Curtis Donelson Behind the Screens: Engineering Data Pathways to Campus Efficiency

Author: Mag Shou
Mag is a student employee with Technology Services and is a senior at Illinois majoring in Communications.


Curt Donelson and his cat, Hazel
Curtis and his famed cat, Hazel

At Illinois, the Innovation & Technology Strategy group is instrumental in shaping the way data is utilized across campus. Curtis Donelson, Data Engineer at Technology Services, ensures that data is not just a resource, but a pivotal tool for growth and efficiency. He started his journey as a Technology Services Data Analyst in 2018 and advanced to Data Engineer in 2022. His role extends beyond the technical, touching upon the lives of his colleagues by simplifying complex processes and enriching the campus community with valuable insights.  

What does a data engineer do at Tech Services?

My job as a data engineer is to build the pipelines that automate the transformation and delivery of data to stakeholders and decision-makers around campus. Data pipelines move data to where it needs to be in a secure and timely manner, automatically collecting it from sources like websites and databases, transforming it into a shape that is immediately useful to the end users, and providing it to them reliably. I primarily work in the Cloud (AWS and Azure), and my main language is Python. 

How has your role as a data engineer impacted campus?

I think of data engineering as a job that makes other people’s jobs easier. Often, that means automating routine or mundane tasks that are too time-consuming. I also get to abstract away many of the more technical details for people and provide a more straightforward end product. We frequently work with all types of campus groups to identify and solve their data needs. 

What’s the best thing about your current role? 

The challenge! Almost every project involves a new service, language, or domain to learn. I rarely see the same type of problem twice and working in the Cloud gives me a large toolset to explore new approaches. Also, my team is amazing! 

What does a typical day look like for you? 

A typical day is usually a mix of learning and development. New projects often begin with much time spent reading documentation, Stack Overflow, and other tutorials. Then, it’s development inside AWS or local Python.  Because we are not product owners or service managers, I have to learn a variety of techniques and stay flexible in my thinking. This often means experimenting with several different solutions to see what works best, and that’s why I enjoy being part of “Innovation.

What has been one of your biggest accomplishments in this role?

I think my biggest accomplishment in this role is the growth I’ve made over the past couple years.  I began with basic coding experience and very little knowledge of the Cloud. During the pandemic, my job rapidly evolved from being an analyst who largely created dashboards into an engineer building multistage, complicated pipelines that became critical to shareholders. I remember hearing about “AWS Lambda” at one of my first meetings and having no idea what that was, and now it’s become second nature.   

What is one insight you’ve learned about technology?

I’ve learned that you probably know a lot more about Tech than you give yourself credit for. It’s such a vastly wide and deep subject that it can be easy to lose perspective and feel overwhelmed. I’ve learned that the best approach to an unfamiliar technology is to dive into it, making progress where I can, and accepting walls when I hit them. 

What’s one hobby you have outside of work?

Warhammer 40,000. I fell in love with its ridiculously grandiose universe over a decade ago and have grown to love the model painting and endless lore as much as the tabletop game itself. 

If you could instantly become an expert in something, what would it be and why? 

Playing the bagpipes. My family has Scotch-Irish roots but a lot of it has been lost over the decades. I think it would be a fun way to honor that history. 

“Behind the Screens” is a series of stories highlighting a different member of Technology Services each month so that you can get to know who we are and what we do for our university.