Monday, December 29, 2008

How good are most companies at telephone customer service, really?


Even now, I recall the “learning curve” difficulty as I migrated from mainframe programming to client server at the beginning of 2000 and a position in telephone internal customer support. I thought for a while that the problem was somewhat unique to my own personality, as liking to own something, and as to some personal distractions at the time. But since then I’ve learned of others who made transitions and ran into similar difficulties on the job.

It’s hard to learn OOP piecemeal, and the best way to have learned it is to have gotten in on the ground floor with a project and seen it through to implementation and support. What you own, what you are personally responsible for at work, you know and you master.

I’ve seen the same problem with customer support at telecommunications companies (cable television, ISPs and web hosting). Although a variety of business models have existed since the 90s for these companies, for a while the trend has been toward consolidation and merging, and that is even more likely now given the economic climate. But support employees in large call centers often have difficulty reliably diagnosing problems over the phone. Different representatives will have different answers to the same question, and a lot of times I feel I wish I were working there; I could do their job. Of course, that’s partly because I know my own setup at home and the quirks of my own web domains, and how to resolve a certain set of problems in detail.

Add to all of this the fact that many telephone support services are overseas. Whenever I've called Dell, I've gotten someone in India. Perhaps that's old fashioned "extreme capitalism."

I did use the services of Geek Squad recently for a HAL problem with Microsoft XP (that seems to happen to a lot of people these days, with all of Microsoft’s automatic pushes) and what I found was that, to be fluent enough to solve operating system problems in almost any home or small business environment, one has to have started young. It seems that learning systems programming, firmware and operating systems to that level of detail is rather like learning to play a musical instrument, or even becoming very fluent in multiple foreign languages. If you start young (as a tween) and keep up, you’re going to be very good at it by even college years. Older techies never quite had that chance.

Friday, December 26, 2008

MMIS, HIPAA, medical records automation ought to generate jobs during new administration: but seekers are hitting moving targets


Today, I made a posting about the grim financial condition of Medicaid in many states, given the crisis, and I wondered about how Medicaid MMIS jobs are doing now.

From 2002 to 2004 I got calls about MMIS jobs in many states, but never qualified because in most cases the individual states required five years MMIS experience, even though the hiring was done by private contractors (in one case, the contractor was Verizon). I had 19 months of MMIS with Bradford National in New York before deciding to move to Dallas in 1979, and MMIS has certainly changed a lot since then. I had worked on MARS (not the planet; it stood for “Management and Reporting Subsystem” and comprised about 40 reports, many having to do with federal reimbursements, which were politically controversial even then, especially for nursing homes). Another subsystem was SURS, or Surveillance and Utilization Review. When I went on to Dallas and worked for CABCO, the Blue Cross and Blue Shield consortium, I worked on designing a unified SUR-like system, but the turf-oriented plans didn’t want that kind of “solidarity.”

Here is a jobs board for MMIS openings, and state plans have also moved into the C and Unix area, it looks like (here is link),

Another growth area for health care IT jobs has to be fine-tuning HIPAA (the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act), which will certainly have to happen under the new Obama administration.

But the biggest plum for jobs has to be complete automation of medical records, which is certainly complicated by HIPAA. Even in my own experience, particularly with Medicare, I see enormous waste from the fact that physicians cannot easily get accurate records on prescriptions or easily get access to cat scans or MRI’s ordered by other specialists, without a lot of mail or fax transfers of paperwork or (sometimes) digital CD’s. Scheduling of appointments, while often outsources, has become inefficient and the referral of patients to the appropriate specialist is often difficult. Integration of medical records would save 20% of the cost of Medicare by eliminating unnecessary or redundant care. I don’t understand why we haven’t done this.

One problem is matching the job skills to the need. Staffing firms are met with rigid requirements in years of experience with specific skills – often making frequently past job-hopping a negative factor now for applicants – but complicating the hiring process and being able to staff projects that require real innovation, as automation of medical records surely will.

This is another problem for the new administration to ponder, after the outright negligence of the previous one. Job seekers may have a hard time figuring out the best strategies in the mean time.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

New white paper on email retention requirements and policies is available


Today, Web Buyer’s Guide, Message Labs (part of Symantec), and the sPolicy Institute offer a white paper on email retention practices in organizations (especially IT and financial institutions). The paper is by Nancy Flynn (executive director of the ePolicy Institute, author of “Blog Rules”, a book published by the AMA early during the debate on (controversial) blogging and the workplace. The link for downloading the PDF whitepaper is here.

I recall hearing back around 2001 that employers often encouraged associates to delete unnecessary emails because they could simply become fodder for litigation later. Now the legal climate seems to have changed. Employers should have policies on what constitutes “business records” and need to have regular policies for backing up and preserving email “business records”, to the point that information technology departments often must perform major projects to comply.

Email retention policies can be driven by other requirements, such as Sarbanes-Oxley (SOX), the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), and the Graham-Lleach-Bliley Act (GLBA), and NYSE, NASD and SEC regulations.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Disaster Recovery webcast from two major vendors is available


Tech Republic has offered (to subscribers) a link to an Internet slide show and presentation about disaster recovery techniques, given by Shane Jackson from Data Domain, and Chris Eidler from Simply Continuous. The link leading to the 19-minute presentation is here.

Simply Continuous started the presentation with discussion of how it helped to major companies: a hedge fund, and a market research company, both in California. The major concept in both companies that tape or cartridge backups so common with mainframe data centers over decades are no longer efficient or effective enough for some customers. An important concept is change-only or incremental backups, and staged restores. Other concepts include deduplication, replication, and easy integration.

One of the major concepts in disaster recovery is dual imaging at other sites, all major companies practice. In 1999, I participated in a weekend off-site disaster recovery “drill” at a site twenty miles away with a Minnesota company called Comdisco.

My own experience in mainframe IT was that backup jobs before cycles (often with Gvexport on the mainframe) were time consuming and delayed the start of the real cycle. One data center took down everything Saturday afternoon and ran dumps and compactions every Saturday night. Univac, back in the 1970s had an effective backup utility called "Secure".

Simply Continuous says it is located in Phoenix, which it says the Department of Homeland Security considers one of the safest cities from natural disasters or terror strikes. It’s main vulnerability could be water supply and electricity given the heat. Simply Continuous is manned 24x7 and SAS-70 certified, but that coverage and certification would be expected of any major data center service.

I did not hear any discussion of optical backup or hardening of a disaster recovery site from possible electromagnetic pulse effects. The United States military has done a lot of work in this area (there are all kinds of papers around about Faraday cages) but major financial institutions and banks ought to become involved in this effort, too.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Smaller maintenance companies could do well, and hire during recession


MarketWatch runs an interesting report that smaller maintenance companies may be able to take a lot of business from larger software and service vendors (like SAP) during the downturn.

CIO’s are looking to save money in anyway they can, and smaller upstart firms may offer better deals. There is always a question about branding.

The story is by John Letzing, “Amid crunch, a software industry eyes an opening; Small firms offer cheaper maintenance; SAP fee hike stirs customer anger” link here.

This reminds me of the trend back in the 1980s and early 1990s for other vendors to emulate IBM mainframes. Back in the 80s Ahmdahl was popular (Chilton Corporation in Dallas used it for all its credit report processing) and then Hitachi followed on. These mainframes would run MVS in a conventional way but tended to prefer non-IBM database and sometimes telecommunications products (like Datacomm DB and DC at Chilton). But in the long run, IBM won these wars and the competition died out, just as it did with mainframes (like Univac) with non-IBM architectures.

Here, maintenance companies would be maintaining (installing bug fixes) for products sold by other vendors, and that could be challenging work for smaller companies. It’s often hard to maintain something you didn’t write. But a much more challenging financial environment could change these workplace fundamentals.

It also reminds one of the issues that are emerging in the auto industry (and affecting the bailout strategy). Today, major companies use the same suppliers and often same warranty repair services. Despite all the naysaying, it might well be possible to keep all the suppliers and maintenance companies healthy while the lumbering auto manufacturers and unions are forced to restructure to avoid bankruptcy.

Friday, December 19, 2008

MSN Career Builder gives a list of 25 no-no's


Microsoft Network (MSN) has an interesting tome “25 Ways to Sabotage Your Job Search” that I think is worth spreading, from Career Builder, by Anthony Balderrama. The link is here.

This particular list pretty much sticks to common sense. It says that relying on the Internet alone is a mistake, but it doesn’t make a lot of “online reputation” as do other career advisers. Reputation is as much a real-world issue (it always was) as an online issue. It’s important to do as much networking by phone and in person as possible. I’m not a fan of the “lead development” in commission oriented business, but it may be easier to develop rapport than you think.

They recommend targeting your resume to the position (and another source says that this is particularly important in federal government positions, where a particular style in answering essay interview questions online is expected). You should focus on the employer, not yourself, on a cover letter. That tip would be particularly important with more senior positions, where maybe you contact a particular company because you think you can help them solve a business model or paradigm problem (as might happen with a “retiree” or older person).

Don’t bad mouth others (in person any more than on the Internet) and mind your table manners, they say.

I would add be careful with candor. I once told a company about complaints I had heard about them from my previous workplace. I thought I was giving them constructive feedback. But I didn’t hear from them after the interview. Maybe they weren’t a good fit if they couldn’t take the candor. That’s a tough call.

Does this article provide the advice that Microsoft itself follows?

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Bill Gates: Your boss will be a geek


I thought I would pass along the link for the Tech Republic article and video “Five Things We Learned from Bill Gates,” by Jason Hiner, link here.

Some reactions: On one of my substitute teaching assignments in 2007, I saw on English teacher’s whiteboard tips, “your boss is likely to be a geek.” And you don’t need to have a “winner take all” culture to have freedom and constructive capitalism. And it was Gates who imagined the idea that software would eventually matter more than hardware. The revolution of the 1990s was, after all, the Internet and the instantaneous spread of information, not more trips to the Moon. Think back to 1968, when MGM made “2001: A Space Odyssey” and we imagined we would be able to travel to Jupiter by then. That isn’t what happened; the hardware is still too expensive.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Do economic downturns weed out I.T. professionals "permanently"?


Do recessions and downturns weed I.T. people out of the field? This sounds like a brutal question, one with moral overtones.

But so it seems. When times get harder, employers pressure their people more. It’s always been like that. I remember working at Chilton (the Dallas credit reporting company that now is effectively Experian) the pace was cordial and comfortable until after 1985 when Chilton was acquired by Borg-Warner, and then Borg-Warner took itself private in a leveraged buyout under pressure from corporate raider Ivan Boesky. (I remember the alliterations: “le beau arbitrageur; la belle arbitrageuse”).The pressure in those days was to break up conglomerates into pieces and sell them, resulting in more consolidation and economies of scale and higher profit margins. Hostile takeovers were bad for the idea of employee loyalty to company and union and lifetime employment, but good for entrepreneurs. It was particularly bad for people who depended on corporate benefits (for family reasons) but good for (often single) people who could live off of piecework.

The “creative destruction” did help bring about modern Internet culture and the opportunities therein, in areas like low cost films, various new Internet businesses (unfortunately going through a dot-com bust). It led to some real wealth but displace many people. Today’s problems are much more serious. First, there is the threat of scarcity (associated with fuel and global warning) which could be met by further extension of innovative ideas, like an “energy Internet”. But there is also loss of confidence in the integrity of markets, leading to the massive job losses now. (Some of the losses, however, simply come in foolishly run industries like some of auto where manufactures made things people no longer wanted to buy, and some are related to unsustainable union benefit and retiree entitlement structures .)

In any case, the effect on jobs is similar. The people who are kept are those with the absolutely essential skills to keep a business going. The people who can become easily re-employed are those with targeted expertise.

In information technology, the picture is so mixed. For years, business mainframe programming had a good reputation as a stable career field. It grew in the 1970s, despite recession, because commercial business automation was increasing rapidly. It dipped a little around 1980, then picked up again before the 1982 severe “Reagan recession” ended, then dipped again in the late 1980s with the corporate buyouts. In the 1990s, the job market exploded in the Internet, but the mainframe really picked up again only as Y2K approached. Many mainframe programmers already had resumes with unstable companies, outdated experience (like UFAM), and erratic histories. But they were needed for Y2K. Afterward, mainframe programming would tend to appear mostly in W2 or corp-to-corp contracts, where clients looked for very specific lists of advanced “job-ready” skills in major areas.

In such an environment, some people will drop out, or be flung out by downturns. The question is whether older programmers in the mainframe area will be needed again. There has not been a consistent pattern. Employers look for very specific areas of expertise (like IMS, case tools, etc) where there are fewer people left with these areas.

There’s a bit of unfairness here. Placement companies need to find competent professionals, but with an unstable market, a programmer can’t afford to bank on an “online reputation” based on outmoded technology. So they venture into new things. But the newer, OOP languages and technologies are rather non-linear in terms of intellectual skill, compared to the procedural languages of the past (especially COBOL, along with IBM MVS JCL, which is simple in principle even if verbose and tedious). The people really good at the “new skills” are young, because they grew up with them and mastered them, sometimes as teenagers, the way people master playing musical instruments. At a pedagogical level, there is some similarity between the “geek” and the musician (often the same person is both). It’s not easy for someone in his 50s to get that level of skill (Gladwell’s 10000 hours of practice) unless he gets the opportunity to do an entire project through implementation and given time to learn the new technology.


This is all unpleasant, when you look at the popular advice. “Do grunt work.” “Depend on family and friends.” And the real double cross: “Watch your online reputation”. That depends on your real world reputation after all, and sometimes on external factors you cannot control.

The new Obama administration really needs to look at ways to give employers more incentive to offer paid training.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Could unfiltered spam lead to hostile workplace complaints?


Toni Bowers has a message board question on Tech Republic, “Does offensive spam open us up to a lawsuit?” The link is here.

There was a question from a corporate manager with a subordinate whose offended by ab enail that got through a spam filter at work. The subordinate said that it verged on sexual harassment.

Generally, the answers suggested that an employer is OK if it makes a reasonable effort to filter most spam. They could consider implementing a challenge-response system.

A problem could occur if an employee posted on a public and searchable blog or website offensive comments about a minority group (or perceived group) that a coworker belongs to, as adding to a hostile workplace environment. That is one reason why employers need to consider blogging policies, even off work.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

XP Blue Screen of death and hal.dll


Well, after five years and out of warranty, my Dell 8300 gets the Blue Screen of Death while going to screensaver mode. When I try to reboot I get

"Windows could not start because the following file is missing or corrupt:
\system32\hal.dll.
Please re-install a copy of the above file."

I find a lot on this online with the laptop, for example on About.com this article from Tim Fisher with the article "Missing Or Corrupt Hal.dll Error Resolution: Steps to Resolve the Missing Or Corrupt Hal.dll Error in Windows XP"

I load the original Install CD which goes back to Service Pack 1, and the restore procedure finds another corrupt file in his third step. So I guess the hard drive really crashed. But it is five years old.

So I call Geek Squad. They will come soon. I hope the data is recoverable, but it looks like a new hard drive. Five years old, already obsolete. Cheaper to start over, particularly during a recession.

Judging from the Net, it looks like this happens a lot.

HAL is supposed to be a hidden file that communicates with the hard drive. It was also the spaceship computer in 2001 A Space Odyssey (eg IBM - 1). I wonder if this a coincidence.

Update: Dec. 12, 2008


The (Best Buy) Geek Squad "double agent" came. He restored hal.dll from my 2003 purple system disk, starting with option 5 on the F2 menu, but needed a disk of his own, and a lot of "complicated" checks and tests. No data was lost, and no hardware problems were found. No reloading of the operating system was necessary; all changes from Service Pack 3.0 are in place, The problem is corruption of the dynamic load library module HAL itself (it's rather like one of the Vantage LIOM modules in the dynamic link deck, for people who know that "Vantage rules the world" in life insurance). It seems as though the Blue Screen came up when the machine went into standby mode, and there could be some kind of problem with a recent Microsoft update affecting standby. It has been disabled. (Remember: "Best Buy" = "Buy More" = Chuck!)

Visitors receiving automatic updates themselves may want to be very careful about allowing standby mode (in "always on" mode) until we can find out if there is a problem.

He also says that McAfee is no longer the leader in anti-virus protection. He prefers Spysweeper. But the industry leader changes every year. He doesn't like automatic subscriptions to anti-virus software. I'll look more into this for the Internet Safety blog.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

LinkedIn can provide an effective "first impression" on the Web


I’m seeing career counselors recommend now that professionals created a profile on LinkedIn. I am told that such a profile soon appears first in a search engine result, which gives the professional more control of his or her “reputation.” That hasn’t happened for me “yet”.

I created a profile for myself tonight and the URL is here.

The summary only allows 2000 characters, and I found that I had too much, so I gave a link to my Wordpress blog, to a specific entry that has the complete text to what I intend to be found, here.

There is an Experience section that allows only 1000 characters. It’s probably better to give a link to a resume site.

The LinkedIn profile places an emphasis on citing recognition or awards from third parties. It also encourages the display of “Connections”. There is a certain emphasis on having proven that one can sell oneself to others as well as accomplish work.

Nevertheless, the presentation of a profile is much simpler than that on a conventional social networking site.

It is more difficult for someone who has “retired” and trying to change career direction to make this effective than for someone who stays on a “single track”.

The visitor can compare LinkedIn to Dice, which is a much more specialized job seeker’s site. However, an employer visiting Dice must be a paid subscriber. Dice is fairly expensive for a small employement agency but cost effective for a headhunter with some economy of scale.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

More on USAJOBS and AvueCentral


Today I used the AvueCentral website again to apply for another government position (this time, the SEC) and I can pass on a couple more tips about USAJOBS.

Many jobs on USAJOBS take you to AvueCentral for application. But you may have to key in a “profile” in your job selection to bring the position up in AvueCentral. Particulalry important is the series and grade, which you break up into separate fields on the selection field. You have to go through some successive menus to get to information technology.

Many jobs will ask you to key in a range of GS grades that are acceptable to you. But if you key in more than one grade, the KSA’s (skill level questions) may be repeated for each grade in the range, requiring you to fill out 10 or more questions several times. They may or may not be identical among the several grades.

There will be an eligibility page and it may offer several combinations of educational criteria (like PhD degrees or graduate school level courses in certain specific areas) to be substituted for certain work experience. These criteria on AvueCentral might not have been stated on USAJOBS itself.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

IT career "self-sabotage": Is "online reputation" a new danger during mergers?


The Tech Republic blog, in a column “IT Leadership” by Toni Bowers, has an interesting column today by John McKee, “3 Steps to Career Self-Sabotage,” link here.

Point 2, failure to deliver results, seems self-explanatory. But interesting is the last point, failure to promote oneself.

Professional self-promotion takes on two aspects: one is within the organization, and the other is public, something that we have come to connect with “online reputation.”

After a company has been bought out, sometimes it pays for the professional IT employee to show an interest in the acquiring organization. Expressed willingness to travel to the new company’s location (or to relocate) often greatly improves the likelihood that the employee will be successful with new ownership and management. Mergers can destroy jobs, but they sometimes provide hidden opportunities, particularly for professionals who have some secondary motivation to make a partial career change and pursue it. That was the case with my own transfer to Minneapolis in 1997.

Online reputation could take on new meaning during acquisitions and mergers. An acquiring company might look at the online presence of many key employees, and might not always be particularly careful or ethical in the way that it conducts such an “investigation,” sometimes find misinformation or information about misidentified people. Visible employees should monitor their own profiles, and use professional profile sites like LinkedIn or Ziggs to cause “what they want others to see” to appear near the top of search results.

Picture: Minneapolis, near the river, from a video made by me in 2002.

Monday, December 01, 2008

IT consultants need negotiating skills


Rick Freedman has republished an article on Tech Republic “Negotiating Skills for IT Consultants” today (but he says it is a republication of an article from July 23, 2001). The link is here. I thought this was a pretty useful story to pass along, even if it is dated.

There are a few major points. Negotiators sometimes see sessions as like sports contests to be won or lost, rather than actually getting or keeping business. Negotiators should focus on shared mutual interests with the client and become pragmatic.

An early episode of Donald Trump’s “The Apprentice” (in notorious one with Troy McClain and what was done to him “for the sake of the team”) was based on the idea of “negotiation.”

More introverted programmers, who see themselves as “individual contributors” may not look forward to sessions like these, but negotiation becomes more important as more professionals freelance.

Debt collection agencies now say that when they hire, they are looking for people with “negotiation” skills.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Active security clearances are a big plus for job hunters; some of us have legacy baggage out of the past


There doesn’t seem much question that a high-level security clearance, in the DC area at least, is a big plus in job hunting. There are plenty of job fairs (including those mentioned in email lists from Dice) for previously cleared professionals only.

The Jobs Section (K) of the Washington Post today (Nov. 30, 2008), the Jobs Chat section answered a question about the length of time for clearances. A reader asked what it meant if she was asked to do a drug screening six months after applying for the clearance, and the answer was that this is a good thing; it means progress is being made. Some high level clearances take a very long time; for CIA employees, the background investigations often take over one year.

I had a Secret clearance in the Army (1968-1970) and again later at the Naval Command Systems Support Activity (NAVCOSSACT) from 1971-1972. While in the Army and again as a Navy Department employee I was processed for Top Secret clearances with “inconclusive” results. (I also held an informal “confidential” clearance while an RCA employee from 1970-1971). Of course, the explanation has to do with the “psychiatric” episode following my William and Mary “expulsion” in the fall of 1961 (go to my Nov. 28 2006 “main” blog entry).

It used to be that homosexuality was a reason for exclusion from civilian security clearances just as it was (and still is, in a sense – “don’t ask don’t tell” – a basis for exclusion from service in uniform in the military). The circular excuse of “blackmail” was the only “reason” offered. At a security interview at NAVCOSSACT in 1971, I was asked if anyone had ever tried to blackmail me. The answer is “No”. (I never did learn of any attempts by investigators to interview neighbors, friends or coworkers. Today, of course, investigators have reign on the entire Internet as a source of more leads for information.) I finally left government (and civilian employment in a military branch) and entered the private sector.

For security clearances, things gradually started to get better, probably during the Carter administration at first, but according to comments made by Dr. Franklin E. Kameny”, it really only started getting consistently better during the first Bush administration, particularly during the Persian Gulf War (1990-1991). The ACLU and LLDEF used to write tortured legal guides as to how gay people could discreetly go about getting clearances. By the early 1990s, Kameny was telling people (as on the “other” Scott Peck’s Sunday night radio talk show) that, still, getting a clearance was not a “do it yourself” operation. But it had gotten better, much better. In the mid 1990s, President Clinton would issue an Executive Order protecting gay civilians needing clearances further. I recall when contemplating returning to the DC area from Texas in the later 1980s asking a recruiter about clearances, and he did not think it was a problem any more.

Of course, there was an increase in awareness of security in private business over the years. In the late 1980s mainframe shops put in security packages (like Top Secret and RACF) that controlled programmer and user access (especially with update privileges) and, particularly, along with library packages, managed source and load module migration and integrity. Once you worked on a production system, you understood how your whole life could hang by a thread, and you welcomed these systems. (Not everyone did, actually; some people though that programmers should have universal access and should be bonded – bringing back the fears of the old days when sometimes gay people couldn’t be bonded either).

Because of my background, and perhaps the 1961 “accident”, I spent most of my career in the civilian commercial area, that did not require formal clearances. But over the years, concern over security in a practical sense increased, particularly in the 1990s. I recall when at NAVCOSSACT that we had to put everything away and lock it up before going home, and there were security inspection officers (a rotating detail) who would write people up who didn’t. We did not have such concerns over physical hardcopy security in the 1990s, but those concerns have returned, in full measure, since 2000 with all the scandals over the loss of consumer data and identity theft exposures. Security in I.T. is in a different league than it was even when I “retired” at the end of 2001. Now it is a constant concern for everyone. One has to learn work habits that make work “safe.” In some cases, employers have considered a low FICO credit score (which can happen because of misinformation or identity theft) as indication of possible practical security risk for an application. (By the way, I have undergone drug screenings, which can cause false positives, twice: once for the last "career move" in 1990, although the company subsequently dropped the drug screening; and when I applied for a letter carrier job in 2004, which I could not take for other medical reasons.)

One other thing: I’ve always wondered about the ethics of the use of polygraph examinations. The Employee Polygraph Protection Act of 1988 eliminates the use of the polygraph in most ordinary situations, but it still can be used for high security jobs. If it is so unreliable, why the inconsistency in public policy? Here is a link on the controversy over the EPPA. Other lie detection technologies, even brain scans, could come into play. That’s another big topic for later.

The whole issue of security clearances teaches us a lesson. Even though today the issue that plagued me (clearances for gays) has been largely resolved, the effects are still there. I might have had a different career had this not been a problem before, and since I have never had a high level clearance, in practice opportunities are still reduced relative to those for others, as legacy from discrimination of the past (much as what we argue with “affirmative action”). The problem still consists in the military today. For the country as a whole, intelligence capability is lost. (We know this debate specifically with the military issue and the loss of gay military linguists). And the loss of intelligence means loss in the ability to prevent the next 9/11, or maybe even the loss of ability to prevent the first one.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Recent book by Gladwell helps us understand I.T. learning curves


I’ve started (but not yet finished) Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers: The Story of Success” and wanted to report a discussion that me makes about computer programmers early in the book. He is explaining the phenomenal success of Bill Joy (Sun), Bill Gates (Microsoft) and Steven Jobs (Apple). Practically all people who become tremendously successful in information technology (including entrepreneurs who invent services like social networking sites) have “enjoyed” a lot of “practice time” in learning their skills, nearly always rather early in life. It takes about 10000 hours or hands-on work to get really good at something, Gladwell says. Yet, some teenagers do have the opportunity to put in the enormous amount of focused attention that it takes, which helps explain their successes in their early twenties in some cases.

Gladwell’s views ought to be of value to employers as they assess the lack of balance in their need for talent in such a choppy economy. Over the past twenty years, but especially since the 2000 recession, employers have become increasingly demanding of immediate, “job ready’ skills for contract work. They wonder why grizzled employees who had 30 years of mainframe (COBOL, CICS and JCL, etc) and are now in the 60s have trouble with the “learning curve” of the new, object oriented stuff. Gladwell’s answer is that it just takes practice. If you spend a couple years coding and testing a lot of Java yourself to put develop a new application (or something like a Data Access layer in an enterprise) you’ll pick up speed, rather the way a train does. If you jump in and learn it piecemeal in support, it just won’t be possible to develop enough facility, agility and expertise.

Employers should carefully reconsider the learning curve and training issues. The new Obama administration ought to encourage them to do so.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Washington Post reports that firms encourage employee volunteer work on billable time


The Washington Post Business section Sunday Nov. 23 reports (on p F1) that accounting and consulting firms, in a time of lower billable hours because of the economy, are encouraging associates to do volunteer work on company time. The story by Nancy Trejos is “Employers encourage workers to volunteer: Even as grants fall, firms offer services, “ link here.

For example, in Washington a Deloitte associate volunteered for the Boys and Girls clubs. Some volunteer assignments might involved working with kids, and some non-parents might not be as comfortable with this. UPS has formed a volunteer response team for natural disasters. AOL has supported St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital. Deloitte has also helped families with tax returns at Annandale High School in Fairfax County, VA. When I was substitute teaching in 2007, Deloitte send a volunteer team to help reorganize the school library at Bryant Alternative High School, also in Fairfax County.

Some companies, such as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, have to watch their charitable programs carefully during the financial crisis. In December 2007, Freddie Mac had sponsored the Adoption Expo in the Washingto DC Convention Center.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Even in a bad economy, pick the career your really want!


With a bad economy, job hunters are in a bind as to how they present themselves online. At least, often. Career counselors expect to see rah-rah attitudes for what applicants do, and now to see online profiles or reputations that the goals of their industries. And all of this in a world where many industries have been discredited by corruption or at least a lack of transparency. I remember the descriptions that ex-employees gave of the atmosphere at Enron before it collapsed.

Truth is, many people work under extreme pressure to meet short-term goals, and are not allowed to question the business models that they live in at any deeper level. Until things crash. And now that really gets outrageous when employers check up on “online reputation,” compared to business goals that may be forced on applicants by family circumstances.

For purely technical people, it ought to be better. Yet, we’ve seen a lot of hype in recent years about the demand for techies to move into sales.

Particularly for college or grad students: if you get to focus on problems you want to solve, then this is all fine. Take the right courses. Stay in that area. Get paid to solve real problems that need to be fixed to get out of this economic mess, or to prevent some of the freedoms online that now seem so precarious from collapsing.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Offshoring up slightly in 2009 but a new IT labor shortage will be real, even in recession


Phil Fersht has an article in CIO “Will the U.S. Recession Mean the End of Offshore Outsourcing?: The economic recession in the U.S., and President-elect Barack Obama's tax incentive plan, will change the economics of some business process outsourcing areas. Could offshoring go the way of the dinosaur?” The link is here. The article stresses the need for improving technology and basic science education, but admits that many of the individual contributor, coding and unit testing jobs have been effectively offshored and that pull back is not that likely. But companies are likely to find the need to keep a huge number of areas of specialized talent, ranging from security to capacity planning, onshore. Recession might actually discourage offshoring in some cases, and president elect Obama has pledged to help companies keep their jobs onshore.

Jason Hiner refers to this article in his Tech Republic “Sanity Check: The IT Labor Shortage Is Real and Offshoring Is Overblown” (except for COBOL programmers, maybe). The link is here. The article has plenty of “Jake Gyllenhaal’s pie charts” (Rendition) that show that offshoring is still a small part of IT budgets, although it will increase somewhat in 2009. The link is here.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Health Care may offer the largest number of jobs in recession (I.T. or not)


Ali Velshi and others on CNN “In the Money” discussed the side “Health Care Jobs” today. 20% of all new jobs in the United States are in health care. Many jobs apparently require only a high school diploma. Home Health Aides make about $20 K a year and provide personal care. Some of the jobs are “live in” that tend to appeal to immigrants or poorer people. Moving up are doctor’s assistants, making about $27 K a year, who do the administrative work in an office (billing, health insurance and Medicare submission, appointments, charts, tests, prescriptions) and also setting up Medical examination offices and sometimes assisting with medical tests. The show said that people could work as pharmacy assistants for about $26K a year with two years community college, that people could become nurses (practical nurses) with two years training.

Previous television reports have covered mid-life career switches to nursing, sometimes with the help of government programs, in rust belt communities displaced by plant closings. Most of these jobs require working "intimately" with people rather than abstract things.

I have also heard people talk about courses in medical billing and procedure coding jobs.

The CNN segment made a lot of the observation that health care jobs can’t be offshored (except maybe some of the procedure coding jobs), although that’s not strictly true. Radiologists overseas sometimes view examination results by broadband.

The idea of such a career conversion post retirement may be much more problematical, since it still requires extensive training, not always practical for people in their 60s.

I’ve had two information technology positions in health care. The first was COBOL programming for Medicaid MMIS Mars Reporting at Bradford National Corporation from 1977 to early 1979 in New York City (on New York State Medicaid). Management always said that health care was a good career move. I made the move to switch to IBM mainframe from the Univac 1108/1110. Then I moved to Dallas and worked on the Combined Medicare Project, sponsored by a Blue Cross and Blue Shield consortium, and did back-end utilization review reporting design, but we never implemented because the project was canceled.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

ABC "Good Morning America" sponsors jobs clubs; anyone can join or start one


Today, ABC News “Good Morning America” jobs correspondent Tory Johnson today debuted her “Jobs Club”, from Atlanta. The link here offers the opportunity for anyone to join a job club in his or her own geographical area in any country.

The joining script asks if you want to start a jobs club or join and existing one, and offers the opportunity to submit a photograph or video (business clothes and good taste, please!) but I declined that portion.

I found that it would not take a second line on an address (like an apartment number, mandatory often for mail delivery). This seems to be an editing problem with USPS “Code1” postal address format.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

"Elance" site matches contracting positions to immediate needs, all over the world


The web site “ELance” may help a lot of IT people find short term contract work (or even longer term work), and many small businesses and individuals get very specific jobs done. Payment is done when the job is completed. The buzzword is "Get Work Done."

There is a “Find Professionals” tab that lists small consulting companies and professionals all over the world, and allows customers to rate them. There is a “Find Work” tab that opens on a very interesting table of the number of jobs in each specific skill area. Interesingly, “social networking” and “Myspace” are listed as desired skills. It’d interesting that COM programming is still in greater demand than .NET. I wonder what that means.

I can remember when, in the early 1990s during a previous recession, pay for "piecework" was being suggested as an antidote for job loss, with the Lincoln Electric Company in Ohio being presented as an example of the concept.

The site was shown on NBC-Washington’s News at 6 tonight.

Monday, November 10, 2008

"Keep your Myspace page private or take it down" a career counselor advises, quite bluntly


The Career News this morning has a bruque posting “Things the election taught us about job interviews,” link here. Career News says that the posting came (abridged) from Usnews, a periodical known for brevity and high-level stories, but I couldn’t find it online there.

There is a rather blunt command in this piece of “advice”: ” Stay professional on the Internet. Make your MySpace page private or take it down. You need to make sure that whatever you post there, you'd also want on your resume.” (Sorry, when I titled this posting I changed the "make" to "keep". What's done is done.)

That sounds like the job applicant is weak and powerless, begging for a job that, given this economy, the employer can yank away at any time (particularly it it’s GM). Or, perhaps it expresses the moral sentiment that no one has a right to be “famous” until he “pays his dues.” Is there a bit of turf protection going on here? I find the appearance of such an attitude like this in a career newsletter quite offputting. I wonder how others think. The notion that the recent election campaign and "Saturday Night Live" candidate impersonations would lead to a career page posting like this is just plain bizarre.

True, it you don’t feel “publicly” proud of the work you do for a living, maybe you shouldn’t have the job.

By the way, I did find an older article from August 2008 in US News, “7 Signs Your Interview Went Well.” No belligerence here.

The bottom line, for me on this issue of personal blogs or profiles and the workplace, it all depends on what the job is, and how public the job is going to be.

Picture: My giving a talk about my writings at a Unitarian Church near Minneapolis, 2002

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Should community service appear on an I.T. resume?


Vickie Elmer, in a lead article in the “Jobs” section of the Washington Post, Nov. 9, recommends that a section of your resume comprise volunteer activities. The article is called “Workplace success starts with civility,” link here.

It’s a good question of volunteer activities belong if they are not related to the job, or if they suggest a political or religious affiliation (unless the employer is in that area). I wonder what people think of this.

Back around 1991 (during a difficult economy), I saw a cover letter to a mainframe information technology resume that offered to "volunteer" at first, in a company that did hire interns at the time.

Volunteer work may be more relevant in applying for a first job. Susan J. Ellis recommends “Put Volunteer Work on a Resume,” link in "Charity Guide" here. While some people will call a secrion of their resumes “Community Service” Ellis recommends integrating it with work experience if possible.

Nevertheless, Community Service experience may become more relevant if society comes to expect it more in tune with harder times, especially as a president who has talked a lot about national service takes office.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

More on using "Avue Central" for "Uncle Sam" jobs


Well, I went through my first submission through the Avue Central site (see this blog Oct 31), this job with the Library of Congress.

The short essay questions for the job, called "KSA's" are already posted at USAJobs for the position, and they are reproduced here again as "KSA's or competencies," with the applicant's essay answer called "supporting information." The Avue site provides more specific instructions as to answering the questions. Typically, even though the questions sound general, the applicant should list specific accomplishments along with specific hardware of software applications or areas mastered. The answers should be narrowly tailored, however, to the job sought.

I did run into some quirks. First, in the Work History, the site has added some mandatory items (including hours worked), and a highest promotable grade for federal jobs. If you save the history, it will tell you that you have some incomplete items without telling you which one. You have to reupdate every work history item manually to find it. For federal jobs, it expects you to know the grade you had, and it checks for conflicts in the highest promotion potential field (it must be filled in for every position) and also for “highest grade held on a permanent basis in the competitive service” . That’s supposedly an optional field, but it still looks for conflicts.

Furthermore the system will tell you that you have missed mandatory “red” items and it will seem that this comes from the work history, when actually it comes from basic items like confirming eligibility.

You also have to certify the application once you have fixed all mandatory errors. If you look at your list of applications, the system will say “Completed Application” when actually it still wants you to certify it. If you run the cursor over the “completed application” you see the mnemonic “apply” which starts the certification. You haven’t completed the application until you get the “Thank You” screen. AvueCentral also may send you an email warning you that you haven’t completed your profile (particularly the language mastery section and geographical areas experience section, which may seem superfluous to many jobs, but it is required that it be filled out).

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Services for managing hiring and background checks develop; but the HR world needs to work on the "online reputation management" problem now!


ICIMS is a New Jersey company that provides talent management systems and software. The basic website is here. The underlying business concept is called “The ICIMS Talent Platform.” It has many components, pre-hire, post-hire, workforce planning, and “offboarding” (including outplacement).

Employment Background Investigations (EBI) is a company which, as its name suggests, provides background check services to employers. The company offers a Background Screening Management Center called MyEBI, with descriptive web link here.

Back in August 2006, ICims announced a partnership with Employment Background Investigations to allow users of ICIMS applicant tracking software to integrate background checks and applicant drug screening into their IRecruiter Applicant Tracking Solution (trademarked). The "Resume Miners" press release was here.

All of this is of interest because of the controversy brewing in the past three years over “online reputation management” and the tendency for many employers to do covert “background checks” with search engines, exposing them to the likelihood of misidentification, or from influence from hostile or possibly libelous posts made by others about an applicant. I could not see any evidence that either company specifically mentions this problem on its website, however iCIMS has said to media that it has definite feelings that something constructive should be done to address this problem in the HR world. This is an issue that ought to be addressed systematically by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM).

I would suggest that employers (at least “mainstream” employers) ought to state the following on their websites in sections where they make their job postings, in a conspicuous and transparent manner:

(1) State the employee blogging policy, broken down by job category as appropriate
(2) State to job applicants which online materials will be searched and looked at, and how they could affect hiring decisions.
(3) Allow applicants to submit relevant materials, including rebuttals to any libelous content, or any information (as, for example, about screennames or nicknames) that would prevent employers from finding the wrong person.

Employers should be flexible in designing blogging policies. They should have different policies for different jobs. A lobbyist or someone who works in public relations is obviously more exposed to conflict that a computer programmer who works “internally”. Associates who have the power to make decisions about others (whether subordinates, students who are graded, or customers subject to underwriting concerns) are more likely to create “conflict of interest” or workplace disturbance or legal complications with personal postings, than would be individual contributors (with no authority over others). In all cases, associates need to protect confidential information and realize that sometimes privileged information can be inferred from more general postings by others who may know the individual. Employers may want to prohibit mention of the company in conjunction with the expression of personal opinions, but that may not always be sufficient protection against risks.

Some staffing companies who send consultants to clients may believe that they have reason to be concerned about the “online reputation” of consultants. They may fear that clients will not want them if they can find derogatory material (even if false) about consultants online. They may want the consultant to limit his online exposure to “expertise” in specific technical areas. But this may not be a realistic expectation even given the practices of the information technology consulting area, since the growth of the industry has been so unpredictable and many consultants obviously have to shift gears frequently and don’t have vanilla track records of progressive “expertise.”

School districts also are concerned about the “online reputation” of teachers and a few have said that they actually check for this online now. But there would be legal issues because teachers, as public employees, have First Amendment rights that trump until their speech can cause disruption in the school environment, a possibility that is often difficult to predict.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Are salaried employees ever entitled to overtime?


Toni Bowers of Tech Republic has a short blog entry warning employers that sometimes exempt employees may be entitled to overtime pay. The entry is called “Are salaried employees entitled to overtime pay?” with the link here.

I remember when I started working in 1970 that the colloquial definition of exempt from the boss was, “you don’t have to punch a time clock.” That kind of turns the spin around, doesn’t it!

She provides the California labor code as a reference, with some notations below of the possible “benefits” that exemption can deprive an employee of.

The relevant federal law is the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 which starts on the Cornell law database here with section 201. If you press “Next” to get to section 213 you get the federal definition of exempt status.

The blog post’s point is that it is possible that an employer might set up a job as “salaried” and not meet the letter of federal and state laws; in which case overtime must be paid (sometimes it is straight time).

Since programmers are “individualistic” and tend (like their employers” to believe in “the right to work” and resist unionization, and since the job demands “perfection” once a system is in a production environment, there is a tendency for some employees to get caught in spirals of uncontrollable overtime. Experienced IT professionals learn work habits and strategies (such as using test protocols and source management or elevation packages properly) that reduce the risk of problems. That becomes part of one’s “universe.” Employees often have to be on-call and be able to respond to production problems, which increasingly may be done from home, subject to security concerns. But well run shops try to offer employees compensatory time for overtime done in emergencies.

W-2 contracts, where employees are sent to clients by personnel firms, often pay hourly, although corp-to-corp arrangements where employees get full salary and benefits from the staffing firms are becoming more common again. That makes sense in an environment where the staffing companies want to deploy consultants with good “reputations” for work and specific expertise.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Federal I.T. jobs tend to list much more general requirements than do private contractor jobs


I have tried looking at the federal government information technology jobs in the Washington DC area, at this link, which allows one to choose a geographical location and a jobs area. The basic web link is here.

What comes up is about six pages of jobs. A number of the federal jobs do seem to be related to hardware or maintaining office networks. But maybe half of them seem to relate to general areas of project management and particularly supervising or monitoring the progress of contractors. Relatively few of them seem to require coding, because actual coding and unit testing (and probably QA testing) is most often done by private “Beltway Bandit” contracting companies.

The requirements for some of the jobs tend to be general, stressing education and years in grade (or equivalent private sector), along with certain general levels of skill with areas like SDLC (systems development life cycle), project management and contract management.

This could be a good time for someone who “retired” to start following these jobs closely, partly because the financial crisis might generate some needs in areas like Treasury, IRS, SEC, FDIC, (or even PBGC), etc, with needs having to do with credit lines, bank takeovers or federal infusions of capital into various institutions connected to the bailout. Some of these would seem to require some “old fashioned” financial systems changes of major magnitude.

Typically, one submits a generic application resume on the USA Jobs site (which does not allow enough space for work experience). Then, to apply for a specific job, one also must answer some essay questions that are scored with the applications. These questions have to do with general “metrics” for the job. People with military service will want to read the rules for veteran’s preference carefully. A few agencies (especially those related to homeland security or defense) require the applicant to resubmit the entire resume on a separate site (typically allowing much more room for detailed narratives of work experience) along with questions related to a possible background investigation. This separate site is usually Avue Central Digital Services.

An interesting example for someone of my background is a position that closes today 09-DC-002-D in the US Attorneys Office (unfortunately, it closes today, 10/31). Since I have spent a lot of time since retirement researching Internet law and technology “nexus” issues, this general area might provide a fit.

Nevertheless, look at two of these “general” requirement metrics:

“(1) Proficiency with a variety of software programs used to produce graphic demonstrative evidence;
“(2) Proficiency with a variety of courtroom presentation technology and computer applications used to prepare effective presentations of evidence and other information at trial”
Even though they sound general, they say that the applicant needs to have proficiency with software packages that law enforcement agencies use to present evidence. A simple example comparable in private industry might be graphics applications used in the auto and casualty insurance industries to process claims.

One of the biggest problems in the private contractor job market has been the excessive focus on specific “job ready” skills. Companies say this is necessary to place “job ready” candidates with clients (true) and also to keep employee selection objective and beyond the reach of any possible discrimination claims. That has some merit, too. Even in the government, the job requirements, even though they look more general (typically they don’t name specific software programs or vendors, whereas private jobs do), actually see, to look for a pattern of expertise in an area closely matching what the agency actually has to do.

Of course, what government and industry need now is real leadership, the ability to “connect the dots” among areas to see underlying trends and perhaps nasty threats, even to our way of life. Unfortunately, too many of these jobs in government are politically connected and lose any hope of objectivity in the way the jobs are actually done. Look at what has happened in the last eight years.

The applicable regulations regarding age discrimination in government start with the Age Discrimination Act of 1967, described by the EEOC here:

According to the Handbook of Human Resources Management in Government, on p 384, the law originally protected individuals from ages 40 to 65. In 1978 the upper limit was raised to 70 and then eliminated altogether on Jan 1, 1987, link here.

Remember those days of filling out Form 171 for Civil Service? In this day and economy, even "early retirees" may start looking at "Uncle Sugar".

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The "factoring" industry could provide alternate careers during credit crunch: taking advantage of recession?


Former information technology people (or people in “transition” with out of date skills) sometimes listen to sales pitches from other kinds of businesses, and one of these is the cash flow industry. Cash flow companies typically pay sellers of services or goods and then settle later with purchasers, for a commission (sometimes immediate, sometime on settlement).

Another term is “factoring companies,” and the Washington Post had an article in the Business Section, page D1, “Businesses go to source of fast cash”, by Anita Huslin, on Monday, Oct. 27 2008, link here. These companies are likely to expand and conduct more hotel seminars as the credit crunch plays out. Typically, the company will have a paid TV slot on a weekend to introduce itself, have a two-hour free session at a hotel for the public, and then schedule a weekend seminar to train and qualify cash flow agents. The sales pitch will claim that the training cost is reduced, but it may typically be $3000 or more even after “discount.” I attended a freebie two-hour session in 2004 (when the economy was close to its peak). They told us all you needed was a fax and cell phone. It sounds like a laptop and secure wireless Internet would help. The industry would be active everywhere in the country, and possibly more active in the more depressed areas.

Like any other industry, cash flow works for some people if they get in early, are aggressive, and build up a base of clients. It obviously can’t work for everyone any more than can any other sales quasi-pyramid. And it may not appeal to IT people, who are used to working alone and developing content rather than selling. But we’ve debated the topic “can techies sell?” before.

The American Cash Flow Institute has an FAQ page here.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Traveling with a work laptop (not a lap dog!) What are the rules?


Susan Harkins has an interesting piece today on Tech Republic about how to travel with a laptop computer, especially a work laptop. It is called “Seven rules for flying with a laptop: share these tips with clients,” link here.

I can remember the days when you had to start your laptop in the airport security line, which meant that you took the trouble to make sure that the battery had been fully charged. Now the technique is to swab for plastic explosives, which is done with almost all devices.

It’s important to remember is that, in TSA security or at border checkpoints, “you have no rights regarding your laptop.” A government can seize it without giving reason. Apparently this usually applies to international fights (or to driving across a border). The last time I had a laptop of my own was in Canada, Labor Day weekend, 2001. I still remember reading a bizarre email in the motel room in Thunder Bay and deleting it, thinking it was spam. In retrospect, I’m not so sure.

Your laptop is a carry-on item. It is not a good idea to pack it in luggage.

The concerns are greater today because sensitive data can be lost. Employers should have policies regarding what information may be on company laptops that are taken on business trips.

A good question would be, at which border crossings in Europe on train do you need to be concerned about a laptop? Presumably not within the EU. What about when traveling to Russia or through former Soviet republics? That would make another good article.

What happens when traveling in the middle East? Is there a problem if you visit Egypt and Israel on the same trip? What are the practices of destinations like Dubai? That would also make a good story.

It sure is easier today if your job does not require travel (particularly international travel). If you have a job at all. A laptop is not a lap dog!

Friday, October 24, 2008

Work Habits: Suze Orman lectures on Oprah; I.T. people ponder them


Earlier this week, home finance guru Suze Orman talked on Oprah about family chores and allowances – she preferred that parents pay a small per-minute wage for helping the family out.

She said this is necessary for learning good work habits, what my own father used to call “learning to work” when he would fine me 10 cents for missing a string of taller grass when mowing the lawn.

In information technology, however, work habits take on several meanings. In the consulting world, it takes on a lot of concerns about following development and implementation methodologies precisely, and in coding habits. Since much more code today is written by software vendors rather than in-house (compared to how things were three decades ago) clean, consistent and self-documenting code according to strict standards becomes necessary. In the early days of mainframe computing, it took programmers (myself included) some time to digest the expectations of maintainable code and of following coding standards. Often we wound up maintaining someone else’s “spaghetti code.” Another aspect of work habits was following implementation procedures correctly. Modern automated source management (like Endeavor) guarantees the integrity of what is moved to QA and then to production, but staff has to pay enough attention to learn to use it properly.

But in practice “work habits” refers also to a certain kind of self-discipline. It can include the ability to work under conditions or regimentation (the military being the extreme end-point) or usual hours, the old “pay your dues” concept.

It can also refer to the ability to deal with the tedium of guaranteeing absolute accuracy of something in a small but vulnerable environment. In early 1989, I remember spending three weeks hand-checking internal calculations (with listings, and very low tech, with no computer in the room) of a health care Medicare payments simulation model. This turned out to be a good thing when a client challenged us, and we were able to prove that a discrepancy resulted from the government’s COBOL code (we had the source) rather than ours. A few months later, when our small business was acquired under presumably benevolent circumstances (saving our jobs) I had to drive down to Richmond over a weekend (I was paid for this) and make manual open-reel copies on conventional tape of all of our files. Yes, that’s all simple JCL with IEBGENER’s and Syncsort’s and referbacks, but it had to be done exactly right, or we had no business. I printed hardcopy JCL listings and kept them under the mattress, rather like they were cash today. I drove them back along I-95 Sunday afternoon with the tapes in my trunk. In these days of data loss and identity theft, no company would handle something this way today, but “those were the days” long before such concerns. I got it right; nothing went wrong. A simple, repetitive job that had to be exactly right, with little use of innovative technology. Suze Orman’s lectures about workplace virtue (even as taught in the family) remind me of those days.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

How companies should protect themselves from dishonest employees


Bill Detwiler has a Tech Republic video blog entry, “Five Ways to Keep Your Own IT Staff from Stealing Company Secrets.” The 5 minute film may be viewed here. Detwiler requests user feedback at his “ITdojo” link here.

One of the most important observations is that security is totally impersonal. He talks about the “rule of least privilege” and insists that programmers not be given any more production access than absolutely necessary, and when it is necessary, it should be temporary. He also discusses rapid rotation of passwords in “auto repositories”. The number of employees with administrative domain access should be limited by job necessity and should be in a separate area. A company should practice “separation of functions” in doing its work. It should also be impossible for administrators to change passwords or for people to change sensitive data without other personnel in separate areas and without contact with the employees being able to monitor it.

When I was working in mainframe IT, there were programmers who felt that security was a pain and thought that the solution was to have all programmers bonded. But the practical risk to data loss and concern about it has risen astronomically since about 2000 with many reported breaches of supposedly secure customer data in many organizations.

Companies need to be more careful about possible conflicts of interest than in the past, and that could even lead to probing employees' off-job online activity for conflicts (related to the controversial "reputation defense" problem often mentioned here).

Detwiler also suggests that when an employee is terminated (or even given notice of layoff for budgetary and non for performance reasons) his or her access should be disabled immediately and the person should be quickly escorted away from the work areas, processed through Human Resources for severance and outplacement benefits, and then leave the area,

I was on the phone with an internal client when I got a Netware message on Dec. 13, 2001 that my account had been “disabled.” My own IT career, as I knew it at the time had, after 31 years of stability (only one other layoff, way back in 1971 – and I would actually return to that company, in a way, later), taken a cardiac arrest at age 58. There was no defibrillator. I did finish the phone call with the client.

Monday, October 20, 2008

From programming to business, and perhaps legal, analysis: new trends in soft skills


Susan Hawkins has an interesting short blog entry on Tech Republic today about the merging of career responsibilities in “information technology” and “business analysis.”

The piece is called “Are you an IT professional, a business analyst, or both, here.

Many companies, especially in financial services, have had job descriptions for “programmer”, “programmer-analyst”, “systems analyst” and “business analyst.” Since the 1980s, these jobs have tended to merge. At one time, a systems analyst wrote program specs for programmers, sometimes following a development methodology like Pride-Logik or SDM-70. Specs were often written in pseudocode, which tended to become much more like real code (especially given today’s OOP languages). The “programmer analyst” did his own specs and implementation.

Over time, companies started outsourcing much of their development to software companies like EDS, Perot Systems, Vantage (“rules the world”), Unisys, Computer Sciences, IBM, and the like, and eventually, especially after Y2K, to overseas companies. Although some of this activity may return because of economic conditions (and because of security concerns and the urgency of some projects, perhaps associated with the recent bailouts and credit problems), the information technology field has tended to shift emphasis toward architecture and business analysis, apart from those individuals who are very deep into specific coding technologies, where job requirements tend to be very narrow.

Business analysts can face a quandary. They may be assigned to develop systems whose assumptions they come to perceive as not sustainable. (Think of how the people who designed all the systems around credit default swaps feel now.) But what’s really interesting is the novel nature of the problems of tomorrow’s jobs, which may involve joining law with technology and public policy. Very few programmers have a real grasp of the long term legal and policy consequences of what they code and launch (just think about the origin of Napster, which took a teenage Shawn Fanning about 60 hours on a laptop). Knowing, with long term prescience, the right thing to do can be more challenging than knowing how to do it. That may be the next job market force.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Some notes on Windows vs. Linux


Jack Wallen of Tech Republic has an important paper today on considerations in deciding whether an business (typically a smaller business) should convert from a windows-based to a Linux platform. The title is “10 Questions to Ask Before Migrating to Linux.” The document is a PDF, free but requires registration and can be downloaded from this link.

Most major applications (like Adobe) have Linux equivalents. But the critical issue seems to be selecting a “desktop metaphor” for associates. Employees will have to learn different practices and techniques for removable media.

Another issue is whether your company purchases outside technical support. It’s interesting that he mentions Debian as presenting support issues; with the one-person ISP that I used from 1997-2001, I used Debian for my statistical reports on my domain (now it’s all Urchin).

He also suggested considering employee experience. He says that there is little practical difference between Open Office and Microsoft Office.

In view of Wallen’s paper, visitors may want to look an older IBM position paper, by David Mertz, from 2004: “Linux on Mac: A Power Programmer’s Primer: Your favorite operating system isn’t only for X86”, here. I played around with terminal mode on my iMac back in 2002 but found little reason to deal with it. But when I had support problems with Apple (particularly with the DVD burner), they would dictate commands over the phone in their proprietary scripting language that resembled Unix and Linux commands but were their own.

An associate of mine from the 1990s developed a version of GNU/Linux that fits on one 1.44 floppy. I actually tried a version of it a few years ago on an old 386 Everex laptop, and it worked. It’s called “Tom’s Root Boot” and you can learn about it at this link. For Tom, feline curiosity is the greatest of virtues.

Monday, October 13, 2008

"SHRM" has report "Best Practices in HR Technology"


The Society for Human Resources Management (Alexandria, VA) today (Oct 13) emailed a link to its new PDF report “Best Practices in HR Technology.” Some of the systems offered include Ultimate Software, Success Factors Research, SumTotal, Workscape, Taleo, Kronos, Skillsoft, Plateau, and Halogen Softeare.

The report emphasized several areas, including “green learning”, which would include telecommuting (even given security implications) and paperless processing (which would mean creativity and automation would be needed in archiving QA test results in an information technology environment). There was also a lot of emphasis on talent management, because the job market needs have become so specialized. There was also discussion of offshoring and a “remote labor force.”

The thirteen-page report is report is available free to those registered recipients on SHRM’s email list. But there is no URL to view the report directly.

The report did not get into “best practices” for “reputation management”, given the controversies about “online reputation” often discussed recently on these blogs. There is a definite need for the HR world to address this systematically because of liability exposures that could live down the road.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Financial blogger sees need for "financial transparency" an opportunity for I.T.


Paul Kedrosky, a financial blogger and analyst with Ten Asset Management, from San Diego, commented on Yahoo! today that the credit crisis and bear market could provide another opportunity for tech companies. That is, “average investors” need democratization of information, without a $1700 a month Bloomberg terminal. He says in a video (above) that Yahoo! is on the right track in providing much more financial information than ever before, including bond history. He also mentioned CME. He mentions the need to link information various kinds of instruments, even credit default swaps. The video is available on Yahoo! here.

That would seem again to argue for information technology jobs in designing databases relating information in novel ways, even including demographics that could eventually affect markets.

His own blog "Infectious Greed" is here.

He is absolutely right. It is quite feasible to imagine a website (or reorganization of a Yahoo! or CNBC page) that structures worldwide financial information (including LIBOR, TED, etc) and derivatives that makes what is going on much more transparent to the public without paying for expertise. I've tried to do the same with social and political information with my "doaskdotell" site.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Does I.T. really benefit from a recession, sometimes?


Patrick Gray has an important column in Tech Republic (Oct. 7), “How to Recession-proof IT”, with link here.

Typically, in a contracting environment, departments come up with projects based on “creative destruction” such as running an enterprise on fewer or less expensive servers. Sometimes they hire consultants with expertise on contraction-related activity, or capacity planning skills.

But there are often projects that come about because of regulatory requirements or government actions taken in relation to a problem or crisis. The recent “bailout” is potentially an obvious example, and it is likely to follow suit around the world in various forms (projects related to coordinating efforts among different European countries, for example). Sometimes the projects get staffed quickly. Other examples include Medicaid (MMIS), and the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), and various state welfare programs. Typically, companies look to fill contractor positions very quickly with application-area specific experience.

In the current economic crisis, it would seem logical that there would soon emerge a demand for people with experience in credit channel processing, and particularly with mortgage valuations and securities. Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac experience, even in the past, could turn out to be a good thing in IT -- just to help the Treasury Department and Fed figure out this mess..

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Will the "Bailout" lead to government's needing to hire mainframe programmers quickly?


Does the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008 (the Bailout) actually create some I.T. jobs, especially in the Washington DC area?

All of this is speculative. But the Treasury Department is talking about having to hire “experts” immediately to figure out how to value “toxic assets”. It’s not clear whether they would be contractors (probable) or new GS employees. This sort of question has already been posed with respect to the channel credit system (previous post).

Presumably, new systems would have to be written to assess the assets and monitor their purchase, sometimes by “reverse auction.”

This actually could be good for the old mainframe job market. The sort of applications needed would be more your old-fashioned grindhouse financial processing, a lot of it in COBOL with older mainframe technologies like CICS, databases, and automated batch cycles, the kind familiar in financial institutions and the basis of IT jobs 15 years ago, until Y2K. The government would probably be more likely to do this with contractor companies (like EDS, Perot, CA, IBM, etc) than its own, who might be more likely to do the business analysis and supervision With something so critical, it doesn’t make sense (to me at least) to offshore work that is so sensitive to India.

If a lot of the data crunching is to be mainframe style, it presents an issue. The mainframe job market tanked right after Y2K and then 9/11, and since then has been carried out mostly by sort-term contracts where people live in extended stay corporate apartments and travel around the country, using the same expertise (often in areas like MMIS, welfare systems, currency conversions, and the like). The IRS supposedly looks for specialized experience in old mainframe assembler – it’s evaporated. Presumably the economic crisis would create some projects at the Fed as well as the Treasury, most of it old-fashioned.

Yup, a lot of us “retired” – we were driven out. There’s constant talk that the mainframe market will revive, but the people are no longer around. Nobody wants to do this kind of work any more, conventional wisdom says. Some of us, who used to watch those end-of-month cycles 15 to 20 years ago, are in our sixties now.

I will take a look at this quickly. I don’t rule anything out. This could turn out to be an opportunity. It could develop urgently, as the need to get the work started is almost immediate. It’s going to be interesting. Maybe it's at least a boon to the headhunters. Dust off those Murach textbooks.

Later, Oct. 4:

There are news stories now about how the Treasury is hiring individuals and firms to get started.

Bloomberg has a story by By Rebecca Christie and Robert Schmidt, "Treasury to Hire Asset Management Firms to Jumpstart Rescue," link here.

The New York Times has a story by Mark Lander and Edmund Andrews, "For Treasury Dept., Now Comes Hard Part of Bailout," link here.

Update: Jan. 12, 2009

Here is the link for the US Treasure Department's "TARP Jobs" as advertised in the Washington Post (Jan 11, 2009, p F6). Skills wanted are financial equity analysis, risk management, and compliance. "TARP" stands for "Troubled Asset Relief Program."