Dan and I were in college together. We met in an electrical engineering class. I was working for a couple of fortune 500 companies doing consulting work to help pay for books and tuition and trying to keep down a double major in electrical engineering and computer engineering. Somewhat successfully I might add.
Anyway, one day I got a call from one of the development staff at the high school I attended and they were in a real jam. They had an event coming up in one week and the IT guy that had been helping them run their auction had quit. He left mumbling something about stress and never wanting to be near a fundraiser ever again.
They asked if I could come give them some advice and maybe help them out of this unfortunate predicament they were in, of course, I told them that I would help.
So, given the closeness of their event, I setup a meeting with the development person for later that day. When I sat down with her, I had to have her explain what a fundraiser was, and how it all worked. I had never been to one, let alone seen the workings from behind the curtain.
She told me about her main problems:
• People couldn't get checked in fast enough
• Nobody knew where to sit
• Making name badges was an impossible task
• Trying to transcribe bid data correctly for 450 auction lots was a monumental task and always had mistakes and hurt feelings
• Collecting payment from guests’ onsite was challenging and led to lots of follow-up work that dragged on for months
But mostly, she was just terrified about having to do this all without any system or IT help to get through the night. She was used to the other warts in the event process, she just needed to make it through this one event, and then she wouldn’t need me anymore.
So, I put on my thinking beanie, the one with the little propeller, and came up with some interesting ideas to try to solve all these problems. I locked myself away in my bedroom for about 5 days trying different things and writing more and more code to try to stave off the complete meltdown of this event. And after 5 days, I had something brand new that I thought had a pretty good chance of keeping us alive at this event.
I went in and met with the development person and she nearly cried when I showed her what I’d built. We didn’t have time for tears, so we started planning and getting training programs in place. We started pulling guest and auction data together and I started cramming it into this new system. I put together the network of computers and printers from stuff we scavenged from the school library.
Guests started showing up. We pre-registered their credit cards to keep the wrap-up from turning into a headache. We handed guests a set of barcoded stickers to use for bidding instead of forcing a volunteer to try to transcribe the potent combination of philanthropy, alcohol, and doctor’s handwriting and we sent people in to the event, and did a little praying.
It all turned out swimmingly. The barcode bidding method was a hit. Registration was super fastand eliminated lines completely, which was a huge win from the 30-minute registration lines the previous year.
Guests bid more often and higher using their barcodes than they had the previous year. We managed to close and audit the auction data using barcode scanners in under 20 minutes instead of the 60+ minutes the previous year.
And, when checkout came, we had everything all tidied up for the guests and we had everyone out the door and back in their cars before they knew it, instead of the 2 ½ + hours people had to wait in line for the check-out in the previous year.
So, I sat back at the end of the night, thankful that I had survived and that my scant 5 days of development and testing had yielded a system that didn’t explode and leave me looking like Wile E Coyote opening an explosive laced parcel. The development person was so thankful; the event committee thanked me and headed home.
I thought ‘not too shabby…I guess I gave back to my community and I can go back to studying and consulting my way through engineering school’.
After coming-to on Monday morning I realized that I wasn’t going to be able to walk away from this thing I had just done. I checked my voicemail; there were messages from 6 other organizations that had similar events. They had tracked me down through the development person at the school and were pleading with me to come talk to them and tell me how we accomplished such a remarkable turnaround with this year’s event.