You might say Mark Ahrens was wired to have an interest in computers, given that his father is a programmer and the family had a computer in the house from the time Mark was 8 years old.
“I was always tinkering with it,” Ahrens says, “and breaking it on occasion.”
A frustrating thing for his father, perhaps, but Ahrens’ exploration of the home computer kicked off a fruitful career here at The University of Iowa. Ahrens works within the Enterprise Services division of Information Technology Services, tackling development for mobile devices, supporting groups using the collaboration software Sharepoint, and keeping up with the latest developments of the open-source content management system Drupal.
Ahrens took a few moments to talk with fyi about his favorite aspects of the job, how he keeps pace with the changes in mobile technology, and one very pleasant surprise in the workplace.
When did you start working at The University of Iowa? What led you to the job?
I started working for the ITS Help Desk as a student in 1998. Being interested in computers, it was a great on-campus job for me to get more experience. After I graduated, I liked the University and Iowa City so much; I applied for and got a job at the Help Desk in a full-time role.
What do you like best about the job?
Having a wide variety of responsibilities means that no two days are really alike. My favorite aspects are things that will have the biggest impact for folks across campus and the community. Last year, much of this work was developing Bongo, the Bus on the Go project. Now it is working on helping define a new central web service for campus, based on Drupal.
What can Drupal do for the University’s web presence?
With the new central web service, Drupal will allow us to tackle a couple of challenges we have on campus right now. First, the themes on Drupal will allow us to make the sites much more accessible from the start, instead of trying to retrofit sites that already exist. Making the sites accessible also will allow us to make the sites mobile friendly from the start. This means that sites moving to the new service will not only get an upgrade in technology, but usability as well.
How is mobile technology changing the way you work?
A few of my favorite things…
Lunch at Buffalo Wild Wings
Reading sci-fi, religious history, and current events
I like a wide variety of music, but lately I have been digging chillwave bands
The movie Akira; I like pretty much all action/comic book movies
The new iteration of the show Battlestar Galactica
Being a weather nut, wunderground.com
Everton and the Chicago Cubs
Being a mobile guy, I prefer the iPhone over Android stuff
Mobile technology is evolving so quickly; it requires me to stay up to date with new devices and operating systems all the time. An example of this: the new Touchpad tablet from HP. It runs a new operating system, so it is interesting to see what it is like to develop for, and see if it will gain traction on campus in the next year or so. It is both exciting and exhausting at times. I think a new Android phone came out in the time it took to conduct this interview.
How do you keep up with the overall changes in the technology/IT field?
Through tools like RSS and Twitter. A few times throughout the day, I will check in with Google Reader to see if there is anything worth reading. For short articles, I will just check it out, but for longer ones, I will use Instapaper to save the article and read it later. Following tech folks in Twitter also allows me to catch up on anything I might have missed.
Are you “wired” around the clock, or do you leave the computer at work?
While I don’t bring a laptop home anymore, I am pretty connected with my iPad at home. I usually check e-mail a couple of times in the evening and catch up on articles I didn’t read earlier in the day. And Angry Birds and Words with Friends—can’t ignore the games.
What do you like to do outside of work? Any particular hobbies or passions you pursue?
Having a 2-year-old son keeps me busy most of the time at home, but after he goes to bed, I enjoy reading comic books and catching up on soccer (Everton for the English Premier League and Portland for Major League Soccer). This year we started an organic garden that we all help out with, and I am getting into model railroading.
If you had the time/means to try something new, what would it be?
If you add patience to the list as well, I would say learning some sort of musical instrument, although being born without rhythm makes that tough. I also think I would enjoy piloting, if given the chance.
What’s the biggest risk you’ve taken, and did it pay off?
After graduating from college, I had the opportunity to apply for a full-time position for the Help Desk, or head back to the Chicago area and look for a job there. I took the chance to stick around here, away from family and with no guarantees of a job, and it definitely paid off. I got the job, and ended up marrying my then-girlfriend a couple of years later.
What’s the most unexpected thing to happen to you at work?
Two things: first, meeting my wife on the job; second, converting from a PC guy to a Mac guy, though the first thing had something to do with the second.