Friday, October 31, 2008

Federal I.T. jobs tend to list much more general requirements than do private contractor jobs


I have tried looking at the federal government information technology jobs in the Washington DC area, at this link, which allows one to choose a geographical location and a jobs area. The basic web link is here.

What comes up is about six pages of jobs. A number of the federal jobs do seem to be related to hardware or maintaining office networks. But maybe half of them seem to relate to general areas of project management and particularly supervising or monitoring the progress of contractors. Relatively few of them seem to require coding, because actual coding and unit testing (and probably QA testing) is most often done by private “Beltway Bandit” contracting companies.

The requirements for some of the jobs tend to be general, stressing education and years in grade (or equivalent private sector), along with certain general levels of skill with areas like SDLC (systems development life cycle), project management and contract management.

This could be a good time for someone who “retired” to start following these jobs closely, partly because the financial crisis might generate some needs in areas like Treasury, IRS, SEC, FDIC, (or even PBGC), etc, with needs having to do with credit lines, bank takeovers or federal infusions of capital into various institutions connected to the bailout. Some of these would seem to require some “old fashioned” financial systems changes of major magnitude.

Typically, one submits a generic application resume on the USA Jobs site (which does not allow enough space for work experience). Then, to apply for a specific job, one also must answer some essay questions that are scored with the applications. These questions have to do with general “metrics” for the job. People with military service will want to read the rules for veteran’s preference carefully. A few agencies (especially those related to homeland security or defense) require the applicant to resubmit the entire resume on a separate site (typically allowing much more room for detailed narratives of work experience) along with questions related to a possible background investigation. This separate site is usually Avue Central Digital Services.

An interesting example for someone of my background is a position that closes today 09-DC-002-D in the US Attorneys Office (unfortunately, it closes today, 10/31). Since I have spent a lot of time since retirement researching Internet law and technology “nexus” issues, this general area might provide a fit.

Nevertheless, look at two of these “general” requirement metrics:

“(1) Proficiency with a variety of software programs used to produce graphic demonstrative evidence;
“(2) Proficiency with a variety of courtroom presentation technology and computer applications used to prepare effective presentations of evidence and other information at trial”
Even though they sound general, they say that the applicant needs to have proficiency with software packages that law enforcement agencies use to present evidence. A simple example comparable in private industry might be graphics applications used in the auto and casualty insurance industries to process claims.

One of the biggest problems in the private contractor job market has been the excessive focus on specific “job ready” skills. Companies say this is necessary to place “job ready” candidates with clients (true) and also to keep employee selection objective and beyond the reach of any possible discrimination claims. That has some merit, too. Even in the government, the job requirements, even though they look more general (typically they don’t name specific software programs or vendors, whereas private jobs do), actually see, to look for a pattern of expertise in an area closely matching what the agency actually has to do.

Of course, what government and industry need now is real leadership, the ability to “connect the dots” among areas to see underlying trends and perhaps nasty threats, even to our way of life. Unfortunately, too many of these jobs in government are politically connected and lose any hope of objectivity in the way the jobs are actually done. Look at what has happened in the last eight years.

The applicable regulations regarding age discrimination in government start with the Age Discrimination Act of 1967, described by the EEOC here:

According to the Handbook of Human Resources Management in Government, on p 384, the law originally protected individuals from ages 40 to 65. In 1978 the upper limit was raised to 70 and then eliminated altogether on Jan 1, 1987, link here.

Remember those days of filling out Form 171 for Civil Service? In this day and economy, even "early retirees" may start looking at "Uncle Sugar".

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The "factoring" industry could provide alternate careers during credit crunch: taking advantage of recession?


Former information technology people (or people in “transition” with out of date skills) sometimes listen to sales pitches from other kinds of businesses, and one of these is the cash flow industry. Cash flow companies typically pay sellers of services or goods and then settle later with purchasers, for a commission (sometimes immediate, sometime on settlement).

Another term is “factoring companies,” and the Washington Post had an article in the Business Section, page D1, “Businesses go to source of fast cash”, by Anita Huslin, on Monday, Oct. 27 2008, link here. These companies are likely to expand and conduct more hotel seminars as the credit crunch plays out. Typically, the company will have a paid TV slot on a weekend to introduce itself, have a two-hour free session at a hotel for the public, and then schedule a weekend seminar to train and qualify cash flow agents. The sales pitch will claim that the training cost is reduced, but it may typically be $3000 or more even after “discount.” I attended a freebie two-hour session in 2004 (when the economy was close to its peak). They told us all you needed was a fax and cell phone. It sounds like a laptop and secure wireless Internet would help. The industry would be active everywhere in the country, and possibly more active in the more depressed areas.

Like any other industry, cash flow works for some people if they get in early, are aggressive, and build up a base of clients. It obviously can’t work for everyone any more than can any other sales quasi-pyramid. And it may not appeal to IT people, who are used to working alone and developing content rather than selling. But we’ve debated the topic “can techies sell?” before.

The American Cash Flow Institute has an FAQ page here.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Traveling with a work laptop (not a lap dog!) What are the rules?


Susan Harkins has an interesting piece today on Tech Republic about how to travel with a laptop computer, especially a work laptop. It is called “Seven rules for flying with a laptop: share these tips with clients,” link here.

I can remember the days when you had to start your laptop in the airport security line, which meant that you took the trouble to make sure that the battery had been fully charged. Now the technique is to swab for plastic explosives, which is done with almost all devices.

It’s important to remember is that, in TSA security or at border checkpoints, “you have no rights regarding your laptop.” A government can seize it without giving reason. Apparently this usually applies to international fights (or to driving across a border). The last time I had a laptop of my own was in Canada, Labor Day weekend, 2001. I still remember reading a bizarre email in the motel room in Thunder Bay and deleting it, thinking it was spam. In retrospect, I’m not so sure.

Your laptop is a carry-on item. It is not a good idea to pack it in luggage.

The concerns are greater today because sensitive data can be lost. Employers should have policies regarding what information may be on company laptops that are taken on business trips.

A good question would be, at which border crossings in Europe on train do you need to be concerned about a laptop? Presumably not within the EU. What about when traveling to Russia or through former Soviet republics? That would make another good article.

What happens when traveling in the middle East? Is there a problem if you visit Egypt and Israel on the same trip? What are the practices of destinations like Dubai? That would also make a good story.

It sure is easier today if your job does not require travel (particularly international travel). If you have a job at all. A laptop is not a lap dog!

Friday, October 24, 2008

Work Habits: Suze Orman lectures on Oprah; I.T. people ponder them


Earlier this week, home finance guru Suze Orman talked on Oprah about family chores and allowances – she preferred that parents pay a small per-minute wage for helping the family out.

She said this is necessary for learning good work habits, what my own father used to call “learning to work” when he would fine me 10 cents for missing a string of taller grass when mowing the lawn.

In information technology, however, work habits take on several meanings. In the consulting world, it takes on a lot of concerns about following development and implementation methodologies precisely, and in coding habits. Since much more code today is written by software vendors rather than in-house (compared to how things were three decades ago) clean, consistent and self-documenting code according to strict standards becomes necessary. In the early days of mainframe computing, it took programmers (myself included) some time to digest the expectations of maintainable code and of following coding standards. Often we wound up maintaining someone else’s “spaghetti code.” Another aspect of work habits was following implementation procedures correctly. Modern automated source management (like Endeavor) guarantees the integrity of what is moved to QA and then to production, but staff has to pay enough attention to learn to use it properly.

But in practice “work habits” refers also to a certain kind of self-discipline. It can include the ability to work under conditions or regimentation (the military being the extreme end-point) or usual hours, the old “pay your dues” concept.

It can also refer to the ability to deal with the tedium of guaranteeing absolute accuracy of something in a small but vulnerable environment. In early 1989, I remember spending three weeks hand-checking internal calculations (with listings, and very low tech, with no computer in the room) of a health care Medicare payments simulation model. This turned out to be a good thing when a client challenged us, and we were able to prove that a discrepancy resulted from the government’s COBOL code (we had the source) rather than ours. A few months later, when our small business was acquired under presumably benevolent circumstances (saving our jobs) I had to drive down to Richmond over a weekend (I was paid for this) and make manual open-reel copies on conventional tape of all of our files. Yes, that’s all simple JCL with IEBGENER’s and Syncsort’s and referbacks, but it had to be done exactly right, or we had no business. I printed hardcopy JCL listings and kept them under the mattress, rather like they were cash today. I drove them back along I-95 Sunday afternoon with the tapes in my trunk. In these days of data loss and identity theft, no company would handle something this way today, but “those were the days” long before such concerns. I got it right; nothing went wrong. A simple, repetitive job that had to be exactly right, with little use of innovative technology. Suze Orman’s lectures about workplace virtue (even as taught in the family) remind me of those days.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

How companies should protect themselves from dishonest employees


Bill Detwiler has a Tech Republic video blog entry, “Five Ways to Keep Your Own IT Staff from Stealing Company Secrets.” The 5 minute film may be viewed here. Detwiler requests user feedback at his “ITdojo” link here.

One of the most important observations is that security is totally impersonal. He talks about the “rule of least privilege” and insists that programmers not be given any more production access than absolutely necessary, and when it is necessary, it should be temporary. He also discusses rapid rotation of passwords in “auto repositories”. The number of employees with administrative domain access should be limited by job necessity and should be in a separate area. A company should practice “separation of functions” in doing its work. It should also be impossible for administrators to change passwords or for people to change sensitive data without other personnel in separate areas and without contact with the employees being able to monitor it.

When I was working in mainframe IT, there were programmers who felt that security was a pain and thought that the solution was to have all programmers bonded. But the practical risk to data loss and concern about it has risen astronomically since about 2000 with many reported breaches of supposedly secure customer data in many organizations.

Companies need to be more careful about possible conflicts of interest than in the past, and that could even lead to probing employees' off-job online activity for conflicts (related to the controversial "reputation defense" problem often mentioned here).

Detwiler also suggests that when an employee is terminated (or even given notice of layoff for budgetary and non for performance reasons) his or her access should be disabled immediately and the person should be quickly escorted away from the work areas, processed through Human Resources for severance and outplacement benefits, and then leave the area,

I was on the phone with an internal client when I got a Netware message on Dec. 13, 2001 that my account had been “disabled.” My own IT career, as I knew it at the time had, after 31 years of stability (only one other layoff, way back in 1971 – and I would actually return to that company, in a way, later), taken a cardiac arrest at age 58. There was no defibrillator. I did finish the phone call with the client.

Monday, October 20, 2008

From programming to business, and perhaps legal, analysis: new trends in soft skills


Susan Hawkins has an interesting short blog entry on Tech Republic today about the merging of career responsibilities in “information technology” and “business analysis.”

The piece is called “Are you an IT professional, a business analyst, or both, here.

Many companies, especially in financial services, have had job descriptions for “programmer”, “programmer-analyst”, “systems analyst” and “business analyst.” Since the 1980s, these jobs have tended to merge. At one time, a systems analyst wrote program specs for programmers, sometimes following a development methodology like Pride-Logik or SDM-70. Specs were often written in pseudocode, which tended to become much more like real code (especially given today’s OOP languages). The “programmer analyst” did his own specs and implementation.

Over time, companies started outsourcing much of their development to software companies like EDS, Perot Systems, Vantage (“rules the world”), Unisys, Computer Sciences, IBM, and the like, and eventually, especially after Y2K, to overseas companies. Although some of this activity may return because of economic conditions (and because of security concerns and the urgency of some projects, perhaps associated with the recent bailouts and credit problems), the information technology field has tended to shift emphasis toward architecture and business analysis, apart from those individuals who are very deep into specific coding technologies, where job requirements tend to be very narrow.

Business analysts can face a quandary. They may be assigned to develop systems whose assumptions they come to perceive as not sustainable. (Think of how the people who designed all the systems around credit default swaps feel now.) But what’s really interesting is the novel nature of the problems of tomorrow’s jobs, which may involve joining law with technology and public policy. Very few programmers have a real grasp of the long term legal and policy consequences of what they code and launch (just think about the origin of Napster, which took a teenage Shawn Fanning about 60 hours on a laptop). Knowing, with long term prescience, the right thing to do can be more challenging than knowing how to do it. That may be the next job market force.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Some notes on Windows vs. Linux


Jack Wallen of Tech Republic has an important paper today on considerations in deciding whether an business (typically a smaller business) should convert from a windows-based to a Linux platform. The title is “10 Questions to Ask Before Migrating to Linux.” The document is a PDF, free but requires registration and can be downloaded from this link.

Most major applications (like Adobe) have Linux equivalents. But the critical issue seems to be selecting a “desktop metaphor” for associates. Employees will have to learn different practices and techniques for removable media.

Another issue is whether your company purchases outside technical support. It’s interesting that he mentions Debian as presenting support issues; with the one-person ISP that I used from 1997-2001, I used Debian for my statistical reports on my domain (now it’s all Urchin).

He also suggested considering employee experience. He says that there is little practical difference between Open Office and Microsoft Office.

In view of Wallen’s paper, visitors may want to look an older IBM position paper, by David Mertz, from 2004: “Linux on Mac: A Power Programmer’s Primer: Your favorite operating system isn’t only for X86”, here. I played around with terminal mode on my iMac back in 2002 but found little reason to deal with it. But when I had support problems with Apple (particularly with the DVD burner), they would dictate commands over the phone in their proprietary scripting language that resembled Unix and Linux commands but were their own.

An associate of mine from the 1990s developed a version of GNU/Linux that fits on one 1.44 floppy. I actually tried a version of it a few years ago on an old 386 Everex laptop, and it worked. It’s called “Tom’s Root Boot” and you can learn about it at this link. For Tom, feline curiosity is the greatest of virtues.

Monday, October 13, 2008

"SHRM" has report "Best Practices in HR Technology"


The Society for Human Resources Management (Alexandria, VA) today (Oct 13) emailed a link to its new PDF report “Best Practices in HR Technology.” Some of the systems offered include Ultimate Software, Success Factors Research, SumTotal, Workscape, Taleo, Kronos, Skillsoft, Plateau, and Halogen Softeare.

The report emphasized several areas, including “green learning”, which would include telecommuting (even given security implications) and paperless processing (which would mean creativity and automation would be needed in archiving QA test results in an information technology environment). There was also a lot of emphasis on talent management, because the job market needs have become so specialized. There was also discussion of offshoring and a “remote labor force.”

The thirteen-page report is report is available free to those registered recipients on SHRM’s email list. But there is no URL to view the report directly.

The report did not get into “best practices” for “reputation management”, given the controversies about “online reputation” often discussed recently on these blogs. There is a definite need for the HR world to address this systematically because of liability exposures that could live down the road.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Financial blogger sees need for "financial transparency" an opportunity for I.T.


Paul Kedrosky, a financial blogger and analyst with Ten Asset Management, from San Diego, commented on Yahoo! today that the credit crisis and bear market could provide another opportunity for tech companies. That is, “average investors” need democratization of information, without a $1700 a month Bloomberg terminal. He says in a video (above) that Yahoo! is on the right track in providing much more financial information than ever before, including bond history. He also mentioned CME. He mentions the need to link information various kinds of instruments, even credit default swaps. The video is available on Yahoo! here.

That would seem again to argue for information technology jobs in designing databases relating information in novel ways, even including demographics that could eventually affect markets.

His own blog "Infectious Greed" is here.

He is absolutely right. It is quite feasible to imagine a website (or reorganization of a Yahoo! or CNBC page) that structures worldwide financial information (including LIBOR, TED, etc) and derivatives that makes what is going on much more transparent to the public without paying for expertise. I've tried to do the same with social and political information with my "doaskdotell" site.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Does I.T. really benefit from a recession, sometimes?


Patrick Gray has an important column in Tech Republic (Oct. 7), “How to Recession-proof IT”, with link here.

Typically, in a contracting environment, departments come up with projects based on “creative destruction” such as running an enterprise on fewer or less expensive servers. Sometimes they hire consultants with expertise on contraction-related activity, or capacity planning skills.

But there are often projects that come about because of regulatory requirements or government actions taken in relation to a problem or crisis. The recent “bailout” is potentially an obvious example, and it is likely to follow suit around the world in various forms (projects related to coordinating efforts among different European countries, for example). Sometimes the projects get staffed quickly. Other examples include Medicaid (MMIS), and the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), and various state welfare programs. Typically, companies look to fill contractor positions very quickly with application-area specific experience.

In the current economic crisis, it would seem logical that there would soon emerge a demand for people with experience in credit channel processing, and particularly with mortgage valuations and securities. Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac experience, even in the past, could turn out to be a good thing in IT -- just to help the Treasury Department and Fed figure out this mess..

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Will the "Bailout" lead to government's needing to hire mainframe programmers quickly?


Does the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008 (the Bailout) actually create some I.T. jobs, especially in the Washington DC area?

All of this is speculative. But the Treasury Department is talking about having to hire “experts” immediately to figure out how to value “toxic assets”. It’s not clear whether they would be contractors (probable) or new GS employees. This sort of question has already been posed with respect to the channel credit system (previous post).

Presumably, new systems would have to be written to assess the assets and monitor their purchase, sometimes by “reverse auction.”

This actually could be good for the old mainframe job market. The sort of applications needed would be more your old-fashioned grindhouse financial processing, a lot of it in COBOL with older mainframe technologies like CICS, databases, and automated batch cycles, the kind familiar in financial institutions and the basis of IT jobs 15 years ago, until Y2K. The government would probably be more likely to do this with contractor companies (like EDS, Perot, CA, IBM, etc) than its own, who might be more likely to do the business analysis and supervision With something so critical, it doesn’t make sense (to me at least) to offshore work that is so sensitive to India.

If a lot of the data crunching is to be mainframe style, it presents an issue. The mainframe job market tanked right after Y2K and then 9/11, and since then has been carried out mostly by sort-term contracts where people live in extended stay corporate apartments and travel around the country, using the same expertise (often in areas like MMIS, welfare systems, currency conversions, and the like). The IRS supposedly looks for specialized experience in old mainframe assembler – it’s evaporated. Presumably the economic crisis would create some projects at the Fed as well as the Treasury, most of it old-fashioned.

Yup, a lot of us “retired” – we were driven out. There’s constant talk that the mainframe market will revive, but the people are no longer around. Nobody wants to do this kind of work any more, conventional wisdom says. Some of us, who used to watch those end-of-month cycles 15 to 20 years ago, are in our sixties now.

I will take a look at this quickly. I don’t rule anything out. This could turn out to be an opportunity. It could develop urgently, as the need to get the work started is almost immediate. It’s going to be interesting. Maybe it's at least a boon to the headhunters. Dust off those Murach textbooks.

Later, Oct. 4:

There are news stories now about how the Treasury is hiring individuals and firms to get started.

Bloomberg has a story by By Rebecca Christie and Robert Schmidt, "Treasury to Hire Asset Management Firms to Jumpstart Rescue," link here.

The New York Times has a story by Mark Lander and Edmund Andrews, "For Treasury Dept., Now Comes Hard Part of Bailout," link here.

Update: Jan. 12, 2009

Here is the link for the US Treasure Department's "TARP Jobs" as advertised in the Washington Post (Jan 11, 2009, p F6). Skills wanted are financial equity analysis, risk management, and compliance. "TARP" stands for "Troubled Asset Relief Program."

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Opposing views on the channel credit system and future IT projects


"Eweek The Channel Insider" has an article by Jessica Davis which suggests that a partial credit crunch or freeze could actually be good for some information technology companies. It sounds a bit perverse, perhaps. She argues that a financial services crisis could spur technology in some sectors, doing a better job of matching creditworthy customers to money, and perhaps eliminating the security problems (related to identity theft sometimes) that have also interfered with people getting credit. The projects would make the "channel credit system" function efficiently in a stressed environment. This makes it sound as if the credit industry and credit scoring business is likely to have new IT projects. So this could lead to some unusual IT positions, maybe some of them in requirements related to better due diligence in identifying customers. The link is here. The article is called “No Credit Crunch in the Channel,” link here.

The article also has various links for other resources for looking for credit for customers.

Other sources indicate a very uneven experience in the credit crunch. True, business-to-business interest rates are up, and many small businesses are hurting, but in some industries money is still flowing.

There is an article by Craig Zarley with an opposing view in "Channel Web", “Solution Providers Brace for Credit Crunch,” link here. Lines of credit having necessarily stopped, but there is going to be a tightening and a trickle down effect from “channel providers”, the article argues.

Furthermore, the passing of a Congressional bailout will not immediately fix all the problems in credit flow, according to many sources.

IT World: An Open Exchange” has a short article by Dan Blacharski, “Giving Credit to the Channel,” summarizing both of these articles, here.