From Piano Keys to Data Modeling

Evan Howlett

About Evan

Hi, I'm Evan, the CTO of Hillcrest R&D. My professional interests are in data modeling and engineering and computational musicology. I live in southern Maine with my partner Taylor and our pets. In my free time, Taylor and I like to explore the numerous hiking trails around Maine, and when I can I love to sit down and play piano. I am also a voracious autodidact. I research topics ranging from Japanese culture to linguistics to economics and even occasionally try my hand at easy DIY home-improvement projects.

Humble Beginnings

I was born the only child to a single-mother in northern Maine. As you can imagine, I spent a lot of my childhood by myself. This lead me to explore a lot of hobbies that revolved around just one person. I taught myself how to play piano, picked up a whole bunch of useless, random skills like solving the Rubik's cube, making noises with my hands, a blade of grass, etc. and spent a lot of time playing video games. Even when I was 8/9 years old, playing Pokemon Sapphire on my GameBoy, I was mystified at how the thing worked and wanted to know more.

Southern Maine

When I was in middle school, I ended up moving to southern Maine. I bounced around a little bit and I eventually landed at the same high school as Mac — we actually met through a mutual friend. Slowly, got to know each other and found out we're both huge nerds and became really great friends. High school was also the time where I let my curiosity of computers and software I held since I was young get the best of me.

I took a couple basic classes in website development, but the ones offered at my high school were taught using the old-school Google Sites website builders. This was very limiting and didn't really teach me much. It's like if they were to teach a web development class using Wix or SquareSpace now. Lucky for me, however, that our school partnered with a regional vocational school who offered an actual web design course. Notice how I said web design.

Now, the web is a vast place. It's evolved massively since the current form's inception in 1995. For most people, the internet is just a collection of characters you type into the search bar of a browser. Few take the time fathom the amount of thinking and (wo)man-hours put into getting to that point. Here, you may be asking, "what's this have to do with web design"? Well, like I said, the web is a vast place. In the current field of web development, there are usually 2 different types of developers. Frontend developers, and backend developers.

Frontend developers are the people who make things look nice, they design the user interfaces (UIs). They write the code that dictates how data is supposed to be formatted and displayed to the user. This is what the course taught. Even though this is where I got my start, this is actually one of my weaker areas in the tech field. Mainly because you have to have an eye for design, and I'm pretty sure I'm half-blind. The course didn't really go into how computers actually worked.

Backend developers are the people who work on the server. They're the ones who, when you click the button to checkout your cart, actually handle the subtraction of those items from inventory, send the payment off to the payment gateway, generate receipts, and basically everything beyond just you simply interacting with the system. They make the system do the thing. This is where I feel most comfortable.

So the design course I took gave me that initial morsel of motivation, but it didn't really give me what I wanted and I needed more.

College

Like everyone my age, college was kind of force-fed to me. I didn't really have many aspirations. I originally wanted to go to Berklee to study music, but was quickly dissuaded when I saw the price tag. In the end, my career-counselor at my high school didn't like that I didn't apply to any colleges and just kind of signed me up for my local community college's computer science program.

I was a terrible student. I loathed sitting in a class and being talked at for a few hours. I never remembered the lectures, but, since I was decently smart, I didn't have to put much effort in to pass my classes. While my loathing of lectures didn't wane, my mindset started to change in college. The topics actually interested me and I started to hit a wall with my studying habits. I started to actually work on things outside my assigned school work and one of my first programs I wrote on my own was a web scraping bot written in Java designed to pull stock prices from Yahoo! finance.

Every student has that one class that made them rethink their life decisions and mine was Computer Organization. This class taught us all the basic components of computers and even went into components of the chips themselves. There wasn't too much depth, however, because half the class was going over assembler. My traumatizing experience was spending 6 hours trying to figure out how recursion worked in assembler. I still don't know if I got it to work correctly or not and stack pointers chase me in my nightmares.

Business Casual

If I knew anything with my foray into assembler, embedded systems wasn't for me.

I've had a wide range of jobs. From a fire hydrant painter to running shifts at Wendy's to working in a warehouse, you could say I'm a jack-of-all-trades! When I started college, I was working at Wendy's but halfway through it, I started to work at Hannaford.

My employment at Hannaford is actually a little complicated. When I started in december of 2015, I didn't actually work for Hannaford (or ADUSA Distribution LLC. as it's now known because I worked at the warehouse). I started off as a sub-contractor working on the warehouse floor picking the orders. This was a hard, laborious job and it sucked. But, it was good money for a college student and there was plenty of hours to go around. After a year or two of working the floor, they eventually trained me to use the warehouse management system (WMS) for inventory management-type work. I actually got really good with it. There were a select few people who knew what I knew about the system and even fewer who knew how to automate it.

See, their WMS was written in COBOL. COBOL runs on IBM hardware. So to connect to this hardware, they set up thin clients for us with an emulator that exposed a windows COM interface. This allowed me to hook into the emulator through VBA (I eventually learned that any language with win32 api bindings can also do the job, but I spent way too many traumatizing hours learning VBA so I'm sticking with my sunk-cost fallacy thank you very much) and I was able to apply my knowledge I acquired with the web scraper I built to automating the emulator because it's basically the same thing! In fact, the emulator was probably easier because it had an (x, y) coordinate system for the text displayed.

Eventually I swapped over to being directly employed by ADUSA. My official position was still more in the inventory management side of things, but I continued to write automation scripts to make my job easier for myself and my coworkers. Some of the scripts I've written still run to this day there's even one that save the company >1000hrs of labor/year!

For the past couple years, I've been working as a software developer. I've architected and implemented reporting systems, ETL pipelines, and web-based automation tools. I'm actively looking to expand my skill set and apply my knowledge to build better software and extract value for our clients.