Shaped by the Unusual: Weird Tasks Defined My Career

Explore how weird tasks shaped my career, from data entry challenges to unexpected leadership lessons, paving the path to engineering success.

Shaped by the Unusual: Weird Tasks Defined My Career
Photo by Bruce Warrington / Unsplash

Last week, my friend Nushan and I were reminiscing about our old job and the crazy things we did there. We became friends at our first job in the same company, and we did a lot of things that were not part of our job descriptions or even made sense at the time. But somehow, those experiences impacted our lives, shaped our attitudes toward work, and prepared us for new challenges.

Today, I'm going to share one of those stories.

Nushan and I were leading a project at our first office, each from different angles. I handled the technical side, while he managed the project. The goal was to create a system that allowed low-level data to be accessed via an online platform.

After securing the project (let's skip the details of how), we discovered that all the data was on paper. So, our project steps became:

  1. Convert analog data to digital
  2. Import the digital data
  3. Build a system around the data

We were confident in our abilities for steps 2 and 3, but step 1 was a massive challenge.

With the project underway and a ticking clock, we hired 5-6 in-house data entry contractors.

  • We purchased desktops and office supplies for their work.
  • We set up the workstations with the necessary IT infrastructure.

Once set up, the contractors estimated they'd complete the task in 30 days. However, early data submissions to the project owner revealed a 40% error rate, with issues like spelling mistakes, incorrect info, and missing data.

We were in trouble because we lacked a QA team to check the contractors' work. So...

We became the manual validators. We started by checking the physical paper and verifying the Excel data. We marked errors and asked the contractors to redo their work. It was exhausting!

Things got worse when, after 15 days, 2-3 contractors quit. Now we were short-staffed, with a looming deadline and a high error rate.

Desperate, we joined the data entry efforts ourselves. Instead of coding, we were calculating our data entry rates. Although we were slower than the contractors, our error rate was below 5%. It was a new level of task prioritization.

Our daily routine became:

  • 9 am-4/5 pm: Data entry
  • 6 pm-8 pm: Data validation

We eventually completed 70% of the project before having to stop due to other complications (a story for another day). This experience taught us several lessons.

Why did we do this? We felt empowered as project leaders and believed we had to finish it by any means necessary.

Why compromise work-life balance? We didn’t understand it then and felt a sense of achievement in reaching milestones.

Doing data entry as a software engineer felt demoralizing, but it taught us the foundational aspects of software development. Behind every polished UI, there are messy, essential processes.

There is a quote by Friedrich Nietzsche: "What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger." I have mixed feelings about it now. 

We were very unhappy, weird, and did shitty things, but because of those experiences, doing something harder or seemingly impossible seems reasonable or at least viable.

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