By: Jeremy Balkin

I had only been sitting there for ten minutes.

As the speaker continued on using what I was convinced were mainly made-up words and convoluted subject matter, the crowd was hanging on every word. Ten minutes. Once I got to twelve, I’d had enough. I excused myself. I walked outside of the room, got a sip of water, adjusted my tie, and started doing breathing exercises I was making up on the spot. Think of the scene from Liar, Liar where Jim Carrey’s character beats himself up in the bathroom. Only I didn’t beat myself up. So maybe don’t think about that scene. But I was overwhelmed and out of my league.

I returned to the large room, trying my best to only have a panic attack on the inside. I had definitely overdressed. As a representative of FamilyTreeDNA at my first administrator’s conference, I was the only person there wearing a suit. When the speech ended, administrators naturally turned to me with their questions. Having started with the company only a few months before, I nodded and smiled with authority. “Where is the company in terms of publishing a public haplotree?”, one administrator asked. I gazed back with unblinking eyes and a thousand-yard stare. “Absolutely!” I answered with a big, dumb smile. “When will FamilyTreeDNA upgrade to a more expansive all-in-one SNP test?” “Sure thing!”

It was November of 2012, and I was at the annual FamilyTreeDNA International Conference on Genetic Genealogy. It is an annual gathering of project administrators from around the world. If you don’t already know, administrators are volunteer customers who lend a lot of their time and expertise to our projects. Projects are designed to help supplement your DNA results after you test with us, and there are thousands of them, subdivided into several categories. So if, for example, you are trying to find the origin of your surname, you may join one of our many surname projects. Once you have the results, you can compare yourself to other members of that surname.

Lunch couldn’t come soon enough.

I knew what I was getting into was big and world-changing, but at the same time I had a lot to learn. I grabbed a seat at a table to eat among an assortment of administrators. This is the moment I fell in love with genetic genealogy. Each one had their own story of how they got into it, what they’re researching, what they’ve found, and how they continue helping people. One administrator was an expert in getting adoptees in touch with their biological relatives. Another was an administrator of a project with thousands of people. Yet another had been involved with our company since we started in 2000. Then there was me, a guy with a history degree who found a promising job posting online a couple months ago.

I am still in touch with a couple of the people who were seated with me that day. After 10+ years with this company, I fully understand that project administrators are our lifeblood. Without them, adoptees wouldn’t have found family, countless people wouldn’t have found their ancestral surnames, and I wouldn’t have a job. The past couple of years, we’ve had to forgo an in-person conference for obvious reasons. Well, reason. I know this has put a strain on some of us, but I also know this isn’t forever.

 

The late, great administrator extraordinaire, Bob McLaren, and myself at the 2013 conference.

I am now the manager of the customer service department.

Though I mainly help customers with non-group-related issues, administrators are a constant in my day-to-day work life. Some testers probably don’t realize the breadth of how administrators have contributed to our product, or even their direct results. Do you like a cool new tool on our site? Its inception likely had administrator input. Has someone helped you understand your Big Y-700 results? It was likely to have been an administrator. Are you the new recipient of a brand new free car? This was probably from a game show, and I would look into the taxes you now owe.

I long ago stopped wearing suits and ties to work and work events. I like to be more unassuming and low-key now. The real stars are the administrators, who continue to move the needle in our field and use their extensive expertise to help everyone they can. I hope to see you all again very soon.

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