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Inside NCEI: Meet IT Specialist John Relph

Photo of John Relph
Courtesy of NOAA NCEI, John Relph

As an IT specialist for NCEI, John Relph supports our information technology infrastructure as well as our data processing and management activities. His efforts help ensure that we can acquire, secure, and provide access to our wide range of environmental data. And, his long-lived dedication to developing programs and coding has served NCEI and NOAA well for over a decade.

How did you end up working with NCEI?

“While I was in high school, I discovered that I enjoyed programing,” John recalls. “So, I did as much as I could.” And, despite beginning his journey into higher education as a chemistry major, he eventually changed tracts and graduated from the University of Southern California with a bachelor’s degree in computer science.

“My first paying job was writing a program to distribute students in a class into groups of equal numbers such that each group had a similar range of abilities based on test scores,” John reflects. “I was paid 10 Irish pounds—a little less than 15 U.S. dollars.” His less than inspiring first paycheck notwithstanding, John realized coding was his passion. So, during his collegiate career, he also took on a work-study job displaying data in graphical form using the programming language Fortran.

From his work-study activities, John went on to take a job as a computer operator at the university’s computing center, where he swept floors, tore printouts, mounted 9-track tapes on drives, and monitored systems. “Any free moment I spent writing software,” John says. And, his boss took notice, offering him a programming position that he would hold throughout the tenure of his college career.

After graduation, John moved to Silicon Valley in northern California where he worked as a software engineer for a molecular biology software firm. Eleven years later, John was recruited to join Silicon Graphics and was part of the team responsible for their cute purple toaster, the O2. Unfortunately, John and his entire team were eventually laid off as the company lost its market dominance.

“I ended up joining NOAA almost by accident,” John recalls. “A musician friend knew I was looking for a job and asked if I would be interested in talking to his team at what was then the National Oceanographic Data Center.” Soon after, John began working at the former data center that would merge with its sister data centers to become NCEI in 2015.

What do you do as an IT specialist?

These days, John works on tools to support NCEI’s data archives, especially metadata management tools. His expertise ranges from software development to website management to data ingest and acquisition automation. John also regularly monitors a variety of systems for issues and works with constituents to resolve any problems that arise.

One of John’s many duties is serving as the lead for the NOAA OneStop IT tools and services team. He manages the team’s progress in both developing and updating metadata tools that help facilitate data discovery. John also assists the ocean carbon and acidification teams with their project metadata management. And, last but certainly not least, John also serves as an NCEI representative to multiple data management teams across NOAA as well as to the Earth Science Information Partners.

What do you like most about your job?

“I take pride in the fact that NCEI archives important environmental data and makes those data available to users around the world,” John notes. And, the projects he most enjoys are those that make a difference to people in an obvious way. “If I help develop a tool that people use and that makes them more productive, then I’m happy. That’s one of the great things about software development. It’s often obvious when the software works and when it makes a difference to somebody,” he says.

Who are you outside of your career?

Outside of his career, John is a semi-professional bluegrass mandolin player. In fact, he’s played the mandolin, acoustic guitar, electric bass guitar, and other instruments since he was a boy. He also maintains a website for fans of XTC, a 1970s-era English rock band, to share information and connect with one another. And, John also enjoys playing pinball.

Stay tuned for the next edition of Inside NCEI to learn more about our dedicated staff.