Monday, December 29, 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 26, 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

New white paper on email retention requirements and policies is available

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Disaster Recovery webcast from two major vendors is available

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Smaller maintenance companies could do well, and hire during recession

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 19, 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

Does this article provide the advice that Microsoft itself follows?

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Bill Gates: Your boss will be a geek

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

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

Friday, December 12, 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Could unfiltered spam lead to hostile workplace complaints?

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

XP Blue Screen of death and hal.dll

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Update: Dec. 12, 2008

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

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

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

Thursday, December 04, 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

More on USAJOBS and AvueCentral

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 01, 2008

IT consultants need negotiating skills

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

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

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

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

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