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.