. All entry-level programmers will succeed or fail largely due to the level of mentoring and professional investment they receive from senior experienced programmers. I was unaware of this fact and had no knowledge of such a need nor how to go about obtaining such a mentor at AAFES.

Needless to say, I didn't experience the success I expected. Perhaps the people I worked with at AAFES saw a level of pridefulness or arrogance they simply didn't care to engage with. For whatever reason, I wasn't mentored and failed to become productive. I became discouraged at AAFES and blamed the environment and never considered I was contributing to my failure to thrive.

Switching Jobs

After six months of unhappy idleness at AAFES, I applied for and received an offer from Electronic Data Systems (EDS), a large IT consulting firm. EDS assigned me to their AT&T contract, and I answered to an AT&T manager. This is where I learned that companies like AT&T often hire contractors because they need and want people to be immediately productive with little to no instruction. This was not an environment suitable for an entry-level programmer.

I also learned later that AT&T was already unhappy with their arrangement with EDS, and after four months, EDS lost AT&T as a customer and all EDS contractors were placed on the bench waiting for EDS to assign them to another contract customer. Being blind and lacking the immediate ability to travel from job to job, I decided I needed to forget about being a contractor and obtain a permanent job.

Finding the Right Fit

About that time, the Tarrant County IT director called El Centro seeking computer programmer applicants. I happened to call El Centro five minutes after they received that request, and taking advantage of graduate placement services, I called Tarrant County and began the application process. Tarrant County is the fourth largest county in Texas and like all county governments provides a wide array of services to the citizens. The IT department in the summer of 1998 was quite small, employing only about 40 people. The department was exclusively an IBM mainframe shop deploying a variety of in-house developed applications, many of which were as old as I was at the time. Furthermore, the bulk of these applications were originally developed and continued to be supported by employees. One such employee was the manager who hired me, the individual who developed the county's election system.

My boss had his own physical challenges and was sensitive to my needs as a blind person, and before giving me any programming duties, he began providing accommodations so that all such difficulties could be resolved before beginning my real work. This began with helping me become oriented to the building; he gave me the cube immediately outside his office. He also took the time to walk me to the main elections building and the election warehouse because I would have a need to go to these different locations in my job. He then gave me virtually unlimited time to set up and configure my screen reader and become comfortable with the editing tools Tarrant County used.

Connecting with My First Mentor

He spent a great deal of time sitting in my cube reading the screen for me explaining the different prompts, etc. It took approximately six weeks to get my workstation fully configured and to complete my physical orientation to my new environment. Never once was a complaint made about this time being wasted. Once my workstation was fully configured and I was properly oriented, I began my actual work as a programmer. My boss possessed a real talent for developing entry-level programmers, and he became not only my first boss but my first professional mentor. I was given relatively simple programming tasks at first that revealed to my boss the level of my technical skills, which allowed him to carefully plan my development through assigning me tasks that built on knowledge and skills I learned from previous assignments. In this fashion, he first developed my technical programming skills, and over time, he began introducing me to the real business of programming. That is the business analysis required to build effective solutions. He often instructed me to spend time in my user’s offices observing their operations which allowed me to connect the dots between their daily activities, the programs, the data, and how everything worked together.

Moving Up the Career Ladder

Through this experience, I began gathering my own program specifications directly from the users and designing my own solutions rather than merely coding my boss' designed solutions. After two years, I was promoted from Associate Programmer/Analyst to Programmer/Analyst and took the lead support programmer position for the entire elections system. I enjoyed this roll for another ten years. Due to a change in election law, which moved responsibility for elections from county government to state, and the changing needs of the department, I was transferred to the county's criminal justice system. The criminal justice system is a much larger system than elections and comprises the District Attorney's office, County Clerk criminal, District Clerk, the courts, jury management, and the Sheriff's department.

Continuing Career Education and Professional Development

At the time of my transfer, the criminal justice system was undergoing a major conversion from a legacy COBOL/CICS mainframe platform to a Microsoft network platform. Furthermore, instead of developing all applications in-house, Tarrant County began purchasing and deploying third party or vendor applications. As this conversion progressed, my COBOL/CICS skills were becoming less and less useful. The time had come to retrain to a new platform. This was quite difficult because of the lack of assistive technology support for this new platform plus accessible instructional materials were virtually nonexistent.

However, once again, the role of professional mentoring changed my life. I met a veteran database administrator who showed up to provide me access and permissions to the criminal justice databases which were required for my new position. We talked at length about where I was coming from experience wise and where I was trying to get to and the obstacles I was encountering. From that day, he took it upon himself to mentor me in the new tools, and eventually, a second database programmer began to share his knowledge with me as well.

An Evolving Career

I no longer support mainframe applications, and I never see COBOL/CICS coding anymore. I've been transformed into a SQL Report programmer. There are two components to SQL reports. First is the actual database query, which is a piece of program code that extracts data from one or more databases, joins independent data elements together within business relationships, and formats the data into reports which produce actionable information. Next, this SQL program, often called a script, is then inserted into a packaged report that the user can access through a web based tool. I currently need an accommodation to accomplish this second deployment piece while I continue to explore an access solution to the software product being used.

My work involves contacting my user and gathering their report specifications, which includes interviewing them and learning their business activities. Then I find out what they currently use, and I help them to identify how to improve their experience. I then write the SQL program, test the results, provide a sample of the output, and obtain user approval. Because I've not yet finished my training and the assistive technology solution needed to deploy this program into production, my code is handed off to another programmer for this final task. I am quite confident that by the end of the year, I'll have resolved this last issue and will once again own the freedom to take solutions from initial interviews to final production deployment. The interesting thing here is even though I'm using different tools, the actual work I perform is exactly the same job my original boss taught me some 19 years ago.

My Favorite Part of My Job

My favorite part of my job is working directly with people in a variety of user roles where I develop relationships, learn their business, and enjoy a great deal of personal satisfaction when I can make their work easier, faster, and cheaper. I've also been blessed to work for and with a variety of genuine professionals who have mentored me and invested in me, and I owe a great deal of my success to both my users and mentors. I'm part of a professional fraternity, and this provides me a sense of belonging. The only part of my job I really dislike is when a political agenda influences the delivery of a solution, which isn't a real solution, and the user and eventually the citizens of Tarrant County suffer. Fortunately, this occurs infrequently.

Advice for Job Seekers Interested in Programming Careers

The best advice I can give to a person who is blind or visually impaired considering a career in computer programming is:

  • Seek out and take a variety of high-quality aptitude tests and make sure that logic and analysis elements of programming are something you have a genuine aptitude for. It is my belief that programmers are born rather than trained.
  • Make sure your mobility and orientation skills are top notch. Nothing makes others more uncomfortable, and the person who is blind more frustrated, than lacking this important element of independence.
  • Make sure you know how to use whatever assistive technology you require. Learn how to install and configure it and/or make sure you have an independent source of support for these tasks. Employers have no problem providing products and services when you can enter the boss’ office and explain this is the problem, here's the solution, and this is how much it costs. However, informing them it's a problem and expecting them to identify a solution is fruitless.
  • You must obtain a mentor. A mentor during your training, a mentor during your entry-level position, and you'll need good mentoring throughout your career. If this means sitting in the old coder's cube and observing and getting him/her coffee, then pocket any pridefulness and pour some coffee.

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