Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Autism and Information Technology: Big Data for Diagnosis

The final installment of this month's Autism and Information Technology series, and the last part of April's blog challenge (plus Autism Awareness Month). My last three entries were focused more so on people with autism getting into the IT field for careers, including my own journey and my current job search. This time, why not reverse it.

So how can advances in information technology benefit those on the spectrum? Well, that's a long topic in itself, but a one technology had me curious to say the least. At the end of March I attended a conference called Data4Decisions. One of the sessions at this conference was on big data and analytics transforming life sciences from a patient perspective. A focal point of the presentation came from the Duke University Medical Center, where they discussed a new algorithm to diagnose autism through the toddler's behavior and other data gained on this in-hospice app. The data gained from this technology would be used to interpret if a child could truly be considered on the autism spectrum.

As we were told at the forum, the behaviors could be mapped to various questions and screening tests. Then the big data part comes into play, which is where I get curious as to how the data is used and programmed. I went through some tests as a child but not to this extent. While I don't know what programming languages are being used here, the data model at hand is another complex question.

Naturally, I wonder if this technology could be adapted to adults, so that we can understand each other in our interpersonal relationships. Many adults have been diagnosed later in life, particularly over the last decade. There is potential to tweak the algorithms and develop the app to use more verbal functions and continue to break through with big data. With the new $9.75 million grant in place for Duke's entire Information Initiative, the possibilities continue. It's how data and information technology can be used to help not only detect if a child is on the spectrum, but how to understand the child as well.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Autism and Information Technology: New Efforts for Kids to Code

So here's chapter three in the blog challenge series. It's a bit rushed since it's the blog challenge and I haven't given myself time to write, but I knew I should still write anyway, or more accurately to advertise for something worth your time and money that I came across.

A man in Edinburgh, Scotland was concerned that his autistic son would not have the opportunities that most NT people would receive. It is true that most diagnosed autistics are often unemployed or underemployed (I guess I just became part of that statistic, but I've been successfully employed for most of my life). So he started a new effort to help kids with something where demand and aptitude are definitely there.

Thus we now have this great Indiegogo project to empower kids around the world on the spectrum to become master coders. There's a few reasons this project is pretty essential.
  • It's a practical skill. As I mentioned in a previous entry, the spectrum tends to be a logical place. Code is about logic. In this case, the teens get a head start on technology that may not always be addressed in school.
  • The employment problem gets resolved. People can figure out whether it is better to be self employed or under an employer, depending on how the person works. There are new ideas for apps that come out every day. Now they can start making these a reality, much like some of my good friends have done with plugins and apps in their local communities.
  • The kids get some soft skills. The chance to work with these teachers and other students in a one-on-one environment will help with that key communication component. It will help when it comes time for, say, collaborative projects.

For those following with the #SQLNewBlogger challenge, how does it relate to data? Well, the data is a big deal today. If they learn some languages for apps, then they can take a huge step to becoming a modern DBA. I would think this helps in environments increasingly using open stacks, Java technologies, or even anything NoSQL. A good point for discussion among the professional family.

I really want to see how far this can go. Any donation helps!

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Autism and Information Technology: Back on the Job Hunt

I'll be pivoting slightly in this blog challenge series, as I now need to publicly address a turn in my career and how I'll be doing things a bit differently...in a style that neurotypical people may relate to anyway.

At this time last year I found myself looking for a new job after company cuts. Turns out that only one year later, I find myself back in that exact situation. This time, I essentially worked myself out of the job when it was revealed that one of the interface engineer positions was eliminated. My main project responsibilities were shifted to a different team after it was determined that support could just maintain what I helped to build. The other factor working against me was being the greener member of the whole team. People originally expected me to stay a long time (as did I, naturally), but when someone had to go, current experience trumped my potential. I've tried not to be bitter about that, as business is about the bottom line.

So I find myself, an autistic and an IT person, as a free agent again. I succeeded last year, but this time some aspects are a bit more difficult to navigate. In the last year since joining my company in June, my skill set has expanded. I'm still mostly within the Microsoft stack, but they also used some open stack technologies and other in house solutions. So I picked up some Hadoop and Python along the way for various reasons. I did not do as much on the reporting side versus the job I held from 2011-2014, but I still did work with SSIS and integration. There were even some simple DBA-style tasks in there, particularly involving login security and tuning for our production environments. However, it still wasn't quite enough work doing these new things for the health care industry. It's as if I can say "yeah, I started some of this, and even did a script, but that may be it." Or, as I was told, I can let others know how easy it is to train me; the hard part was getting used to the minutiae of the industry I had switched into.

Naturally, I go through the phase of asking: what the fuck have I actually accomplished anywhere? I think about how those of us on the spectrum have accomplished big things, but then I go through the wallow where my attention deficit tendencies may have cost me in the past. I compare it to other friends and notables that have not gone through the same thing, regardless of career title. However, this year it occurred to me that I can adapt to trends just like everyone in my profession. Which has allowed me to approach the job hunt differently.

Continue with what I started learning, while picking up skills in other languages.
Not just Python, Hadoop, or other data visualization tools. I'm actually going to dust off the Java and continue to enhance my Linux abilities during my off time when not searching for jobs. Not saying I'll learn everything at once, but I'll see what I get through. I found myself impulsively taking advantage of deals on StackSocial where I figured skills would be necessary. I bought a Linux bundle (where I can fool with it on my virtual box) and one with multiple languages, which should help me do cool things like create mobile applications and even help build better data. I know some of this may be an Aspie impulse, depending on who you are.

Go to every SQL Server training session I can.
Face it, I have to bring up MSSQL because of the origination of the blog challenge, and also that's where my greatest strength has always been since I got a big boy job seven years ago. My debate was always, after taking the 70-461 exam, whether I should take the last two for my SQL Server 2012 certification, or if I should wait for SQL Server 2014 instead. Regardless I am still eager to get the MCSA on my record sooner than later once I figure out the path I wish to take. The good thing is that with a lot of the Microsoft technologies starting to wane (though Azure seems to be the reinvention effort), I'm at least most proficient in the one that will always seem to live on. In the meantime, I'll be attending a few training sessions to pick up skills. I have to stick with the free stuff for now.

Freelancing again.
I did a project for someone in Houston last spring/summer while looking for more permanent work, and I'm looking at going that route again with those I find in my network. Now it's already been noted that it's not my strong suit, but some of the connects I made at fairs and conferences allowed me to thrive some more. I've mentioned many times that I'm a spectrum person who thrives off experience, and this is a perfect opportunity. I also will continue to work on my brother's website, allowing me some Wordpress opportunities if this goes well.

Autism volunteer efforts continued.
Yeah, this is also how I am keeping myself busy, in addition to all of the above, and even the occasional ride share effort. I'm now more motivated than ever to get that GRASP chapter started in the Triangle, especially now that I have someone who will help with the effort. I also might make a turn-and-burn trip out of state to talk with autism researchers (not giving details yet). It's like I'm moonlighting as an Asperger advocate, which will also come in handy with a new story to tell. On some of the Asperger forums, many of us realize that we have all lost jobs, or failed to make ourselves irreplaceable. So my hope is that I can give them yet another story on how I keep getting myself hired, especially for fellow IT people.

These steps are all over the place, and it's getting them settled and broken into those Will Freeman style segments that will count. Always tough for the Aspie to start, but easy for the Aspie to complete. Information technology is an area where it's easy to get hired and easy to get laid off, and the question is how someone on the spectrum handles it. Considering how recently I went through the same thing, I feel okay about this.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Autism and Information Technology: Answering a Blog Challenge (Plus, Why I Like Data)

I have done a terrible job blogging over the last calendar year, like a majority of the population. The motivation to write on a topic I have a lot to say about has been limited, to say the least. I only have sparse thoughts and unfinished drafts. Maybe I'll be doing a work project, or I'll be distracted by my Twitter and Facebook feeds...or even the brain-numbing Buzzfeed list on occasion. A neurotypical ability, too, but considering our attention spans, this struggle is very real for the Aspie. Squirrel.

Then came four days ago, where I spotted #SQLNewBloggerChallenge on my Twitter feed. I often use my Twitter for both advocacy and professional networking, so it's not surprising how this would come up. Blogger Ed Leighton-Dick posed a new challenge to professionals like myself to blog regularly, and many members of the SQL Server and other IT communities began writing new blogs or dusting off old ones. As he said in his entry:

And what if you’re an experienced blogger? No problem – everyone’s welcome to join the challenge. Join in yourself (maybe to get back into the habit after a hiatus), or offer encouragement or ideas to those of us in the challenge. The more, the merrier!

So now I've decided to answer the challenge. Since we can write on any topic we want, I'm obviously going to stick with this one, and even helping to speak to readers of an Autism spectrum blog on what SQL is...and what the world of data means to someone like you or me. First in a series of posts.

As many an introductory article can tell you, SQL stands for Structured Query Language. It is the main language for relational database systems. All the rows and columns you see when looking at electronic tables? Plenty of them used SQL in the background, or some variation on it. Its another development language, in essence.

So why would I start working with databases over the course of my post-college life? Well, data was always fascinating. I particularly had an obsession love of various sports and movie box office statistics. Then I'd start putting these into Microsoft Works forms (you know, before Excel and Access). I played with this information all the time back when we had the old Windows 98 machine at my parents' house. I was curious as to what went behind these.

I eventually majored in Information Systems during college, considering my potential aptitude for computer work (an entry on coding will be coming this month). One of my stronger courses was Database Appications, and eventually my first "big boy" job at Comcast involved e-commerce data inputs and analysis. So I was able to write a lot of queries, to say the least. It was cool work, seeing the end products show up. There's also a great logical component that I preferred to, say, application development. The latter does require some creativity that isn't always my strong suit, while the former really divides information into rows and columns, and then can be organized by others in complex report formats. Look up OLAP and you'll understand more of what I do for a living.

Data is fascinating because it's the numbers and logic; I'm curious as to how everyone uses them. I know how I used it all the time. It's something which fits my aptitude as a person on the spectrum in that I tend to look at everything on a linear level. Not saying I'm the best report developer or integration engineer due to this factor, but it allows me to fare better at this versus a position in, for instance, marketing. A lot of things I say come back to some piece of information, which I may repeat many times.

You know, this challenge is going to be quite fun. I have three more related topics I'll be doing this month, as part of my effort to blog more regularly. To finish up, here's a line Brent Ozar (a very notable professional in my line of career) used to promote the challenge. Though I may not be following his exact format, this rings true:

Pick a topic you already know well, something that you believe is completely boring to you, something you think everybody already knows. You’re wrong.