Monday, November 29, 2010

Richmond trip recalls past consulting job, a strange experience; Obama wants to freeze federal wages, contractor pay

Well, I passed by an old business “hangout” on Staples Mill Road in Richmond VA, Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield (the “Anthem” is new); the IT operation was or has been called "HealthNet". In May 1989, I spent a weekend there copying data to tapes (with IBM mainframe JCL utilities) to prepare the merger of our small company (then called “The Consolidated Consulting Group”) with Lewin-ICF; Lewin has since become a powerhouse consulting firm in health care statistics reporting and interpretation. It has been owned by Quorum and now by the United Health Group.

Even by 1988-1989, IBM had the 3090 (installed at Healthnet BCBS) and it was pretty powerful; it could run million record sorts in a few minutes wall clock.  I remember getting "computer costs" down by sorting and processing sequentially rather than using VSAM.  When we were bought, for a while we used ICF machines like the 4341 (VM) and 4381 (MVS) which were much less powerful than the 3090.

I remember the Sunday afternoon drive on I-95 back to Washington with the reel tapes in boxes in my trunk. Maybe the sunlight heat didn’t hurt them. (These were the days before cartridges, even; I think the tapes had to be created unlabeled.  The whole future of the company was in my car, and riding on whether I did everything right that weekend. I did, and it was pretty simple.)

Near BCBS was an old facility called “The Computer Company” where then Medicaid MMIS work was done (as well as some Medicare). I suspect the facility has been razed and rebuilt with a modern one, but I don’t remember exactly where it was (within a mile or so of BCBS). “The Computer Company” has a website here but I don’t know if it’s the same outfit. It says "We do IT right".

It sticks in my mind that the husband of one of the other consultants worked for the DIA; that flashed back into my mind when I saw that story Saturday about the sudden firing (post on Nov. 27). 

Today President Obama announced his proposal for a freeze on wages of civilian federal employees (as part of deficit control), and this will also affect contractor pay. It does apply to members of the Armed Forces. The President used the word “sacrifice” with a Perot-like flavor. “We have to think about not just the next election but the next generation.”

Saturday, November 27, 2010

DIA employee loses clearance, job with no due process or explanation; can it happen to others?

Peter Finn has a story in the Washington Post Saturday Nov. 27, “Security clearance pulled with no explanation why; Fired intelligence analyst left with few options after Pentagon invokes rare clause,” link here.

The story concerns DIA analyst John Dullahan, who was stripped of his clearance on Tuesday, March 17, 2009 (after Obama had taken office) without due process or explanation, and then fired (he was offered the opportunity to resign with benefits). It is rare for people to have clearances revoked with no due process, and usually, the story says, there is a grave threat to national security in the works. In Dullahan’s case, he had some social contact with Soviet diplomats in the 1980s and had fired an unusually invasive polygraph earlier in 2009 apparently with questions concerning those contacts. Of course, it’s interesting that the government would still be so concerned about Soviet activities in the 1980s, unless somehow they were related to the locations of loose nuclear weapons material today. Government probably will soon be in a position to use other polygraph or lie-detection techniques, such as MRI’s.

Most workers outside the world of classified information are covered by the The Employee Polygraph Protection Act of 1988 (EPPA), with DOL reference here. When I was working for a credit reporting company in the 1980s, I was told that polygraphs could be given, but in fact they never were.

There have been several incidents in my own life where there was adverse action taken without explanation. In September 1968, when I was stationed at the Pentagon while in the Army, I was suddenly and “mysteriously” transferred to Fort Eustis, VA, after my BI came back (with information concerning my William and Mary expulsion or “psychiatric history” at NIH .

Monday, November 22, 2010

Should IT professionals host their own connections?

Should IT professionals (or, for that matter, information entrepreneurs of any ilk) host their own Internet connections?

Generally, larger ISP’s offer both shared web hosting and dedicated web hosting. Typically with shared hosting, a variety of software products is offered on Windows Server or Unix/Linux or Apple servers, particularly related to whether Microsoft or Apple is proving the product (.NET environments require Windows environments, etc, and generally Unix environments are simpler than Windows ones).

One reason that person might want to host is own connection is to be able to register as a “Copyright agent” so that he can be sure of getting all DMCA safe harbor notifications before facing any litigation. I’ve discussed this on my “BillBoushka” blog, particularly on Nov. 4, 2010. Some authorities say that a blogger or webmaster who accepts contributions from other writers (other than plain comments) can register as a copyright agent. This is still unclear and I will report on that blog when I get a definite answer. (This is related to the Righthaven mass litigation discussed on that blog.)

In the book “Radically Transparent” by Beal and Strauss (mentioned previous blog posting) on p 208, the authors mention the difference between and in terms of the need (with the .org) to install on your own web server, but that can be a regular ISP with shared hosting and Wordpress support, as discussed on March 11 here.

Back in the early to mid 1990s, a coworker actually ran his own connection to the Internet from a 386 machine for a while!  Later in the 1990s he developed a boot Linux distribution disc which he explains on his resume here.  (I once tried it on an old 386 Everex laptop and it did work.)   The person is Tom Oehser, and I link to his resume also to show a great example of a well-written functional resume, showing a lot of focused depth in a number of currently important disciplines.

Another friend at work in Minneapolis ran the ISP (Unix) that I used from home, called "virtualnetspace", at rack space at another entrepreneur's shed in Maryland called "Announce".

If you do your own hosting, as an individual consultant, you probably want to live or work in a home or building that has sound infrstructure and few power disruptions. That's getting harder these days.  Let's home for no big "coronal mass ejections" in 2012.  But we'll all be in the same boat, anyway.

Friday, November 19, 2010

ABC reports on BlogWorld Expo, ideas for Internet entrepreneurs

At Blog World New Media Expo 2010 in Las Vegas workplace editor Tory Johnson appeared and gave some more tips on entrepreneurial blogging, link here.

The News story is “Clicks to Cash: Make Good Money as a Blogger on Your Own Website: Successful Bloggers Share Secrets of Success”, link (website url) here.

Jordan Cooper developed a career writing ebooks , launching from “Not a Pro” (link ) and Football Management Tactics (actually soccer) (website url) here .

Bailey Vincent Clark developed Makeover Momma (link)  Another success was “Shop open sky” (link).

Tory’s advice: Write about a topic you are passionate about, because you will have to go a while before making any money.  Another piece of advice was to carry some gadgetry to enable credit card sales while "on the road", but this could run into legal requirements regarding customer privacy that are likely to get stricter with time.

One can coordinate this story with the 2008 book “Radically Transparent: Monitoring and Managing Your Reputation Online” by Andy Beal and Dr. Judy Strauss, soon to be reviewed in own Books blog.

The grandest success story with blogging of all time is probably Heather Armstrong's mommy blog "Dooce", which she started in 2002 after being fired from her job as a Utah software company for blogging about work (without naming the company or people).  A really interesting tale. "Dooce" has become a real verb.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Small businesses restrict social media access

An increasing number of small to medium sized companies block all access to social media at work, a new report from security firm Webroot reports, in a story by Keith Ferrell in Information Week. A few employers allow such access only during break down, but 21-39% blocked access to YouTube, Facebook, or Twitter, or some combination of these, according to a survey of 500 to 1000 firms in the US and UK.

Fear of malware was the biggest reason, along with lack of expertise in proper use of the sites. Legal liability fears also drive the process. Yet many companies would benefit from wise use of social media. Information Week SMB, Technology for Small and Medium-Sized Business has the report here.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Your "dream" job: Try it out (Bloggers welcome)

Here’s an interesting Career Builder post from MSN about “try it out” jobs. The most interesting one is bloggers. Those with proven audiences (page requests and acceptable bounce rates, and maybe enought Twitter followers or Facebook friends) might get invitations to commercial premieres (like movies or plays), or even political hearings or trials.   Remember the Englishman that won the job to blog about a dream vacation in the South Pacific?  (You had to be able to snorkel among Great White sharks and avoid the box jellyfish.) The link is here.

Others included video game tester, ice cream (or sherbet) tester, and especially “Critics”.

My movie and book reviews are usually not “criticisms” in the usual sense (how many “stars” and I wouldn’t encroach on Roger Ebert’s trademarked “thumbs up”), but statements as to the significance of the film or book with respect to issues (that’s my branding).

Picture: A friend played matchmaker at a bar; the relationship is fictitious.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Are workplace non-compete agreements (CNC's) for real?

Do non-compete agreements (that is, CNC’s, or “covenants not to compete”) work?

I found a pretty comprehensive article at Nolo, here which warns that they may not been enforceable in Silicone-Valley rich California (look here at Lawzilla ), or perhaps (according to Wikipedia) in Virginia.

A story by April Hunt in the Atlanta Constitution on Nov. 4 reports that a Georgia constitutional amendment will allow courts to modify CNC’s, and claims this will help bring jobs to Georgia, link here.
Maduff Law has a similar resource here

The O’Toole Group, in a posting dated Nov. 10, 2010, offers a white paper on non-compete agreements in health information technology, at this link.

MEL, or “My Employment Laywer”, has a FAQ page on CNC’s here.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Law firms advise employers about NLRB litigation over social media policies

Employment law firms are advising employer clients not to restrict employee free speech made off work (on home computers), since the National Labor Relations Board has sued American Medical Response of Hartford for overbroad social media policies that resulted in firing a medical technician for criticizing supervisors on Facebook.

I have a story Nov. 9 on the “BillBoushka” blog and there is a new story by Jenna Green at the National Law Journal, link here.
The NLRB says that the company policy amounted to limiting “water cooler” talk. Maybe so. But what is likely to come out in litigation is the difference between online postings that are directed to a limited audience (listservers and social media postings or even blog postings with certain privacy settings turned on) and blog or web postings open to “Everyone” and available to search engines. Job coaches tell people to be very careful about everything you say online, even with privacy settings on, even with cell phone text messages, because digital messages can be retransmitted and reposted by others. That’s also true. So there is a line to be drawn somewhere.

Another issue is that companies (especially media companies) sometimes have policies against personal and political activism. This would seem to apply mainly to journalists and may have FEC implications when partisanship is involved. But it can also effect personal online speech about controversial issues (rather than about specific stakeholders in a workplace). There could exist issues for people with direct reports, for people who make underwriting decisions, receive training bonuses (when agents), or for people sent to client companies to represent hiring companies (common in IT).

Another good question about social media policy would be how it relates to “don’t ask don’t tell” in the military.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

If you collect unemployment, can you be forced to consider sales?

People collecting unemployment generally must be actively looking for work to remain eligible. (In Minnesota back in 2003, I knew of a case of someone who was forced to return compensation for failing to look.)

If you worked exclusively in information technology (particularly mainframe), I’ve wondered whether you could be forced to consider jobs in other areas like sales. For example, if you worked for twelve years in IT in the life insurance industry, could you be compelled to consider becoming an insurance agent (paid by commission and training bonus only)? This could have a big effect on your other “plans”.

There was a rule that you could not turn down an offer that paid 85% or more of your previous job.

There’s another issue, too: non-compete clauses. Typically, people can’t go to work for competing companies in the same industry, sometimes even if they were laid off (although that might invite legal challenges as to enforcement).

But another question is temperament. Can techies sell? Do they want to? What if they see it as pure hucksterism?

(See "BillBoushka" blog today Nov. 9 for story on National Labor Relations Board and intervention in a Facebook-related firing.)

Monday, November 08, 2010

Should employers favor people with families? How should unpaid nightcall work for salaried professionals?

If employers voluntarily offer paid maternal or paternal leave, or more benefits to workers who have families with children, does this come at the expense of the childless?

Elinor Burkett had taken this question up in her 2000 book “The Baby Boon: How Family-Friendly America Cheats the Childless”, but there’s no question that employers, however good their intentions, would have a potential logical conundrum.

In the 1980s, I was in a shop (a credit reporting company in Dallas, which would eventually become Experian today) where everyone was responsible for his or her own programs or subsystems when they ran in cycle at night. (The only exception was that the shop had a “weekend programmer”.) Generally, this went very well, and I had few disruptions because of production problems, just after implementations. (Although once there was a rerun of some monthly billing because a programming error in assembler, regarding word boundaries, had caused some periodic fixed charges not to be generated.)

In the 1990s, with an insurance company, there was a rotating “nightcall” list, resulting in getting nightcall about every two weeks. The shop was not as stable, but it got much better over time. But there sometimes were some issues, as occasionally people did not take calls, and sometimes this was because of family issues. Some people were more likely to claim “comp time” for nightcall than others. We then had a nighttime programmer, and a list of five people (including me) who filled in when she was out. The manager did increase the salaries of the five of us, but we were not paid overtime or given comp time for incidents; we “ate the risk.”

In general, salaried employees have been expected to work overtime at their own expense; and the Labor Department has been lenient with employers in IT in classifying IT professionals as exempt. Some people have questioned the practice, however.

By the way, Tory Johnson on ABC "Good Morning America" has said that employers should definitely take pains not to play favorites based on personal lifestyle. That works for "mainstream" employers only.

Picture: Department of Labor, Washington DC

Saturday, November 06, 2010

Many big companies have good policies for working moms

Here’s a Career Builder article giving the ten best companies for working mom’s, link.

The article notes that the greatest financial gains in the workplace seem to be with young single women. Once women have children, even in marriage, they have more of the “responsibility”. The old adage that “men don’t do anything” still seems to hold.

Some of the best companies are the big accounting firms and IT firms. But accommodating parents without “burdening” the childless becomes a delicate balancing act for HR departments. By definition, life is never fair.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Now, bedbugs in the workplace?

Well, now the HR world is starting to pay heed to the issue of bedbugs, which have sometimes been found in office spaces, particularly in New York and Washington. Since they attach to clothing and other personal items, they could transit between home and office. Will employers face liability? What about employees or contractors who bring them in, inadvertently. This is all getting a bit silly.

Workforce Management has a story by Jeff Casale here.

One of the suggestions is to reduce cubicle clutter, which can attract vermin and make its detection harder. Now, when people work at desks visible to the public (like at banks) there can be little clutter. IT people sometimes keep a lot of stuff around. Back in the 1990s, I kept a lot of printout, although much of it in binders, to prove I had done all the required testing before elevations. Yup, short term memory wasn’t enough, I wanted the proof for CYA. Actually, today such a practice could raise privacy issues if the test data was extracted from live customer production data (which in those days it always was). Modern tech companies should have automated ways to store QA test results, but that’s a tall order. Another important concept is to use source management and elevation software properly, which tends to guarantee integrity of code and load modules automatically.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Hiring managers should go "lite" on resume keyword scanning

Toni Bowers has an important story for IT managers today at Tech Republic, advising them not to overuse keyword scanning when evaluating resumes. The link is here.

Clients that use staffing companies to fill their project development and management needs (and that seems to be most companies these days) may be even more inclined to look at resumes very superficially, since the manpower companies are supposed to have already done some of the screening.

On the other hand, I know from emails that I get, that many headhunters overuse keyword searches, as I get emails of Powerbuilder gigs when my Powerbuilder, in the grand scheme of things (compared to older mainframe skills) is very weak.

Another problem is that companies tend to want people with a lot of experience in very specific skills, but not in tangentially related skills. If they want Powerbuilder, they generally need a Powerbuilder heavy, because they have technical problems they don’t know how to solve. (I have a friend who moved to Denver in the recession in 2002, was good at both java and Powerbuilder, and “wanted” java, but “got” Powerbuilder.) Think what happens in your home. If you have a problem, you need a contractor with very specific experience in solving that problem. The same tends to be true if you need to have a computer or laptop fixed.