Thursday, March 17, 2011

As telecommunications companies bundle services, work from home can become more complicated

Many employers offer work-from-home arrangements which may involve some mix of using equipment or laptop computers offered by the employer, in combination with the worker’s home utility arrangement. Security and compatibility issues may become more complicated.

The most efficient method of online access for an employer to offer now may well be cellular wireless.  A laptop so equipped generally won’t be able to pick up other MiFi or home wireless signals, which may be required for security. If, however, for some reason the cellular service fails, the employer might expect to be able to use the employee’s own cable or broadband, without wireless.  Many providers are converting customers to home wireless networks.  However, I am told that a home wireless router like Netgear may still be plugged in to the Ethernet port on the work laptop, simulating direct cable access without wireless, without disrupting the home Internet connection. 

Many telecommunications companies are offering digital voice phone, which must go through the same modem (for example Arris) that provides Internet access.  (In addition, the modem needs to be hooked up correctly with any home security system with external monitoring, as by ADT.)  Generally, if the employer wants to use old-style “90s” 56-K telephone modem (as used to be used for AOL) as a backup, I’m told that will no longer work. 

Companies like Alpine and LiveOps, which require employees or contractors to provide their own computers,  say that digital voice phones at home are OK, but not Skype.  Some companies say that Voice over Internet Protocol is not acceptable whereas Digital Voice is, which sounds like a contradiction (Wkipedia describes them as the same).  In any case, the employee would have to provide modems compatible with her service.  The employee is required to maintain anti-virus software and at least Windows Firewall.  Some anti-virus packages can be prone to problems that may be beyond the ability of the employee to fix.

Employers using employee computers and Internet connections need to be mindful of requirements to protect customer PII (Personal Identifying Information), which is becoming more complicated with changing legislation or legal requirements, and technological complexity. But employers need to take heed that more telecommunications companies are bundling all services for lower prices, removing redundancies which may have provided more security and alternative operating environments in the past.  For example, a digital phone depends on a modem having power, where as a conventional old phone line doesn’t.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Should IT workers change out for "real jobs"?

Here’s an interesting missive by Jack Wallin, “10 alternative careers for burned out IT workers”, on Tech Republic, link here.

I remember a manager “Donna”  in the early 1980s at Chilton in Dallas who used to joke that we should take breaks from “data processing” and go out and get “real jobs”.  She used to say that fast food work, which is very regimented, is a "real job".  Sounds like something from Mao's "Cultural Revolution"! I rather gawked at the auto repair and farming. I once (1981)wrote a short story with this issue (“Expedition”) where the alternate was “carpentry”.  But the writing and teaching are interesting.  The teaching has a subtle trap: you have to connect with non-intact kids and be able to discipline them, just because you are in charge.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Should IT people be able to organize and have unions?

I recall an incident at Bradford National Corporation back in the summer of 1977, in New York City, while coding and implementing the New York State Medicaid Management Information Systems (MMIS) project. The "claims processing" development team fell behind, and management ordered everyone on the team to work 60 hours a week, without additional pay.

I was on the MARS and SURS team (Management and Administrative Reporting; Surveillance and Utilization Review), which was moved to mid-town to escape the political turmoil. We worked some long hours, but not 60 hours every week.

Should management be able to do this, given that most IT people are not unionized?  Computer people are said to be too individualistic to be organized.  Thoughts?

Maybe it's even more pertinent today now that states (like Wisconsin) are gutting the right of public employees to organize. Even given my libertarian leanings, I thought that "collective bargaining" was legally mandated right.

Picture: 100 Church St., lower Manhattan, where Bradford Administrative Services (NYS MMIS) was located in the late 1970s.  The address is near the 9/11 Ground Zero but escaped major damage, as far as I can tell (2004 visit).

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Introverts make good leaders in the I.T. workplace

Tech Republic has a piece by Toni Bowers, “Introverted Employees Make the Best Leaders”, link here.  I don’t know whether she might have been thinking of Facebook’s Toddler CEO “Mark Zuckerberg”, who according to Leslie Stahl, is now “all grown up” as in a later interview on 60 Minutes in Dec. 2010, link here

Perhaps introversion is a misleading word here. But a good leader is calculating, likes to think out, and express himself or herself well in writing (like on that first theme in English 101 when most students get D’s). And a leader is cautious enough, to see unintended consequences and potential traps.

Back in 2002, Marti Olsen Laney wrote a book called “The Introvert Advantage”, which I see I reviewed on my Books blog Jan 22, 2007.  75% of the world is extroverted, she said.   I’m not sure that Zuckerberg is that introverted in the usual psychology text sense, but he is so in terms of this article. The actor who plays him in “The Social Network” (Jesse Eisenberg) is definitely among the extroverted majority.

Monday, March 07, 2011

Conflict of Interest: my own experience with it, and how it moved from a political concept to one about PII

I’ve talked about “conflict of interest” in the workplace numerous times, and I’d like to explain the way this concept played out in my own IT career. This is a matter that may not interest everyone as much as some other discussions about the changing job market, but I think it’s important in the big picture.

Back in 1989 I was working as one of two “mainframe programmers” for a small consulting company named Lewin-ICF in Washington DC.  I left over a disagreement about how some work would be done. That doesn’t matter now; Lewin has gone on to be a very successful company in health care policy consulting and I do want to speak well of the company. But nevertheless, at the start of 1990, I moved on to an insurance company, USLICO corporation, in Arlington VA, into a more “traditional” business production shop with much more mainframe infrastructure.

USLICO owned United Services Life as it’s probably largest operation, focusing primarily on selling life insurance and annuities to military officers.  It was an operation similar to USAA (San Antonio) today but smaller. It also owned Bankers Security, which focused on salary deduction productions sold through the workplace.  It was in this later area that I worked the most from 1990 to 1995, when the USLICO became part of NWNL, to be renamed ReliaStar, in Minneapolis.

From the latter part of 1990 through much of 1991, the US military had a chance to shine because of the Persian Gulf War, which at the time I supported.  Shortly afterward, candidate and then president Bill Clinton (as he took office in 1993), would try to lift the ban on gays in the military.
I was pretty openly gay even then, and in a sense that was not an issue because sexual orientation was perceived as “private life”, not germane to work in civilian life outside the military.  However, my own background, going back to a 1961 college expulsion (explained on my main blog on the Nov. 28, 2006 entry), had skitted along the security clearance issue for a long time, even though I actually served in the Army without incident from 1968-1970 (the draft) and was technically a veteran.

I soon became impressed with the connection of my own story and the moral and political debate (particularly as it was carried out in 1993), and by 1994 I had decided that I would publish it a book, discussed elsewhere (it came out in 1997 as “Do Ask Do Tell: A Gay Conservative Lashes Back”).

Now USLICO had, before my time, in the 1980s, been influenced by military culture, with specific rules (no coffee at desks, putting away all stuff at the end of the day, etc); these “rules” had let up about the time I started in 1990 with a different CEO.  Nevertheless, I felt acutely aware of old fashioned “moral” conflicts as they used to be perceived.  Should someone viewed as “morally unfit” to offer his life in service (even though I had served) rightfully depend on the military for his living?  I really didn’t want to stay there if I could not fight “don’t ask don’t tell”. 

But I felt that the publication of the book could provide “embarrassment” or conflict for the company. Furthermore, there were military records (available in paper files on site) with PII; military officers often came onto the property in uniform. Possibly questions could be raised about the appearance of possible compromise of confidentiality in conjunction with moral or political “hostility”.   At least, I wondered.
Fortunately, NWNL announced plans to acquire USLICO in 1994, and did so in early 1995, with the renaming of the combined company to ReliaStar.   I remained, but made an internal transfer in 1995 (to working in the accounting system), which I thought would sell me toward a transfer to Minneapolis and, as I perceived things, away from the conflict. (I think USLICO could well have been acquired instead by USAA, which would not have been good for me.)

In 1997, on July 11, I had the book published, and on the same day I received a phone call from Minneapolis about an opening.  The internal transfer proceeded without a hitch.  The offer was made around July 24, and on September 2, 1997, I started in Minneapolis, working on the consolidation of the company (partly a customer service workbench). I felt this was proper. But without a transfer, I believe I would have left the company in Arlington by the end of 1997.  When my mother had major heart surgery in Arlington in 1999, I could not consider retransferring back, partly for this reason. This was really a serious issue with me then.

I did get reimbursed for moving expenses. But I actually did not get paid relocation expenses related to the Labor Day weekend drive out there, but reported the expense as a moving expense to the I.R.S.  on the 1997 return (filed in 1998).  As far as the IRS was concerned, this was a “new job” and USLICO and ReliaStar were completely separate companies, which was how I wanted to treat it for tax purposes.  (The net financial impact was rather minimal.)  For retirement and pensions purposes, I draw from both “companies” as if, in a sense, they were one; but the pension calculation has two different pieces; eligibility was based on the sum total of both.   

Now, it probably was true that more P.I.I. was actually available on corporate servers than in Arlington, and of course, as in any job, I respect confidentiality, accessing production information for legitimate business purposes only.  (One can raise another question: should QA test systems be built with entirely fictitious data; in those days, they were always created by extracting production with sampling).

I lived only a thousand feet away from work, walking the Minneapolis Skyway from the Churchill Apartments. So I had little need to work from home or use corporate laptops at home.  However, I followed a strict rule that any “equipment” on my own premises had to belong to me and be paid for by me.  This was partly to avoid the “appearance” that corporate expenses contributed to any of my own, potentially inimical, “expenses.”

I met with HR about this in December 1996, before the transfer (I remember carrying the materials in a little box into the office, and the HR person opened with a famous movie quote, “What’s in the box?”). I also corresponded with corporate legal twice, in 1997 and 2000. In both times, the legal letter said there was no “conflict of interest” with a separate activity in publishing and distributing books or other media – but the legal language was stated in terms of property interests (like copyright ownership – strangely prescient), not the political issues.  It was essentially “give unto Caesar what is Caesar’s” and keep what’s yours.

Of course, today, the environment has indeed changed.  First, if one works from one, it is much safer to use corporate laptops and corporate encryption (“corporate” includes government, if that is the employers), because the safety of P.I.I. today is a much bigger public issue than it had been in the 1990s.  In fact, I wonder how companies that hire customer service reps to use their own computers (Alpine, Live Ops, etc) can maintain PII security on equipment owned by employees.  This may be a much bigger concern today than a few years ago when employment with such companies at home was becoming a popular opportunity, often presented on “Good Morning America”.

Another  factor that has changed the perception of “political conflict of interest” is social media, especially Facebook. 

I had, about 12 years ago, published an op-ed that suggested that people who have direct reports at work or who make underwriting decisions about customers probably should not express their opinions on the Internet without prepublication review.  That was because in a “Google” environment, stakeholders (customers, employees, etc) could learn of a manager’s “prejudices” which could not be defined in advance logically, and create legal risks (hostile workplace, etc).  In fact, that piece is still up on my site.   But, it would seem, social media have blown this notion away. In fact, Facebook seems predicated on the idea that a person has just one “identity” and that a double life and a concept like “don’t ask don’t tell” is morally and perhaps legally unsustainable.  People are expected to use social media to sell a corporate, rather than their own, agenda, or the whole idea of purpose is to become seamless. 

ReliaStar would announce its sale to Netherlands company ING in early 2000, and that sale actually would be closed in September 2000 (further "diluting" and residual "conflict of interest". I would leave the company with a downsizing and "forced retirement" and buyout at the end of 2001, when economic conditions and confusion following 9/11 forced cutbacks.  At the other end of the moral spectrum, we note that Congress finally passed a law for a staged repeal of "don't ask don't tell" at the end of 2010. 

It’s a good thing to be “retired” now, or is it.  I still work, in a checkerboard fashion. And I can’t talk about everything that goes on now.  But it’s a situation that changes all the time.
In fact, "conflict of interest" is a notion that lives in the idea of the beholder ("appearance of conflict of interest"), whether employee, employer, client, customer, or other stakeholder. 

Thursday, March 03, 2011

When can someone be personally liable be wrongs committed in the course of working for an employer

It’s hard to imagine how a liability case against a former attorney general of the United States regarding 9/11 could have much bearing on the job market, but the question of personal liability for activities carried out on the job could be troubling.

The story about Ashcroft appears on p A16 of the Washington Post March 3, and is by Robert Barnes, with link here. In this case, there is a question as to whether a lawsuit against former Attorney General Robert Ashcroft as a person can go forward based on his activities on the job as an employee (although an "officer" or cabinet member) of the United States Government. .

Usually, the punishment for questionable conduct on the job is termination. But in some cases people can be prosecuted for crimes committed while trying to do their jobs, to make quotas (such as gaining access to a residence), and in extreme cases, judgments might be assessed against individuals as well as their employers.  In the words of the novel “Marathon Man”, no, “is isn’t safe”, not completely.

People who work in phone banks and have quotas for performance (debt collectors, sales) could conceivably face risks like this. There may be more risk in jobs that are “unpopular” and raise questions as to why the individual “took the job” in the minds of others.  (Can’t he or she do something else for a living?)  One time when I was working selling subscriptions (2003), I was “threatened” and decided to quit after six weeks on a low-paying job.  And it’s not fun to be told off on the phone as if your performing the job were evidence of a personal character problem.

Another obvious risk area: if someone tending bar serves alcohol to someone becoming inebriated and allows the person to drive home.  Bouncers will remove someone incapacitated from a bar but not stop them from driving home. Could that become a “personal liability”? 

Relevant concepts would include the status of a company as an LLP on the one hand, and whether one is an "officer" on the other. Bolton has an article in its "Hot Topics" series, "Personal liability for officers and directors of private corporations", link here. Tech Republic has had articles before on liability insurance for IT contractors.  This topic seems like the proverbial iceberg than sunk the Titanic.