Thursday, February 28, 2013

Part II of the Kennedy Center customer service saga; maybe we need telemarketing companies (and calls) after all

The saga of third-party Kennedy Center ticket purchase, as a consequence of website difficulties, continued today.  To its credit, Cheap Tickets called me this afternoon and told me that the broker didn’t have time to send an e-ticket, and gave me an order number and broker name for pickup at will-call (for a Sibelius (pun) NSO concert).  But when I got there, the broker name was wrong; the order number matched another broker in California.
But 45 minutes later, just in time, I had a comp ticket anyway for the concert.  So being a Kennedy Center member helped after all.  (And I got to see the bird collection on the third tier).
Some questions occur, however.  I noticed that most of the seats in the upper tier were empty, as if they had been bought by third party brokers to be sold at huge profits, perhaps when word of the website failure spread.

I sat next to a gentleman., however, who had an NSO subscription.
That brought back memory of the period in the fall of 2003, when I worked for Arts Marketing (a Canadian company) trying to sell subscriptions to the NSO.  (The Minnesota Orchestra had started using Arts Marketing in the spring of 2003, while I was calling for the Guaranty Fund, before I came back to DC, my first interim job after my 2001 career-ending IT layoff). 
We were told to “overcome objections” and to tell potential subscribers that the website was “hard to use”.  That isn’t true – except yesterday, when there was a sudden surge of demand (because of “Book of Mormon).  It doesn’t seem that these telemarketing or telefunding jobs are of much use for organizations that have good online presence and mechanics (including plans to handle surges in volume). 

On the other hand, Arts Marketing tended to employ retired people, some of whom were good at it and could earn an extra $40000 a year or so besides their pension and Social Security, part time.  They did it by calling the same subscribers every year.  And it employed some professional people who had been laid off from more conventional jobs (like me).  Too much efficiency (as from the Web), you don’t need to employ as many people really needing work (and raising families).  It seems as though the Amish know this better than anybody else. 

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Kennedy Center fails at customer service when "Book of Mormon" goes on sale

Today, the Kennedy Center showed us how not to provide customer service.

The site went down completely for most users after tickets for “The Book of Mormon” went on sale.  It was impossible to get to any areas of the site at all.

Various html error codes displayed, either 103 or 503, or sometimes no data at all, on any computer or mobile device. 
In the evening, it finally connected to the site, but then suddenly Oracle prompted me to load a new version of Java.  I did so.  I restarted the machine, and had to get past one hang of Windows Explorer. 

After all of this, the site would load, but the ticket facility could not service me, as it could only process a few requests at a time.

Various scalper sites work.  Cheap Tickets wasn’t too much more expensive.  StunHub looks really pricey. 

It's rather poor of "KenCen" to expect visitors wanting to purchase for other events to know what was going to happen today.  They did have an advisory sheet, but you had to know to read it.

A couple weeks ago, KenCen moved a Millennium Stage event into the concert hall (Afgahn Naitonal Orchestra) and visitors who did not know to arrive early missed it.  There seems to be a problem with advising customers.  Maybe you just do need to follow them on Twitter and Facebook -- admit I hadn't done that yet.

An "Apprentice" for Donald Trump would have anticipated this problem and had a separate server or domain set up specifically for this event.  Otherwise, "you're fired."

Kennedy Center does not run itself particularly well "as a business".  But, again, it's non-profit with heavy government involvement.  So that's what you get.  

Ironically, I had just seen "Book of Mormon" in NYC last Sunday  (by staying an extra night in NYC after seeing a friend's concert) and was looking only at National Symphony concerts.

Why doesn't the KC set up a completely separate domain name, or else A-record alias, to process heavy volume?  

Monday, February 25, 2013

Yahoo! CEO puts the brake on telecommuting by associates

Yahoo! CEO Marissa Meyer has ruffled some sails or feathers by deciding that employees must, starting in June must stop telecommuting and come in to the office all the time, apparently.
The Huffington Post has the story, along with reports of university economics studies showing that telecommuting tends to improve productivity, link here.

USA Today has a similar story here

When I worked for ING-ReliaStar (through 2001), some people telecommuting one day a week/  One particular former Vantage consultant worked from home four days a week.  In my own experience, people tended to be very successful in resolving technical problems (as with production) from home. Collaboration and “creativity” could be another matter.  How do Facebook and Google stand on this with their employees?

When I lived and worked in Minneapolis for ING, I lived just 1000 feet away on the Skyway, in the Churchill apartments.
People were solving production problems on Nightcall from home in the early 1990s with take home dialup terminals, or with Procomm.  

Picture (mine, today): I think that looks like the former Newsweek building.  Te decline of print media might be hurting the Big Apple particularly. 

Update: Feb. 27

Curiously, today in Arlington VA I saw a sign at the National Science Foundation building offering employees a symposium in telecommuting!  Didn't have the little camera with me.

Update, Feb. 28: Got the picture:

A reshoot turned out better:

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

"Just Mainframes -- and then a Huckster" -- proposed chapter conclusion

I want to report on my progress with my third DADT (non-fcition) book, so here is a draft of the "conclusion" of Chapter 4, titled, "Just Mainframes, and then a Huckster".  

My life – both professional and personal – had been in a sump in the early nineties, partly over anxiety over a partially flubbed elevation at work, resulting in long-term babysitting, which I hate (as a pun).  The issue of the military ban woke me up, as a writer, and that gave me a second wind as a “computer professional” for a while, particularly after I moved to Minneapolis in 1997.  That started one of the best periods in my life.  Even three weeks off because of a hip fracture (after a convenience store fall) in January 1998 didn’t stop me.

My life plan would be seriously challenged by my mother’s illness (next chapter), even before the layoff.  After the layoff, it gradually became apparent that my self-promoted publicity would indeed create irreconcilable conflicts with any sort of job that required submission to the marketing purposes dictated by others.  The constant unsolicited approaches that I got from people trying to recruit me to sell their “stuff” seemed to be an attempt to challenge me, and dare me to keep going, to remain outspoken without “paying my dues” and earning (by supporting other people) “the privilege of being listened to”.

A more obvious effect of the layoff could have been the descent into grunt work, and the need to prove that I could deal with the regimentation of “the proles”, as we called “them” back in my days in the Army.  My own father had always preached the moral value of “manual labor”, partly because he understood that the world can be a fragile place, and it’s easy to get into life-threatening trouble if you don’t learn how to fix things with your own hands.  It seems curious in retrospect, that my father didn’t make me do some things like set furnace pilot lights, change oil, and even fire our one 22-caliber rifle.  (I did have to change a tire with a jack after all.)  In 2003, I actually did work three shifts at the Metrodome as a “fast food worker” in fund raising for All God’s Children Metropolitan Community Church in Minneapolis (shortly before I returned to Virginia). 

Earlier, there had been attention to the “manual labor” aspect of I.T. – being able to code assembler, being able to solve dumps without abend aids right from registers, being able to take full responsibility for nightcall.  In the final analysis, this did not count for much.  One of the guys laid off in 2001 had actually been on nightcall the day before.  They just spread it out among the people that remained, without paying more, because they could get away with it.

Oh, some will say, isn’t this an argument for unionism?  Maybe.  Unions can be as exclusive and exclusionary as employers.   They certainly demand the loyalty that would be alien to my nature.

In my “conventional career” based on answering “what is my profession”, I did not advance in a conventional way. I was formally “promoted” only once.  I, instead, broke away and promoted myself as a self-publisher.  I did find that when you “go it alone”, you depend on how well others do their jobs.  The level of customer service from telecommunications and utility companies becomes particularly critical.  A small slip by a contractor can knock you off line and affect how you look, your public reputation.  You feel like you’re watching your back.  In the long run, you have to get results through others, even when you go solo. 

When I worked for a large stable company for a long sequence of years (surviving or even benefitting from mergers)  the workplace seemed to become “the universe”.  After all, the workplace is “the hand that feeds you”.   Matters that seemed small in retrospect always became big deals at the time, with lots of social and political nuance, most of it internalized.  I would often become preoccupied with the degree of perfection required in outputs that could go to users, particularly after elevations and then facing the prospect of running  my work past millions of customer items.  It was definitely on me, and a preoccupation with perfectionism in the present could cut down on learning new things – very important for future career challenges. But with time, the sense of crisis always passed.  Once I retired, I was confronted with my “apperception” of how the rest of the world really lives, and how I depend on people to do things that I can’t do, would find demeaning or distasteful, or physically challenging or too regimented.  There was certain a “moral” point to all this, harking back to the moralizing of my own father, about “learning to work”.  But what really ambushed me was the personal aspect of “real world” careers – particularly salesmanship.  My flamboyant father (a glassware manufacturer’s representative for decades) used to brag he could sell anything to anyone, a point that offended me, but I do get his drift.  There seemed to be no ultimate truth, no “Theroy of Everything”, that one could prove; there was only faith, and the “relative” truth that lived in social and familial hierarchies. 

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Apps for iPhone experience "difficulties" with Android, Windows Phone (so does Facebook)

As I left a Valentine’s party at the Town DC and walked out into sloppy wet snowflakes, I picked up a Metro Weekly. I was surprised to find a detailed article on mobile technology on p. 41 of the February 14, 2013 issue.
The article of interest is “App-athy”, with illustrations by Christopher Cunetto.  The article does not appear online yet but should shortly in Marr’s archive, link here (as part of Metro's "Technocrat" column). 

The article concerns the way the app Jawbone (link), designed first for Apple OS-s, which means you need an iPhone, iPad, or iPod to use it right now. The application lives as firmware inside a wristwatch that monitors physical activity while exercising (jogging, cycling, etc.; don’t know if it is waterproof enough for Michael Phelps). 
The version for the Motorola Droid (which I have) is not available yet, ETA unknown (rather like a Netflix saved CD).  The problem with Android, Marr says, is that it is overloaded (like a method) with complexities and flexibilities and make it hard for app developers to accommodate.  Marr says that Windows Phone is good and simpler, but doesn’t have enough market share to warrant app developers’ time.  Microsoft would have to accommodate the situation and subsidize development.
I am locked in to Droid until toward the end of 2013 by Verizon.  But I would rather have iPhone because it might be possible, in the long run, to make sure that Google’s 2-step verification signon procedure is foolproof with a Google-preferred device. 
Marr notes that Facebook has been slow to fix Android-related interface problems, partly because they are hard to fix, and partly because most employees know the iPhone better.  The company had to force employees to use the Droid to get the problem fixed.
CNN today presented another set of smart phone apps from fashion designer Asher Levin, related to precise clothing fitting. 

And NBC Today has been reporting on cell phone security apps that photograph users who anytime they unlock their phones. 
It would be important to know if Droid and Windows lag behind in apps for home control (cameras, home security monitoring, thermostat setting).  A heating contractor told me that remote thermostats are sold at the "Apple Store" -- but could that mean that only iPhone has it?  I wonder.  Does someone know?
The esoteric nature of many of today’s firmware-related apps gives one an idea of where a big part of the job market has gone – whatever the parameters of “the recovery”.

The video above about Jawbone is sponsored by “Host Gator Web Hosting”.  

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Recovery is not supporting middle class incomes; job market keeps getting more competitive

Jim Tankersley gives a perspective on what’s happening with the job market in the Washington Post on Thursday, February 14, 2013, “Economic growth is no longer enough: For middle class today, recovery isn’t translating into higher-paying jobs”, link here.

In the late 1980s, jobs started to be lost to hostile takeovers.  There was a major recession after the savings and loan collapse followed by the drawdown after the Persian Gulf War, and even then there was advise to professionals to do “grunt work”. 
With mergers, some associates would benefit tremendously, whereas others would be laid off.   If left Chilton in 1988 before TRW took it over, and the entire operation was eventually laid off, but some people went to TRW and benefitted.  Now the company is resurrected in the Dallas area as Experian.  When NWNL bought USLICO in 1995 and became ReliaStar, I benefited from a transfer to Minneapolis in 1997.  Other people left behind in Arlington started getting laid off in 2000.  But when ING bought ReliaStar in 2000, and had a layoff at the end of 2001, it was “my turn” to sacrifice.  Some others benefitted by working with the acquiring company, often being willing to travel to Hartford. 
But gradually, recessions and mergers have tended to weed weaker people out of the market (as the article notes).  These tend to be people who are not flexible enough to learn new skills quickly. It’s become a “Darwinian” world.  And the IT market in the mainframe area seems to have fragmented into rotating short-term contracts, not very hospitable to families.  Yet, some government operations (like the IRS) will soon be hurting because the skillset in the old mainframe area has been allowed to deteriorate so much.  

Throw into all of this the effect of social media, and the haphazard way employers look at associates' profiles.  But with manufacturing and even "coding" so outsourced, no wonder we've become a nation of hucksters.  And nobody wants telemarketing calls or excessive sales pitches by email either.  
Note: the takeovers of Chilton, USLICO and ReliaStar were "friendly".  However, Chilton (as part of Borg-Warner) was nearly taken over "with hostility" by Irwin Jacobs and sold to Equifax first.  

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

North Carolina unemployment benefit cuts would cut workers off from extended federal benefits

The North Carolina legislature has moved to reduce the maximum monthly unemployment benefit and to reduce the maximum number of weeks to 20, which means that North Carolina workers, after layoff, can never get extended federal benefits (as approved with the Fiscal Cliff bill on Jan. 1).

The state unemployment fund is in deep debt, and is taking the measure to relieve the debt.
Curiously, some lawmakers complain that workers won’t take (menial) jobs when there is a benefit of over $500 a week maximum.

Michael A. Feltcher has the story in the "Economy and Business" section of The Washington Post Wednesday, February 13, 2013, here.  

North Carolina has been considered a great state for tech, with the “Research Triangle” around Raleigh-Durham (I recall Cary as the home of SAS).  But bank consolidations around Charlotte have reduced many jobs, particularly after the financial crisis of 2008.  “Nations Bank” and Wachovia no longer exist as such.  
I believe that Census has moved its regional office from Charlotte to Philadelphia now.  

Monday, February 11, 2013

Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) seems to have limited practical effectiveness

The Washington Post Metro section Monday February 11, 2013 has a story (Brigid Schulte) about the 20th anniversary of the FMLA, the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993.  The print title is “Falling through cracks of leave act: 40% of workforce goes uncovered”,  link (website url)  here

The story gives anecdotes of workers with small employers, including non-profits, being demoted or fired after returning from medical leave, pregnancy, or even leave for spouses or even parents. 

The twelve weeks leave (the law generally applies if there are more than 50 employees) is unpaid, to prevent abuse.  But that then means real sacrifice if it is for another family member and not the self.

Nexsen Pruet explains FMLA basics in this video from 2009.

As I noted on a posting here Jan. 5, 2013, I faced the possibility of using it in 1999 for my mother.  I did not, and we hired a live-in home health aide for eight weeks while she recovered from coronary bypass surgery.  But of course, that only works when the “patient” (often a senior) has the money to pay for it, and it tends to exploit the labor of the less fortunate.  (How does a “live-in” have a life, when I do?). In an individualistic society, sacrifice is exactly that. 

Representative Jim Moran (D-VA, 8th District) sent out a tweet honoring the FMLA.
Some European countries require that employers offer paid family leave (which would tend to punish the childless, perhaps, indirectly).  

Wednesday, February 06, 2013

"Navigators" will be hired by health insurance exchanges; but what will these "jobs" be really like?

The Health Insurance Exchanges to be set up by 2014 will require the hiring of a lot of “navigators”, counselors who will help consumers find appropriate coverage.  All this is covered in a Washington Post story Feb. 4 by N. C. Alzenman, link here.

It’s unclear how much they will be paid, of whether they would include “volunteers”. 

Furthermore, it appears that they would have to be bonded and would face serious constraints on giving “legal advice” and on stomping on the turf of insurance agents.
Yet, the supposed jobs are being described in a cloak of do-goodism. 
How many people will go to work in such scenarios?  Will the jobs appeal to retirees?  To recent college graduates?  How bureaucratic will the jobs become? 

Tuesday, February 05, 2013

IRS badly needs mainframe IT skills, but hiring time is still 90 days

The Internal Revenue Service has reduced hiring time for outside employees from 150 days to 90 days last year, and admits that it has serious needs in Information Technology to reprocess many changes in laws from Congress and future changes that are likely from budget negotiations.  The IRS held its breath a few weeks ago that Congress would fix the levels on the Alternative Minimum Tax and did not actually change them to the “unexpired” lower values.

The IRS also uses outside contractors for some mainframe programming work.  Some of the IRS systems are in IBM mainframe assembly language, and the required level of skill in that area (which has become unpopular in the past dozen years or so) is difficult to find, in a market where even older professionals did not retain skills that they perceive (probably incorrectly) as becoming obsolete. I had a telephone conversation about IRS needs back around Christmas 2005.  Jobs seem to go to a very small group of professionals who stayed in the mix. When the IRS doesn’t find the skills it needs in that area, then it is very difficult to find someone who can actually do the job now.  So for so people, the IRS is a good place to look for jobs now. 

The IRS may be more likely to have technical or software issues processing returns correctly this season than ever before. 

My own information, from the past, was that most positions were around Merrifield VA (now undergoing extensive real estate renovation) and Martinsburg, WVa (near Harpers Ferry, about 70 miles from DC). 
The original story by Josh Hicks appears in the Washington Post Tuesday February 5, 2012 (on “The Federal Page”), but had been published online Feb. 1, and is difficult to find with the Post’s normal search, link
Happy job hunting!

Friday, February 01, 2013

I randomly encounter a labor picket

Well, maybe I was a spoiled individualist during my thirty-one years in my beautiful career in information technology.  I never had had to even think about the idea of joining a union.

Today I encountered a labor picket in downtown Washington DC against Tricon Construction, on the way to a film festival on E Street. 

Welcome to the real world.