Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Microsoft announces "Elevate America" initiative; look at its ICT Curriculum Roadmap; also, 10 large companies with no layoffs!


Microsoft has announced a new initiative called “Elevate America” which Microsoft says will help individuals prepare for “information and communications technology” careers in the 21st Century. The basic link is this.

The program has two components: one which is controlled by the individual, and another portion that is supposed to develop as partnerships with state or local governments. Microsoft says that many features are offered at low or no cost to individuals.

But the most interesting portion of the announcement is the ICT Curriculum Roadmap, “Pathways to Success”, and it looks rather like a vertical rendition of the London Underground (PDF link here).

You start by becoming a “digitally aware individual”. You can fork off to the left and become essentially a Business Analyst, eventually leading to budgets and project management. You can fork to the right (no political pun intendend) and become a Web or Windows Developer. (It’s logical to add Linux, Mac, and all kinds of other platforms, but the Microsoft map seems to derived from Visual Studio). This is pretty much parallel to what the mainframe (COBOL, etc) track was back in the 1970s, and of course includes databases as an important piece.

But most of the map is everything else, about how to be a real Geek. If you’re going to become a techie, though, you first learn Computer Hardware. (Yup, you have to become your own Geek Squad and fix your own HAL errors.) Then you can become a Support Technician, a Systems Administrator, an Enterprise Administrator, a Server Administrator, a Systems Engineer, or a Database Administrator. Most of these jobs are rather “operations like” and run 24 x 7. How things changed from when I started (although we always had the operators as the “doers” who were somehow separate from the coders and analysts). It’s hard for prior-generation professionals to fit themselves into the new order of things, which requires much more flexibility.

As an aside, AOL has a story today “Where Layoffs Won’t Happen” and mentions Verizon and Colgate as among the most stable companies, in “10 Large Companies that Won’t Cut U.S. Jobs,” here.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Tech Republic offers 2009 Salary Survey, with some surprises: it's important to move up!


This morning (Feb. 23), Tech Republic offers (to free subscribers) its 2009 I.T. Skills and Salary Report, as a 7 page PDF file. I had trouble browsing the file in Mozilla; I had to save on my harddrive and view with Adobe itself. The download link is here.

In a budget-conscious and sometimes retracting environment, there are some trends. 33% of all I.T. professionals have budgeting responsibility, and it seems that about 30% have direct reports. This, to me, sounds like a reversal of an earlier trend for “flatter” management pyramids and larger “span of control.” It is more important than ever before to advance in one’s field and demonstrate a track record of doing so – which is somewhat a sea change from the 80s and early 90s (and even from the Y2K period when large scale mainframe coding was in such short-lived demand). This development can create conflicts of interest in an area where there is a lot of self-expression on the Internet and concerns about “reputation.”

Salary was dependent heavily on job performance, but also on training received. Salaries in larger Metropolitan areas, such as around Washington DC, are over $90000 often. The higher salaries and greater specialization seem to be the result of a Darwinian market that has weeded a lot of people out. (Around 2000 or so, $70000 was a lot.) It may comport with the bubble-and-burst economy that we have lived through.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Getting jobs requiring federal government security clearances


Derrick T. Dortch has a “Jobs Chat” column in the Jobs Section (page K1) of The Washington Post, Sunday, February 22, “Breaking into Defense Without a Clearance”. The link is here. Dortch is president of the Diversa Group, which helps with government job searches (especially for former military).

Dortch says that many agencies (apparently including the actual branches of the Armed Forces) will hire civilians and process clearances for them. Indeed, when I was hired by NAVCOSSACT (Navy Command Systems Support Activity) in 1971, it processed my Secret clearance and that took about five months. Most defense contractors will not hire people without active clearances, but a few will (and mark the jobs “clearable”) for skill sets that are rare enough.

It’s possible that the government will have to consider accelerating the clearance process. That’s because of the asymmetric nature of today’s security perils (especially in areas like cybersecurity), and agencies like the FBI or even the NSA or CIA might be in a position to benefit from the experience of “amateurs” who have developed some specialized knowledge of specific problems on their own.

However, some supra-top secret (SCI) clearances are very difficult to get and require polygraphs, even though polygraph evidence is generally not admissible. (I wonder if the government will use brain scans in the future for lie detection.)

It’s also true that older computer professionals may have stayed away from jobs requiring clearances in the past for various reasons. Three decades ago, LGBT could not get or had difficulty getting security clearances. Even with the “don’t ask don’t tell” policy for gays in the military, civilian employees of the services (even those in deployment zones) are not supposed to be affected by the policy and are supposed to be hired without sexual orientation discrimination. However, in practice, previous possession of a clearance and previous military service helps one get the experience to be desired for a cleared job today, so there is definitely an effect of “legacy discrimination.”

Dortch will hold an online discussion “Government Careers: Applying for Federal and Security-Related Jobs” on Wednesday March 4, 2009 at 11 AM on the Washington Post.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Lookup services can help employers find you; do they affect "online reputation"?


Toni Bowers has a Tech Republic blog entry today Feb. 20, Help Perspective Employers Find You. But today her focus is on lookup services, not on social networking or content or “reputation” management.

She suggests a service called PIPL, which goes to the “deep web” to build a summary about some one. I tried “John Boushka” and found very little, with much of it mixed up with my father. I tried “Bill Boushka” and found a lot, much more about my writing and blogs. I have used “Bill”, based on my middle name “William” as a quasi pseudonym.

I’m not sure how this would “impress” and I.T. employer who knows me as “John William”. It suggests a “sharp edge” and very public political participation and a certain kind of leveraged activism, but there’s nothing derogatory (drugs, porn, etc) that we usually think of with “reputation” problems. It would, for example, not affect a security clearance, today (it would have in the 60s and 70s); I wouldn’t care if the CIA or Secret Service saw it today. It would be problematic for a job where I had to go out and sell somebody else’s content disjointed from mine. I also notice that it shows places where others have referred to me or quoted my postings.

PIPL goes to the “deep web” and looks for dynamic pages. People say that search engines don’t index dynamic pages; well, now they do (sometimes by scanning underlying databases), but not as easily. Perhaps ten years ago they did not.

A good link to explain PIPL is here.

I also tried setting up a “LookupPage” profile.

Lookup also offers “professional” upgrades ("Pro Now") for a small monthly or yearly subscription fee. It sends an email telling the page owner how many visits he or she has, and offers the upgrade to analyze the visits.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Is "perfectionism" a particular personality trait for I.T. people?


Are information technology people unhealthfully obsessed with “perfection”? Is information technology a convenient placement for individuals who don’t want to deal with “people as people” or manipulate them?

I can recall a saying from a manager back in the 1980s, “a lot of people can code, but not many people can implement.” Putting a new system into production means painstaking preparation, careful preparation of exactly the right extracts and files, running parallels for days or months, and getting perfect comparison results. The old 90-100 is an A from school is gone, only 100% is acceptable.

The problem gets complicated by the fact that today, use of production data in system testing is becoming problematical because of security concerns, and the need to protect consumer privacy.

Of course, you can say, other professions require even more perfection. Take medicine, from nursing to surgery.

No wonder, then, why it can be personally challenging for someone who has worked this way for years to deal with “real people” and their needs in “real relationships,” some of which aren’t always chosen.

Monday, February 16, 2009

A workplace is a world, until it isn't: planets get demoted to moons


One thing I’ve noticed in my seven-plus years since the formal end of my conventional IT career (at age 58 then) is how I perceive the “work universe.”

Even though, for the last four-plus years at my last employer in IT my life had changed with the publication of a personal-political book in 1997, the intricacies of the workplace still occupied my attention a lot. I saw most things through the veneer of individualism and absolute personal responsibility for results. I had been an individual contributor my whole career, or at least almost. Yet, the place of employment, with all the “politics” surrounding elevations, support, the technical infrastructure (like replication, a data access layer for the midtier, and a customer service GUI), and even the weird wrinkles that TPX created for test platform elevations – and, most of all, the two mergers I lived through, did seem like “a world.”

How it gets different when you retire. Yes, you take interim jobs (after all, I was part-time at the Minnesota Orchestra for fourteen months, and in different times that would have gone somewhere) and they become, well, not quite fill worlds or planets, but like moons (Titan or Europa are good enough). The same could be said about substitute teaching, but that was getting closer to a real problem – how the rest of the world lives. Personal manipulation, role modeling, authority, and lead development – all these things are taken for granted in most of the “real world” but not very much in I.T., except a bit in formal technical sales.

I do remember well the split personality of the work world even in my days as a site rep for Univac (1972-1974). I was a “systems analyst” and barely allowed to remain an introvert. But in those days of “management by objectives” a lead SA could be expected to achieve something like, get the customer “on rent” within 120 days. A benchmark SA would have to do things more mundane, like get disc drives partitioned. But the formal salesmen wore IBM suits (even then, we didn’t quite have to – my first day there, I wore a chartreuse suit) and schmoozed appropriately.

So today I resist the careers that require the leads of “herd members” to be led off of cliffs. Somebody has to look at the Truth first.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

HR advice on hiring and firing at the same time; 10 IT jobs at high risk


This morning, Workforce Management told “everybody” about an interesting blog called Fistful of Talent whose second entry today talks about the delicate Human Resources matter of hiring and firing at the same time. Workforce management whimsically refers to the “The recruiting and staffing bloggers at Fistful of Talent” as if it were a normal practice for HR firms to hire bloggers during these stressed times. (Well, please tell the National Writers Union!)

Seriously, it happens all the time. Companies get down to certain headcounts to stay within budget, but still advertise new positions, usually with very specialized skills in core business areas (PeopleSoft sticks in my mind has having been in demand in 2001 when everyone else was being fired.) The blog entry, for Feb 11, is called “HR Pros, Put Your PR Pro Hat On When Layoffs Happen...”. There’s talk of the need to lure some specialized techies out of their zone of safety, when they hear that other employees are even losing severances as terms of getting bailout TARP money. For some professionals, the work “bailout” does mean new opportunities.

In Washington, this could be a good time for people with applications and user skills in specialized areas, like collections, risk management, recapitalization, and mortgage refinancing. I’ve seen postings for “fiscal fire departments” to work for the FDIC, travel weekends to unpredictable cities for the privilege of working 24x7 to take over banks. It’s brutal out there.

Also, today, Baseline Magazine has an interesting gloom article by Ericka Chickowski, “The Ten At-Risk I.T. Jobs”, link here. There is a slide show, that runs automatically on a timer method, on the right side of the page. Surprisingly, E-commerce is seen as in jeopardy, as well as technical project management (although USAJobs seems to show a lot of demand for the latter in the federal government), and various data center staffing jobs.

Monday, February 09, 2009

Should I.T, people "volunteer" to work for free? Recall training mills from the 60s and 70s


Should IT professionals offer to “work for free?” I saw that advice in the current Reader’s Digest for the job market in general. And, a couple recessions ago (around 1991), I actually saw resumes where people offered to work as “volunteers” for a while in programming jobs.

Companies do hire unpaid or lowpaid interns, and the practice used to be common with students graduating from programming schools. Schools like this thrived in spurts from the late 1960s until the early 90s. Interns would do the simplest clerical tasks, like compiling or making inventories of programs in a shop with some characteristic.

I almost went to one of those mills myself in 1971. I was getting laid off from a job as “operations research trainee” at RCA David Sarnoff Research Center in Princeton, my only layoff until the end of 2001. I had relatively little practical programming experience then, although I had coded a “dynamic programming” manufacturing model in Fortran, would you believe. Fortunately, I got a job with Uncle Sugar, because I knew somebody, and moved back to Washington to work for the Navy Dept, NABCOSSACT. I did not have to “volunteer”.

Back in the 60s and 70s, companies really did having training programs for new hires, the most notorious of which were conducted by EDS for its “systems engineers” in the days that “data processing” was a mystery. In 1970, RCA had even trained programmers (in ALC) for its “MIS” program, and actually put them up three to a motel room for the ten weeks. Those were the days, my friend.

Friday, February 06, 2009

H-1B worker controversy heats up during down economy


Today, Workforce Management has an important blog story “Deep Corporate Staff Cuts Heat Up H-1B Visa Debate,” link here.

There is a general agreement that in practice companies are using workers with these visas in “body shops” and not out of legitimate need for specialized expertise.

Senator Charles Grassley (R-IA) and Richard Durbin (D-IL) had sponsored legislation in the 110th Congress “The H-1B and L-1 Visa Fraud and Abuse Prevention Act of 2007”, story here; the Senate bill was S31, link here.

Banks receiving TARP money have been caught misuing H-1B workers.

Similar legislative efforts will probably occur in this Congress.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

If someone asks me (an "older" IT person), "why didn't you 'advance'?"


I suppose when somebody looks at my long “professional” resume, they will ask, in retrospect, “Why didn’t you advance?”

In fact, in spring 1988 in Dallas, I did. I was a “group leader” of the monthly billing team for a couple months, and then a project leader, which gave me one direct report. The way it happened is that the boss switched me with another team member to make me group leader, and then gave me someone else when I became a project leader.

We had already been told of the TRW merger (this was at Chilton Corporation, a credit reporting company in Dallas, now long since spun off as Experian). There had not been layoffs yet, but there was already talk of incentives to day, and of decommissioning bureaus and eventual shutdown.

Why did I leave then? The job market in Dallas, given the real estate and savings and loan crash then, was not good, and I had talked to headhunters about returning to the East Coast, where at the time things were hopping. I thought I was “stretching my luck” if I stayed.

Had I stayed and taken the incentive to stay, I would have landed in the Dallas job market in January 1990. I would have kept the condo. But maybe I would have left and wound up with the same job I eventually took in Northern VA in 1990, which led to my last twelve years in conventional IT.

I used to say that I did not like the idea of being in “management” (or “being groomed” for it) without the skills of people who worked for me. Even one chess playing friend thought that by now “I managed people.” In the 80s into the early 90s, marketability consisted of IBM, COBOL, JCL, but particularly IMS and CICS. But many shops still needed assembler (like life insurance companies still running CFO from 1962! and even ISSUCOMM for new business, which now seems like a bizarre world of its own, with all the self-referencing record trailers). In fact, as late as the mid 80s some companies (even Chilton) had to convert applications from IBM’s old DOS to MVS.

Throughout my career, I did have managers who were perceived by subordinates as “non technical.” Toward the Y2K event (ah, those prosperous Bill Clinton years!), formal project management came into use (with various software packages, including Microsoft’s own).

In fact, one problem I encounter looking at USAJOBs (for the federal government) today is that most positions (if they aren’t networking and hardware support) look for formal project management and budgeting experience (because the actual coding is done by contractors). Making and monitoring user test plans is a sought skill, as is supervising implementation, but these are perceived as quasi-management skills with subordinates.

The “revolution” towards end-user computing, PC’s, and Internet applications, with heavy use of object-oriented programming came on very quickly. Older professionals were typically not able to adapt quickly to a “new way of thinking” about software and code internals, and IT fragmented quickly into a myriad of areas and niches where focused expertise was necessary to remain employable – and these areas could again morph quickly and become obsolete. Some market in older niche mainframe areas, as we’ve noted, would remain but seem unpredictable.

I’ve spent several years looking into the nuances of the free speech issues (in areas like censorship, “reputation”, copyright, trademark and domain names, downstream liability exposure, etc). I do believe I have something to offer to the Internet software world. But I would have to tap into the world of project management. There is no way anyone can master all the hands-on skills required oneself for this.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Feb. 4, 1999: A day of a big IT layoff (for other people), even pre-Y2K: job losses have happened for decades


February 4. In 1999, that is, Such is a date that lives in employment infamy for some people. Now, it may not seem so remarkable in these days of massive layoffs. Back on that date in 1999, people who came to work in information technology at Prudential in a Minneapolis suburb found that they could not log on. “We all knew,” they said. I found out as a lot of their people came over to work for “us” by early March of that year.

In fact, they say, the security people kept telling them that it was just a glitch, until they were all called in to a meeting by HR and some woman from corporate mumbled the bad news, barely audibly, without making eye contact. All the staffers and managers adjourned to a Ruby Tuesday’s. “It was wonderful” they said.

I remember thinking then, how odd, to lay people off before Y2K, right in the middle of a widely publicized “War for Talent”.

My own layoff, in December 2001, would come suddenly, as my own work Netware account became disabled as I was on the phone helping an internal customer. There are different ways this happens.

In fact, in the late 1980s it had become common for large companies to consolidate data centers and applications after acquisitions. In the 1990s, the acquisitions were becoming too complex to do this that easily. Companies set up replication and mid-tier designs to absorb legacy systems from acquired companies, while having to keep those old systems running, often for years. Then, they seemed to need mainframers (especially not just COBOL but old mainframe Assembler) desperately as Y2K approached. As we know, Y2K became the crisis that never was. So a mass layoff by a major financial competitor less than a year before Y2K seemed odd.

Still, ever since the mid 1980s, consolidations and layoff cycles in IT have been common. For a number of years, they seemed to throw a lot of programmers into serial careers with small and less than the most resourceful organizations – I recall that from having seen a lot of resumes in those days. In the 1990s, believe it or not, some people still used DOS and UFAM.

I recall something else about the mentality around 1999 and even early 2000. Our stock price wasn’t rising enough and we were acquisition targets then because, as a C-suiter said in a meeting, our company name didn’t end with “dot com”. How quickly that would change! (Remember the dot-com bubble? The Nasdaq has never recovered completely from that.) Then there was the sales conference in August 2001, with a paid motivational speaker saying that the Dow would reach 35000 by mid decade.

All of this sounds like so much moralizing, beyond just poetic rambling. Remember, the age of individualism and “do it yourself” – particularly in computing and on the Net – rose partly because leadership didn’t always behave credibly, even then. Since then, we’ve really learned how weak our corporate and political leadership – at least behavior --- has been. We did this to ourselves, collectively, so no wonder a lot of us like the idea of being on our own. Truth seems to be winning out over Power after all. We’re still living in the age of Yang.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Post ad makes some points about today's job market


The Washington Post has a big “Professional Opportunities” print ad today (Sunday, Feb. 1, 2009) on p F3, Business, that illustrates some of the touchy issues of the job market. Newspapers are normally contracting and laying off, and the Post may no exception. Nevertheless, professionals who are very dedicated to advancement may prosper. Although this is not an IT position, the qualities sought “teach a lesson.”

The position is General Manager of “Washington Post Briefings.” Qualified candidates will have proven experience collaborating with C-suite executives” and later “have a wide-range of high-level contacts…” The term “C-suite” refers to chief officers of various divisions of a company. Note that the successful candidate has dedicated his whole life to networking and “reputation” – something that previously more introverted techies thought was for good old boys.

I once pondered the idea of becoming an IT recruiter. I got a call from someone in Boston who asked what kind of contacts I had in two or three specific federal agencies. I sort of realized this was how the game is played. Particularly, Beltway bandits are supposed to network with government agencies, particularly former military.

I can see how the patterns of discrimination from a few decades past drove me deep into my own world, almost on another planet. It’s hard to get past the speed of light to come back.