Every Friday we feature a member of our staff in our Staff Spotlight! This week, we spoke to Database Manager Jack McIlraith about his time in Alex.
How did you get interested in working with databases?
I received my first computer as a gift when I was 10 and then wrote my first basic programme when I was around 11, and that’s when I knew that I always wanted to be involved in computing to some degree. I went on to study mechanical engineering and found that while I loved the software analysis side, I wasn’t as interested in the actual physical mechanics. So after finishing college, I pivoted and got into veterinary software because I do like a bit of hands-on work alongside dealing primarily with computers. From there, it was just a natural progression from system management to data management.
Are there any differences between your previous job and your work at Alex?
I spent time teaching English in Vietnam before coming to Alex, and it’s been fantastic to align my computer science skills with my passion for teaching. While I don’t teach any students directly in Alex, it’s a lot easier for me to reflect on what is happening in the classroom as opposed to someone who’s entirely from the tech side, who might not have a sense of what happens day-to-day.
Compared to previous software jobs, it’s nice working with people as opposed to animals - much more interesting conversation! Here in Alex I do a little bit of everything; my primary duty is to ensure that all of the school’s data is up to date and reflects the real-world situation of the school, which is very far from the ideal constraints of a computerized system. A lot of my time is spent creating and editing student files, reports, and timetables, as well as examining and implementing new platforms to replace any outdated systems that aren’t serving the school community. As everything moves towards a digital society, it’s very important not only that the school keeps up to date, but also that students are given skills like how to log into a profile portal and manage their own information timetables and get them familiar with how things work in the real world.
It’s unique working in a school while also working in the digital space because people don’t often associate the two. That becomes highly apparent when you look at the school software on the market; it really is left by the wayside. This future generation deserves investment, yet people don’t seem to be willing to engage with the school market, which is a disservice to young people.
Why did you choose to join the Alex community? What do you like best about Alex?
I knew that I didn’t want to work in a corporate environment because it’s difficult to have a clear, direct impact on the world as a whole, rather than benefitting shareholders. Working in a school, you can very quickly see your impact in other people’s lives, whether that’s simply making an Excel macro for a teacher so that they can operate quicker, or overhauling a system so that students have a better workflow to submit their homework. All of it makes for a very big impact through small changes, compared to working on a large team in a fintech company where you could work on a project for two years until it gets axed, and so you’ve taken home a salary but you haven’t impacted anything. I love being able to see that impact every day.
How have you adapted your work for Covid-19?
Most of the changes I’ve had to make involved working remotely, which is relatively simple in my role. That being said, being back in the office has also brought back some aspects that we didn’t have while working remotely, especially the little chats over the water cooler. You forget how impactful they are; you hear a teacher mentioning in passing some insignificant hindrance that they’re dealing with that they might not put in an email, and when you can speak face to face and identify the problems it’s often a very simple fix that streamlines a teacher’s work and allows them to be more present in the classroom to teach.
What has been the highlight of your time in Alex so far?
For me, it’s the small interactions that make the work really meaningful. On my first or second day in Alex, I remember I ran into a student who was lost on her first day in the College. I remember both of us standing there, and honestly, I was probably more terrified than she was, and trying to figure out where her classroom was. We found it eventually with the help of another student, and it was a minor thing but as Gandalf says, “It is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay.” In other areas of my role, very small implementations of even basic tools or hotkeys or shortcuts can make a large impact on someone’s productivity, and when you’re able to get things done easier, you can be more satisfied with your work as a whole and it’s satisfying to bring that to another person. There’s the added bonus of then being able to bring that to the girls’ education indirectly as well because as soon as you help a teacher out, they’re more effective at teaching and you’ve done some good.