The Techie

Marcella Park

Every day at work in the Didax House, a green building at the edge of campus near Upper St. Michael’s parking lot, Web Manager Lillian Contreras sits in front of two monitors writing code for the school’s website. Around her is a setup much like that of faculty department offices on both campuses, with cubicles in an open room.
She always has two browsers open to test her work on, her email and two programs to write in, and she uses a Mac computer nearby to test that whatever she writes also works for Apple products.
She records each week’s tasks in a notebook that she carries around everywhere she goes on school business, such as meetings on both campuses.
Contreras first became interested in programming when she was about to graduate from UCLA after studying environmental studies and geography.
When Contreras found that she was good at using a database at the tax law firm she was working at, her boss’s brother advised her on classes to take in computer science.
“I really liked it, and from there I didn’t turn around,” she said. “I just decided to do that. So that’s how I was able to get in.”
Before she started taking programming classes, Contreras said she had no idea she would be working with computers for a career, especially since computers were only starting to be so commonly used then.
“I liked that degree [in environmental studies and geography], and I was thinking of going to get my master’s in that, but then I really got turned on to computer science,” Contreras said. “It was really odd, I think, because my major, what I graduated in, is not what I’m doing now.”
In 1996, at the same time she was taking night classes in programming, Contreras started at Harvard-Westlake as an assistant working temporarily for former President Tom Hudnut. When a position opened up in computer services, Contreras became a permanent staff member in that department, then made up of five people and now grown to 13.
She focused on building the school website, which was barely starting at that time. Now, she is in charge of building and maintaining pages on
She works with other people to generate content, often setting sections up for others, like the communications and admission departments or student organizations, to fill. She also works on connecting the website with information from Didax, the school’s in-house database.
As part of the educational technology committee, Contreras took part in vetting products and visiting schools to do research in preparation for the launch of the one-to-one program at the Middle School. When students, teachers and administrators come to her for help with computers or the website, “it’s a lot of figuring out what we have and what we can use, or if we can use a third-party system,” she said.
Contreras, the daughter  of immigrants, grew up in Los Angeles. She always liked math and science, and wanted to be an astronaut when she was growing up.
“I don’t really like writing creatively,” she said. “I do like creative things, but I’m not good at that part of it, whereas in the sciences and math it makes sense to me, and writing code makes sense to me, versus trying to write a novel or something like that.”
Contreras said she might like to go to a different field in science, but probably will not because she enjoys her job now.
She also goes to business and educational technology conferences to see what and how others in her field are using technology, in addition to subscribing to RSS feeds, eNewsletters and listservs for information. The conferences help her decide what new products to buy  with the computer services budget.
“Sometimes it is fast-paced, and you just have to keep up with it,” Contreras said. “Working here, they really allow you to go and see what’s out there, and not only on the tech side but on the educational technology side.”
The computer services department works year-round, and Contreras said she enjoys changes in environment that come with having fewer or more people on campus while school is out of or in session. The department’s work hours also vary by season, she said. During the summer, the department gets ready for the school year through tasks like updating computer labs.
“It’s a different setting, it’s quieter, there’s less people, we can dress more casually, whereas when school starts, we get more calls from teachers, emails, communication, things like that,” she said. “So it’s very nice in that way, because although we’re here, it’s a very different energy, and then you can feel the energy going up as school starts.”
Contreras said she spends about 60 percent of her time writing code or working with technology and the rest of her time communicating with people about her work. Her favorite part of her work is “the feeling of finishing it and it actually working.”
The Didax House does not “get much traffic, so we can focus on writing code or figuring systems, or build servers,” Contreras said. Even so, she does not think people from her department are isolated from the rest of the school since they have to work with other departments to fix problems on both campuses. The open-room setup in the office “encourages, facilitates, talking about an issue, and all of us can give our input on it, instead of us being completely separate, in separate offices,” Contreras said.
The department often eats lunch together, often attending meals hosted by technology vendors, or, if they decide not to walk to the school cafeteria, driving to nearby restaurants.
Contreras said she tries to get involved outside of her job by attending performing arts events like the school musical and choral concerts.
A Spanish speaker and friend of Spanish teacher Javier Zaragoza, she also routinely helps chaperone the trip to Spain sponsored by the world languages department.
As for hobbies, “I like visiting Disney parks,” Contreras said. “So usually I am visiting Disneyland or going to Orlando, to Disney World. I really love that.” Since she has no children, going with her husband is really a passion of her own, she said.
Contreras won the Garrett Hardin early achievement award in 2005 and has been at Harvard-Westlake for 16 years.
“I love working here,” Contreras said. “I feel that the administration really supports the faculty and staff, and they treat us well, and I think that that’s a testament to the school and how students love teachers, because we all are happy here.”