Sunday, February 28, 2010

DC hospital fires some nurses, other associates for not getting to work during colossal snowstorms

A private hospital in Washington DC, the Washington Hospital Center (MedStar Health), well known as a trauma center, has fired at least eleven nurses for missing work during the colossal snowstorms in Washington in mid-February. Theresa Vargas has the story “D.C. hospital fires 11 nurses, 5 staffers for snowstorm absences” link here.

Some nurses report termination several days after they had reported back to work and stayed overnight to avoid transportation problems. The termination letters apparently referred to gross misconduct. It's particularly disturbing that they took several days, when employees thought they would be all right.

During storms, calls go out for volunteers with four-wheel drives. Conceivably the National Guard could transport critical medical people.

In information technology, the workaround is usually to work from home. But during this storm, many people had power and probably broadband outages.

For several years in Minneapolis, I lived fifteen hundred feet from my job on the Skyway. It didn’t happen much, but, yes, I could get other people’s nightcalls. Work availability and ability to respond becomes an issue in some salaried jobs, relating to commuting distance, broadband access and family responsibility.

Wikipedia attribution link for picture of Washington Hospital Center

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Will "social media" become a fad matching dot-com bust. No, but employers have gotten silly

Patrick Gray has an interesting perspective on Tech Republic, “Antisocial media: Is this social media stuff really the future?” here. He compares the corporate interest in social networking as like the dot-com bubble of the late 90s; it’s a fad that won’t pan out like it is expected to. But whereas stock prices, particularly on the Nasdaq, were driven up by false expectations during the dot-com bubble, here a problem seems to be that in many businesses individuals are finding that employers want to expropriate their own online presence.

When you post, he says, make it professional and make it original. Don’t just repeat rumors, especially on Twitter.

The link is here.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

What they should have taught you in school about the world of work: sales? (hucksterism?) manual labor?; watch your reputation!

Here’s a cute article from Career Builder and Anthony Balderrama, “What they should have taught you in school; professional skills you wish you had learned,” link here.

There is a lot of emphasis on soft skills and people skills, and even “small talk”, the bane of introverted personality types. This is a far cry from the post last week on good technical interview “essay questions”.

There are a lot of short quotes of what employers said in response to questions about what else people should be taught in school. Some of them were curious.


“Sales. No matter what you think, you'll be selling. Everyone's selling something; even if it's just themselves. Let's teach our kids how." My reaction, I don’t want to become dedicated to peddling someone else’s agenda.

Here’s a good one that my father (with his mantra about “learning to work”) would like:

"Manual labor. Everyone should have a manual labor job at some point. Wait tables and wash dishes. Pump gas. Mow lawns. A little humility is good for you and might prevent you from being a jerk later in life."

Call it “pay your dues!”


I noticed a post on Parry Aftab's "I Keep Safe" blog, "Some Employers, Colleges Asking Applicants to Pull Up Facebook During the Interview", link here, Jan. 29, 2010, link here and mentions the company Reputation Defender.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

IRS complicates things for programmers who want to go solo (trouble started in 1986)

Harvey J. Shulman has an improtant op-ed on p 8 of the Sunday Opinion Section of The New York Times today, February 21, “Our Low-Tech Tax Code” and its effect on information technology workers.

Shulman talks about a law called Section 530 from 1978, which allowed companies some reasonable basis, rooted in consistency, to let programmers remain “self-employed”. But in 1986 a law called Section 1706 took away much of the protection for staffing firms, that had come into common use in the early 1980s.

In my experience, I hear a lot about staffing firms that offer the choice between W-2 (hourly and overtime, no benefits, but tax is withheld) or corp-to-corp, where one is an employee fully salaried by the staffing company with benefits. The political and legal climate is exerting considerable pressure on staffing companies to provide benefits. But for some technologists, being salaried might create some conflicts of interest. The article points out that the law and IRS action in 1986 might have shut down a lot of budding entrepreneurs who might have formed their own companies, able to employ others.

Remember, 1986 is the year that a notorious "tax reform" act was passed to eliminate passive real estate shelters, and it created more problems than it solved.

The link for the Times op-ed is here.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Candidates for programming jobs should know their stuff, at a conceptual level: what interviewers can ask, what programmers tell: the "IQ Test"

Tech Republic has a really important blog post Feb. 18 by Justin James, “Hiring a programmer: Ask these questions at an interview”. The link is here.

I can remember the most common interview question back in the 1970s for COBOL programmers: how do you do a binary search? Or, what’s the difference between SEARCH and SEARCH ALL.

The questions are a bit deeper now, and the article is written from the viewpoint that both procedural and OOP may be involved in the job (the bias is toward object oriented).

Yes, you should know the difference between “equality” and “equivalence” (or “value” equality or “instance equality”, a concept which explains why sometimes “remembered” passwords in your browser don’t work). Likewise, “call by value” vs. “call by reference”. In the OOP world you need to know polymorphism, encapsulation, and inheritance. And you need to know about the different concepts in locking. (DB2 refines this further with share, update, and exclusive locks, or with the tricky concept of bind “isolation level, such as repeatable read and cursor stability).

He mentions that some well known software companies interview people by having them play puzzle games (back around 2000 a friend of mine called this the “IQ test”). There are also “whiteboard” oral exam questions, writing pseudocode to solve problems, like reversing an array without a loop. Ask an AP calculus student to write pseudocode for doing integration by partial fractions!

Certification tests, such as those by Brainbench, tend to emphasize detailed knowledge of many programming and design techniques, particularly in the database and SQL area, asking the examinee to predict results, or determine which alternative is most efficient, etc.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

A job should be a career, eventually

Back in the summer of 1973, after a new manager had taken over the marketing branch of Sperry Univac in northern New Jersey where I had gone to work as a “systems analyst” in September 1972, the manager gave me his evaluation and said, “the most important thing to me is that you have a career”. He did say that I had a “talent” for developing things and seeing them through to the end, through implementation.

The dark side of the comment was that I didn’t have a “marketing profile.” Univac then was #2 in mainframe computers, and with all the simplicity of its Exec 8 operating system and command-like JCL, it never could catch up with IBM. The hidden message, from an assistant manager, was that I had 90 days to find a transfer within the company.

I did find that in October, and wound up on a big benchmark in Minnesota anyway in early 1974, for Bell Labs. That would be ironic as eventually I would live in Minneapolis, but with another company (ING-ReliaStar) from 1997-2003.

In 1974, in fact, I would join NBC in New York City (at one of the only seven Univac installations in the City; another one was Pace College, and still another was the American Stock Exchange), as an applications programmer analyst, and my career took a direction that, in retrospect, gave it stability for almost the next thirty years.

I still remember that manager’s comment about “a career”. The last movement of Shostakovich’s Thirteenth Symphony is based on a poem “A Career” by Soviet poet Yevtushenko, and the logline is, when translated, “A certain scientist, Galileo’s contemporary, was no more stupid than Galileo. He knew that the earth revolves, but he had a family. And when he got into a carriage with his wife, after accomplishing his betrayal, he reckoned he was advancing his career, but in fact he’d wrecked it.”

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Census accused of waste with temporary workers (AP, Commerce audit)

On a day that I am seriously considering calling Census later today about a temporary job, I I found this story about waste in It got mentioned this morning on ABC Good Morning America, in passing. It actually came from Hope Yen of the AP. The link is here. The article lets the expensive Super Bowl spot on CBS, but it says $3 million has been paid to temporary Census employees who haven’t done any work, according to an audit that the AP says it has obtained. Apparently the report was developed by Todd Zinser of the Commerce Department.

If I go to work, I have to think about the oath seriously, and make sure it doesn’t cause an "existential" or "prospective" legal conflict with my writing, particularly if I were to move into a supervisory role sooner or later.

In the DC area, Census, like all agencies, would be dealing with the lost of 4-1/2 days to snow.

And the temporary jobs are indeed a help given the economy.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Layoffs are really bad for business!

The February 15 issue of Newsweek has a great story by Jeffrey Pfeffer, “Lay off the Layoffs: Our overreliance on downsizing is killing workers, the economy – and even the bottom line”, p. 32. The original online article appeared Feb. 5 with link here. Pfeffer os quite correct in noting that often layoffs don’t improve the bottom line, and uses Circuit City, which lost the battle to even exist to Best Buy (a company that I remember well from my days in Minnesota, meeting a lot of their programmers in an XML class at Hennepin County Technical College in 2002). We’ve had periods when even in good times companies would make selective layoffs to improve the short term bottom line and stock price, and this whole “greed is good” strategy is unraveling. (Oh, by the way, if you noticed, “Wall Street” is getting remade this year with Michael Douglas and now Shia LaBeouf.

The Atlantic, in the March 2010 issue, runs an article by Don Peck (deputy managing editor), p. 42, “How a Jobless Era will Transform America”. Peck talks about “funemployment” among young adults, and about opposing trends of stress on families and more interdependence among kin, something social conservatives want. The link is here.

Look also at this graph by Derek Thompson about the length of the average bout of unemployment, at the Atlantic online, here.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Employers want much more detailed resumes now than they used to

I get a lot of emails from TunaRez(link) offering resume evaluation, and an email yesterday (Tuesday Feb 9) related that the “rules of the game” for resume writing have changed. Employers want more now. They want to see not just what you did but how you did it. Using adjectives and adverbs is OK as well as active nouns and verbs (like in your English 101). They want to see more details, even on the resume, and start making decisions about “hiring” as well as interview even on the basis of the resume. Longer resumes may be all right for some people. And people will need to account for gaps in employment, not just layoffs but, for example, family care.

Even ten years ago, after the 2001, 9/11-related recession, outplacement companies had been telling candidates to keep resumes brief and functional, emphasizing "what" rather than "how" -- but with lots of quantification.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Advice to mainframe programmers: stick with it, and specialize within mainframe

The scuttlebutt on the job market related to mainframe now comes across to me as this:

Ten years ago, if you have worked mainly as a mainframe programmer, particularly in the old-fashioned world of nightly cycles, JCL, on-call support, COBOL, CICS, S0C7’s, AbendAid, etc (don’t we remember this), it was more prudent to grow your background in the mainframe area where you had focused expertise, than to move into client-server, where it’s hard to pick things up in non-linear learning curve mode. Why? For a moment, think about how you work at home. You use packages. You get proficient in what Blogger, Facebook, etc can do in detail, but you almost never need to write Javascript any more, let alone perl script. (Although, if you have to make an executive decision on how to redeploy your own website, it helps to know some things in detail.)

It seems like the contractor market seems pretty strong in focused areas like DB2, especially stored procedures; MQ programming, and certain kinds of applications, especially Medicaid MMIS and state welfare systems. The practical problem is that a programmer needs to be focused in one or two of these areas (not too many areas, because it gets diffused) and build a “reputation” over years – even an “online reputation” – on these areas. That may seem like asking for a lot of commitment from an employer base that acts utilitarian and not too willing to return the appreciation with long term career stability.

Friday, February 05, 2010

Be careful: you can actually quit your job in Twitter

Well, you really have to be careful about what you say on your little microblog tweets, when you can resign from a job via Twitter. That’s what Jonathan Schwartz of Sun Microsystems did a midnight last night, according to this MSN story by Elizabeth Strott, link

Gone, it seems, are the hardcopy resignation letters from the company laser printer.

What if somebody created a fake Twitter account and resigned for you?

The story also reports that sales jobs will increase at Oracle. It’s possible that sales jobs will increase among a number of software companies. For example Pitney-Bowes (including Group-1 software, dealing with address standardization and USPS interfaces like MoveForward) has a page explaining its sales program here. Again we have the question, can techies sell? Should they?

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Census jobs: I may bite, but I must pay particular attention to usual confidentiality concerns and rules

Some time in the next several days or weeks, I may consider working for the 2010 Census. I want to set the record straight on some heightened concerns about strict Census confidentiality policies.

The Census Bureau, given its mission, has an unusual need to protect not only specific data items reported by individuals but also certain aggregate date in order to prevent any possibility that a hostile party could use aggregate date to identify individuals in unpopular groups. Because the data is used only in a statistical purpose for public policy, none of it can be made available to other government agencies, including law enforcement.

The Disclosure Avoidance Procedures are explained in the following web link. They may need several readings to be understood.

It’s also good to review the questions on the 2010 census, here to get a feel for how various kinds of demographic data could be summarized by computer programs. Additional “details” as intermediate values could be computed from the responses on each form, following well known concepts in “procedural programming” of computers (common in older languages like COBOL).

The September 13, 2009 entry on my GLBT blog explains, with a Washington Post reference, how Census will count same-sex couples. This will be a new responsibility for the 2010 Census.

However, Census would have to protect data carefully, with suppression techniques like those mentioned in the above reference, in communities reporting only a small number of same-sex couples, to preclude any possibility that hostile parties could try to misuse the information. Similar concerns could exist for many other groups.

The same-sex couple problem illustrates how there could develop a heightened concern over accidental employee disclosure away from the job, in comparison to many other jobs involving data, where there is nearly always an expectation or legal requirement for confidentiality.

The legal basis for Census confidentiality requirements resides in Sections 9 and 214 of Title 13, United States Code, link here.

Every employee takes an Oath of Non-Diisclosure (link here) which is legally effective for life. Criminal penalties can be assessed for violation, even after leaving employment. In many private corporate jobs, similar legal requirements to protect stakeholder confidentiality after leaving employment exist, but often only with civil penalties. The Census Privacy principles are here.

Since my blogs cover such a range of issues (due to my “connect the dots” philosophy), I would be concerned about possible prospective concerns from an employer about inadvertent disclosure, particularly of sensitive aggregate information, at an unspecified time in the future, using a “propensity” model of thinking (following a legal model ironically known from the military’s “don’t ask don’t tell” law).

However, I have always had to practice discretion in what I publish in my blogs, which, as I have discussed before, are unsupervised. There are always some ancillary personal situations that should not be disclosed, and there are always some specific matters related to previous employment that cannot be disclosed because of specific confidentiality agreements in the past. I have always honored these. Furthermore, I have been in situations before where someone could imagine scenarios where I might have a political motive to mine available data for some aggregate finding of potential use elsewhere. However, I have never used employer data for my own purposes.

In writing without third party due diligence to an “everyone” market, I would indeed have to practice care, and perhaps more care than ever before. For example, a comment that I believed there were X same-sex couples in some neighborhood of city Y could actually be a legal violation of confidentiality, even though the comment might seem to have political value. However, in principle there is no reason why it would be wrong to continue to blog (non-confidential and non-work-related) other subject matter off the job publicly while holding such a job. I see no direct problem with the Federal Statute (Title 13) or the lifetime oath. If I have direct reports, that could be another matter, and that may be covered in another post later.

Monday, February 01, 2010

Be careful if employers give personality tests when you're already on the job (and when applying, too)

On Sunday, Jan. 31, Lily Garcia ran an article in the Jobs Section of The Washington Post about personality tests at work. The article is titled “Skip the test if you don’t want your personality pegged at work”, link here.

The article fields a question from a visitor who faces a Myers-briggs survey at work (link), which HR promises will be used only in the aggregate. Obviously, she fears being pegged by her employer as a “type.”

Outplacement agencies give these tests to help give advice. But often employers give applicants 400-question true-false personality tests, both to detect deception but also to determine socialability, especially for customer service jobs. AT&T gave the test online to applicants, and would not let applicants who “failed” reapply for six months (back in 2002). TSA gives a test like this to applicants for screening positions.

Picture: Full Moon on a winter morning (no relation to post), when days start to get longer. "The days lengthen, the cold strengthens."