Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Chilton, TRW,and Experian: a progression of three companies (and one Aug. 31 date)

On Monday, August 31, 1987, I was sitting in my cluttered cublicle, with its CRT screen (still monochromatic) with Roscoe and various RPF’s to watch production jobs, and back off the beaten trail, when I heard management walk by the bulky laser printers and talk about the sudden $800000 budget cut.

The next day, we started a month long parallel of the new daily billing system for Chilton Corporation in Dallas, a credit reporting company. It had been acquired by Borg-Warner, and in the era of hostile takeovers, it was under pressure to deliver heavy profits, or else be sold to a competitor and wipe out our jobs.

We had to get the parallels (from an old ALC system with BDAM files to a “modern” Datacomm DB system with COBOL on an IBM-like Ahmdahl) perfect for a month, or the system couldn’t get in. And we might wind up on the market with nothing accomplished.

The parallels did go perfectly (we cluttered up a conference room with printouts on the floor). On October 1, a Thursday, we went live. That night, I and another man watched the batch cycle. We got through it with no problems.   The “reports file” balanced.

I went home Friday morning to my Pleasant Grove condo to sleep, and came back about 3.  My manager told me about a meeting that had just been called.  This had been the best implementation ever.  (“Many people can code, few can implement.”)   But there was a “down side”.  Due to budget cuts, New Systems Development would be phased out.  Four people would be laid off every three months. 

I remember walking down Turtle Creek later that sunny afternoon (still hot in Dallas), and thinking, I might go back “home” to DC (rent the condo, since the real estate market had tanked during the Texas savings and loan scandal), and deal with the job market there. I was apprehensive, because many of the jobs were defense oriented and would require security clearances. This was only 1987, and I wondered if my sexual orientation would stop my getting a clearance if I needed it.

It would, as the 1990s unfolded, but in a way no one could have predicted.

I was offered a “transfer” to “maintenance” so the NSD layoff couldn’t affect me.  I took it. In those days, employees who could keep a place running as it decommissioned were perceived as more “valuable”.  Such was the world of hostile takeovers.  But in time, merged companies would place less emphasis on “merging applications” and tend to keep legacy systems, and use mid-tiers with replication or direct-connect SQL technologies.

Nevertheless, I would go back to DC in 1988 with a consulting job, and Chilton would indeed get bought by TRW (Equifax barely missed us), and the systems we had worked so hard on would be eliminated. But eventually, TRW would spin off its credit reporting operation as Experian, and much of it would be located in the northern Dallas exurbs, effectively becoming the modern day Chilton Corporation, but with all systems completely replaced (again).
I wonder if anyone at all there knows me. 

Monday, August 29, 2011

For me, an "announcement" and a career "correction"

I do have something to “announce” tonight.

Today, I did resign from an intermittent, part-time job which involved interviewing people to gather statistical data, about employment. Because of a confidentiality agreement,  I may  speak only in generality about the experience, from which I learned a lot during the past eight months.

One reason was to focus more on my “journalism”, music and filmmaking plans. I do need “full time focus” on my dreams at age 68.   Another is that, given my own goals, I don’t think that contacting individuals for someone else’s goals (essentially by phone or “door-to-door’) is appropriate activity in my circumstances.  I hinted at this in my previous posting  Wednesday.  Yet, there is a question of karma. “Somebody has to do it.”  By nature, this kind of work is proportionally riskier in a part-time situation than in a committed, full-time career environment.

I am left with one strong impression.  To do well consistently in our kind of market, you have to be good both with people skills and with manipulating content, and with abstraction. You have to get into the game and be good at it. And it’s more than playing chess, or piano.

I'll have more details about my "direction", and what I will do about my presence on sites like Dice, soon. 

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Job interview questions on "niceness" and "passion"; and "The Big Give" of bonuses

Adam Bryant has an interesting column on p 2 Business Day of the Aug. 28 New York Times, “A deal-breaker question for job interviews”, about Andy Lansing, CEO of Chicago-based Levy Restaurants.

One of the questions is “Are you nice?”  The article gives a nice spin on the property of niceness, as if it were an attribute of a quark.

Then, “what are you passionate about in your life?”  That’s a good one. If it’s coding, or composing music, or writing novels, or journaling and blogging, you may not like a job predicating on tracking down, “taking care of” and selling to individual clients, even if you have a lot of the technical background (say in insurance) required.

The article is here

I can remember a similar question from ARCO back in 1983, "what are your goals?"

The Washington Post, on p G2, Jena McGregor has an article “Bonuses for others tied to happiness, report finds.”  A paper from Harvard, University of British Columbia and Liege examined “The Big Give” (Oprah’s) in job bonuses, the incentive of a bonus that must be spent on charity or for others, link here.  Are people motivated best by bonuses they can spend on themselves? Maybe not.  

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Generational changes affect jobs requiring "sales culture"

One trend that I’ve noticed in the workplace since the 2000-2001 period is the proliferation of jobs predicated on building up lists of clients that one “takes care of” – starting with lists of leads.  Since about 2006 or so, social media have become important in building these lists, so that the agent’s whole public identity is consumed by “selling.”   There are many examples: life insurance agent, tax preparer, agent selling long term care, financial planner, etc.

This does not appeal to me, even though I have a lot of the technical background (particularly in the life insurance area) that would made me look attractive for such a “career switch”.

A couple of generations ago, people accepted the idea of receiving solicitations, by phone and door-to-door, from salesmen, and they accepted the idea that a “professional” agent takes care of a major part of their lives.  This was seen as a necessary part of being a social creature, ready to fit in to society in such a ways as to survive in a group in a world with many unknown dangers.  People (family members, chosen or not) were more important than personal interests and agendas.  So I view my own resistance to this kind of work as double-edged.  

My own father was a manufacturer's agent, but he sold to department store chains, not to individual people. 

Saturday, August 13, 2011

The era of the PC is over?

Jason Hiner has a provocative Tech Republic article about the “end of the PC era”, link here. Mark Dean, who helped design the original IBM PC around 1981 (built around PC-DOS and then MS-DOS) says that the emphasis in computing has changed, from a workstation or box where content is created and consumed, to the social spaces where people interact.  That does sound a lot like a plug for the way social networking sites work – but even more, it means an emphasis on smaller, more mobile devices. His ideas apply as much to the Mac world as the PC.

That may commensurate with Blogger’s recent effort to encourage bloggers to offer a mobile-friendly version of all their blogs.

Perhaps this is a slam on authorship itself: where an author or composer sits at his instruments and computers and creates works for batch-style consumption. Dean admits that the newer tablet devices are more apt for those who work with people rather than content (including coding, testing and implementing applications and systems). 

I could backtrack his arguments even further, to the early 70s, when my career started, to the days of submitting card decks for once-a-day shots. 

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

I keep getting calls for opportunities to hucksterize, for insurance companies

Last night I got an automated cell phone call from what sounded like an insurance company (was it Vanguard) to become some sort of agent. It was annoying, and maybe it was a scam, maybe not. But it highlights my concern that so many of the “jobs” around seem to comprise going out an “bothering people” to buy things, trying now to use social media to build up “referrals”.  And many of them would probably pay just commissions, although some people can do well on commissions only (in the life business, there are renewal commissions, too).

No, I don’t like the idea of have to go out and sell someone else’s agenda for a living. I wrote about that yesterday on my main blog.

Why should a family depend on "me", someone who was so non-competitive socially and physically in conventional terms earlier on life, to "take care" of some of their personal matters?  Why should I be in someone's home trying to "sell" the ability to do so?

It seems that the unemployment crisis is dragging us back into hucksterism and tribalistic behavior. But societies have always needed people to take care of others and sell the idea that they can.
What about becoming a “financial planner”?  Although financial planners make it easier to execute trades, it doesn’t seem like they know more about what his happening than the alert “amateur” home customer.
The old idea of using social hierarchy in the workplace, especially in the sales area, has unraveled, but it keeps trying to come back.

Saturday, August 06, 2011

Jobs4America, FCC support adding a lot of customer service jobs by 2013

A group called Jobs4America aims to create up to 100000 customer service jobs by 2013, and the group is said to have the backing of FCC chairman Julius Genachowski.

Jobs4America has a blogger entry here and a regular site here

It’s a good question what these jobs would offer in pay and benefits, and if many would be “work from home”  (like Alpine Access or Live Ops, already discussed here), raising all the new security and stability issues raised by depending on hardware and software owned by the employee.  It’s not clear how many jobs would use “employees” or associates and how many would use freelance contractors.

Customer service jobs tend to pay hourly, run on the clock, are often non-union, and cover 24x7 with shift work. It is difficult to train people to be really good at this and to provide consistent solutions to customer issues.  The movie "The Future" by Miranda July has a character who does IT customer support from home (Movies blog, Aug. 5). 

Back in 2002, AT&T was using a T-F personality test to screen applicants, and would not allow people who "failed" to reapply for six months. I don't know if this is the case now. It sounds silly. 

USA Today has a story by Gary Strauss, here

Friday, August 05, 2011

Customer Service, anyone? There are more potential points of failure than there used to be

Well, yesterday my Verizon Blackberry (the same model the president has) battery had stopped changing, one year after acquisition (no warranty).  I was “out” on the road, and it took two Verizon stores (and waits in line) to get the replacement. And $39.95.  Customer service?

This morning, after “La Retour” (Beethoven’s “Les Adieux” Sonata), my Arris cable modem downstairs, to which my digital voice Xfinity (landline) is now connected, wasn’t working.  Fortunately, the reset button did work and get it up. I’ve never had this happen. It appears that some IP addresses were changed last night during maintenance at Comcast, and it didn’t come back up automatically. Customer service first told me to unplug it, unaware that it has a battery.  Fortunately, everything worked with the reset button, and the Netgear home router accepted the new addresses and everything then synched up. But the literature says online that sometimes the home user has to remove the battery before a modem will reset if IP or MAC addresses have been changed. That didn’t happen here.  (Or you would have to let it run down a few hours.)  Since I plug into a UPS box, the extra battery is redundant.

What’s bad is that I could be away for an extended period, there could be an IP reset, and the modem controlling the landline phone would not work again until I got home. That means the ADT home security system is out of communication.  This sounds like a flaw in having digital voice through a cable provider, unless the technology can reset everything reliably with no one at home when the provider reconfigures its network for more customers.

Everyone talks about the “smart home” with the Internet controlling everything, including energy use, but that only leaves homeowners or renters, probably not trained well in their new “responsibilities”, more vulnerable to lengthy disruptions. Modern utilities seem to have too many new potential points of failure.
Remember how it was, in the workplace, as a mainframe programmer. Users depended on me to get everything right with a promotion or “move” to get their jobs done. Now the shoe is on the other foot. I am the end user, and I depend on others (providers) to get my own work done at home.  When they make unannounced “maintenance” changes, I can bear the consequences.  

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Budget simulation: It's hard to prove that the numbers are right!

The recent debt ceiling fiasco, especially inasmuch as it required a number of simulation model calculations from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), calls to mind one particular issue: the importance of the reliability of the numbers that it publishes: that is, the correctness of the mathematical model used and of the translation of the specifications of that model into applications programming code, using the right data elements and typing them correctly.

I may have reported this matter before, but in January 1989, while I was working as a COBOL programmer for a small Blue Cross/Blue Shield subsidiary called “Consolidated Consulting Group” (CCG) in Washington, we had a crisis where a major client did not believe our numbers. I had kept very detailed paper records of all our simulations. Fortunately, I had access to Propac’s computer code and found it did not match the formulas printed in the Federal Register, with one data element (on a Medicare-related policy file) being different. 

When I changed to use the data element actually found in Propac’s code, we got the same numbers as Propac and the client believed us. I may have saved the business, which later that year got sold to Lewin/ICF.