SQL isn’t a procedural language or object-oriented language. It’s a natural language that is used to extract, modify, define, and control data inside of a database. Whether you are a technical person or not, chances are pretty good that you are using SQL in your job. You just might not see it. Every time you filter and sort data through a web page, look up and airline flight, or access one of over 75 million web sites running WordPress, there is some SQL going on behind the scenes managing the data sitting in a database somewhere. Here is a re-cap of what we went through in class this week on the beginnings of SQL. It was a review for some and brand-new for others. We now live in a data-driven economy and having the skills to retrieve that data row-by-row or in aggregate has become increasingly important in our ability to make decisions. We can make sense of it by transforming that data into usable information. Even if you don’t end up writing SQL all day at a desk, drag-and-drop applications are all running SQL in the background. Knowing the language can be used not only to extract the information, but in theory, can help us frame our questions appropriately for those who are churning out queries left and right.
I was in the car this morning listening to the Holiday Traditions channel through my SiriusXM subscription when this song appeared:
Herb Alpert And The Tijuana Bras
My Favorite Things
It wasn’t the abbreviation of the station that caught my eye, but the next line. Apparently Herb Alpert was associated with Latin women’s undergarments as opposed to brass instruments.
The IT lesson in all of this is to be careful when truncating text to get it to fit in a specified space. There are unintended consequences. This happens frequently on your supermarket receipt. The receipt is only so wide and can only fit in so many characters, so just about every item is truncated or abbreviated (JOHNSBRAT is really Johnsonville Bratwurst). Developing a text mining program to identify all of these might work, but computers aren’t quite ready to recognize awkward, silly, or funny. Identifying inappropriate words would be an easy start, although seeing Herb Alpert and bras come across my Infotainment system was mildly entertaining. Maybe we should take care of the obviously inappropriate ones and just leave the others to give us a reason to snicker.
I’ve been amazed over the past 2-3 years in the proliferation of mobile apps to customize our savings and shopping experience through just about every national brand. One of my most frequently used mobile apps is the Kroger mobile app for both iPad and iPhone. I was able to easily add my Kroger Plus Card number to my online account and begin to keep track of my coveted fuel points for discounts as well as add electronic coupons to my card. I find this process much easier than rifling through the Sunday paper and finding very little worth while. (Quick aside, who is actually buying those elastic pants and moo moos anyway?) Finding coupons on my phone and tapping away while I’m shopping demonstrates just how real-time all of this data is integrated.
Today, I ran into a snafu. One of the difficulties with the conversion from our wallet or key ring full of loyalty rewards cards is the barcode itself. Apps like KeyRing do a nice job of organizing all of your loyalty cards in one app and the iOS Passbook feature does this nicely as well for a variety of loyalty cards. However, handheld barcode scanners don’t always recognize the barcode on your phone’s display. Sometimes there is a glare, you have a really thick screen protector, or as the cashier would say, “It’s all in the wrist.” Regardless, this usually results in the cashier resorting to hand entering your loyalty number. I do a pretty good job of remembering random digits, but keeping my 12 digit Kroger Plus number wedged in my brain is not one of them. I had no idea if she typed in correctly. I trusted she could translate the numbers on my phone to her keypad. I figured I would do as most consumers do and study the receipt while I walk out the door. This usually involves bumping into people and shopping carts. Humans are not meant to multi-task, especially while walking.
To no surprise, I noticed that my receipt did not have my total fuel points from last month and this month. I also noticed that the 75 cent coupon for Totino’s Pizza Rolls hadn’t applied (I haven’t had pizza rolls in about a decade. The coupon lured me into it!). I marched back to the customer service desk to claim my well-deserved 75 cents and I explained the hand-entry of my Kroger Plus number. I got my 75 cents (woo hoo!), but I was directed to call an 800-number to get the fuel points transferred from some random account to mine. This is where the technology broke down. I’m not certain why a customer service person at the store location doesn’t have a CRM portal that allows them to transfer things like this from one account to another to resolve disputes like this. Regardless, I half-gave up when it came to dreading an automated phone tree plus several minutes of hold to transfer a whopping 54 fuel points. I figured I would just send an email so I could spend my time more constructively on this blog post.
This whole process reminded me that we are all human. We can easily make simple mistakes, including data entry errors. Technology solutions for today depend on an automated recognition through barcode, OCR, magnetic stripe, RFID, etc. In the end, though, hand entry becomes the backup solution. It made me ask the question, “Are we less accurate now at hand data entry then say, 10-15 years ago?” I would almost bet that since our workforce has moved beyond keyboard data entry into other forms of input into corporate data stores, that we are even more prone to error, in general. Regardless, for those of us involved in building technology solutions for consumers and business end-users, controlled choice and the limit of hand data entry will continue to foundation to ensuring that our business intelligence systems report accurate data to make decisions. For us consumers, giving us controlled choices and limited hand data entry will give our apps a user-friendly interface and hopefully, cut down on the fat-finger errors we all encounter. I’ve heard it several times over, but the family friendly version is, “Bad data in equals bad data out.”
I’m not sure where I’ll get with my 54 Kroger fuel points, but I sure hope the scanner works on my phone next week. I’d hate to start loading up my key ring again.