Interview with Ms. Sara Narcisi: An Education & Career Guide for Future Computer Programmers and Systems Analysts

February 15, 2001

A veteran computer systems analyst/programmer, Sara has achieved a successful and varied computer industry career with 35 years experience (since 1963 minus 3 years to start a family) with increasing levels of responsibility.

Sara's focus has been business application positions on IBM mainframe then midrange systems at these companies (starting with most recent): CMS Mid-Atlantic and Mid-Atlantic Finance, Premier Technologies, Innovative Management Systems, CSI, Universal Cyclops, Matthews International Software, and Westinghouse.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Some technology-based information referenced in this article may be out-of-date by today's standards (December, 2004).

Ms. Narcisi & Her Career   |   Education Information & Advice   |   Job Information & Advice   |   Closing Remarks



How did you discover your talent for the computer/IT field?

I consider myself somewhat lucky because I stumbled upon my talent just out of college and when the computer field was in its infancy. I was hired by the former Westinghouse Electric Corporation following a field trip at the Sharon Transformer Division; I answered a bulletin board request for a COBOL computer programmer with a mathematics major or equivalent. Since my only other option at the time was to teach high school with my BS degree in Mathematics and Secondary Eduction background, I decided to try the programmer position. And a bonus, the salary was quite a bit more. Being trained by the company by learning the COBOL programming language was the extent of training needed at that time; I had no computer related knowledge at the time. I was very successful in providing the results that I was hired for and enjoyed immensely! I found my niche.

"Computer Programmers":
From the Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2000-2001 Edition

"Computer Programmers" is a detailed article on the profession of computer programming, published by the Bureau of Labor Statistics in its Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2000-2001 Edition. The article includes great information on the working conditions, training requirements, salary projections, and much more for the computer programming profession. Here's an excerpt:

"Computer programmers write, test, and maintain the detailed instructions, called programs or software, that computers must follow to perform their functions. They also conceive, design, and test logical structures for solving problems by computer. Many technical innovations in programming — advanced computing technologies and sophisticated new languages and programming tools — have redefined the role of a programmer and elevated much of the programming work done today. As a result, it is becoming more difficult to distinguish different computer specialists — including programmers — since job titles shift so rapidly, reflecting new areas of specialization or changes in technology. Job titles and descriptions also may vary, depending on the organization."

Read the full text here!

What has been your greatest success and biggest setback?

I found the greatest satisfaction when I was called part of the time to service various customers at their computer sites while employed by Innovative Management Systems, many years into the career. This ultimately led me to a position with a full-time consulting company, Premier Technologies (formerly Midrange Computer Services). From that position, I consulted at one company, (CMS Mid-Atlantic Inc., formerly CMS West) for four years, which, while there, led to the greatest satisfaction in my career, to date.

What has been your best and worst career decision?

I can probably say that my worst career decision led me to my best decision; that is, I left Westinghouse Electric after 13 years; after seeking something different and accepting a programming position through a recruiter at a small, successful Pittsburgh based corporation, I was 'retired' by the 3rd month. While recovering from this 'disappointment' and seeking employment, I thoroughly researched other fields with the possibility of changing careers. I came to realize that I was already in the field I most wanted to be in; probably needed to 'do' it a little differently. I continued the journey and next was hired by Innovative Management Systems where I began servicing outside customers for the first time, the aspect of this work that became my favorite.

What does your company do? What are its competitive advantages?

I am employed at the corporate office of CMS Mid-Atlantic, Inc., in Pittsburgh PA. CMS Mid-Atlantic, Inc. owns, operates and provides management expertise to cemeteries in the states of New Jersey and New York. At this office the AS/400 computer system processes cemetery sales followed by accepting and processing of payments, credit and collections handling, liability processing and extensive reporting. An NT 2000 Network platform handles all corporate financial systems.

Describe a typical day of work for you.

My position involves whatever is necessary to efficiently and accurately maintain the AS/400 software. Being the IS person responsible for all support on and related to this platform except the hardware, a day may be any or all of the following: one or more meetings, coding modifications to programs, continuing to plan or code a new system, documenting, informal training, coordinating with the NT network team, troubleshooting, and updating processes on a continuing basis. All software on our AS/400 is industry specific - custom and legacy, it's development having begun in the 1970's and continuing today.

What do you like most, and like least about your job?

The autonomy, variety of requirements, continual challenge, interesting business, congenial peers, flexible hours, and professional direction including my involvement are what I like the most. What I like the least, and this has occurred in most positions I have held, is when day to day work demands do not allow for learning and progressing in skills, which ultimately is necessary to stay abreast in this field. The ever changing technology environment, to me, is great because we, in this field, are always on the cutting edge, or close; however it does provide some frustation, at times, to keep the pace.

What core vocational philosophies and values do you embody in your career?

My work is accomplished, as much as possible, with thoroughness, accuracy and, when for another to use, I try to consider the results from their perspective. The other, more from a personal perspective, I have allowed God to lead my overall career direction. Day to day, when dealing with frustrating issues, I ask myself what would be the 'godlike' thinking here, and go from there. And this does not happen always, but when it does, it helps to rise above and enjoy my work.

What do you plan to do when you retire from the computer field?

My family and I are opening The La Casa Narcisi Winery in the near future, a dream being realized by husband after 10 years of developing the base and retiring from his career of 33 years and actively involving our two sons.

I will be working casually, having fun, and utilizing some of the same skills and some completely new and different.


Where have you attended continuing education classes/training and what did you like and dislike about the training?

A variety of methodologies - self-training courses, IBM courses, in-house teaching by peers, community college. Hands on training and help with applying is more helpful.

When selecting a computer/IT school/college what are the factors they should consider, what should they look for and what should they avoid?

Some general evaluation as in selecting any school or college such as accreditation, how long the school has been established, how flexible the course taking is, what their graduates have accomplished, and percentage placement. Also, how applicable the course work is to what is in use today. Probably more helpful are instructors who have been or are in the workplace and can supplement their instruction if from theory with their application background experience.

In general, what should computer/IT students try to get out of their education?

Due to the fast changing mode of the technology field, it is often favorable to take the courses necessary to reach your goal the most expedient way, possibly all programming related or network related, etc… given that you know what that may be.

I have observed that a four-year degree is good general background for any direction; if one is sure of the technology field, then it is desirable in addition to, or instead, a technical school degree or certificate, and certifications in your area of interest.

Microsoft and AS/400 certifications are two measurable type goals. Gaining the knowledge required to attain any of these is probably the greatest benefit because it gives a person even more information to perform a job of which definition is not always clear or predictable in the technology field.

For students considering a computer career specializing in IBM/AS400 Business Application Programming - tell us about what qualifications are needed, how to research, choose and succeed with the education/training in it, how to prepare and succeed in this career specialty.

The most basic qualification is to know how to write or code computer programs. Beyond this combining various types to create an appropriate application, whether it is an accounting, sales, or some other business process completes the basic building blocks of a business application. Traditionally, programming and related skills for the AS/400,considered a mini or mid-range computer, were learned through specialty schools, such as through IBM or mid-range programming institutes, or as I learned, by Automated Training Systems self-teaching courses which combine tape, workbook and hands on, in each course. In addition to these, many courses are available today through CBT training on PCs. Some companies /web sites to locate current courses are IBM Corp., UNICOMP, Inc., ASNA, and Midrange Computing Institute.

Due to technology changing so quickly and the need for connectivity to many platforms, it is beneficial to take a comprehensive approach to designing curriculum, learning as many aspects of the AS/400 operating system as possible, including those features allow for open systems or being able to 'talk' to different systems.

Subsequently, continued success is based on applying this approach to keep abreast of the market of skills and resources. In addition to the various technical disciplines, being familiar with application concepts such as accounts payable or receivable, order entry, inventory or any other process needed to run a particular business is very useful and beneficial to round out a computer background profile.

The mid-range computer field is a relatively small one, so it is equally important to stay networked with other professionals in this same area of the computer field. I believe that much of my continued success and employment is due to varied experiences, working in different sizes and types of companies, both as a resident employee or a consultant. Through these jobs, I identified the specific aspects of this type of work that were most satisfying along with continually gaining new skills, and staying marketable.

How can prospective students assess their skill and aptitude for computer programming and system analysis?

Career placement and aptitude test have been around for a long while. Generally, a person who is analytical, detail oriented, logical, conscientious, has good oral and verbal communication skills, has customer service skills or is customer oriented may find a fit in this field.


What exactly do business application programmers/analysts do? What are their key responsibilities?

This varies greatly per the size of the company, the IS staff and the extent and type of automation. A technical staff including mostly programmer/analysts can vary from one person (there are three where I am employed) to hundreds. So, one can be responsible for maintaining everything needed to stay in operation, allowing for much autonomy to maintaining one specialty piece or niche of a very large organization where many levels exist and responsibility consists of one, possibly repetitive small specialized aspects of the system.

What professional organizations can help young people advance their computer/IT careers?

Networking organizations specific to a technology have evolved to the present, compared to one major organization many years ago and still around today, DPMA.

What are the hottest computer/IT career specialties for the next decade (your opinion)?

Web based programming and the various languages necessary are popular and very much in demand today.

LINUX, JAVA, C++ and related skills are popular. Many of these capabilities are becoming more available on the AS/400 operating system. However, due to the speed, these are changing almost constantly and researching well in this area is probably prudent.

What are five computer languages in decline that students should avoid AND five that are going to continue growing in demand (rank in order of importance)?

My experience has been that languages 'come and go'; some new ones will possibly take off and some that have been around a long time very gradually diminish in use. There seems to be a need for skills in most languages that ever existed, but the need diminishes over time, as other technologies (not necessarily languages) come into being.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of working as a contractor vs. an employee and what factors do young recruits need to consider with each type of work?

Working as a contractor, one is usually employed by a company that provides services and identifies/defines assignments from ½ day to years. The number of these companies has grown tremendously, since I began in this business. Being employed by a consulting company can be brief to as long as a career for a person depending on many factors. Generally, more skills are gathered in this mode, there is more variety of work, marketability is attained, and applying customer service is an integral part of most jobs. Being away from the office of employment and at the customer site eliminates most 'politics' for the employee, contrasting being employed by one company and working at the site of employment. But a career path can probably be more easily defined and attained when employed by a traditional company that manufactures or provides a product(s); work relationships can be long term and a 'feeling of belonging' is more prevalent. However, when employed for many years at one company, one becomes more familiar with the way of that business and less of others in general. Many years ago, contracting was not as secure a method of employment, however that has changed tremendously and today, I believe it is a matter of personal preference as to the method of employment chosen, both being equal, including benefits. Intermediate goals, attaining a 'dream job', or even early retirement can help to determine the type of employment one may desire as a stepping stone at any time during a career.

What are some of the trends that you see in the world of computer technology which could help students plan for their education and career?

Networking skills seem applicable to the current world of technology. Wireless communications is up and coming today. Of course, the Internet has opened a whole new world, supposedly we have only touched the 'tip of the iceberg'.

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