SOME REMARKS ABOUT MY ‘RETIREMENT’ FROM A ‘CONVENTIONAL’ INFORMATION TECHNOLOGY CAREER
On Thursday, December 13, 2001 (92 days after 9/11), my work-life-as-I-know-it came to a sudden end when I got a Netware message asking me to log off my work machine because my account had been disabled. Twenty minutes later, I was shaking hands with management and accepting a substantial severance and retirement package, that, thankfully, included health insurance and prevented any immediate crisis. Furthermore, I had been saving for such an event for several years. Nevertheless, at age 58, I had gone over thirty years without a layoff or any period of involuntary unemployment, and probably had only had about fifteen or so elapsed days during those years during which I was not on a payroll. However, since then, I have held only interim jobs in collections, telefunding and telemarketing, with one very interesting technical writing contract. I have yet to have a “regular” work life. Partly for family reasons, I have moved back to northern Virginia with my mother, and there is some sense of loss of freedom. I cannot buy a house or easily buy a new car and might have difficulty qualifying for an apartment, or spend money on preventive medical or dental treatments although I have significant resources in 401Ks and savings.
I am going to discuss my ideas about my future career with some candor here. First, I don’t blame the period of unemployment on 9-11, corporate scandals, or George W. Bush. This is a problem that I take responsibility for, and I don’t see much point in whining about the political or economic climate.
The biggest factor may appear to be my decision in the mid 1990s to redirect my interests towards political writing, partly after President Clinton raised the issue of gays in the military. I felt that, because of a variety of circumstances, I had something to offer that debate and to the discussion of many other related issues. Why would this affect my career? Besides taking time that might be spent on keeping up in information technology for its own sake, it also makes me a public figure in a rather sensitive and controversial area. If I am promoting my own ideas on a controversial subject in a public forum, I cannot simultaneously be paid to promote someone else’s ideas, too. However, there are many other factors, and I want to start by reviewing first my technical performance as an individual contributor in the workplace in the preceding years.
Before 2000, most of my career had lived in conventional mainframe business systems. I spent a few early years in operations research, defense, and vendor benchmarking before I migrated to commercial mainframe business applications, centered around bread-and-butter COBOL in the 1970s. Because my career started on Univac systems (and had been distracted by some personal issues that affected where I would want to live), getting migrated to IBM, where there were many more jobs, was an early goal. I had achieved that by working for Bradford on a Medicaid MMIS system (New York) in the late 1970s, when my career had probably become competitive and was in good shape. Still, at that time the emphasis was on getting CICS and mainframe database (IMS) experience. I took a risk and moved to Texas to work on the early phases of a combined Medicare project for a Blue Cross and Blue Shield consortium. However, after almost three years of politicking, this project failed, so I had to move on without getting the desired experience. I quickly found a job at Chilton in credit reporting applications, but the technical mix was Datacomm DB and DC, and not IMS and CICS. In the early 80s, Chilton (which tended to perform in a counter cyclical manner) actually had trouble finding people since many professionals refused to work with Datacomm, so it tended to attract people who had never cracked the mainstream IBM market. Eventually, by the late 1980s, Chilton would be “threatened” by acquisitions, that would eliminate the need for their Datacomm applications and resurrect the issue of mainstream IBM experience.
Back in those days, many applications were written and maintained inhouse. There was a tendency for individuals to become “stars” and guru by supporting the applications they had written and become experts on rather specific business areas. An important quality was dependability of production systems once they went in, and the ability to keep them running by being on-call (and to prevent failures by very careful testing and implementation, with the proper use of library management and security software, which was becoming much better by the end of the 1980s). I often excelled in this kind of environment and would become a “guru” within the company, but the “fame” did not go outside of the company. I would be more valuable to a current, longstanding operation than to a new employer with this approach. An important factor, too, was that during the period at the Medicare consortium and for some time at the credit company, I put no systems into production, so I may have slowed even further in keeping up with the mainstream. During the last six weeks at the credit reporting company, I had one direct report. That is the only time during my career that I had any formal supervisory or management duties. In the late 1980s, there was a prevailing attitude that “middle management” was expendable and a refuge for people who couldn’t do the technical jobs themselves. I still, at that time, wanted to have a solid hands-on grounding in CICS and database management systems before accepting any management responsibilities (and vulnerabilities).
Before the merger of the credit reporting company, I moved back to Virginia and took a mainframe job with a public policy health care consulting firm. The firm was starting to migrate its systems in an informal way to PC’s to save “computer costs” and there was one critical incident where I saved a major contract by rereading a federal regulation and finding a flaw in the coding of a simple formula that had been provided by an outside source. No great geeky talent required here, simply fact checking. I then moved again to a “stable” life insurance company in northern Va. and back into a more standard production environment. This would become my final employer for twelve years, after two acquisitions. For a time, I was getting some good CICS, IDMS, and Assembler experience, was well as continuing some PC re-tooling of my own at home in areas like Dbase 4 (with SQL) and Turbo C, and I did some “volunteer” PC projects for non-profits with these products to learn them better. On the mainframe side, there was more emphasis on vendor-supplied packages, such as MSA for accounts payables
In the middle 1990s I decided to write and promote my book centered on political issues of importance to me. This began to take more time and resources. At the same time, friends of mine were moving more directly on their own into the technology of the Internet, teaching themselves to operator web servers at home. One of these friends owned the ISP that would service my book starting in 1997.
I had also pursued certification and formal education outside of the workplace in the 1990s. In 1992, I earned the Associate Computer Programmer Designation, and quickly thereafter the Certified Computer Programmer, by taking multiple choice examinations given by the Institute for the Certification of Computer Professionals (iccp.org). These exams tended to be general and conceptual in nature but still required some reading and study to pass. Certificates could be renewed every three years with contact hours – that is, either more examinations, or technical courses. I took basic courses in Unix and telecommunications at Northern Virginia Community College in the evenings in the mid 1990s and renewed the certification in 1995. But I did not renew in 1998 after the move to Minneapolis and book publication, because I simply did not have the time. I also, while working at the insurance company, took a series of exams to get a FLMI certificate from LOMA (Life Office Management Associations).
I moved to Minneapolis as a corporate transfer in 1997. In the beginning I worked on mainframe replications from various legacy systems to a GUI midtier. This was an important point, because after this particular merger the company’s emphasis was not on combining and eliminating mainframe applications, but rather replicating them to a common Graphical User Interface for a service center (call center) environment. This development argued for the viability of career opportunities in the mainframe area. Then I worked on a large project implementing National Change of Address. Most of the work was on the mainframe, but there was some familiarity with a PC Windows NT system supplied by Group 1. Then in 1999 I worked on a clientization project, which was much larger. Because of family circumstances back home, I was not as aggressive in getting a more valuable assignment as I could have been. I think that this project could have provided the opportunity to move into the DB2 support area still on the mainframe, and allowed me to remain in the area of technical rather than management expertise as an income-generating activity.
I also worked on testing systems for Y2K, although not as much as some others. But after Y2K, I decided that there would be less opportunity in the mainframe area and asked to move to the client-server and midTier area where there would be the opportunity to learn java, Powerbuilder, Unix, SQL stored procedures, and even C (for mainframe screen emulations). This position was strictly a support job, mostly by telephone to service center business users reporting problems. I had thought I would be able to strengthen my position by combining a strong mainframe business systems background with new exposure to client-server in the area of mid-tiers and user interfaces, but it did not work out this way. Management expected me to master the “new” technology “from the trenches.” This was new for me. It was difficult to learn new programming (especially object-oriented) in such a piecemeal fashion. Also, the system infrastructure was not as tightly managed or as secure as the mainframe, or as stable. There was a tinkering “geek” culture, somewhat like what one sees in the movies, if not so exaggerated. One was expected to figure out how something worked with unfamiliar software (such as Enterprise Architecture) let alone the application itself. This was a tremendous psychological and cultural change from the environment in which I had been used to being the guru of an in-house system much of which I had written myself. Management knew about the writing and publishing activities, which had been vetted for conflict of interest, but I believe that it had the impression that I was learning more of the technical stuff from these activities than I really was.
The current job market has no room for dilettantes. It looks for experts in very specific software areas. Just as it was difficult in the past for steam locomotive employees to make the transition to diesel and then to the airlines, it is difficult sometimes for mainframe programmers with experience in procedural disciplines to make a smooth transition to distributed and object-oriented systems. Learning these systems tends to require curiosity for its own sake, with some separation from attachment to content and end-results. The company did provide short training courses, but these only introduce a new discipline (like java or object-oriented desigh). Real training would have to be much more intense and be more of the boot-camp variety with travel and separation from regular activities. Generally, people who are competitive in modern distributed computing technologies (especially object-oriented), began in the 1990s, before Y2K, and invested a lot of internal, manipulative “how things work: curiosity to get it going,
It is true that younger professionals are not being trained in mainframe-style business systems. This has led to predictions of a resurgence in demand for older programmers. But, mainframe productivity—making the hard mental skills of the past like assembler and dump analysis less needed, along with the reliability of modern production cycles—has made it easier to outsource the maintenance work overseas, where professionals with lower standards of living are willing to work for less. Even the dreaded “nightcall” support—which I used to do disproportionately, without extra pay, because I was “single”—is more easily outsourced.
When a computer systems professional has become marginalized in the technical areas, there is a temptation to suggest that he should move into management or into sales. Of course, as a general rule this is not acceptable for me: I cannot convey my own message and that of another party at the same time. Further I do not believe, given my background, that I should be involved in human resource matters, balancing work and family for subordinates, performance reviews, making terminations or compensation decisions about others, or that I should become involved in “corporate politics” in the usual meaning of the concept.
The challenge is daunting. I often get calls from recruiters, especially for Medicaid MMIS W-2 projects, and I find that these recruiters have not checked for duplicate submissions or screened carefully, even though their employing companies say that they do adaptive testing of candidates. I have had a couple of interviews that seem to be impulsively arranged by clients, in one case by a client that did not have funds for a project but just wanted a shortlist. In another case, I was distracted and ill-prepared for some closed book technical questions on DB2, when it is difficult to maintain any technical proficiency in larger system skills that one has not used in the workplace recently and which one would not use in a smaller business (or maybe one would!) It would seem to me that a staffing company, in hiring an out-of-work professional, would want some evidence of continuing technical professionalism. This evidence could involve some combination of qualifications, such as the amount of time elapsed since full time employment, other kinds of interim employment, technical training, and maintenance of certifications or obtaining new ones. This observation must take into account the idea that some people view certifications as a device for software companies to maintain their market shares. But information technology, compared to other professions, has lacked formal certification and licensing structure. When one sees this in the context of unethical (and often illegal) uses of information technology by some people (such as hacking, virus writing, spamming, spoofing and piracy), one can see the need for more structures to give individual candidates third party credibility. I did pursue some certification and training after layoff, including online Brainbench certifications in COBOL, JCL, and SQL, and two technical college courses (in Microsoft .NET and XML). With three self-published books in print, I would also begin learning about film and video editing (which indirectly uses information technology in a very different way), teaching myself on the Mac at home and going to a few short courses at IFP, but this is a marked variation from my record of paid “accomplishment.” Besides some royalties, however, I could earn a little revenue from website advertises through my ISP, and this would require some technical skill.
Another way people get credibility is through professional association membership and, now, especially with an Internet around, publication. Open Source as a concept invites programmers to get published for recognition, so failure to pursue this can be perceived as less than convincing commitment to technical excellence as an individual contributor or professional.
In the meantime, I see all kinds of marketing and pyramid schemes evolving, that seem to appeal to desperation. Even in credible or reputable companies engaged in non-profit fundraising or in collections, I see people using style, assertiveness, or manipulative people skills rather than substance and real content to make sales or make a living. There has also been a lot of complaining by people displaced by the economic circumstances, that include terrorism, corporate scandals, the bursting of the Internet bubble, but perhaps most importantly the effects of global competition. Sometimes these calls for increased unionism and solidarity come across as disguised attempts to run from a personal inflexibility or inability to compete. There is less sympathy for people who have already had an “upper middle class life” than for children who have not yet had a chance. But, like it or not, meritocracy is real.
Where does all of this leave me? For one thing, this gets back to my own father’s past dictums about “learning to work,” and being able to prove that I can “pay my dues” and function sometimes in a more regimented low-wage workplace, often in off-hours or graveyard shifts and under less desirable or safe working conditions, as others have had to. Being able to adapt to this could be essential some day for staying out of the streets. We have indeed a “free market cultural revolution.”
Nevertheless, with my writing, as started in the mid 1990s, I have accomplished something. I have shown that, just as one person can threaten the paradigm of a whole industry by personally writing a new software package (like Napster or Linux), one person, without bureaucratic supervision, can have an effect on social or political debate by forcing the subtleties of all sides of an argument out into the open. (The is the “Google” effect, associated now with blogging.) I call this my “do ask, do tell” paradigm. Sometimes individuals are more effective in dealing with the difficult issues than are well-funded organizations, which are usually adversarial and bureaucratic in an otherwise legitimate attempt to ensure credibility. So, longer term, I would see my future as connecting the dots of the legal and technical worlds, participating in solving problems in areas like Internet censorship (such as the Child Online Protection Act –COPA—I am a sublitigant under the Electronic Frontier Foundation), copyright protection for artists, security, and reducing spam without endangering small businesses that depend upon an efficient Internet infrastructure that does not pose unnecessary legal traps.
I am still capable of a significant individual contribution to a fixed-length “conventional” mainframe data processing contract, such as in health care or Medicaid, but I cannot say that this is any longer a long-term objective. I would not be able to “move up” in such an environment, given my other objectives.
Outplacement counselors encourage self-promotion, an entrepreneurial spirit, and a positive outlook. However, all of this is coming into tension with (given all the scandals and bubble-bursting) a growing expectation of commitment, professionalism, authentication, and accomplishments that can be validated by third parties. It is definitely possible to put a very negative spin on all of this. I spent thirty years in a “profession” and allowed my competitive position to slide in favor of a different area (“the media”) in which I have no “credentials” and people might interpret my actions as “buying” my way in. Furthermore, if I am to be eliminated from my former career, in favor of younger or cheaper or overseas people with a lower standard of living and more “hunger” and more family obligations, why should I get a chance in a new one? Having to write something like Ephram’s “my worst flaw” on Everwood here, I can list three reasons. First, much of my strategy involves sale of original content that I developed myself, rather than looking for a salaried “job” in the traditional sense (and depending on the benefits). Second, I am committed to a level of detailed objectivity in covering controversial topics (the argumentation, not just the news in the usual journalistic or reporting sense) that is difficult in most of today’s corporate or non-profit environments, which normally need to behave adversarially in order to satisfy their owners or stakeholders, and which impose considerable bureaucratic obstacles (under “political correctness”) to publishing the complete truth. There is no other way than for one determined individual to drive it. Third, there is a place for combing technology with education and art in new, unchartered and entrepreneurial ways, in order to change the taste of the public so that it will want better materials in its entertainment media.
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