A Day in the Life of a Career Materials Developer

by Marilyn Maze

Why would a person with a Ph.D. in career counseling want to develop information and software for use in career counseling? My career counselor friends ask me this question often. It sounds so boring to spend your life studying labor market trends, talking to programmers, and drawing screens. On the contrary, my staff and I keep quite busy doing this interesting work.

On one recent day, my first task was to work on our list of suggested new occupations. I began by reviewing a list of suggestions from users, Census 2000, the Occupational Outlook Quarterly, and various other sources. The first step was to learn enough about the suggested occupations to make reasonable decisions. For example, how does Environmental Engineer, a suggested occupation, differ from Environmental Analyst, already described in our system? The Internet provides ready access to an incredible array of information, and one website made it clear that an Environmental Analyst is one of the jobs an Environmental Engineer might be hired to do, but there are others. We decided to change our Environmental Analyst description to Environmental Engineer and rewrite the description to represent a wider variety of work settings.

I also needed to know which occupations interest the people who use our system. Our database tracks every occupation a person looks at, so I asked the computer to count the number of people who looked at each occupation in the past year. It turns out that, in addition to the perennial favorites like Singer and Physician, law enforcement and crime investigation occupations are hot right now. There were several suggested occupations in this area on our list, and we found others as we searched for information.

A user had requested that we include information on different kinds of lawyers. We found Lawyer among the list of most frequently viewed occupations, so we decided to act on this request. The yellow pages of the phone book helped us understand how the many types of lawyers are grouped. Of course, we also conducted an Internet search and found associations representing the various types of lawyers. The newsworthy topics for each of the associations helped us understand the types of issues with which each type of lawyer deals.

Next, we classified the suggested occupations by the "World-of-Work Map" (http://www.act.org/wwm/index.html); our way of making sure we have considered all aspects of the labor market. This step caused us to reprioritize our list again, and helped us remove some of our personal biases from our selections. After looking at our list from several perspectives, we sent it off to our colleagues for further review.

After lunch, I faced a challenge in the functionality of one of the programs under development. Our Quality Assurance staff had determined that the results of the inventories were not always being saved. I spent some time answering the inventories in different ways and using different paths through that section. I was able to determine the path through the program that was not working correctly and I explained this to the programmer. A few minutes later, she told me to check again, and I found the problem had been fixed.

Next, I worked with another colleague on our new descriptions of college majors. Based on the Classification of Instructional Program (CIP) 2000, we had added descriptions of a number of new majors, such as Publishing. During our annual update, we asked each school in the U.S. which majors they offer. While most of the new majors are offered at a variety of schools, there were a small number that no school claimed to offer. I helped my colleague use the Internet to find schools that offer programs of study in a specific field. Together we practiced drilling down until we found the degree or certificate actually offered in that major. She learned that, although some graduate schools offer Publishing, it is usually combined with a degree in Creative Writing or English. The findings of her research will help us to provide more accurate information to our users.

Later in the afternoon I attended a meeting by conference call to discuss a long list of possible enhancements. People using the program, both clients and counselors, often suggest enhancements. For example, one counselor wanted to compare at least three items (occupations, schools, etc.) side-by-side. We all agreed this would be a good idea, but we had a long list of good ideas. Would we rather spend our development funds on this enhancement or on new occupations? Each of us argued for different enhancements from our list, and we agreed to mock up several to better assess their scope.

Of course, the downside of this job is not seeing clients. The pleasure most counselors feel in working face-to-face with individuals and truly making a difference in their lives is missing from this job. In its place is the satisfaction of knowing that a million people a year see the information and options provided in our program. Instead of spending the day with the problems of individuals, I spend my day imagining the response of clients to various facts and features.

My job includes developing or refining stylesheets, guidelines, and processes to assure that information developed and edited by other staff will communicate well to clients and meet their needs. I work with researchers and marketing representatives to identify needs, then translate them into specific action steps for programmers, writers, quality assurance specialists, and technical support specialists. And, thanks to the wonders of the Internet, I receive comments weekly from people who have used our program. It is a real joy to keep in touch with users of the program through their remarks, whether exuberant or caustic.

Marilyn Maze,
Ph.D., is a Principal Research Associate for ACT, Inc., and one of the developers of DISCOVER, a computerized career guidance program that includes extensive information about occupations, majors, schools, and other aspects of career planning. She also conducts research using ACT's extensive data related to career choices of youth and adults. One of her volunteer activities includes serving as Field Editor for NCDA's web magazine. Contact: 410-584-8000 orEmail: maze@act.org.

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