Friday, June 27, 2008

Does the "overqualified" syndrome apply to today's IT market?

Toni Bowers has an interesting article in today’s Tech Republic blogs, “How do you convince potential employers that you’re not overqualified?” The link is here. Although the discussion is brief, the topic comes up a lot, particularly with older techies with many years of experience.

In the 80s and 90s, companies tended to widen the “span of control” at any level in their organizations, and “middle management” was often an unsafe place to live, especially during those notorious leveraged buyouts and mergers (especially hostile takeovers). Peons (the working “proletariat” of IT) were safer because they did the “hands on” work, often salaried, and often with a lot of uncompensated overtime. This state of affairs tended to remain true through Y2K.

However, now jobs are much more niche oriented and tend to emphasize having very specific skills. Employers may want to see evidence of sales ability, or quantifiable results expressed in numbers. Or they may want to see evidence of focused advancement. So a long resume of a “prole” without advancement may raise questions. It’s all very disturbing, because in the job market conditions of previous decades, it was often desirable to remain an individual contributor. Perhaps not any more.

I have an “overloaded” resume (mostly IBM mainframe), and it is available here.

Microsoft Front Page mystery: (How easy it is to lock itself out)

I’ve discovered a possible tip for Front Page users.

Let me prefix this by noting that Microsoft has replaced Front Page with Expression Web, which apparently does not require Front Page extensions. I discussed Expression Web on this blog on Aug. 27. The whole subject of Front Page extensions is a bit of a mystery anyway. ISP’s tell you that if you update a Front Page website with FTP, front page extensions can be corrupted, and that sometimes they cannot be re-installed without wiping out the entire website and reloading it.

I’ve noticed that a few other programs, especially Kodak and CVS Photo CD’s, and sometimes AOL Instant Messenger, seem to hang and have to be killed in windows XP. Afterwards, if I go to my site, I notice that the hit counter, which is controlled by a Front Page exe element in a hidden _vti_bin directory, hangs. I find then that I cannot log on to Front Page; the sign in screen simply won’t come up. I call the ISP and even the ISP cannot log on to it. One time the ISP reinstalled the extensions (it was not necessary to wipe out the data) and also told me to run Windows Server repair from my control panel, which I did. The problem did go away.

But what I’ve noticed since then, is that if I’ve used Kodak or CVS photo, AOL IM, or any of other certain programs, sometimes it hangs. It seems that Front Page thinks I am already logged on and effectively locks me out. I find that I can log on to my site from a separate laptop and the Front Page hit count will increment, and suddenly I can log into Front Page again. But what is simpler is to Restart the machine I was working on. The problem goes away.

It’s bizarre, because it appears that an unrelated Windows process looping on my own computer locks up Front Page, and prevents any user on the Internet from seeing the hit count on my website. Even the ISP support department wasn’t aware that this can happen.

I now recall a problem like this in early 1999 with my hppub site and the “one-man” ISP that I had at the time.

Soon, it will be all Expression Web, and these sorts of problems can be history.

Update: Aug. 4

Now, somewhere, I've read that Front Page access to a website (like to Front Page hit counters) will lock up while recent changes to the site (especially hyperlinks) are "propagating" among servers on the Internet, and that the lockout can last a few hours sometimes. I don't know what sense this makes, other than some kind of usage contention.

Update: Aug. 26

FrontPage can also give a "SharePoint" error if the ISP happens to be in the processs of repropagating after a crash (on a Windows Server 2003 environment). If you reindex with PicoSearch or similar product you may have files seem to be missing (they aren't). Typically you have to run a "fixer" script from your control panel and let the problem get resolved in a few hours.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

CIO's should be willing to train new hires again

Patrick Gray has an interesting perspective today June 26 on the Tech Republic blogs on how IT hiring managers and CIO’s should look for talent.

He says they should stop “certification surfing” and again look for people “willing to learn,” the way people hired back in the 1970s during the mainframe expansion into in-house commercial and financial applications.

In 1999 and 2000 (in the later days of the dot-com "war for talent"), he says, it was very easy for relative amateurs to get jobs. After the dot-com bubble burst, there were enormous layoffs and companies quickly became picky about long lists of specific skills. This was partly because they could afford to, and partly because the legal climate (and discrimination law) actually encourages them to do so.

The nature of today’s skill sets, with their rapid evolution, often makes it difficult for many programmers to get to a needed level of expertise, especially to work as a consultant sent to many clients on W-2 or similar contracts. One of the best ways to get to needed skill levels is to get in on a project at the beginning, and stick with it through QA, implementation, and production support. Had I made the switch to a Unix-java world in 1999 at the beginning of a data access midtier project (rather than continuing to work on COBOL legacy replications) I might have been much better off.

Gray apparently believes that the rapidly changing paradigms for business, especially given global challenges like going green, could set off a new "war for talent" soon, even in a currently troubled economy where many financial institutions are laying people off.

One irony is that some certifications are common. High school students working in computer stores sometimes get hardware repair certifications even before high school graduation.

The link for the blog entry ("The IT talent crunch and why it’s the CIO’s fault") is here.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Sun weighs in on future corporate computing environments and jobs

The “Sun Inner Circle” has thrown a curve at the debate over outsourcing information technology to major vendors. A June newsletter (by Bob Worrall, Sun CIO) from Sun suggests that IT departments will be less concerned with installing purchased or consultant-developed layers (like mid-tiers and data access) on local networks and go more toward directing companies to use “subscription” specialized applications on the broadband Internet. For example, this sort of setup would sound appealing to school districts with “blackboard” lesson plans, particularly in areas like laboratory science.

That probably still places a lot of the in-house emphasis on areas like sales, business requirements, and customer service, and perhaps test plans and quality assurance rather can coding. An enormous consideration in this kind of layering will be security, given the new sensitivities in the past few years about corporate loss of consumer personal information.

The article is available at this link.

Monday, June 23, 2008

If a consultant makes a mistake on billable time, who pays for it?

Chip Camden has a provocative column on his Tech Republic blog this morning, “Should IT consultants pay for their stupid mistakes?” The link is here.

He gives an example that happens in a Unix or Linux environment (the command structure and sequence makes this all too easy), but I am quite aware of how this could happen in a mainframe environment. He also gives a cogent description of the work situation where the client hadn’t gotten around to securing the intermediate results of his work.

However, in the mainframe world, production files are usually protected from “inadvertent” deletion or change by programmers by RACF or “Top Secret” or some similar product. The same concept can be set up in any shop on any major operating system. With test and QA regions, there is usually no protection, but programmers generally develop foolproof strategies for working that prevent these sorts of disruptions.

I can remember some close calls from the past. Once (around 1991), I accidentally reserved a name another programmer was using for a module, and we didn’t have an adequate means to prevent this the way we had implemented our test library procedures with Roscoe RPF’s. That was changed.

Back in the mid 1970s, on a general ledger system at NBC on a Univac 1110 mainframe (advanced in its day) we used high level qualifiers to distinguish test from production versions of the same files. (In IBM MVS JCL, one uses nodes or high level qualifiers in procs to do the same thing). To start a new accounting month, a null file would be copied onto the voucher register accumulation file. But there was absolutely nothing to prevent the qualifiers to get mixed up in a copy statement entered on a terminal, and no one would have caught it until a closing ran. This never happened, thank goodness.

Camden offers a poll to see whether the consultant should reimburse the client and admit his mistake (which is somewhat a separate part of the problem -- can he afford to admit it?). Try his poll, the results may surprise you.

Friday, June 20, 2008

HR experts now question whether employers should peruse applicants' social networking profiles and jobs: Is IT "safer"?

A Career Management Post on Tech Republic this morning (by Toni Bowers, head blogs editor, on June 20) refers to a recent article in Workforce Management about social networking sites. The article challenges the popular and somewhat careless practice of employers checking Myspace, Facebook or social networking profiles or blogs of job applicants, often with search engines, sometimes finding comments made by others. Workplace counselors and companies like “Reputation Defender” have been encouraging job applicants to “cool it” online because of this practice.

The Workforce Management "Research Center" article, called “Facebook Faux Pas”, by Alan Rupe, maintains that employers could face lawsuits if they do not hire and the blogs or social networking profiles contain information (which they often do in practice) that would be illegal workplace questions in an interview. One point seems to be not so much that it is illegal to ask, it is illegal to base employment decisions based on the material.

The article suggests that aggressive an plaintiff’s lawyer would look at an applicant’s blog or profile after a not-hire decision and serve a complaint even if forbidden interview questions were imputed by the blog.

The Tech Republic blog entry ("Employers who check out job applicants on Myspace could be legally liable") is here. The Workforce article is here. The full content will require that the visitor register (free), and the visitor will be given an opportunity for a paid subscription to the magazine or to more content.

There will certainly be disagreement with this view. Other observers have suggested that people in visible positions will be asked to allow other companies to manage their “online reputations,” and online reputation management may become (or already is) a new kind of business.

Some time back, Human Resources Magazine weighed in on this issue with a measured recommendation. I have written on this problem on other blogs, for example here.
I have previously said that people who have certain kinds of job responsibilities (making decisions about stakeholders, being the spokesperson for the company publicly) should accept third party management of their person public online presence (at least, that part which is accessible to search engines). So see, that sounds like basic business ethics. I had an interesting conversation with a testing company in 2003 about this point.

It should be borne in mind that the First Amendment protects speakers from government censorship, but by itself if does not address "censorship" by private interests like employers (or landlords, for that matter). But anti-discrimination law and other law (like hostile workplace) would apply to private employers and other private accommodation interests. One "good question" would be, how is "unfavorable" information assessed when the applicant voluntarily (and perhaps gratuitously) posted in a public spaces available to search engines? In some employment contexts, such online public postings (even from home) might be viewed as implicit voluntary statements made in the workplace. Another good question would be, how do companies know they identified the right person? (Sometimes they don't.)

Information technology jobs, in compared to positions in more “social” areas like sales (as in insurance) or, particularly, public school teaching, may not seem as vulnerable to concerns about personal web activity. That would particularly be the case for “individual contributor”, technical and non-management jobs. But often “staffing companies” hire people to go to work on client sites for extended contracts and could be concerned that the “online reputation” of the contractors could affect their business.

I wonder if other visitors have run into this yet.

Monday, June 16, 2008

"IT 2.0" will bifurcate the technology workplace, sometimes emphasizing people and sales skills even more, as well as leading the tech-savvy users

Tech Republic this morning offers a couple of articles about the expectations of the “Gen Y” workforce. Individual users are an order of magnitude more “digital savvy” than a generation ago and want control of their own computing platform.

In the early 1990s, companies talked about offloading user-mediated computing onto PC’s, and sometimes deployed DOS applications (these were the days of Windows 3.1 and Rumba, remember?) onto individual PC’s, connected by a conventional LAN, often written in Microfocus COBOL. Often the environments would be less secure than mainframe-controlled applications with normal “separation of functions” between users and programmers. I remember a salary deduction life insurance sales application, which was deployed this way for about 10% of the clients.

Today, according a blog story in Jason Hiner, Executive Editor of Tech Republic, users are even more insistent than ever on controlling their own computing environments. Many want to use their own PC’s or devices, a practice that could sometimes compromise consumer security. The story is “Sanity Check: Will IT 2.0 eliminate geeks or spawn a new breed,” at this link.

Hiner imagines an employment world bifurcated into “technology experts” mostly employed by vendors and huge consulting firms that run data centers (like EDS and Perot, Unisys, CA, Computer Sciences, IBM, Hewlitt Packard, etc – as well as the Web 2.0 world of Microsfot, Yahoo!, Google, MSN, etc), and then business analysts. In many cases “business analysis” jobs will require more social skills and networking than they did in the past, because they will be more closely tied to marketing and sales. One can see how such a development could accelerate the growing (“reputation management”) controversy over personal social networking profiles and blogs and how they can indirectly affect the workplace. Of course, in some industries, the “customers” are self-publishers or home computer users, and the business model requires an even higher level of technology understanding, as it connects to customer service or monitoring, even in the “business areas”.

Monday, June 09, 2008

Free Internet services? At one time I had to deal with mainframe computer costs!

Along the lines of comments I have made on a couple of other blogs recently about free blogging services and low-cost shared web hosting, I thought I would reiterate the “free service” experience early in my mainframe IT career.

I remember back in the mid 1970s when working at NBC in New York on the Univac 1110 system with paper-type terminals, the system would slow. Administrators would say that online updating should not be a “free resource” and banned compiling programs in demand mode. They talked about restricting the number of terminals. At Bradford National, later, we worked in “tube cities” and did not have terminals at our desks. In fact, I did not have a personal terminal again at my desk until late 1984 at Chilton in Dallas.

At Lewin-ICF, shortly after I arrived in 1988, the data center (HealthNet of Virginia Blue Cross and Blue Shield) started charging back for computer time and disk space. We had a sub-business that had to be profitable even given this arrangement. I rewrote one job to replace random VSAM file reading with sorting and sequential processing (in COBOL) to reduce computer costs. At one point I even engaged in some contingent negotiations with other data centers to try to reduce computer costs.

Of course, in the 1990s with PCs and the Internet, times would change so much. Shared hosting ISPs have become generous with bandwidth and disk space to the point that generally it’s not an issue for most reasonable websites unless they have a lot of video or a lot of large images (or perhaps a lot of raw PDF non-searchable image documents). Text storage is cheap has been so for years.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

Telecommuting depends on stable intrastructure: storms present a serious challenge

I’ve noticed that it is a little more common for headhunters to call about jobs in other cities predicated on the worker’s telecommuting from home, and being wired to do so. There are even been a couple of calls about mainframe COBOL programming jobs in other cities (like Dallas) where the model is once-a-month travel for meetings and work from home.

I don’t know who picks up the tab for the travel in these cases, where airfares are becoming a touchy issue because of the fuel crisis. These jobs may work better for people who fly frequently on business and collect frequent flier miles. I did not travel enough on business after 1981 or so to do this (I did make five trips in 1997 between Washington and Minneapolis).

But the other issue, as the storms this week in the DC area showed, is the stability of home connections. The fierce and widespread storms Wednesday shredded not only power lines, but cable and FIOS as well. Some people are down for several days and unable to meet business deadlines. In the winter (particularly late fall and early spring, or in the South) ice storms can cause long lasting disruptions in many areas. (Dallas had massive electrical outages at the beginning of 1979 because of a huge ice storm, just as I moved there.) Cable does have some inherent instability; connections do become unstable with time as outdoor splitter connections have to be replaced. But high speed Internet service has become so important to entrepreneurs, small businesses and to telecommuting individuals (let along web designers and “professional” bloggers) that it is almost like another utility, and every bit as essential as part of infrastructure. Security experts have noted that some kinds of area disturbances (like EMP, as demonstrated in the movie “Oceans 11” in 2001) could become particularly destructive economically.

As a general rule, in my experience, underground utilities are much more stable than those from wires, and people who live in high rise apartments or condos may have more stability. It’s increasingly important that cable be available in apartments; not all of them in apartment guides show availability, and people who expect to telecommute need to be very careful in checking this out when moving to new homes or apartments, particularly retired people seeking to lower expenses and move to lower cost areas. There are some disadvantages to underground: manhole problems or floods could affect them, and they can take longer to repair when disruptions happen (Washington DC had a serious manhole underground loss in August 2001 near Dupont Circle; New York City lost telephone service for several weeks in the 1970s in part of the Lower East Side due to a telephone company fire, when I was living there.)

I lived in a high-rise in downtown Minneapolis from 1997-2003 and had a significant power loss only once, in January 2003 (not weather related). I had cable television from Time Warner and, starting in 2002, high speed Internet. The cable television tended to fail on Sunday afternoons, apparently due to maintenance, but the Internet was very stable, failing only two or three times in a year. Another problem in some high rises is climate control. Many high rise buildings can have only heat or air conditioning, not both, and must switch twice a year. This is not good for equipment if there is unusually warm weather in the early spring or late fall, or unusually cold weather in the early fall or late spring. In late May 2001, Minneapolis had an unusual cold spell with rain and temperatures in the 40s after the air conditioning went on due to a stalled upper level low over Canada.

Our lives and our sense of personal autonomy depend increasingly on infrastructure stability, and it is disturbing to see how easily nature can shred it. What happened in the DC area Wednesday is mild compared to regular occurrences in the Great Plains (tornadoes), Gulf States and Florida (hurricanes), and southern California (wildfires and earthquakes). And areas like New York City are much more vulnerable to super-storms than we want to know.

One strategic move that wired professionals should consider is purchase of a nationwide secure wireless plan (like Verizon), typically about $60 a month, and have a modern lightweight laptop with a wireless card. Note, however, that many work-from-home jobs (like customer service agents) require land connections, and such employers have not always stated clearly their policies for workers with "acts of God" outages.

Kim Hart and Ellen Nakashima have a front page story in The Washington Post this morning, "Storms' Fury Cut Off Data Lines That Bind: In a Flash, Web Users Felt Disconnected," link here, along with a slide show. Other customers affected were high school students dependent on the Internet for homework (most often these were AP students) and term papers.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

ROWE ("Results Oriented Work Environment") catching on in HR circles

This morning (Tuesday June 3), ABC’s “Good Morning America” and reporter Tori Johnson discussed the concept of “Results Oriented Work Environment” (or “Results Only Work Environment”), with the acronym “ROWE”. This is a workplace practice that stresses end results and allows considerable flexibility to associates in work hours. It often encourages 4-day work weeks (or even 3-day) and telecommuting. It may lead to less business travel. A website by Don Lopper calls it a “business revolution in the making,” link here.

The practice is common with sales jobs, where productivity is measured in meeting quotas and in numbers. But it can also be useful for individual contributors in information technology. Results (we used to call this “management by objectives” back in the 70s) include getting software into quality assurance with minimal user problems, or getting software implemented and supported and meeting standards as to preventing user problems. Although there is a lot of talk about it now, there was discussion of it in the 90s, sometimes along with the concept of “total quality management” or “team handbook.”

One major example of a company using it is Best Buy, headquartered in the Twin Cities area. When I took a course in XML in 2002 at Hennepin County Technical College, I heard a lot about how their retail systems work from another student there.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Telecommuting may demand a much larger investment from home worker than in the past

Telecommuting in the future will require a lot more investment on the worker’s part than in the past, an article by Gabe Goldberg in the Jobs section (p K1) of The Washington Post this morning says. The lead story is “Tech that makes telecommuting work” and it is here.

It used to be that you had a dial-up connection or take-home terminal or some software package like PC Anywhere.

Now most telecommuters will need a separate room and computer for work, with separate phone and Internet connections (to avoid the security problems from comingling with personal assets), and many other facilities, such as fax, scanning, copying, mailing. It is true that connectivity software like Gotomypc has become more powerful. Physical stability and security is also important; the utilities in an area should not be overly exposed to hazards from storms, which is becoming a problem in many areas.

Financially, this might require much more in the way of resources from a worker than in the past. It might make sense if it totally replaces driving at today’s oil prices, but not if it requires having a larger home with more facilities in addition to travel. A worker would need the right setup to take advantage of tax laws. In many cases video conferencing capability might be necessary, and the section of the home with the office might have to be physically presentable, itself an investment. The worker would have to be undistracted from family. It’s not clear that home-based jobs in customer service, widely advertised recently, provide enough compensation to justify this kind of personal investment.