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Doing the Job!
A Day in the Life of a Wycliffe IT Missionary
We thought you might like to have some snapshots of the daily life and work of a sampling of Wycliffe IT missionaries.
"Home" Assignments Snapshot
Wycliffe IT workers filling positions in their home countries often look and feel much like their non-missionary counterparts. They sometimes have more narrowly-defined job roles than their "field" colleagues, and they tend to work more "regular" hours. They usually have a systems perspective because they are primarily involved in creating and maintaining the infrastructure required to process donations, transmit funds, manage personnel, resource their field IT counterparts and develop interlocking tools for linguistics and translation. They are the very core elements of keeping the translators, and everyone else, supplied with the resources they need.
Thinking Outside "The Box"
Back in 1988, Ken had been working as a System Manager of a VAX/VMS system at the International Linguistics Centre in Dallas when a translator walked in one day with the strangest need he had ever seen. He had been translating for 15 years, and now the entire New Testament was contained on a stack of 5.25-inch diskettes written by a computer he couldn't describe. When he showed Ken a wooden box containing a diskette drive his jaw dropped. Then he plugged a cable between the drive and a Radio Shack Model 100 (5-line, 80-character LCD screen, BASIC OS, 32KB RAM). The translator told Ken that his computer was a home-brew contraption built by a dentist he knew in South Asia, and there was only one other machine in existence like it. He turned it all on, and displayed Mark 1:1 in Devenagri-script. The translator was trying to get the NT typeset, but every attempt by the typesetting computers across the hall from his office to read the diskettes failed. Nobody could identify the diskette format.
That evening, Ken thanked God for his EE hardware-design background, and dove into "the box." After some reverse engineering, he discovered that it was a 64K Z80-based single-card computer set up as a diskette-based "file server." It was running a type of CP/M, connected to the Model 100 "workstation" by an RS-232 link and running a custom BASIC program which displayed as graphics the hand-coded pixels representing the script which permitted the text to be edited. Ken also realized that he could use his own PC-compatible machine and terminal emulator software to talk to "the box" using CP/M command lines in place of the Model 100. Since he had to be a System Manager during the workday, he spent the next month of evenings downloading the raw data from the original diskettes, single NT chapter file at a time, onto MS-DOS diskettes that could be read by the typesetting systems. This NT could then be typeset and published!
"Field" Assignments Snapshot
IT workers filling "field" positions often have a very different professional experience than their "home-based" colleagues. They frequently have an "end-user" perspective, oriented to keeping things running, solving problems as they come up and helping one IT consumer at a time with their problems. IT staffing in field entities is often limited (particularly during periods of furloughing colleagues), and the pressure of overload is felt. There is a requirement for flexibility to fill in where the need is, rather than doing just the familiar tasks. In field locations, job titles rarely reflect the total job. People needing all kinds of hardware, software and telecom help show up at all times, often being impacted by situations beyond their control. In addition to Wycliffe staff, many people needing IT help comes from local churches, government, secular organizations and other Christian missions, and Wycliffe IT tries to be helpful if possible. Many Wycliffe entities have national employees working in their IT support department which requires the IT missionary be an administrator, mentor and trainer in addition to his technical duties.
In 1995, Ken was the Manager of the Computer Services Department in the Burkina Faso branch. One of the technical jobs was the installation and maintenance of a 120-station centre phone system. Several years later, it became necessary to replace the phone-line cabling between the pole outside the centre's security wall and the PBX. So he had the trench dug, the conduit installed and the new cable pulled to prepare for the day when the phone company team would arrive to reconnect their wiring.
The 10-member phone company crew arrived, and they all walked out to the pole. Ken noticed that they were enviously eyeing his lineman's test set, but he didn't really pay attention to it until one man climbed up the pole and began sorting out which wire was the one feeding the Wycliffe centre. He was using a standard desk telephone whose wall-connector plug had been amputated and the wires skinned to reveal bare copper. He would skin each successive pair of subscriber loop cables and hold the test-phone wires in contact with them using his fingers. He had to maintain contact, hold the phone set's base unit, go on- and off-hook using the handset all without falling off the pole to the ground 25 feet below. Ken was torn between the humour and the sadness of the situation.
Humour won out when Ken heard the guy on the pole gasp. The rest of the crew and Ken were in the process of moving the phone lines down in the trench to the new cable when the lineman still up on the pole was shocked by the 90-volt ring signal of an incoming call to the centre. He quickly dangled the handset and then the base of his "test set" down to Ken to answer the call, all the while holding the appropriate wires together with his fingers. Standing on his tip-toes, Ken could just get the handset to his head…and it was a missionary with another mission calling to ask for computer help!
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