The Inventory Locator

I designed the Inventory Locator tool to aid the inventory process by automating ordering products and tracking the location of over 79,000 items in one single location.  By creating this tool I cut down 85% of time spent by the team on this project, doubled the amount of inventory we were able to move in one group, and provided a service to other departments in the form of inventory data that was previously unorganized across hundreds of spreadsheets.


What it was:


Before there was the Inventory Locator tool there was a collection of 122 (and counting) programs stored in individual excel spreadsheets. When each program began our six-level acquisition process my coworkers and I were burdened with hours of clicking back and forth, mass copy-pasting, disorganized lists, and at a high risk of either overlooking products or forgetting outstanding orders. We tracked each program separately using color codes and email chains. A typical shipment size was 2-5,000 products across multiple programs, anything more and the risk of oversight became too great.

One day, I had enough.

I decided no longer would I spend hours scrolling through excel sheets thousands of rows long, no longer would I keep a mental tally of who had responded to my product requests. It was time to tame this beast of a project once and for all.

When I started working for Houghton Mifflin I had no experience using Microsoft Access, but after a year of watching my teammates use tools, build custom queries, and doing quite a bit of quality assurance checks in tools myself I felt that I had a decent understanding of how they worked and how they correlated with Excel Docs. The Inventory Readiness project was our only one without a tool, so I decided I would make one from scratch.

What I did:


For weeks I spent my evenings and free time painstakingly combining every single spreadsheet into one massive, all-inclusive access table. When I finished, the spreadsheets were no more, instead, I had 79,155 records all in one nice, neat place.
But what good is that? Consolidating them wasn’t going to help me or my associates with the ordering or the tracking or the status updates. I needed to push further.

For two more weeks, I spent my evenings experimenting with areas of Access I’d never explored. If A connects to B I can see this, if the program is tied to the ISBN’s I can view them this way, if I enter these parameters I’ll wind up with X result. Slowly and with many errors (most notably the tragic data loss of Tuesday the 12th) I formed the shell of something that exceeded my own expectation.

I created a control panel of steps that were color coded in chronological left-to-right order. A user needs only start in the top left, and by the time the bottom right button was clicked the shipment would be complete. All of it. Not just a single program.

It was time to show the boss.

I paraded into her office one sunny Monday morning and presented my tool. She was impressed I had squished so many separate things together, but what really caught her attention were the tools bells and whistles, the extra flair I had experimented with to satisfy my own curiosities. Steps that used to take us hours to accomplish were now solved with the click of a button. Planner codes that previously required a tedious decoding process had been automatically resolved. Lists that used to take time copy/pasting together now automatically exported in one long, complete list that was ready to send. I had her attention.

What it became:


With her blessing, I was allowed to work on the tool during work-hours. I designed a user-friendly layout for each of the forums, formatted a tracker that updated live as each user worked through their assignments, I even automated our emails to be pre-typed and addressed, we only need to add the list and press send. When a librarian responded with available products checking them off one by one was a thing of the past! The future was bright, shining, and automated.

With the polished tool, my precious creation, finally complete the day of the demo arrived. And I, someone who feels horribly uncomfortable with public speaking, was ecstatic. The launch went off without a hitch. I cut down on the time spent on Inventory Readiness by 85%, I was even asked to make a sister tool for the rest of the department to use. Several months have passed and the tool has been incorporated into our standard procedures. I was asked to train all relevant staff how to use the tool and publish a detailed user guide for the company to see.



Sink or Swim

The best way to push yourself is work without a safety net.

I work on the same set of projects every day. I answer people’s questions, divide up all the project work, and chip away at the to-do list one by one. For the most part, I do my own thing and am responsible for communicating our needs to various vendors and helping team members with tricky situations.

But I’m not the one charge. When someone asks me a question I’m not familiar enough with to give a definite answer on or some part of a database starts acting wonky I take it to the project lead and work with him to resolve the issue.

Sure, in watching him solve the problem I usually learn a thing or two and am able to explain the solution afterward. But he’s a safety net. As long as he’s there solving the tough problems I’m not pushing myself to learn something new.

For the last two weeks the project lead has been on vacation and suddenly I’ve found myself in charge. At first, everything went smoothly. A few minor questions, some basic queries were requested. Small potatoes; nothing I couldn’t handle.

And then something happened. Our vendor reported that somehow 15,000 records were floating around in our database with no base. It’s delaying workflow.  I have to figure it out.

On any other occasion, an escalation as serious as this would have immediately been passed to the lead, but he’s not here. The safety net was happily lounging around on vacation and this was my problem to fix.

A dozen YouTube videos and an entire pot of coffee later I had a solution in place. While restoring the lost data wasn’t possible I was able to successfully build a series of queries to identify what was lost, pull it into a separate location and cross-reference the structure against other versions of the tool.

Once there was a solution I went a step deeper and identified where in the scripting the error originated from and created a patch to keep it from happening again.

It probably took me three times as long to fix it as it would have the lead, but that doesn’t matter.

I was in a sink or swim situation, and I swam.


The Slipknot Experience

You’re surrounded by 10,000 people.

The brutal Texas summer heat is blaring down on you.

You’ve been on your feet for hours and the night has only just begun.

Going to a metal show is an experience unlike any other. There’s no sitting, no standing still and bobbing your head softly. You don’t just settle down and listen. At a metal show, you feel it. You scream, you sweat, and occasionally you bleed a little. But it’s all in good fun.

Everyone around you is representing their favorite band tees, sporting crazy tattoos and hair colors. People of all ages, shapes, sizes, and colors come out and for just a little while nobody cares how different you are because we’re all there for the same reason. The passion for the music.

Slipknot takes the stage. People swarm the pit. Someone is standing on the back of your converse; you’re staring straight into someone’s sweaty back. A hush briefly falls over the crowd as everyone stands in anticipation for the main event.

And then there they are.

“Austin, Texas, are you fucking ready?” Corey Taylor screams. Everyone roars.

The music starts. The lights are flashing. Everyone is jumping and screaming and pushing. The force of the crowd tries to knock you down but there are so many people you manage to stay on your feet.

You’re close to the stage. Behind you and beside you in the pit, people are pushing and shoving. You can feel the music vibrating through the concrete beneath you into the souls of your feet.

The heat from the flames is somehow cooler than the heat of the day, or maybe you’re just used to it by now.  Your legs are trembling from all the jumping. Your throat is raw from all the screaming. Corey Taylor tells you to kneel. You and everyone else does exactly as the King demands.

“When I say, jump the fuck up, what’re you gonna do?”

Everyone screams.

The familiar intro to Spit it Out begins, the pressure is building. The roller coaster is almost to the top.


Everyone springs to their feet, if you hadn’t jumped yet you sure as hell are now.

As the show winds down and the encore finishes everyone stumbles to their cars. You’re smelly, sore, your ears are ringing, and you feel an adrenaline rush like no other. It’s time to stop for a traditional post-concert Whataburger and then home to recover.


The Anxiety Obstacle Course

Meeting people can be hard, especially if it’s not something you do often. But, like with most things, all you need is a little patience and lots of practice.

I’ve had anxiety my entire life. That’s not an excuse, it’s a fact. More times than I can count or would care to admit I’ve forgone an opportunity due to an irrational fear I’d convinced myself to be true.

It’s a sinking feeling like the world will turn if you dare to speak to this person. Everyone will watch me walk across the room. This person will think I’m weird. They probably won’t even want to help me with what I need. The irrational (in hindsight) list of fears goes on and on and on.

But like I said, just because the thought of speaking to someone makes you want to curl up and cry isn’t an excuse to not do it. It’s an obstacle and you can, and will, overcome it.

Meeting people when you have anxiety is a lot like getting a tattoo. The anticipation is 1,000x worse than the actual event.

The first time I got a tattoo I made the appointment two weeks in advance. For that entire time, I walked around stressed and worried. What if he screws up? What if the pain is so bad I can’t take it? What if he thinks I’m a wimp? What do I say when I arrive if he’s not there yet or he’s busy? What happens when he’s done? Do I say thank you? What if I die in a fiery accident on the way there and he gets mad I no call/no show?

The longer you dwell the more ridiculous the reasons become.

By the time I showed up in was shaking. The whole drive there I tried to pump myself up. I listened to my favorite bands, I smoked, I gave myself a good Ole fashioned pep talk in the parking lot but still the sinking, falling, feeling of doom weighed on me.

And you know what happened?

I got the tattoo. I didn’t die. I didn’t embarrass myself at all. Dare I even go so far as to say I enjoyed myself.

I walked out of there with a feeling of accomplishment I’d never felt before. I acknowledged the fear and I did it anyway.

Great Tia, you have a tattoo, but what’s your point?

My point is, meeting people, like getting a tattoo, is only as scary as you convince yourself it is. Getting a tattoo isn’t painless, you’re going to feel some level of discomfort. But the instant that tattoo is finished, the pain goes away. The same applies to conversations when you have anxiety.

Beforehand it’s easy to freak yourself out and focus on all the things that go wrong, all the wrong things you might say or do. Even during the interaction, you’ll still feel the nerves, the panic, the red bell going off in your head compelling you to run.

But you don’t do it.

Walking away would only draw more attention to this imaginary crisis and we can’t have that, oh no. Much better to stay through to the end and suffer silently than make a scene. But a funny thing happens when the conversation ends; none of the catastrophic events you prophesied actually happened. You’ve survived the encounter. Suddenly you’re elated, you’ve done it!

I now have nine tattoos, and the ability to (at least more so than before) talk to people. It’s still scary, I still panic and make a list of scenarios, but I know in the end I can do it.

And if that means I need to set aside an extra 15 minutes of panic time before a meeting or writing out an exact script of what I need to say when I call the dentist then that’s what I do. Whatever it takes to get it done, do it. There’s no shame in being afraid.

It’s the only way to improve.

Make the call. Say hello. Walk down that grocery aisle even though there’s already 3 people standing there. Freak out if you need to but know the world won’t stop spinning.

You can do it.