Sunday, March 26, 2006

The Schizophrenic Job Market

Let’s face it. The culture of the computer professional world in the last three decades of the Twentieth Century was a perfect fit for the introvert (like me). It emphasized truthful analysis and perfection at the expense of sociability. There was a culture that you could make good money forever as an individual contributor, avoid management and sales cultures, and live your own life without social pressures; the job had no public implications. And it provided open entry. There was an unusual need for people who could fill these positions, starting with the Cold War buildup even in the late 50s, which was translating to general commercial use by the late 60s.

This all remained pretty much intact until after Y2K. We called the network of positions and people “The Business.” There were dips, to be sure, especially in the late 1980s when hostile takeovers and sudden mergers eliminated many IT departments and applications were merged. But the mergers in the 90s were different, however, as data tended to be merged at the user presentation layer rather than in the legacy applications themselves. In the 90s we heard about “the War for Talent.” The explosion of the Internet and the Y2K crunch kept the job market artificially elevated until just after the 2000 New Year. We all know what happened: financial scandals, the bursting of the Internet bubble, and 9/11. Broadband allowed companies to send routine programming and maintenance, even production support, jobs overseas, for much lower labor costs.

Today recruiters regularly call me about specific items in my resume, most commonly my Medicaid MMIS experience in the late 1970s. (That is telling, because what I learned from checking numbers from my MARS nursing home reports then predicted the demographic eldercare crisis we have today.) Many of the jobs are “W-2” contracts, less than a year, in which the associate is paid an hourly rate and is expected to pay his or her own temporary housing expenses out of that (it raises some tax questions, too). It usually turns out that the client wants a very specific list of skills, often hard to find; otherwise the client will find plenty of people in its own geographic area.

Recruiters often work for staffing firms that present themselves as providing technical staff to client companies needing specific skill sets. However a candidate is almost never hired until requested by a specific client for a specific job. There are cases where the candidate becomes a salaried employee of the staffing company with benefits, and can be "on the bench" and paid between assignments, but this is not as common as it was in the 80s and 90s. Recruiting companies could become more efficient by communicating more honestly to candidates what clients really need, rather than hiring based on such short-term needs.

In the year 2000, I attempted to make the “switch” from “mainframe” to “client server” in a support environment where I would have to pick up a lot of skills OJT but apply them in a very superficial way. This turned out to be a mistake. I had thought that there would be value in combining mainframe with client server, but my exposure was just too superficial. I would have done better staying in mainframe and concentrating, say, of DB2 technical expertise.

So one of the lessons is: specialize. College and graduate students have the opportunity to work with their professors and guidance counselors and figure out specifically what skills employers want. (Security is a biggie. So is portability.)They should do so. But we have to go beyond the Geek and get to the Beauty.

Employers today are also likely to look for a track record of upward progression and advancement, and commitment to the field. In the late 1980s, middle management was not the place to be; it was the grunts who “did the work” whose jobs were safer, particularly if they had the mainstream skills. Today, it is different. Employers want to see evidence of leadership and socialization.

One issue that comes into consideration is project management. At one time this was viewed by some people as an area for those who were less “geeky.” Project management became a discipline itself, with its own sophisticated software and certification tests. But today’s biggest challenges and job opportunities may come for people who can get different companies and other entities like advocacy organizations and governments to wok together. There are bigtime problems resolving legal issues associated with the way people use new technology that will require companies to work together in unprecedented fashion.

Another is a bad word: sales. Vendors are looking for technically versed sales professionals. That has a negative connotation for many techies, who feel that their lives become Faustian bargains of letting an employer take over their public identities. Understood. But times are differently changing.

Older professionals or persons who have "retired" will need to define themselves carefully, and base their strategies on what they have to offer as unique individuals based on a large mixture of lifetime experience. They generally won't match the narrow qualification lists on jobs boards that are more appropriate for younger people.

Dr. Phil McGraw asid on bis NBC show, “Winners do things losers don’t want to do” and that seems to apply to the job market!

Friday, March 24, 2006

Certification of computer professionals


Computer programming has always been relatively unregulated and has effectively offered “free entry.” In some cases no college degree was required. Many other professions are regulated by state licenses. Early on, major employers like IBM and EDS tried to implement ideas of professionalism, particularly with strict dress codes, that loosened gradually over the years to the point that casual dress had become common even by the 1980s.

Today, software vendors offer a variety of certification exams. For hardware, the A+ certification is popular even with high school students, who sometimes can get jobs as computer technicians even while in high school. Some of the certification exams are strenuous, such as Sun’s java certification tests, which include both multiple choice covering all language capabilities and require a short development project that is uploaded. There has always been a tendency for software programmers to master only what they need on a specific job, where as certification requires systematic mastery of all material.

Some companies, such as Brainbench, offer a wide list of certification exams in a large number of topics. Some headhunter and recruiting firms use Brainbench exams to test applicants for consulting positions. Software certification can help restore a sense of an applicant’s professionalism among employers.

The Institute for the Certification of Computer Professionals has offered relatively generic multiple choice examinations in a number of areas and languages for many years. Certification can be continued with education credits.

The personal computer and Internet revolutions

In December 1981 I bought my first personal computer, a Radio Shack TRS-80 with a 64-byte black and white screen, for $3700, including an okidata dot-matrix printer. In those days, just having word processing was a big deal, and you spent extra for a letter quality printer. The Apple and IBM (and IBM compatibles) were the top of the line, but other brands like Atari, Commodore and the Osborne would slip off. The DOS of IBM compatibles grew into the modern Microsoft operating systems in a series of steps over twenty years. Database applications became popular in the 80s, starting with dBase III+ which would add SQL to dBase IV, and Microrim’s rBase, which also offered SQL.

Business was definitely getting interested in smaller computers with more user-friendly operating systems. Unix had been around since the 60s and gradually became popular in academic and defense businesses, as did VAX/VMS. There were other experiments, like the MAI Basic 4 (with preloaded insurance systems) and various minis with reduced instruction sets and specified application environments, such as mortgage lending.

I think Compuserve was around with proprietary online content around 1983, but consumer online access really did not take off until the Internet was opened up in 1992, at the end of the first Bush administration. AOL and Prodigy were the major players at first, and I started using AOL in 1994 (by then I owned an IBM PS/2). AOL became dominant, along with MSN, Earthlink, and a few other companies, which by the middle 90s were using mainly html to offer content. Other protocols (like gopher) were dropping off.

By now, the two main PC paradigms were the PC with Microsoft operating systems (going from Windows 3.1 to Windows 95, Windows 98, and finally XP), and the Apple which developed souped up operating systems based on Linux, a flavor originally based on Unix.

In 1996, AOL offered its customers personal publisher, which would allow users to post their own authored content with anyone else with an Internet connection to see. But by around 1994 or so companies were already offering individuals their own domain registration and hosting. By the late 90s, individually owned domains were popular. By the late 1990s, companies realized that they had to include the Web as a major strategy in reaching their customers.

All along, the job market had been growing open-computing models and languages like C, Pascal and Perl. These were still procedural, but they tended to have a less verbose syntax and style than third generation languages used in financial applications. Soon OOP (object oriented programming) would become a new industry standard. C++ was the major OOP, to be partially displaced quickly by java, because of its portability. Java was introduced around 1995, but even by 1999 it was being used widely to develop midtier data access layers as companies merged operations from purchased companies at the presentation rather than application lawyers. The OSI model became important: for example see http://www.webopedia.com/quick_ref/OSI_Layers.asp . Object oriented programming tries to model a system almost as if it were a simulation, with classes, methods, and data objects. Older programmers sometimes have difficulty becoming fluent in it quickly.

The Internet became the “wild west” and the bubble would burst starting in 2001. It did attract all kinds of get-rich-quick schemes and bad actors, which left a whole slew of new issues involving security (the development of firewalls and anti-virus software), dealing with spam, and widespread copyright infringement associated with immature misuse of peer-to-peer computing, which also was developed, partly by teenagers and college students themselves, in the late 1990s. The rapid development of all of these technologies showed technical agility and brilliance by young programmers, who sometimes did not understand or respect the ethical issues that they were creating.

Actually, many of the better jobs tended to involve the standardization of data and passing it among businesses in partition-independent format with XML, and protocols like SOAP. Data from a mainframe computer could be sent to a graphical user interface after database extraction with direct connect and manipulation with XML.

But the most profound changes may be the power that the Internet gives to individuals. The same economic forces that led to old mainframe business operations becoming offshored (through broadband) also enabled individuals not only to set up their own transaction-oriented merchant enterprises but also to self-publish their ideas and outlooks, a socially much more radical innovation. Publication went from low-coast desktop publishing to print-on-demand to Web publishing, and migrated towards video and motion pictures, to the point that business models in the entertainment industry may eventually be affected more by legitimate Internet use from new artists than by piracy.

“Free entry” or at least low barrier to entry can have a major impact on many business models and social values and raises ethical issues of personal accountability that just haven’t been seen before. With the “myspace problem” we are seeing a new iceberg.

Mainframe job skills: historical survey

From the 1960s until well into the 1990s there was a well-established large scale computing culture in large companies, particularly financial institutions, life and health insurers and government agencies, centered around large mainframes and, at first, batch processing followed quickly by “demand” and “real time” – effectively online. At one time there were five major companies, dominated by IBM, and I tried to work for a competitor, Sperry Univac.

IBM beat out all of the competition by sheer size and a certain kind of disciplined professionalism. The job control language (JCL) developed a reputation with some people as verbose and unwieldy, but knowledge of JCL was an essential skill by the 1970s. In fact, at one time there was DOS, which was quickly overtaken my MVS. Many shops in the 1970s developed their own commercial applications in house, largely with COBOL and sometimes assembler; the applications would start out with daily and end-of-month batch cycles and followup with online access through TSO and then CICS. Mainframe databases – hierarchal like IMS or relational like DB2, and sometimes from other vendors (like IDMS, Adabas, or Datacom DB) became popular. CICS was indeed the main teleprocessing monitor, although IMS had its DC and there was Datacomm DC. By the early 1980s, most companies provided individual CRT terminals for employees to do their work “online.” Gradually, inhouse-written applications were replaced by packages from major mainframe software vendors.

Procedural programming rapidly became more efficient in the 1970s, as structured programming technologies and top-down testing techniques became published, and as so-called "fourth generation languages" like DYL280 and Easytrieve came into populartity. One such package, SAS, with its unique philosophy of data and procedure steps, became a comprehensive application develop system of its own, and is particularly popular in analyzing data for statistical patterns, as would be needed for public policy research in areas like health care.

Gradually, the job culture came to reward those programmers who developed skills in the mainstream IBM products, as well as major packages from a variety of closely related vendors like CA (for job scheduling and source management).

Security started to become a major issue in the 1980s. By around 1990, most major companies did not allow programmers to update production files without specific access, although there were many loopholes. The integrity of source management was understood as a significant security issue by the early 1990s.

Even as personal computers and the Internet became important, the job market in the mainframe area remained very strong in the 1990s because of the need for Y2K conversions. The year 2000 came with very few actual problems.

After the Y2K experience, it seems that many companies transferred much of their mainframe maintenance overseas. This even included nightcall support, which could be accomplished from India during their day shift. It seemed that for a while that the mainframe job market was almost vanishing. Yet, demand remained strong and paid top dollar in specialized areas where detailed technical expertise was required. These areas included particularly DB2, Vantage (for insurance and annuities). some of the Case tools, and sometimes, surprisingly, IMS, as well as data warehousing. Analysts with enough experience in specific business areas like Medicaid MMIS could get jobs.

There seemed to be a curious phenomenon here. Conventional wisdom in the 1980s and 1990s had suggested that the computer professional spread out into many areas, but after 2000 the market was rewarding extreme specialization. Companies would scour the country looking for specific skill sets in areas that are perceived as becoming obsolete, like IMS. There was a reward for staying with old skill sets, which was not what many people had expected.

There has been a lot of speculation as to whether the mainframe job market that we knew in the past will come back, whether companies will pull back operations that they offshored. Recruiters tell me that they do not, as of early 2006, see much evidence that this has happened. If it did happen, there would be an increase in demand for older professionals in their 50s and 60s.

Comparison of job skills values to real estate and stock values

The value of one’s skills in the information technology job market is volatile. On an open free market, the ability to earn a living though work sometimes seems a bit like the ability to increase wealth in equity markets or even in a house.

There’s a personal parable here. In the mid 1980s I bought a condo in a moderate income section of Dallas, with a new home price of about $40000. In the late 1980s I decided to leave for the DC area, partly because of a threat to my job from hostile takeovers. I rented it but I eventually sold it for $30000, for almost a $10000 loss. During the severe Texas real estate recession of the time, the value actually dipped into the teens. I don’t know what it is worth today, probably much more than I paid for it.

The saying is you buy low and sell high. I’m afraid that with this the opposite happened. I have never bought a house again. Today, of course, housing prices are at record levels in most of the country (I’m not sure about Dallas specifically today). The point is, sways in any market can cause people to have to drop out. Then the market comes back with newer players. It’s brutal, it sound cruel, but it’s just plain capitalism.

One needs to understand the same observation with respect to jobs.

My resume

John W. Boushka
4201 Wilson Blvd #110-688 Arlington VA 22203-1859

571-334-6107

JBoushka@aol.com

OBJECTIVE

Long term: Deployment of materials that help any customer understand and correlate all of the major positions that people take on many social, political and financial issues. It is important to understand why people think the way they do as well as to know their positions. I will be able to provide leadership in solving leading edge solutions to new legal and ethical problems associated with the deployment of technology, as often new social or legal conflicts may be resolved by further refining and improving information technology. Deployment strategies include software products and services such as content management, knowledge databases, films, and books. In many cases, it is important for me to draw on some unusual personal experiences as well as more conventional workplace technical experience.

Short term: A variety of interim positions in areas like technical writing, information technology applications programming, help desk or inbound call centers. Teaching may provide the opportunity to help high school and college students to develop critical thinking skills and to “connect the dots.”

I did take a retirement package from my last “major” corporate employer after a career in information technology applications in life insurance, health care, credit reporting, and financial reporting.


SUMMARY OF QUALIFICATIONS


A data processing business applications specialist with substantial experience in life insurance, health care, credit reporting, media, accounting, and public policy research systems. Have implemented major applications after full systems development life cycle on IBM mainframe (batch and on-line). Have provided technical leadership, specification of business and technical requirements, coding, unit and systems integration testing, implementation, documentation and on-call production support.

Have authored and published three books and numerous short articles on social policy issues relating to individual rights.

TECHNICAL EXPERIENCE


· IBM OS-390 mainframe with MVS (and VM): COBOL II, COBOLMVS, Assembler, JCL, FileAid, SyncSort

· DB2, IMS, IDMS, VSAM, CICS, DataComm DB and DC

· NCOA, Group-1 MOVEUpdate, USPS FASTForward, Nadis

· SAS, DYL280, Easytrieve, Dunn and Bradstreet MSA (for accounts payables) and Information Expert, ADSO (a code generator for IDMS), systems life-cycle management

· Unix, SQL with stored procedures, PowerBuilder, Java, test Director

· Matching of technical job skills to job descriptions (recruiting)


GENERAL EXPERIENCE



· Telephone support and problem solving for customers

· Telephone negotiations

· Book manuscript preparation and cost-effective printing

· Public policy research (individual and civil rights, discrimination, health care, security)

· Various small volunteer assignments (such as member database maintenance)

ACCOMPLISHMENTS

Insurance and Annuities:

· Reduced head count (by 2) for administration of billing of life insurance premiums to employers through salary deduction, by developing major reporting system enhancements.

· Reduced volume of return mail (by about 20%), by implementing new NCOA (National Change of Address) interface and by clientization of major Vantage system.

· Facilitated cross-selling, by installing new life insurance products on legacy systems.

· Enabled efficient customer service and cross-selling after merger, by implementing legacy replications to a common GUI customer service workbench

· Enhanced security of an accounts payable system with a new signature approval process.

· Reduced production outages and down time by 80% by careful testing and, when in a support role, carefully documenting recurring environmental problems; always provided dependable off-hours support as necessary.

· Consolidated commission statements provided to agents.

· Facilitated fraud reduction by developing and implementing Medicaid Management and Administrative Reporting System (MARS).

Credit Reporting:

· Enabled a credit reporting company to bill more efficiently by implementing consolidated billing to members across multiple bureaus and by implementing modern daily billing system.


Public Policy Research:


· Enabled small consulting operating to remain in business by quick application problem solving and by having set up the application to be run very efficiently

· Attracted client business to public policy consulting business by providing accurate reports on Medicare operating margins.

EMPLOYMENT HISTORY

Interim positions with Minnesota Orchestra Guaranty Fund (part-time, April 2002 to June 2003) as a fund raiser, and with RMA (Risk Management Alternatives) in Mendota Heights, MN (May 2003 to July 2003) as a debt collector for a telecommunications client; left voluntarily to return to Washington, DC area. Also wrote multiple choice certification test items for Brainbench on Business Ethics, early 2003. Substitute teacher in Virginia, from Spring 2004 to Dec. 2005 (See substitute teaching discussion.)

SELF 1997-Present

Self or cooperatively published three books and supported them with large website on Verio, as well as another experimental “java starter” website.

ING-Reliastar – Arlington, Va. and Minneapolis, MN 1990-2001

Life insurance and annuities

Senior Programmer Analyst


Implemented consolidated commission statements and salary deduction billing statements; implemented legacy replications to mid-tier; supported service center end users by trouble-shooting a wide variety of application and environmental production problems. Skills emphasized mainframe IBM (COBOLMVS, JCL, DB2, IMS, CICS) with client-server in last two years (Unix, Powerbuilder, java, Sybase stored procedures, screen emulations in C).

Lewin-ICF/Consolidated Consulting Group – Washington, DC 1988-1990

Public policy and social science research

Programmer Analyst

Duties consisted largely of fine-tuning policy simulation model for lobbying clients, with both COBOL and SAS, both mainframe and PC.

Chilton Corporation – Dallas, TX 1981-1988

(now this is Experian)

Credit reporting and credit bureau operations

Lead Programmer Analyst

Duties consisted of designing and implementing major revisions to daily and monthly billing, including consolidated billing, in a mainframe environment (COBOL, Assembler, Datacomm).


COMBINED A&B MEDICARE CONSORTIUM – Dallas, TX 1979-1981

Medicare postpayment utilization review

Systems Consultant

BRADFORD NATIONAL CORPORATION – New York, NY 1981-1988

Medicaid MMIS – MARS

Lead Programmer Analyst


NATIONAL BROADCASTING COMPANY – New York, NY 1974-1977

Media and broadcasting



Programmer Analyst; also television boom operator during strike duty


EDUCATION


I had Brainbench.com certifications in COBOL II, MVS JCL (June 2002), and ANSI SQL (July 2002 to June 2005)

The COBOL and JCL certifications expired in June 2005. The SQL certification expired in July 2005. I am evaluating whether I should re-test to renew them, according to market conditions and other goals.

Object Oriented Programming (OOP) training on the job - 1999


FLMI (Fellow, Life Management Institute (LOMA) – 1995

ICCP ACP and CCP certifications (1992-1998)

M.A. Mathematics – University of Kansas – 1968

Here is the link with detailed information about my Master’s Thesis, “Minimax Rational Function Approximation”.

B.S. Mathematics – George Washington University – 1966

Completed two courses (in Microsoft .NET with C#, and XML) in fall 2002 semester at Hennepin County Technical College (Minnesota)

Additional comments Simplified Intellectual Property Agreement (for employers)

The following is a scanable text resume that stresses information technology only. Text resume

Visit my “technical” blog at http://billboushka.blogspot.com