Sunday, May 25, 2008

Layoffs: the stuff of screenplays

I recall the day that my own conventional information technology career experienced its cardiac arrest. On Thursday, December 13, 2001, I received a message like the one shown above (simulated) through Netware from the company’s security department. I was talking to a client and solving a problem, and continued the conversation. I logged off as requested, and found I could not log on. I called the help desk. They said they would check. Then, at 9:10 my manager stood next to my cubicle and said, “Bill, we have a meeting.”

I was prepared. I had already figured out what severance was due, and I was correct to the penny. I could come back to my desk and stayed on the payroll formally through Dec. 31, but I never got access again. The same thing happened to thirteen other people that morning. When I got back to my desk, I got a call from the help desk saying that my account really was disabled.

We had been told by email Monday that we all had to be in the office that day for “an important announcement” about reorganization. That’s a tip off.

In fact, I had experienced difficulty logging on the evening before.

T.M. Shine has an amusing tale of his own layoff in The Washington Post Magazine today, on p 10, “Terminated: Desperately seeking Plan B”, link here.
The link "Dispatches from a Victim of the New American Reality" for his public discussion (with reader questions) at the Post will be here.

He was laid off while at lunch. He talks about people not being allowed to go back to their desks. His "Shine Time" Blogger site is here. He is getting a lot of comments (including mine.)

I’ve heard of other office tales. In one case, people said, “I want to go next.” The boss said, if you have another job, don’t quit first (so you get severance).

In a suburb of Minneapolis, Prudential had a mass layoff on Feb. 4, 1999 of its IT department, whose functions were to be taken over in Newark NJ. That sounds like a strange thing to do before Y2K. The tipoff was that when people came to work, even as early as 6 AM, nobody could log on. “We knew,” one staffer said. The announcement came about 9:30. Then they went out to Applebees.

The New York Times Business section has a featured story by Sarah Kershaw, “Wall Street Exodus: Fear, Panic and Anger”, link here. This time the layoffs seem to be quiet and stealthy. Many times the “extended” severance agreements include not only a “release of all claims” (an agreement not to sue) but also an agreement not to disparage the company publicly or sometimes disclose the severance. Sometimes non-compete agreements are still enforced by severance agreements.

Visitors may enjoy Heather Armstrong's account of her being "dooced" (fired because of a personal website) here. At least her accounts touch this subject tangentially.


“A certain scientist, Galileo’s contemporary, was no more stupid than Galileo. He knew that the earth revolves, but he had a family. And when he got into a carriage with his wife, after accomplishing his betrayal, he reckoned he was advancing his career, but in fact he’d wrecked it.” Yevtushenko, “A Career,” text for last movement of Shostakovich Symphony #13, London CD 17261.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Working from home: economically attractive, but "is it safe"?

Should employers of people who work from home audit the security of the home work arrangements of associates? I haven’t seen much written about it. But there are numerous observations that can be made.

One is that generally the safest environment exists if an employer’s VPN or other network is set up properly. However, some jobs, such as home agents for call centers, exist where people use their own cable or broadband service to connect to various applications, and might in some cases even have their own home WI-FI networks. Some insurance agents work this way. Furthermore, many people bring diskettes or laptops home to work with, and many homes are not as secure as offices or perhaps highrise condos or apartments. Or data may be transported in automobiles. There have been many instances of compromise of customer data based on the fact that employees generally cannot provide security on their own that is equivalent to what a large company or government or military agency can provide. Countering this observation is the expectation that someone who works from home is physically present at home more of the time, improving home and neighborhood security.

Some companies are, in fact, fussy about this. Some customer service employers don’t allow associates to work on home computers that also contain personal applications or data. Some may not want to work with associates who have other personal or business activities that could attract hacks. Almost every company requires a hardwired land connection (broadband cable and backup second phone land), because of the belief that wireless is not as stable or secure. In the future, this will probably change. Subscription hotspot services from major companies are more secure than the free services in hotels or internet cafes, and business should be connected on secure connections with encryption anyway. I did address some of these concerns on this blog in August 2007.

This is an evolving area, and “the right way” to do things needs to be nailed down. More employees will work from home as oil prices rise and long distance commuting becomes even more difficult. On the other hand, the development of regional “telecommuting centers” could help offer alternatives with safe working environments and short commutes. This may be the way to go for many companies.

FedTech has an interesting article: “Data Security’s Achilles Heel: Are employees who work occasionally from home potentially sabotaging agencies’ best efforts at protecting government information?” by Heather B. Hayes, link here. The same would hold true for private employers with consumer data. CERT, at Carnegie Mellon, offers this fact sheet on home network security.

Monday, May 19, 2008

I.T. generally a good career choice for introverts; some career advice is puzzling; loot at the MBTI polarity charts

I remember taking some personality tests during outplacement with Right Management in 2002, and I believe they were the Myers-Biggs. This well known test results in a matrix of personality traits, color coded: there are several axes: Extraversio-Introversion (roughly what Paul Rosenfels calls “polarity”) Sensing or Intuition, Thinking or Feeling, Judging or Perceiving. All of these are related to “polarity” and “balanced or unbalanced” personalities, or to “objectivity” and “subjectivity.” A userful MBTI link is here. The charts remind me of the Nolan Chart from "the World's Smallest Political Quiz."

On Sunday, May 18, The Washington Post ran, in the Jobs Section on page K1, a featured story by Vickie Elmer, “A lot of ways to win your game of solitaire,” about how introverts should handle the workplace,” link here. In January 2007 I had reviewed Marti Olsen Laney’s book “The Introvert Advantage” here

She gives two lists of best jobs for introverts, overall and best-paying. She includes Computer software engineer (for both applications and systems software) on both lists. But some of the other choices are surprising. “Financial analyst” sounds analytical, but in practice financial planners have to go out and schmooze for business like insurance agents. She gives lawyer, but some introverts might like the adversarial nature of the legal profession, if intellectual objectivity is important to the personality. She gives medical scientist, but notes “except epidemiologist.” I don’t understand the exception. Is there too much interviewing of people? That shouldn’t be a problem when the interviewing is factual in nature, and epidemiology involves a lot of statistics. I would love to have been an epidemiologist (like James Curran) at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta when the AIDS epidemic broke out in the 1980s. I would wonder about intelligence analyst, say at the CIA.

I would also wonder about reporter or journalist, especially after my visit to the Ethics Center at the Newseum and an exercise as a “reporter.” Remember, Superman Clark Kent becomes a journalist, and actually in many of the Smallville episodes Clark is capable of a lot of introversion and soul-searching, especially in the earlier seasons. Yet, he is still “a man of action.”

Unfortunately, introversion comes across to some people as a "moral" problem, or at least one of stunted personality maturity, particularly to people who believe that anyone should be able to sell for a living. Maybe anyone should be able to sell what he or she worked on. Introversion actually has more to do with insistence on truth.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Competition v. Monopoly in I.T. -- it doesn't work the way they teach it in history books

One of the most important virtues in western capitalism is supposed to be competition. A lot of legal history deals with this, such as the anti-trust laws that one studies in American history, and that one sees mentioned all the time today when corporate mergers are proposed.

So, I wonder about how big monopolies evolved in the computer business. By the late 1970s, IBM had almost complete domination of the commercial mainframe “general purpose” computer business as far as operating systems were concerned. Univac, Burroughs, Data General, NCR, and RCA had all tried and been merged out of existence. RCA had emulated IBM’s languages but had different “JCL”; Data General eventually became important in the mini market. It’s true, IBM had various operating platforms: VM, DOS, MVS leading eventually to OD-390 and the ability to emulate other platforns. And other manufactures (Amdahl and Hewlitt-Packard) made mainframes that copied the IBM operating environment.

Why did this happen? This was not like the AT&T “regulated monopoly” of the phone business of the 1970s. Part of the reason is that IBM came to control the job market. Employing managers came to expect IBM experience in the various areas (including CICS and IMS), and programmers, to remain marketable, could no longer afford to build their careers around competitors. It is true that in the consulting business there was plenty of competition, but EDS led the pack for years. By the 90s, most major commercial shops had come to rely on mainframe software packages (like Vantage for life insurance, after the older VLN failed to thrive) and the job market started to expect detailed expertise in these packages.

But the market broke apart, starting in the late 80s (ironically in a business environment filled with hostile takeovers), as minis and the PC’s became more important, and then in the 90s with the rapid advance of the Internet. (At the same time, there was a spike in demand for old-school mainframe programmers to handle the phantom Y2K “problem”). But once again, one company started to dominate things: Microsoft. Apple would run a distant second, and some programmers would develop a theory that everyone should deploy Linux on PC’s. (Apple actually offers that in terminal mode but has its own proprietary scripting language.) Even with its monopolistic posture, Microsoft found it in its best interest of offer properly licensed software to PC’s for low prices that most hobbyists with a middle class income could afford. Some people think that the search engine market is now monopolized (by the company that hosts these blogs), but in such an arrangement, companies have offered consumers tremendous content and functional resources (including self-publishing and entrepreneurial income-generating opportunities), often for free, or often for minimal investment.

There are fewer PC manufacturers than there used to be (remember all the way back to TRS80, Atari, Osborn, Commodore, etc?) and only two or three major paradigms, yet prices, even with a falling dollar and international issues, seem to drop relative to capacity. Healthy competition in database software seems to exist (Oracle, Sybase, DB2, etc) partly because a lot of innovation continues and remains to be done. The same is true somewhat in software engineering and languages (java from Sun, C# from Microsoft, etc.) And recently, Microsoft has announced that it would participate in providing laptops to children in developing countries, with more announcements due as to just how they would work technically.

So on the information highway, the concept of “monopoly” doesn’t operate quite the way they teach it in history books.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Understanding analytic reporting software: important for webmaster, important for ISP tech support employees

If you’re developing a web business of any kind, for e-commerce (whether on the scale of Best Buy or a local kitchen) or for publishing (of the Dooce – Heather Armstrong variety) with advertising, one of the important areas in running the business is selecting and using analytics software and reports.

I’ve been accustomed to Urchin for about five years. Sometime ago it was acquired by Google, and most of the technical documentation about it is there. If you use shared web hosting for your website, you will have to call their tech support when there are issues with Urchin or any statistics package. In practice, one problem that occurs is that it seems to stop running. Typically, the ISP has paid for one “group” license for its operation for all of its subscribers in one data center. Actually, the ISP will keep logs (unparsed by customer) and periodically make your portion of the log visible, and run the reports periodically. Even if they stop running, the ISP will still have the data. But tech support persons answering phones often don’t know how to support the product, which requires quite a bit of knowledge to administer. The typical problems turn out to be whether the scheduler is running, or whether the log files are available or whether the stats database was corrupted (left open during a system stop). There may be problems with logs filling up and having to “switch”. In any case, there are elaborate procedures (in Unix or Windows environments) for the ISP to recapture your data and get your reports caught up. A typical references on this problem is this. Webmasters who encounter this problem and who use shared web hosting may want to poin this link out to their ISP. There is also an "Urchin Experts" FAQ page here.

From the point of view of an employee in a data center, familiarity with Urchin and with other analytics software sounds like an important job skill.

Bloggers and personal website owners can also subscribe to Google Analytics, which appears to focus more on human visitors (Urchin rolls in statistics from bots and robots also). There is an essay about this on Imulus by “George” here.

An important concept is the Bounce Rate, which relates to the percentage of visits that are “bounces” where a visitor does not leave the page within a specified time period (often 30 seconds). The Wiki discussion is here.
Bounce rates give an indication of the effectiveness of an entry page in attracting human traffic. Bounce rates are probably higher for blogs than for static sites, but the bounce rates on individual entries in blogs tend to go down with time as the number of visits counted increases.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008 weighs in on universally necessary IT skills

Now, weighs in on the essential skills in the IT job market, for almost “any job”. (We’ve seen plenty of stories like this on Tech Republic lately). Allan Hoffman, the Monster Tech Jobs Expert offers “Six Mist-Have IT Skills” here. Television station NBC4 in Washington placed this link on its Digital Edge link today.

I won’t steal his thunder by listing it all, but one of the skills he lists is networking. He thinks anyone should know how to set up an troubleshoot a home of office W-Fi network. That’s interesting. I don’t really need it at home with cable, but I can see the point: subscribe to a wireless service so you have secured access at hotspots around the country, and then base your home network on the wireless router. It may be a more reliable way to stay connected after storms or cable outages. It might be essential for entrpeneurs now. There are security issues to watch however. Many schools use W-Fi internally now.

He also says that everyone needs to become a handyman with Excel and Powerpoint, both of which have capabilities that many people don’t know how to use but might be called upon to do so for management presentations.

He also says, one needs “passion”. And, perhaps, curiosity, although the wrong curiosity could get you bounced.

Picture: Amtrak's National Train Day, Union Station, Washington DC, from Minot ND (where ING has its customer service center).

Friday, May 09, 2008

Some skills not so hot now, maybe (COBOL?)

Toni Bowers had an interesting column today on Career Management in the Tech Republic newsletter, “don’t expect these five high-tech skills to bring you more money”, link here (may need subscription) from the Tech Republic blogs:

One of the skills that is not doing as well is “legacy” programming languages like COBOL, probably mainframe ALC, and even PowerBuilder. One needs concentrated expertise in something like MMIS, HIPAA, case tools, DB2, various direct connect strategies. As far back as 2002, some recruiters predicted a return job market for COBOL programmers now in their 50s and 60s if companies had to take work back from overseas. What has developed is specialized niches, that may be becoming less specific. I’ve never seen a call for object-oriented COBOL even though Murach covers it in his book.

Jim Thompson had expressed similar sentiments in his “Hot Careers in a Cool Market,” Computer User, January 2002.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Front Page -- goodbye perhaps? Will Expression Web get rid of the "pain" of corrupted extensions?

I have recently encountered some occasional difficulty in another environment with a hit counter hanging. The hit counter is a Front Page plug-in, and runs out of an element called _vti_bin/ftpcount.exe. Sometimes it will stall for about twenty minutes or so, and then suddenly start working again. A couple of times it has stalled for much longer.

During these periods it isn’t possible to access the domain with Front Page. The server will close the connection. However, when the hit counter finally works, the Front Page connection will reopen automatically. Sometimes Front Page cannot find a connection on Port 80, but will connect if the domain name is re-entered.

There is a lot of literature on the Web that if you FTP to a site with Front Page extensions, it will corrupt the extensions. Most literatures says that Front Page pages will not display properly in browsers. In fact, they may display if extraneous code is removed in the HTML. A typical reference is here.

One particularly vocal reference from another hosting company about the pain of Front Page extensions is here.
They say that FTP can be tolerated on NT environments (and I guess Windows Server 2003 +), but never on Unix or Linux environments.

Last, but not least, Microsoft seems to be replacing the whole Front Page world with Expression Web, which apparently will not require extensions. Nevertheless, I found, on an Expression Web forum, “Cannot publish using Front Page extensions” on an Expression Web forum.

I’m not quite sure why Front Page was designed to be so finicky. It is a pain. I can tell you that back in 1999 and 2000 I had a site that I maintained with WS-FTP, but I was able to log into it with Front Page 97 and update when I wanted to. It could “recalculate hyperlinks” and that would take five or ten minutes. But it never got corrupted. The ISP, which was owned by a coworker with an entrepreneurial business on the side, had to spend a lot of time on the phone with Microsoft in early 1999 to get it to work for any of his customers in the first place, but after that, no problems.

Some of the references (you can find them with search engines) talk about hyperlinks getting corrupted. That seems to refer to the ability of Front Page to plug in the right directories for you. If you always hard code the directories yourself in the links, they will always work anyway, but then the site is hard to move.

In a few cases, I have found that Front Page seems to resequence some of the HTML building blocks. The page still displays in IE but not in all browsers (Mozilla will show some garbage). The fix is to go into Code Mode in Front Page and edit out the extraneous HTML or simply recode the HTML manually according to established W3C conventions; then all browsers will work. Of course, you have to know HTML syntax real well, like any “programmer” has to know any “language.”

Another glitch that happens is that Front Page can hang in XP when inserting a hyperlink if the host server is too slow, or if the web publisher goes to another file on his harddrive to cut and past the hyperlink URL and tries to come back to FrontPage. This sounds like a bug in Front Page code or memory management. Just some sloppy code somewhere.

The rub is that Front Page was designed with small business sites with a lot of interface functionality (forums, guestbooks, etc) but not that much text content. The design of Front Page encourages users to publish all webs as integrated objects; in fact, you can cut and paste individual files from your hard drive onto Front Page and it will work fine. Webmasters who have a lot of “literary content” and many text files may not need Front Page or Expression Web at all. They can just write or paste a few javascript utilities or CSS style sheets for any special functionality. WS-FTP may be all they need. It sounds like, get real!

A somewhat related problem occurred with 2002 Microsoft Word, when converting word documents to HTML. Word would generate a lot of internal XSL parameters and would start reinserting and repeating redundant hyperlinks, and corrupt the page. The only way to fix such a page was to go into the HTML manually and tediously remove the extraneous hyperlinks. Visitors might think the page was “infected” if it took them to hidden hyperlinks; it wasn’t; this was just a software bug. Microsoft stopped supporting the 2002 product and insisted customers get a later version.

In the long run, Front Page has been a bit of a pain. I hope Expression Web, which I just downloaded a trial version of but haven’t connected with yet, will do a lot better. I discussed Expression Web on this blog before, I believe in August 2007. Microsoft will now allow a two-month free trial with a single product code.

You can try searching for "Front Page extensions" and "corrupt" with search engines and not come up with clean explanations of this mystery. Maybe some visitor can explain why this is such a mystery; it has never made a lot of sense. Or perhaps the whole issue will become moot point with Expression Web (another $300 or so, although upgrades from FP are available).

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Web article on unfavorable performance appraisals available

How often is the “performance appraisal” from your boss a formality before the next salary review? Sometimes. Companies often do probationary reviews (“the tidings”) after an initial period like three or six months.

But sometimes one does get a substandard review. Frankly, that is often a step toward dismissal, or at least progressive discipline. The documentation in a review can obviously support a company’s dismissal action (especially for cause) later. Sometimes employers will give someone intermittent goals that they know the person cannot meet.

There is an article on “MyHotJobs” today by Caroline Potter, “5 Things to Do If You Get a Bad Review,” link here. The article mentions a forthcoming book by Hallie Crawford, “Flying Solo: Career Transition Tips for Singles,” due out in June 2008 (I couldn’t find it yet on Amazon for pre-order).

One problem that can be bad for an individual contributor is falling behind in hands on technical skills as technology changes rapidly. This is especially a problem in maintenance with newer software packages, where it is very difficult to learn the package well enough without having done the project yourself from start to finish (in a “full systems life cycle”). In supporting a package that one has implemented oneself, one often learns the detailed technology with all of its arcane secrets cold. (I remember being the guru of “packed unsigned fields” back in the 80s in an ALC billing system.)

Even courteous reviews may not save one from a layoff if someone has walked in the door and a huge cultural change is coming. Not everyone will fit the style of a new owner or operator.

Monday, May 05, 2008

Security access for programmers

Given all of the recent news stories about consumer information security problems, programmer access control is likely to be more critical in many companies than ever before.

Back in the 90s, a lot of programmers would claim that the need to request access to update production files was a pain. The thought was, all programmers should be bonded, and that it wouldn’t be necessary. But when you’re responsible for the integrity of a system for years, you want all of the automated protection you can get from accidental “Manchurian” involvement in some sort of corruption or scandal. So, in retrospect, I welcome the rapid development of products like Top Secret and RACF starting in the 80s, and the automated source control of packages like Endeavor and ChangeMan (the rules have to be followed to guarantee source-load module integrity).

Now, basing QA data on real data can be a security problem, as can keeping paper records of the tests or runs (something we all had to collect for Y2K verification and storage in “Iron Mountain”).

I am aware of a situation 15 or so years ago where even a regular applications programmer was given responsibility for setting the security access for other programmers in a Vantage system. The programmer did not do this and was fired. But this was not the way security in any shop should ever have been handled.