Monday, November 30, 2009

Employer blogging policies and "involuntary" management duties

Just to continue the discussion on the post here on Sunday November 8 about employer blogging policies (for personal blogs not part of the job), and especially the possibility of triggering hostile workplace risks:

It seems that employers may need to have some sort of policy even for “matrix managers” – those who “manage” consultants, or for project leaders or team leaders if they are suddenly asked to write performance evaluations. The policies would probably be more “lenient” and allow much longer terms for compliance if the management assignment were not “voluntary” or sought by the employee. At one time, back in 1988, I was made a group leader and then project leader by the manager, without prior consultation. I had one direct report (project leaders there were considered “management”). Another area would be where staffing companies send contractors to clients (almost the business norm in information technology employment these days), and feel that clients (other than, perhaps, public sector clients like state governments) could be driven away if they get curious and look up the contractor online and are distracted by what they find.

Some was of defining the policy could include some combination of these measures: (1) the associate agrees to place everything under privacy controls and exclude from search engines with robots entries (2) the associate agrees only to take up narrow subject matter totally unrelated to work and “non political” (3) the associate is able to get his or her own media perils insurance for blogs (possibly through umbrella coverage), (4) all blogging goes through pre-approval or third party supervision, and (5) (most important) the associate agrees never to mention the fact that he or she blogs at work or in front of clients.

The mandatory insurance idea would deserve note: media perils insurance typically deals with libel and with invasion of privacy (as do some umbrella homeowner’s coverages – a questionable practice), and only sometimes copyright infringement; the risk to an employer of a hostile workplace or discrimination claim seems far afield from the perils insured against. Yet, third party determination that a person’s publishing or online activity is insurable might improve the comfort level of the employer or clients.

There is something very crippling about this sort of thinking, that an individual is required to “indemnify” others against the hypothetical risk that can occur. This sort of question can come up with the “ballot access petitioning” drives conducted by “minor” political parties in many states, or with any other political petition drive or referendum. The party (or political pressure group) will have a fact sheet explaining that the signee’s name and address will not be given out to anyone (a concern that has become bigger in recent years because of widespread identity theft in our society). Yet there is no way to guarantee that the volunteer collecting petition signatures could not violate the trust and misuse the information anyway.

But employers will need to get a grip on what the “best practices” will be for managing this issue, in a world where self-expression – for professional, social and publication purposes – has a new and unbounded topology.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Mac or PC: the "battle continues

This “Fast Forward” article from the Washington Post Holiday Tech Guide: “Home computers: decisions”, by Rob Pegoraro, is already among the most visited at the newspaper’s online site this morning Nov. 29 (two days after Black Friday's pre-dawn wakeup call for a lot of retail employees). The link is here.

He links to an earlier review on Windows 7, which, in terms of simplicity and boot-up speed, offers an enormous improvement. Some Best Buy customers get a free upgrade from Vista as part of their purchase contract on some models.

But he still thinks that the Mac is simpler, and only slightly pricier, the one “luxury” most consumers should consider. The writer considers Mac’s tech support (and genius corner) more reliable and simpler than those of most outlets selling PC’s.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

My own Brainbench certifications: a note

A note on my own Brainbench certifications:

Between November 2006 and April 2007 I earned certifications in COBOL, JCL, DB2, ANSI SQL and CICS. The certifications last for three years. The COBOL certification rolled off on November 20, 2009. The history of the certifications is available on my “professional” Netsol site at this link. Soon I’ll add a note to that file explaining the rolloff of certifications. (Network Solutions is a bit more complicated to log on to if you don't use it a lot, and Image Cafe isn't my first choice of a webpage editor.)

In some current circumstances, it is difficult to consider traditional contractor mainframe development assignments and take the time to recertify. I hope that will change in time. My Brainbench subscription was renewed recently.

Mainframe IT professionals will find the tests challenging. I discussed some of the background material for these subjects on this blog back in 2006.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Linux has not caught on as a desktop O.S.

Jason Hiner has a Tech Sanity Check article, Nov. 23, in Tech Republic, “The Market Has Rejected Linux Desktops. Get Over It”, link here.

He gives some reasons: a lack of innovation (Windows does a lot more), and businesses want somebody (Microslop) to blame. A better reason is that the Mac is easier and is built on a Linux basis, and yes, the Mac may be more stable because of the Unix-like root underneath. (Anyone who has ever worked with Mac support: their scripts are proprietary.) And Google’s plan for Chrome OS, based on cloud computing, is based on Linux only in a trivial sense.

Hiner reports that Linux is losing its share of the desktop market, despite all the purist hype a few years ago. I thought that Negroponte’s “laptop for every kid” was going to be based on a Linux model.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Freelancers Union is important for health insurance now, but what after health insurance reform?

Today, Monday Nov. 23, the Washington Post runs a column “America’s next great pundit”, which invites a vote today, and the column by Zeba Khan “A blow to the self-employed” is very relevant to IT freelancers (such as web developers and tech writers), link here.

She discusses Freelancers Union (link) , which if you look at the web page right now, shows an open enrollment for its health insurance. But Khan reports that the bills for health insurance reform (especially the House) would deny the ability of groups like Freelancers Union from negotiating within the health insurance exchanges. I don’t get the point of denying them the ability to participate.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Canadian IBM employee disciplined for Facebook photo while on sick leave

Here is another indication that employers pay attention to what employees post online, even on their own dime. A woman working for IBM in Quebec lost her sick leave benefit, allowing her time off for treatment of “depression”, after IBM’s insurance company found pictures of her in a Chippendales show on Facebook. It wasn’t reported whether privacy settings were turned on.

The AP/MSNBC story Nov. 22 is here.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

How should older pro's approach learning "new-fangled" skills?

How should older employees make the switch from linear mainframe skills to more modern client-server and distributed computing skills?

One tip is to maintain absolute concentration and focus on employer-provided training, usually months before the associate really needs the skills. Do all the exercises. Employers should allow off-site training course homework on their corporate computers to be considered proper “business use.”

Another problem is that instructors do like to give problems that are hard to work quickly from the available help screens. I found this particularly true of PowerBuilder as far back as 2000. Consider how much more thorough help screens from Google are for home bloggers. Or even Microsoft’s solutions, which tend to be very detailed.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Should employers offer "involuntary" or "under the table" promotions with "direct reports"? Could be dangerous

Should companies promote information technology “individual contributors” involuntarily?

It happened to me once, in 1988. I had worked in monthly and daily billing with a “group leader” and the manager decided to have me and the other person switch places. Then a third person was put in the group. Then the manager made me project leader, which in that company was a “having direct reports” job.

Companies often have team leaders or project leaders who make assignments informally without formal authority. Back in the 1970s, that’s how it worked in a company with the New York State Medicaid (MMIS) contract.

Or sometimes, someone will be a project leader and the manager asks the project leader to fill out a performance appraisal on the “subordinate” anyway.

This may even cross corporate lines, when contractors (from staffing companies) are part of the team. Sometimes the project leaders are contractors, but are asked to do appraisals anyway.

I’ve often wondered about the legal implications of all this. For one thing, a person with direct reports has to be much more wary of his own personal “online reputation” today, or risk, retrospectively at least, the risk of triggering a potential “hostile workplace” incident if there are underlying tensions.

Companies should be careful in developing promotion policies and make sure that direct reports are a welcome “responsibility.”

See coordinated post on main blog today.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Shops find infrastructure consultants more essential than "regular" employees

Ever notice that in shops that have layoffs of permanent salaried employees, a few critical contractors wind up getting hired after all?

How often is it that contractors have written and maintained critical enterprise architecture components, whether a bridge in C++ (to a data access layer or end user GUI) or perhaps a set of IO modules in DB2, perhaps converted from another database (IMS), perhaps after going through some inhouse internal IO controller (often in assembler with lots of arcane macros). Think of the position the consultant has been in, having to design “The Modules” that will have to work time after time – with due diligence to all those design questions (like when to use correlated subqueries).

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Hostile workplace law can get tricky in the area of social media and Internet expression

Law professor Eugene Volokh at UCLA Law School has a worksheet and whitepaper on “Freedom of Speech vs. Workplace Harassment Law – A Growing Conflict”. The link is here. The source is older: the original seems to be “Cite text as Eugene Volokh, What Speech Does "Hostile Work Environment" Harassment Law Restrict?, 85 Geo. L.J. 627 (1997).” There is a sublink for cyberspace issues near the top of the link, and another sublink on “breadth” that appears very important. He argues that there will necessarily evolve constitutional conflicts between the First Amendment and workplace law. He also proposes that the law should make much more distinct between one-to-one vs. one-to-many speech. I agree, this is a constructive approach, as the problem evolves in a world of social media.

Volokh argues that the vagueness of employment harassment law increases its breadth and that official “pervasiveness” requirements are ineffective and may have unintended consequences. He gives many examples of workplace speech that does not sound patently offensive to most people that still resulted in litigation. For example, he says that if someone spreads anti-Semitic views among co-workers whom he knows won’t be personally offended, he is still contributing to a hostile work environment because others lay learn of his attitude through the grapevine. Any statements made "at work" can lead to legal problems.

What about statements found on the public Internet, perhaps from search engines, and known to be authored by someone at work, especially by a manager who has authority over workers? Common sense would lead one to imagine scenarios (and maybe make them into screenplays or films!) where this could lead to serious consequences. This is related to other problems like “online reputation” and “implicit content.” The problem could be compounded by the fact that people interpret context and infer the purpose of others so differently. One partial solution is, of course, installing stringent filters at work, banning non-business use of the Internet, and perhaps blocking specific sites, including social networking sites, or personal sites known to be by other employers or managers from work computers to avoid the indirect inference of potential harassment. On the other hand, some jobs by their nature require the use of social networking sites as part of the job. Even so, employees could find material they believe to be prejudicial (perhaps believing incorrectly) from home, and this could conceivably lead to legal consequences down the road. That’s one of the reasons why employers should have blogging policies, especially for management employees. It does seem to be true that if the troubling material is not mentioned at work, that the employer’s situation sounds more defendable (hence “do not mention” policies as discussed on my main blog). You could pose the question: in an age of telecommuting (even more important given energy conservation and environmental protection), what does "at work" mean?

Some of these concerns were covered in a relatively little known book, Nancy Flynn. "Blog Rules: A Business Guide to Managing Policy, Public Relations, and Legal Issues". New York: Amacom/American Management Association, 2006. ISBN 978-0-8144-7355-9. Paper, 226 pgs. Also sold by the Society for Human Resource Management. I’ll probably add some material about this book on my Book Review blog later.

It does seem that hostile workplace problems develop retrospectively, based on how people perceived past statements or behaviors (as to their intention or purpose), rather than making something of unspecified potentialities in the future ("speech codes" notwithstanding). Nevertheless, the hostile workplace problem does go along with this notorious "don't ask, don't tell" style of thinking that developed during the Clinton years.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) statement on this issue is here. There is a considerable focus on suspect classes in EEOC rules.

(Discussion continues with Nov. 30, 2009 posting.)

Saturday, November 07, 2009

DC area utilities have "real life" systems problem this week: Why is DC area power so unreliable?

A few real life computer problems at utilities marked the lives of DC area residents this week.

In Montgomery County, MD, the computer system that cycles traffic lights inbound broke down on some arteries, and was out of commission for two days, as traffic engineers had to reset hundreds of lights manually. The Washington Post story is by Ashley Halsey III URL link here.

The Metro had power supply problems that caused the software system that updates Smart Cards and some other ticketing functions to fail.

Then in Arlington VA Dominion Power had a bizarre outage yesterday with an “animal on the line”. It’s hard to believe that a squirrel could disable the lights on much of Arlington’s main artery, Glebe Road for so long. Maybe a bobcat. Bears have been seen in the DC suburbs recently. But much of the outage was fixed in about ninety minutes, whereas residents in the Halls Hill section (an area that was walled off in the 1940s during segregation) and some adjoin sections were out for six areas. This area has undergone at least three major outages this year during fair weather, and sometimes power comes back to “new houses” in the area but not to others. There seems to be some inadequate metering transformer wiring that causes residents not to get power back quickly. Sad to say, this may be a deplorable remnant from the days of segregation and discrimination before the Civil Rights movement of the 560s. The vestiges of the past remain.

The Dominion Power website does allow residents to monitor outages, if they have battery-powered laptops and wireless Internet. The link is here. It’s worth exploring; there are some videos showing how power distribution and restoration works. I see that there are still some remaining spotty outages in northern Virginia Saturday morning, for no apparent reason.

I did not encounter constant power problems in either Dallas or Minneapolis, where systems are newer and, given the prairie geography, there are fewer trees. Actually, I had two sets of job interviews in the 1980s with Texas Utilities as a contractor and just missed getting offers. One of them had to do with the Glen Rose Commanche Peak Nuclear Power Plant, which I visited in 1982 on, of all things, a Sierra Club weekend trip. They sounded like a good place to work.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Unexplained invalid passwords: does this have to do with how OOP handles "equals"?

I found a technical discussion on OOP, “how many definitions do you have for ‘object equality’”? as I was surfing around trying to figure out why sometimes passwords “go bad”. Or sometimes they start working when a browser window is closed completely and restarted. This has happened at work before, and happens with accounts on some commercial websites.

Here “Scott” goes into a discussion of what happens in the OOP world when your car (a single instance of a class “car”) is repainted. The discussion is the difference or distinction between “reference equality” and “value equality.” But it seems that many sites do not regard a logon with a password as “equal” when a previous one was logged on during the same browser session.

It’s a pretty lively discussion and you can check it here.

I remember, after writing my first book, getting an email from a coworker titled “My book”. He should have said “My instance of your book.”

I also remember something else squirrely. The night before my learning of my layoff in December 2001, I had trouble logging in after hours. I had a sinking feeling that maybe my account had been invalidated; but no, it was one of the OOP problems in the way logon passwords are managed. The password worked the next morning that I came in to work. But then, right at 9 AM, I got a Netware message “your account has been disabled; please log off” while I was working with an internal customer to solve a problem. That was a moment of career cardiac arrest.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Rethinking the security of mainframe elevation procedures

Should an elevation to production in a mainframe environment be accomplished by moving all the components (copycode, source (most often COBOL), object, load modules, etc, as well as JCL and Procs) separately from a QA region or even the programmer’s region, or should the modules be recompiled and relinked in the production environment as part of the promotion process?

I seem to recall that back around 1991, when the shop where I worked used CA-Librarian, that all the components were moved separately. Testing and file-file comparing had been done with the load modules that were actually moved. Theoretically, if they were recompiled and relinked in a production environment, the same load modules so heavily tested wouldn’t be used. The programmer had to remember to manually “process” the source (that is, lock it) to guarantee that the source and load modules match. But to the best of my recollection, in the late 1990s with a Changeman environment, all the load modules were recreated with the production environment. This seems like a more secure procedure. It guarantees that source and load modules are in sync.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

ADA should be respected in IT employment (note warning in recent case)

I’ll start this posting by giving the DOJ’s own definition of who is covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act, link here. “Under the ADA, you have a disability if you have a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity such as hearing, seeing, speaking, thinking, walking, breathing, or performing manual tasks. You also must be able to do the job you want or were hired to do, with or without reasonable accommodation.”

Tech Republic, in a column Oct. 30 by Toni Bowers, has a curious warning that a recent court ruling in Indiana could encourage some employers to discriminate against obese people in hiring. In a case there, an employer had to pay for weight-loss surgery to correct a back injury that had occurred in restaurant work. As the column explained, the employee had incurred a “single injury” which the employer had to fix. Bowers points out that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) does not include cigarette smoking or obesity .

Since I.T. work is usually sedentary, it would seem that this sort of concern(about health insurance) is much less likely to apply in an IT shop than in a workplace like a restaurant. In my thirty-plus years in IT, I almost never saw discrimination in these areas. I did not encounter discrimination on the basis of being single, which in the 1980s might have been viewed as a surrogate marker for an increased risk of HIV. Yet, in my three-plus decades, I saw or became aware of very few instances of catastrophic illness or claims due to any situation with an employee. Nevertheless, Bowers in her column talks about the possibility that some employers will be “paranoid.” Perhaps this is speculative. The larger and closer to the mainstream the employer is, the less likely this is to happen. Mainstream employers, in my experience, are very sensitive to being perceived as having discriminated, even in an area that is not covered by legally-driven protections. It will be interesting to see if Workforce comes up with a paper on this.

In many shops, there are one or more persons with some physical disability who are accommodated and turn out to be among the most reliable employees in terms of technical expertise and the ability to serve as the “last resort” in solving unprecedented technical problems. People with some sort of physical disability are often very intense in their interest in the technical world in which they work and develop arcane levels of skill and stamina. Companies do not do themselves a favor if they overlook this reality of the business, whatever the exact coverage of the ADA.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

There exists training is using social networking sites for work!

Susan Kreimer has an interesting piece in the “Jobs” section of the Washington Post, Sunday Nov. 1, 2009, “Workers’ critical update: Computer skills”, link here.

We’re familiar with training in ordinary office products (like Microsoft Office, problem tracking systems, etc), but part of the training mentioned here is the use of social networking sites for professional purposes or for sales at work, a concept unknown perhaps as recently as five years ago.

You no longer own the right to your own online presence, if you are in many lines of work. That’s the hidden message, or not so hidden.