Thursday, December 27, 2007

IT people face road forks on their "online reputation" strategies

Well, I’ve been out of the “formal” job market for six years now, since the end of 2001 (with some little episodes along the way, such as writing a certification test in 2003). I do have some ideas about what I want to do – more details coming up on the main blog soon – but I still don’t rule out (even at 64) the idea of going back to a more convention It “job” or W-2 or even corp-to-corp contract. This may have come close to happening back in May.

One particular concern is this whole evolving idea of online “reputation.” I’ve pretty much cemented my “reputation” for better or worse, with these blogs and sites, and with the political involvement with the “don’t ask don’t tell” problem that I committed myself to in the early to mid 1990s. I’ve tried to segment the “reputation” with a site ( that search engines pick up first, that presents my I.T. resume and then explains what the other sites and blogs (that follow in the search engine results) are all about. I don’t really know yet how recruiters react to this. I set this up in the latter part of 2006. There has been a drop-off of contacts since mid to late 2007.

When you work for a staffing company and go to a client site (often with temporary relocation, living in an extended-stay motel or corporate apartment in another city) the staffing company wants to market you as an “expert” in the disciplines for which you were hired. Sometimes the list of required experience is quite long and specific (especially with state government contracts – Medicaid MMIS and welfare departments -- where, ironically, job description requirements are so specific as a way to prevent legal challenges for discrimination in hiring). In those cases, “reputation” is more likely to be perceived the way it used to be, from the resume and word of mouth. In other cases, though, clients may want to have reassurance that they can depend on the contractor as an “asset person” of last resort to deal with specific arcane problems in depth in long-standing technical areas (like, in the mainframe, DB2, IMS or CICS internals), or in client-server, many less-established and quickly evolving technologies (OOP). In these cases, it would sound as though staffing companies may start becoming more concerned with notions like “professional reputation management.”

Contracts in these areas can be quite challenging. A friend of mine took a contract a non-profit in the mid 1990s and fought IDMS and VSAM fires for six months (usually technology that should have been stable).

Most people with specific expertises that generate contracts today developed them by accretion, with a series of related jobs or contracts. Typically there was no conscious decision to become an “IMS expert” even though recruiters now scour the country for the few of them that remain for the few jobs that there are. It’s a kind of L’Hopital’s Rule problem (from calculus) in reverse. Because companies have been unpredictable and inconsistent, willing to dump people to eliminate redundancies of function that occur with corporate mergers, programmers and IT people have developed a short-term view of their own futures, and believed that they must be flexible, shift gears quickly, and wear many different hats at the same time. Yet the whole “online reputation” issue (that I have discussed on my other blogs) tends to create the impression that a “professional” nurtures and deploys his or her core skills so that others can count on them. There is a kind of perfect storm going on here.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

"Strategic planning" and capacity planning requirements: how things have changed from the 80s

Back in early 1989, when I was working as a “mainframe” computer programmer for a health care policy consulting company, we were concerned with reducing “computer costs” (disk space and charged EXCP’s) because they came out of the bottom line for the business. As noted in the last post, I was able to reduce some costs by replacing random VSAM accesses with Sorts and sequential processing. But I also called around to a couple of data centers in the northern Virginia area for quotes on space and time. I was almost going to be in the position to negotiate a lease of space with connections. The buzzword for this kind of systems analysis was "capacity planning"; but at Univac, back around 1973, I had encountered this concept with benchmarks of 1110's and with general customer site support. We wound up getting bought and moving over to a 4341 and 4381 environment that offered VM (which made a mainframe look rather like a PC 1980s style with its F-disk) and MVS; there were cultural squabbles on how to run SAS. (I remember those notorious “podiatry jobs” and the SAS “bundles”).

How things have changed, where Windows Vista and Server are the standards, with equivalents in the Linux and Unix worlds; where on the mainframe OS 390 runs anything you want. Now, as I noted on this blog in August, I size and price items for video and movie editng software, and Visual Studio / ADO / SQL server or comparable MySQL environments on my own machine or own domains, and how to tie everything together with something like Wordpress.

But the 80s, those were the days, my friends. But they would “ever end.”

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Computing and searching speed and I/O access: on mainframes, then on Internet

I can recall, when working for NBC in the mid 1970s, that on a Sperry Univac 1110 it would take about 3 hours in an end-of-month closing to sort maybe 300000 detail records for the voucher register in the general ledger system. That cycle kept me up when I was on call.

By the mid 1980s, it was taking maybe five minutes to sort a similarly sized file on an Amdahl (compatible with IBM mainframe) during a nightly daily billing cycle. As a result, we did all our sorts externally with Syncsort steps. We never bothered to code Sorts in COBOl with SD’s, Input and Output procedures, or even Using and Giving.

By around 1988 when I was at a small consulting company with access to an IBM 3090 at Healthnet in Richmond, the same sized sort would take maybe 30 seconds. I had to reduce the computer costs for a simulation model that I worked on. So, with one program that did a lot of random VSAM access, I sorted in sequence and processed sequentially with “balanced line” matching in COBOL, saved about 2/3 of the cost and it ran in less than half the time altogether.

The preferred mainframe sort product has always been SYBCSORT, but back in the late 1980s and engineering company in northern VA called ICF had developed a competitor, PLSORT, with pretty much the same syntax of commands, but supposedly less resource use (back in the days of 4381 environments).

In 1991, at a life insurance company with an IBM clone Hitachi with MVS, I had a mix of jobs running simultaneously that did a lot of VSAM accesses (simulated by IDMS) to print consolidated salary deduction bills. I remember that one of these jobs could take 2 hours to go through 26000 print image records in VSAM. To run a hundred bills took all day. But by 1998, in a much more modern environment in Minneapolis, the same mix of jobs could finish in less than an hour, well before anyone came to work. I don’t know exactly how the VSAM performance was improved (in terms of CI splits and so on), but it took only about 1% of the time that it had taken in 1991.

Vantage life insurance legacy policy administrative systems had a reputation of running forever for even a small volume of contracts, but by the late 1990s these problems seemed to be overcome. There were no problems at all with any of these systems in the Y2K event.

Is it any wonder, then, that we find that the Internet is so efficient, and that, even when there may be a few hundred million personal profiles and blogs and various sites, anything controversial that anyone puts out tends to be found quickly. It’s just the mathematics of binary searches.

Monday, December 10, 2007

How e-commerce sites display multiple versions of same item

I've noticed on Amazon that when there are multiple editions of a book, sometimes it is hard to see all of them, or they do not come up in what would be a preferred sequence. For a book, one probably wants to see the most recently published version first. That will, in many cases, be a paperback, sometimes with more material added, often at a lower price. Sometimes the original may be out of print.

Guaranteeing that various versions always appear in a reliable order would appear to be related to conventions in coding SQL statements (and maybe in setting up database indexes). Options like DISTINCT and ORDER BY and DESCENDING would need to be considered.

I've even seen this happen in a school system payroll system paying substitutes where there was some complexity in how multiple-part assignments were coded.

I explained how this issue plays out with my own self-published books here.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Reported links betwen graveyard shifts and cancer: an issue for I.T. workers?

Last week major media sources discussed a World Health Organization Agency for Research on Cancer upcoming report linking higher incidences in cancer for persons who work the graveyard shift. The International Herald Tribune carried the story AP here: The title is “once dismissed as far-fetched, link between night shifts and cancer gaining acceptance.”

It’s likely that closer examination of results will finger irregular hours, common in information technology jobs where people have to work unusual hours when systems can be taken down from customers for maintenance (such as on Saturday night / Sunday morning) or when employees have to be on-call for nightly production cycles, common in financial institutions. Many of these cycles are largely run on the mainframe in batch (followed by replications or scripts to establish GUI interfaces for end-users), governed by scheduling software and with intricate schemes using generation data groups and backups to ease recovery from abends. Nevertheless, people have to be on call to respond to unexpected failures, especially after implementations or upgrades.

In shops where people are strictly responsible for their own systems, people develop techniques to minimize the chances of failure. In shops where the on-call rotation is widespread, there can be problems among staffers. Sometimes people without families are expected to do more of it. Left-wing rhetoric would claim that if the world needs to be open 24x7, everyone should “pay his dues” and do his fair share of it. But in recent years since Y2K, some companies have offshored production support work to India offshore.

Of course, operators in data centers are used to shift rotations, as most data centers are populated 24 x 7. Sometimes data centers are shut down briefly for major holidays.

Some contract programmer jobs require on-call availability. Some of these compensate the consultant hourly, so that on-call incidents (if valid) provide extra (usually straight time) income; others are salaried, and consultants might sometimes have to provide on-call on their own time, at least for their own systems.

The medical paper may attribute the incidence of cancer to the fact that when sleep patterns are interfered with, natural metabolism produces fewer anti-oxidants. Remedies may include regular lighting to simulate the natural effect of sunlight, and much longer times to acclimate to shift work.

Shift work is also essential in medicine. Long hours for interns and residents have long been controversial.