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Specialist programming offers unique challenges and job satisfaction

Specialist programming offers unique challenges and job satisfaction

Unusual quirky jobs do exist in IT and Xtra! is on the hunt to discover them. ITers with bizarre or specialist skills rarely hit the headlines but their skills are crucial to the organisations they work for. To kick-start this regular series Bernice Hennessy explains how her programming job helps to restore sight to cataract patients.

What is your job?
I work for Lamda Polytech, a firm specialising in supplying lathes and materials for the contact lens and inter-ocular lens (IOL) industry worldwide.

I maintain and enhance the computer programs that control the lathes. Contact lenses are becoming more specialised with varifocal and multifocal lenses to compensate for lenses fitting different eye shapes, and lenses for medical conditions or after an operation.

IOLs are used inside the eye, to replace the natural lens in cataract operations and to correct other severe eye problems.

My job is to write the programs that will translate the optical specialist's idea of the shape he wishes the lathe to cut, so that the specialist can quickly and easily describe the lens for a specific patient and the lathe will then cut it correctly.

The other important part of my job is to ensure that the lathe does not wreck itself. The material for the lenses is often held in steel jaws and the shapes are cut with diamonds. If the diamond cuts into the steel there is at least the loss of an expensive diamond and probably damage to an even more expensive spindle. The spindles and control boards we use in the construction of the lathes as well as the computers are constantly changing.

Our customers often need special support programs, for example taking numbers from an Excel spreadsheet to specify a lens, adding defaults chosen by the customer and translating the data for my programs. I try to satisfy those requests.

I also try to cater for the computer needs of customers using our older lathes. I have converted programs from Epson HX to PC, as well as updating software on many lathes built when a 286 was state-of-the-art.

A lot of our lathes are sold to countries or companies where a new Pentium is an impossible dream.

How did you get into this area?
I worked as a scientific programmer and systems analyst and commuted from Northampton to Solihull. I decided that I was not prepared to risk an accident on the M42, M6 or M1. I saw an ad for this job involving computers and mathematics, and applied, asking to be a part-time assistant.

How long have you been doing this job?
Eight years.

How many people are on your team?
I am the only member of the software department, with seven in the technical department concerned with building the lathes, several of whom can also help with software.

What do you enjoy about your work?
I enjoy being able to do some mathematics. I enjoy the triumph of solving a problem, or getting a successful new lens. And being part of the chain that restores sight to cataract patients.

How do you spend your day?
I spend 80% of my time at my computer, programming or drawing pictures of tool paths and lens shapes.

We also get requests for special samples which involves programming. This week I am trying to solve the problem of cutting IOLs on adaptors requested by an Indian customer who has one of our lathes and may buy another. The shape is totally different to the normal cut. I will spend some time adapting the program to do this, then use our lathe to cut the shape.

What sort of person is best suited to this type of work?
It is more important to be careful than to be quick. An ability to visualise a complete rail network would be useful as one change can affect the rest of the program, though I try to use modules.

Patience with customers who say, "Why does my lathe not work?" is useful, particularly when they are half a world away.

What experience and qualifications are needed?
Applied maths and, for this firm, enough computer experience to work alone. Some of our customers employ computer staff who write support programs rather than directly controlling the lathes.

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