Thursday, July 31, 2008

Resume prevarication: still a major concern of employers

CNN yesterday offered a brief discussion an on old problem – lying on a resume.

It doesn’t always lead to summary dismissal when discovered, the report said. But the industries that have the most resume prevarication are hospitality, transportation, and utilities. The common offenses include embellishing or misrepresenting skills, falsely upgrading positions held (claiming management authority that one did not have), and extending dates of previous jobs, not properly accounting for periods of unemployment.

Another gaffe that the report mentioned: claiming to be a member of Mensa when one was not.

It’s a little easier in information technology to detect lies than in other fields. For one thing, one can give a skills test. Most of the tests available from companies (like Brainbench) are multiple choice, and some employers don’t have a lot of confidence that multiple choice tests are accurate. So an oral exam, even over the phone, with short answer questions about programming topics are popular.

In the 1970s, one of the most popular interview questions for COBOL was to state the difference between a SEARCH and a SEARCH ALL.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Sometimes, when peopel are hired by staffing companies, they get hired by the clients eventually

Sometimes, when people are hired by staffing companies and placed with clients, they eventually may be offered permanent positions with the client if they fit in. Back in 1988, I had interviewed with Cutler-Williams for a possible position with Texas Utilities that would have worked this way. Sometimes that is the arrangement in advance.

Other times that sort of migration may be resisted, and be prohibited by non-compete clauses. This may be the case particularly when someone wants to go from employee (or corp-to-corp) to freelance for higher rate.

The mentality that encourage freelancing had grown in the 1980s, as mainstream employers, sometimes under pressure because of leveraged buyouts or threats of hostile takeovers, began to feel the pressure of employee benefits on the bottom line. Employers reduced the numbers of layers of reporting and increased the “span of control.” For a long time, that environment helped create the desirability of the “hands on” consultant as opposed to career employee, sometimes stuck in “middle management.”

Chip Camden has a related article in the “IT Consultant” blog at Tech Republic, from July 21, 2008, “Harassed for Attempting to Transition from Employee to Consultant”, link here.

Monday, July 28, 2008

With HIPAA, why don't doctors automate their records? Would generate jobs

Back in August 2002, eight months after my layoff, I got a call about a job in Richmond with a PPO that I think was called First Health. It was supposed to be a contract bringing their systems up to standard for HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996, text here), for a phase which at the time was to start going into effect in 2003. I didn’t hear anything until almost Thanksgiving, when I had a phone screening, did not do particularly well, and did not get the job (as I had move on to something else and lost interest). But the episode sticks in my mind.

I also had an interview for a contract at a pharmacy information services company, Express Scripts, in Bloomington MN, on Sept. 11, 2002 (yes, an ironic day). Again, the company didn’t quite have the authorization to hire, and it fell through. But the need that the project could have addressed was keeping track of prescription complex medication schedules for many patients at home.

Today, I was in a doctor’s office, and watched the doctor go through paper charts about eight inches thick, to follow treatment and prescriptions back for a number of years. I wondered, why doesn’t he go to a computer screen and pull it up. Hospitals do.

Then I though about what happened when I moved back to Arlington from Minnesota in 2003. In 2004, I had interviewed for a job as a letter carrier at the USPS and was about to be hired. There were concerns about the acetabular hip fracture that I had incurred in a convenience store in Minneapolis in 1998. After a year of requests, the records from the surgery had never arrived and been placed in the chart. It was impossible to be hired.

Now, I wonder, twelve years after HIPAA, why are doctors working this way? And why do patients under Medicare go to multiple specialists with no automated system for checking for medication conflicts? This is crazy. How much is this lack of automation, here in 2008 costing? It should be a closed application, mainframe centered, fully secured, not available to the Internet. But doctors should have a system like this.

Oddly, the best effort around seems to come from a leading Internet company. Google Health has started its “preseason” at the Cleveland Clinic, according to a New York Time story by Steve Lohr on Feb. 18, 2008, link here. Doctors that I talk to seem to know nothing about

Curiously, the classic IMS mainframe textbook by Dan Kapp and Joseph F. Leben, "IMS Programming Techniques: A Guide to Using DL/I" (1978, Van Nostrand)uses a hospital database as its sample application. And from 1979-1981, I worked for a Blue Cross and Blue Shield Consortium in Dallas (CABCO) that was supposed to come up with the state of the art Medicare processing system. The project failed because of turf protection and political infighting among the plans. (No, "it wasn't my fault." Some of the plans would run back to EDS as fast as "their little legs would take them.") In my next job, a coworker actually piddled with the idea of a medical system on his home Radio Shack, pre-Internet by many years. It doesn't seem that we've progressed much in 25 years.

Welcome to the health care reform debate, McCain and Obama.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Personal security when working overtime off-hours

One issue for information technology people working unusual hours, particularly when they “come in” while on call, is personal security and safety. This morning, the “10 Things” Column edited by Jody Gilbert on Tech Republic offers a column “Stay safe when you pull an all-nighter: 10 self-defense tips for techies”, link here.

Since the 1970s, I’ve dealt with going into the office at unusual hours and thought nothing of it. Doing so was a badge of honor. When I worked for Univac in 1974, we pulled night shifts at the Eagan Test Center (near St. Paul MN) testing benchmarks (while traveling) and I drove there on icy roads in a rental car and thought nothing of it. At NBC in Rockefeller Center in New York City in the mid 1970s, I sometimes had to go in during accounting closings on the 24-hour subway. I never thought anything of it, or ran into problems. In Dallas, the office was located in the trendy Oak Lawn section, but the parking lot was enclosed by a wire fence and locked gate (nevertheless, one employee had T-tops stolen). Back in Arlington VA in the 1990s, I sometimes came in at night and simply drove and parked at an office building near Ballston. In Minneapolis again, I could walk the Skyway. I never experienced any personal security problems going in to the office.

There was one problem in Ballston in 1990 when a “consultant” actually stole a server, which at the time would have been “worth” a lot more than it is now. That was right after I had started working there, and I had been there earlier that evening.

The other major alternative, of course, is dialing in from home with a corporate laptop, which presents its own security issues that have been covered before.

Another major security issue to think about is making sure, if you are a new employee or consultant, that you understand all of the employer’s or client’s security policies completely. When I worked for Chilton Credit Reporting, I learned (around 1982) that the company had a policy that every employee was responsible for the use of his own logon. What this meant, in that kind of environment, was simply being careful about passwords and particularly leaving oneself signed on at a mainframe terminal. Today, security policies would be a lot more complicated.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Career News recommends care with online presence

Here we go again. The Career News email newsletter yesterday discussed social networking sites and job openings – with opposite perspectives. Yes, people can learn about job openings even on sites like Myspace and Facebook as well as professional networking sites. But, the letter says, “It's also part of a much larger trend in which more information about you may be available to anyone who's interested - including hiring managers, who often perform Internet searches on job candidates.” The newsletter also advises “A good way to do so is by treating all of your online activity as part of a public relations campaign that presents a professional image for potential employers and colleagues alike.” So, they say, build your presence on the web with circumspection and keep it limited to professional matters, maybe. The web reference is here although the website rotates out its current issue periodically.

As I noted before, there is a bit of “different strokes for different folks” here. This kind of advice does sound appropriate for a younger professional, who might want to limit his or her online presence to subject matter that will assist with a chosen career. It sounds a lot less practical for a much older person, or a retired person who is experimenting with future directions. If employers do online “background checks” they may be trying to fill in the gaps not mentioned on a resume or interview.

I think this sort of problem is particularly double-edge for older IT people who spent most of their careers in “old school” mainframe shops. No one wants to “brag” online about being a COBOL professional, and many people may have long gaps, particularly after the 9/11-related downturn around 2001 (after the Y2K job boom had played out). Furthermore, many programmers work as "individual contributors" and believe that their online life should be entirely their own, and see it as separate, even if quite public now.

The Internet has probably affected how employers view careers, especially for staffing companies that send consultants to clients, whether on W-2 or corp-to-corp arrangements. They like the idea that a consultant has a “reputation” of expertise in area, whether business related (like MMIS, HIPAA, Hogan, etc) or database and technology (such as Case tools, DB2). Sometimes they scour the countryside for the one standing IT professional who can get an old IMS-DB/DC shop back on its feet.

A problem will occur, of course, because on social networking sites and “gonzo” blogs, many people mix professional life with political and social or religious views. Employers may fear that clients could be driven away when they find “controversial” material. And recently, some legal experts in the Human Resources world have said that employers should not look at these at all, at least not without a clear policy, otherwise they are implicitly asking “illegal question” and risking litigation. Of course, one can say, the applicant voluntarily put the material in a public place. Is there a “fundamental right” to Internet fame? School systems and administrators are finding that this is a particularly confounding issue for teachers, whose students (and parents) could find the material at home.

On top of this, there is every chance that an employer will pick up the wrong person, particularly when dealing with more common names. Lower quality photographs often found on the web (and taken on dance floors) can be deceptive and “identify” the wrong person.

It's strange that the major media outlets, now jumping on the "online reputation" bandwagon with their journalism, don't sound aware of the potential serious problems employers may be creating with careless online gumshoeing.

The “kids” and grandkids that we taught and raised (I speak generically for myself) created this “second life” virtual world for themselves, and only indirectly for the "rest" of us. Whatever the merits of the silly dispute between Mike Zuckerberg, Aaron Greenspan, and their former Harvard classmates, none of these “kids” had any idea of the social controversy that their inventions would create in just a couple of years (nor were their products designed with any legal “safeguards” for such misuse). None of them intended that Facebook (or Myspace, or for that matter Blogger or even Google) become a tool for “background investigations.” None of them had been on this planet long enough to imagine such a development. Back to “reputation defender”!

Monday, July 21, 2008

Net-tops and ultra-light Notebooks pose paradox for PC manufacturers

According to a New York Times story this morning (July 21) by Matt Richtel (on page C1, Business Day), the personal computer industry is competing with itself too much as if offer ultra-cheap notebooks with little memory for checking email and web surfing. They may be intended largely for travel, and one wonders if a sophisticated cell phone could do just as well.

The industry will also introduce “nettops”, low-cost replacements for desk tops intended only for Internet access.

But some manufacturers see the trend as dangerous because if offers little margin to add to the bottom line. Microsoft has stopped selling XP but will reportedly offer it on very low cost machines like these.

The link is here (may require registration), the story title “Smaller PCs Cause Worry for Industry.”

Small, simplified notebook miniaturization technology is also essential to Nicholas Negroponte 's "One Laptop Per Child" worldwide initiative (with non-Windows operating systems).

I would be concerned that the sinking dollar and increased shipping costs from Asia would reverse the trend for lower PC prices, but I don’t personally see that when I browse

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

"Resume Rabbit" provides another strategy for centralizing a job search

Just as with My Job Hunter (which I discussed on July 3), Career Digest (with an email broadcast) is recommending another “centralizing” service for job searches. This one is called Resume Rabbit which it says will provide automated sign-ins to all member career sites in which you want to participate, but will still keep information “private” and confidential (as from your current employer). It posts your resume on up to 80 major sites.

Again, use of a service like this is predicated on the idea that hiring managers are more likely to develop an interesting in hiring one of the first few strong candidates that they see.

Again, there is a practical reality that many companies already know whom they want to hire when they make a formal job requisition.

Monday, July 14, 2008

What kinds of insurance do IT consultants need?

Chip Camden has an interesting Tech Republic blog entry today on how independent consultants should go about purchasing insurance. He admits that he doesn’t carry some of these kinds of insurance himself but is considering it.

The obvious one is health insurance, and we all know that this is a big public policy issue. For the nation to adopt a Canadian-style single payer health care system would make it easier for a lot people to become consultants. But so could other reforms, like improving portability and pre-tax privileges and enabling independents to form purchasing groups across state lines.

On life insurance, he’s right that term life provides better protection for cost for most people. It wasn’t always like that. But right now, several major financial institutions have sales operations trying to convert people from whole life to term. (One sales pitch for a job in this told me that this is a $40 trillion business, but I take that with a grain of salt.)

It’s liability insurance that gets complicated, and there are several pieces of this coverage to consider. One is “errors and omissions.” What seems chilling to me is to look back over the salaried jobs that I had and remember those “nervous moments” about elevations and implementations, and overnight or end-of-month cycles that took so long to run (particularly, in my case, in the mainframe IBM and MVS world). I also remember one occasion in 1989 where I was working for a small company (although salaried) and where one error could cause the company to fail, and it turned out that a specification in a federal register document had been wrong, which I could prove by comparing a federal government’s COBOL code to what the government said the specifications (in a particular Medicare calculation) were supposed to be. Even so, judging from Chip’s article, actual suits are relatively rare. However, litigation could become more common because of the increased incidence of consumer or stakeholder personal data loss from major companies, governments, and other data centers.

General liability sounds more like umbrella coverage, and particularly involves “accidental” slander or libel (which could happen in an email or verbal statement) There is a particularly interesting concept called “advertising injury” (Findlaw link from Nossaman Guthner Knox & Elliott) that he mentions, that “joins” concepts like copyright and trademark infringement that might somehow happen when a consultant is promoting his or her services.

I wonder personally whether insurance coverage could be complicated by personal blogging (or social networking site) activity of the consultant, by some complicated and connected set of circumstances including search engine “discovery” and what we’ve discussed before, “online reputation defense.”

One other observation: GEICO, as do other property and auto insurers, offers umbrella coverage, but it has always sounded dangerous to me to combine auto coverage with miscellaneous liability coverage for intellectual property problems (that might even include illegal downloading!) In fact, the last time I checked, the highest level of liability coverage was available only through the umbrella program; that doesn’t sound like a good idea, so this might have been changed. My own feeling is that liability coverage for physical hazards (like auto and natural disaster) ought to be unbundled from professional or intellectual property liability ("media perils") coverage, because of the actuarial uncertainties. (By the way, I interviewed GEICO for a mainframe job in 2005 and they were concerned I had been out of the loop too long; but you never know. I could try again.)

It’s a no-brainer that everyone should try to carry short term disability. I slipped and fell in a convenience store in 1998 and had a serious hip fracture. Fortunately, some very state-of-the-art surgery at the University of Minnesota got me back to work in three weeks, and I never missed a day afterwards. And, fortunately, at the time my employer offered 100% short term disability.

I suppose that in most W-2 contract programmer arrangements (not quite the "independent life"), some of these coverages (especially liability coverage) would be available from the staffing company. Health insurance might be available only in a corp-to-corp arrangement.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Yes, some off-work activity can get you fired (what about blogging?)

Toni Bowers, blogs editor for Tech Republic, provided an eye-catching article today, “Five off-work activities that could get you fired,” supplied by Larry Buhl of Yahoo! “Hot Jobs.” The link is here.

The article explains “employment at will” in private industry, as opposed to government, where an employee can be discharged “for no reason” although not for an illegal reason.

A few of the behaviors mentioned in the article could be
(1) dating relationships with customers or subordinates
(2) behavior that increases an employer’s group health premiums. There are more cases now of employers monitoring employee overweight and cigarette smoking (like Weyco), sometimes leading to fines, warnings or firings. Also, highly risky behavior (sky diving if not done professionally) that is publicly known.
(3) blogging, when it is critical of the employer or its clients or employees, or discloses trade secrets
(4) In a few cases, political activity that is embarrassing to an employer that is unusually sensitive to partisan issues. Obviously, if you work for a political party or a lobbying organization (or a “faith-based” organization), you should “be careful.”

The comment about blogging catches the eye, as employers, especially those who send people to clients (very common now in information technology) will start become sensitive to “online reputation” that clients can discover and employers may want the right to manage this. The documentary "Blogumentary" by Minnesota filmmaker Chuck Olsen, mentioned even as early as 2003 that people were starting to get fired for off-work blogs. There had been a well-known case at Microsoft in 2002, and of course we all know that Heather Armstrong, at one time working for a small web design company in Utah, originated the term "dooce."

Sexual orientation is not the issue it was a half century ago, as many “mainstream” companies have internal policies prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation and offer domestic partner benefits, even when local or state law does not require it, since they do business everywhere. Overseas, companies have to be sensitive to local culture and laws (even if religiously based). However, I know of at least one unusual case where a client in a rural state asked an employer to remove a contractor simply because he was gay. This is not ethically appropriate behavior by clients, but unfortunately it’s not always illegal.

There have been some notorious anti-gay discrimination incidents over the years, like with Cracker Barrel restaurants, and with DeMuth v. Miller, in the early 90s.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

The "Facebook" case: reviewing code "re-use" in the workplace and on campus; what about OOP? What about "reverse engineering"?

Recently on my Book blog I reviewed Aaron Greenspan’s “Authoritas” and talked about the “Facebook controversy” there (lawyers affectionately call it "The Battle of the Kids") and on my Trademark blog, too. The story is pretty complicated, involving Harvard, at least one company (Greenspan’s) and several former Harvard students. I would say that I hope it gets settled amicably and that the entrepreneurs can move on to better things, but there are some general things about the battle over intellectual property rights and Facebook that are fairly generic to many workplace.

In most corporate workplaces, it is very common for designs and code for modules or subsystems to be cloned and “reused” in other similar applications. Of course, some of the concepts of “object oriented programming” (inheritance) specifically address this need in practice, to come up with systems that have the minimum amount of redundant code to maintain. In practice, many older shops with in-house mainframe systems (largely in COBOL) have many jobs with code that was cloned from other programs and re-adapted.

Intellectual property rights generally don’t come into play right away with employees who are salaried, and whose compensation is just the salary, benefits, and 401K, and maybe some bonuses. The employer owns it all, and generally the code is considered a “trade secret” legally. Employers gradually started to pay more attention to their ownership of the rights to their code in the 1970s, even if employees sometimes didn’t yet grasp the legal issues; after all, employees sometimes took work home for legitimate work purposes and sometimes might want to reuse coding techniques (perhaps not quite legally) in other jobs after leving. But as companies (starting particularly in the early 90s) started using purchased software (like Vantage) the need for strict control over intellectual property rights, even getting down to copies of software manuals, started to emerge. Furthermore, when companies hire many W-2 consultants (which is so common now), there is always the possibility that a consultant could take code from one place and use it somewhere else. Often, in the past, work like this was done with a certain informality, which poses certain risks for both source code and customer data.

Before system designs were as wide open and used so many reusable components, ownership was relatively straightforward with PC software for home or office use. At work, licenses sometimes controlled how many computers or sub-installations a given copy (for a particular version, like architect’s or developer) could be used. (Java cafĂ© was like that.)

In universities, professors often assign complex projects, and a good question would be who owns the solutions to assigned problems afterward. That issue could have complicated all the issues at Harvard as in Greenspan’s book (as well as the issues that he discusses, like secure and encrypted logons to his systems).

Many techniques in system design are likely to recur in various shops and repeat many of the same features. For example, a financial institution might run a legacy system, run replications to a mid-tier and have a OOP data access layer to distribute to end customer service users. There are pretty standard ways to design and write these data access layers regardless of the company.

People will work in companies or study at universities and work on projects there, and see opportunities to take what they have “learned” to launch global, extremely profitable ventures. It is not always simple to determine when what they deploy really came from someone else’s copyrighted intellectual property. It does seem like it is hard to determine what “fair use” means in the software world.

There are various cases to be found on the Internet. For example, a case with a Kansas software company Evolution, and some banks is discussed by Lauren Gelman on Stanford law school’s site here.

There is an interesting discussion on Findlaw by Chris Sprigman, dating back to Sept. 2002, about whether software vendors can enforce “boilerplate” licenses and prevent customers from “reverse engineering” their “shrinkwrapped” products for re-use in other areas. The link is here. There is an issue with whether states can pre-empt doctrines in federal copyright law with “extra elements” in order to protect the business profitability models apparently necessary for software vendors (and likely enforced by software publisher’s associations). This makes for interesting reading and I wonder if any of the ideas here could apply to the Facebook situation.

By I do hope that the parties settle, and then move on.

Update: Aug. 26

The book "Born Digital" by John Palfrey and Urs Gasser maintains Facebook has settled the main claim (with the other roommates and "ConnectU") out of court, on p 228. (See my books blog Aug. 26.)

Here are a couple of other references: From Techdirt, Apr 16, 2008, "Another Failed Harvard Social Network Takes 'Legal Action' Against Facebook: from the if-connectu-could-do-it... dept", discussion of Greenspan's action, here.

The New York Times
reported Greenspan's action Aug 29, 2007, article by John Markoff, "Who Founded Facebook? A New Claim Emerges", link here.

Monday, July 07, 2008

When is IT about people instead of "just" technology?

There’s an emerging view that the information technology profession will continue deal business social engineering and even “cultural anthropology” and much less about code and technology for its own sake. So says Gartner researcher Tom Austin in a story in FastCompany by Kermit Pattison, link here. He goes on to say that HR and management is wrong-headed in pulling the plug on YouTube, Myspace and Facebook from office computers. Web 2.0 is an integral part of the way people relate now.

Of course, one can question his view. In the first place, what this article is calling “IT” is more what one usually calls “business analysis,” a close inspection of how a customer service representative or life insurance agent (to name only a couple of examples) goes about her job and gets information and communicates two ways with the outside-world customer. I think his views might be applicable for customer service departments at ISPs, for example, or telecommunications companies. Often CSA’s on 800 lines don’t fully grasp what a customer who calls in is really doing, and don’t grasp the interdependence of various problems that occur. Sometimes an external customer has a better grasp on this than employees in a company. Business analysts can help customer service representatives understand the full context of customer service calls.

Another point is that professionals should probably do their professional social networking (particularly on work computers) on sites that cater more specifically to their industries. Ziggs provides a good example. This seems more likely to keep stakeholders from being confused by the “anything goes” attitude on social networking profiles, a situation that has cause employers to make (inappropriate and often inaccurate) “background investigations” of job applicants’ online presence.

Jason Heller gives a perspective (“Tech Sanity Check”) on the Tech Republic blog this morning, “Is IT no longer about technology?” here.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

New Job Hunting service matches job needs and resumes to employers quickly

The Career Digest newsletter has advised its readers of a new job search website with a certain twist of concept. The name of the emailed letter was “be at the right place at the right time.” The job search website is called The site will match your job “requisition” to available jobs in specified career and geographical areas, format a cover letter, craft your resume (probably functionally) and send it to matched employers.

The advantage of this approach to job submission is that employers who use MyJobHunter often look at those resumes first, and tend to fill positions among the first resumes that they receive. At least, that is what the company claims.

I suppose the notion makes sense. How many times does an applicant work with a recruiter, even get to a phone screening (sometimes an oral skills test by phone arranged by an outside testing company – consisting of “short answer” technical questions) only to find the position with the client employer was already filled, and suspect that the client knew what person it really wanted all along.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Can you get a job solving your ISP's problems from circumstantial evidence when you're a customer?

Can webmasters, “retired” from IT jobs by corporate buyouts occurring near the normal retirement age, and working at home on their own content hone in on some skills to get back into the job market?

One cottage skill that I have used a few times is problem solving “with a fresh pair of eyes.” I do have a couple of conventional sites, and a couple of times I have helped ISP’s solve problems. One time I recognized a situation where an outside party was using their trademark for a phishing attack. It was several hours before they realized I was right, but took action and called law enforcement when they did. Another issue is dealing with problems where Urchin statistics fail to accumulate, and then going back into Internet documentation (much of which Google now provides) on how Urchin and analytics software works in steps behind the scenes, and the various points at which the process can fail. Some of the infrastructure in a large ISP is predicated in running a number of processes in a certain sequence according to a certain schedule, very much like mainframe jobs in a financial system run according to a sophisticated scheduler like Jobtrack or CA7. Other problems, such as upload features failing, could be solved by noting whether normal quota parameters, that require access to a database, display to the webmaster.

Is it conceivable somebody could get a job by helping the ISP or service solve problems with entries on their messages boards? Maybe, but the jobs might start with the graveyard shift.

Another question concerns whether local technical college courses help someone get back in. In 2002, I took courses in XML and C# at Hennepin County Technical College while I was still living in Minnesota. But I didn’t get anywhere the level of hands-on agility and fluency needed to be productive as a developer in one of these skills. I have played around with free copies of Visual Studio at home, and again found that I don’t really need all the sophisticated capabilities for most of what I do.

What has been helpful is MySQL, for organizing some of my “arguments” into a database. I noticed that Wordpress entries are stored in a MySQL database.