Rusty Divine

Live, Love, Learn, Teach

IWAH

My good buddy K-Dog taught me a lot about consulting, but most of it was bad habbits! No one was better at working 10-3 with a 2 hour lunch than the Dog. He was a lot like The Kramer of Consulting, except a very bald version.
K-Dog always had a insightful quip, or an interesting opinion to share, which is where IWAH comes from; an acronym for I'm "Working" At Home today - with Working emphasized with a sleazy wink. Someone has gone IWAH when they call in to the office to say that they can't make it in, but to call them at home because they're working there today *nudge, nudge, say no more*.
I went IWAH once last week, but I was proud of myself for being about as productive as I am in the office. My excuse? My truck was in the shop; and when I picked it up, the Blue Angels were flying over the city so the Interstate was closed down because slack-jawed rubbernecks would be causing enormous pileups if the city didn't keep them off the roads. I cheated though because I left my house and went downtown to a meeting with a client - I can't swear that I would have been as productive if I had stayed at home all day.
What is it about being home that makes it so hard to concentrate on work? For me, it's the dogs, the bed, and the fridge (daytime TV sux). Being out of the office is great because there are far fewer interruptions - no phones ringing, no coworkers asking questions or just making noise. Being at home though is too relaxing. Working at home is probably about as bad of an idea as reading in bed, both mix activities that are meant to be kept separate (although I admit I like reading in bed and don't find it difficult to fall asleep on nights that I don't read in bed).
I think the happy medium would be to work somewhere not home, and not at work, where there aren't any interruptions from noise or motion. A library that had wi-fi and allowed coffee would be perfect. I bet if you infiltrated your local college campus, you could find a good library with all the right assets...as long as you could keep your eyes off the college women (or men) with the same.

Insider Trading

As a consultant, I am sometimes privy to non-public information about a client's company that may affect their stock price in my estimation.
Acting on that information is insider trading, as described over atWikipedia.
I'm not much of a stock trader myself, I stick to the index funds or pick a mutual fund from my 401K provider that has the appropriate level of risk for my age. I've never been tempted to act on any of the information I've seen; mainly because I'm not egotistical enough to believe I really have some good dirt on a company.
Today, however, I think I do. I was at a client's office working out the details of a new project. This client has a significant asset base and they recently decided to start leveraging their assets in a new way that will likely make a fortune for them without having to sacrifice much in the way of management, overhead, or liquidation. That is, they'll keep all their assets, but just put them to work making money in new ways. These new ways, besides management costs (part of which is the cost of the application I'm developing to help them manage these uses), are entirely profit.
Just for fun I might buy 10 shares (currently around $33) and just watch what happens. Does this violate my personal integrity? Maybe; but I don't think I'll loose any sleep over it.

PTO

Paid Time Off (PTO) is the answer to employee time administrators' dreams - one bank of hours accrued at a set rate for each employee to use for any reason they need to be out of the office.
The alternative, which is still quite common at many companies, is to track leave for each employee in separate accounts. One bank of vacation hours, one of sick leave, and one of personal leave - all accrued at different rates and with different rules for when an employee can use them.
Even with the simpler PTO account, the one excuse fits all, companies still manage to introduce arcane rules governing how an employee can use those hours. Few things shine a light into a company's bureaucracy brighter than examining their employee time off program; or better yet, living inside of it.
At the last company I worked for, there was a, frankly, terrible leave policy. Each employee had to accrue a bank of 40 hours of sick leave before any vacation was accrued, and upon using sick time, it had to be replaced first. To use vacation time, a form had to be filled out in advance explaining the reason for the time off, and had to be approved by the office manager. To use any sick leave, you had to actually get a note from your doctor!!
"Excuse me, Dr., could you tell me when you think I can go back to work? Oh, and could you put that in writing?"
The company granted 3 days off without pay for bereavement of a close relative (no going to your best friend's funeral! how dare you!) Maternity leave meant going on short term disability, and you can just forget about paternity leave.
And that was just the structure; living in it was another story. The only time I ever saw someone try to take sick time, it failed miserably. We'll call my friend JD, because, well, that's his name...er, actually his name is James Dale, but everyone called him JD. Anywho, JD had some medical emergency and had to go to the doctor (I think it was strep throat?). He had to ask the doctor when he could go back to work, and get that in writing. That week, he put the time on his timecard and made a photocopy of the note to fax to corporate. The next week the president of the company called JD himself and told him to change that time to vacation time! JD tried to explain that he had a doctors note, but the president just bullied over his protests and insisted that JD correct his timecard.
How much more demoralizing and demeaning can you get? Really; does anyone have a good story of a company ramrodding its employees over time off?
Fast forward to my new job. The leave policy is a PTO account, but the company still fails to get it right. For some unexplained reason, employees are only allowed to take PTO in 8 hour increments! No leaving 2 hours early on a Friday and billing those hours to your PTO account!
Insisting the time is taken in 8 hour chuncks is a bad idea for several reasons. It is counter productive because rather than taking those last two hours on a Friday afternoon off, an employee is forced to stay at work most likely while zombified staring at the monitor without accomplishing anything. It is demoralizing because it implies that the company does not trust its employees to manage their time off professionally. Finally, it leads to integrity problems because in all likelihood you take off those two hours on Friday anyway and charge it to some job or report on your timecard that you worked two extra hours on the previous day.
When employees have to sacrifice their integrity to work with in the system, everyone loses.

Over there, over there

I've been at my new job for a month and a half! That's hard to believe; the time really went by quickly.
I remember talking to my old supervisor, and good friend, soon after taking this new position. I bragged, "I'm making more money here, and I have less responsibility! People are just handing me Word documents and I convert them into HTML." He intoned, "Just wait, it won't take them long."
Well, he was correct. I just sent an email to my new supervisor today that laid out the amount of work I have scheduled through September; it was enough for 2 people.
It wasn't long before converting Word docs to HTML was handed off to a more junior developer (or, I should say The More Junior Developer since there's only one). I was whisked off to Boise to help sell a document management/collaboration solution, sent over to another client to consult on consolidating their spreadsheets into Excel, and just last week went to an interview and won a job adding a user interface to an existing access database (as well as converting it to SQL).
Today my HR supervisor was in town from Portland. She stopped by my desk a little before 8 and we talked about how I was the only one there (brownie points!). She said that I should think about whether I want to become a part time employee or a full time employee - currently I am a flexible time employee.
Let me digress to explain the essential differences.

  • Flex = I work when I want, however much I want. I don't get any medical, paid time off, or perks. If there is no work to do, I go home. Anything over 40 is 1.5.
  • Part Time = I have to work at least 20 hours a week. I get 5 hrs/month of PTO, medical is mostly paid (I pay $12/month), and anything over 40 is 1.5.
  • Full Time = I have to work 40 hours a week, even if there is nothing to do. I get 8 hrs/month of PTO, medical is completely covered, and anything over 40 is typically evaporated - no overtime, rarely compensatory time.

I asked Dana what I should do. She replied, "If you want to make a career out of this company, go for full time; otherwise, go for part time. Or, you could always go for part time and go full time later."

She's right, of course. It's really a toss-up. If I take the part time position, I may be vulnerable to people who get hired after me climbing the career ladder ahead of me. Arguably, I may be less vulnerable to lay offs as a part timer, since I could probably find 20 hours of work a week in the driest times and a full timer may be laid off or have their status changed. I definitely don't want to stay as a flex employee because I am working more than 20 hours a week anyway, so I might as well be getting medical pay and PTO.

I am a career guy; I'm not content to just do my job and get a pay check. I want to excel, to participate in something bigger than me. I still have a life outside of work, and practically refuse to work more than 40 hours a week. I am driven to lead, to be creative, to be in a position that can make decisions.

I have been quite comfortable with my flex position. Like I mentioned, I've flown out on business trips, gone on sales calls, consulted with clients, brought in work. I haven't been a project manager yet though; and I'm pretty sure I'd have to be full time in order to marshal my own project.

Going full time may mean that I am requested to work more than I want to - some of my coworkers are working 40+ regularly. Becoming a part timer would mean that I'd be available to work 40+, but I'd also get paid for it, too.

I think I'll take the stepping stone approach and request a part time position. I'll wait to push for full time until the day I want to manage my own project. I like the fact that I can leave an hour early on Friday and just not charge for it! (The company has a policy that PTO must be taken in 8 hour increments)

Con + Insult = Consult


The great thing about consulting, besides getting paid to con and insult people, is that when you start a new project you get to learn a new business process, take on a new role; it's almost like changing professions.
I've worked on facility management applications, landlord-tenant management systems, environmental permitting, port construction project management, medical monitoring tracking databases, et al. Each new project brought a new challenge of learning how the client did their job, followed by helping them to streamline their process and automate what was possible.
This week was something new - I am learning the ropes of a very specific area of real estate development. Our client owns more land than most countries, and most of it is sheltered from taxes as long as they manage it, and even often when they sell it. But if they want to rezone the land and develop it for another use to sell for more money, then they have to transfer the land out of their parent entity (which is restricted by tax law from anything but managing or selling undeveloped land) to a subsidiary that was set up explicitly to handle the transaction.
Every year they scan their parcels by creating GIS filters that reveal property within X miles of a city, a beach, a river, etc. to find land that may be worth more to sell than to manage for its resources.
Identifying these premium parcels is about all they can do without violating tax law. The next step is to put the parcel under "option" to another entity (typically their subsidiary), which gives them 90 days to try to get the land rezoned and platted for development. If any of paperwork is rejected, then they can let the option expire and keep the land without paying any taxes since the land never changed hands. If everything goes well, they can sell it to the other entity who will then develop the land (put in roads/utilities) and sell it off in lots. Hidden within the process are countless business rules governing how long each entity has to hold the property in order to move to the next phase, the valuation of the property with tax considerations, and others.
Our client currently tracks data points in various spreadsheets, some of the data overlaps and is inconsistent. The current system is becoming a nightmare - in department meetings they are spending more time arguing about the data inconsistencies than tracking the milestones and deadlines, both of which have very real legal and tax implications!
The solution will be to combine the data tracking systems into an Access database application for now. The different departments will have their own UI database (done in Access), all of which talk to the central data store. We will be doing some design specification work and flow charting up front, but as is typical in consulting it will be on the light side. We will instead build this Access application as our prototype, throw-away, lessons to be learned program. When we get the business rules hammered out through actual use of the application, we will then (hopefully) be given more money to develop the system into an enterprise application with more work flow automation and project management tools.

Help this, jerk

I have collected enough empirical data to conclude that corporate IT departments are bunk. If you are reading this blog, then chances are I'm preaching to the choir, so instead of listing a plethora of past grievances, allow me to just tell you about today's.
We, the programmers, are developing a website for a client who is a local governmental department. We're hosting the site on our company server for now because the department doesn't have it's own server and is mired in its own politics so it can't use it's brother department's server.
The client needs to be able to upload new versions of the documents linked to on the website; and add new documents from time to time. Instead of paying us to implement a programmatic solution, the client hired someone who is supposed to manage shuffling documents full time. In order to do her job, she will need FTP access to the web site so that she can change the existing documents and add new links in the HTML pages where needed.
Ok, enough background; sorry about that. So, our IT Group has this nifty web application where we can set up new project websites and FTP sites; but it doesn't allow you to make a web site folder _also_ an FTP folder. You can either have a web site folder that you have to access via the intranet, or an FTP folder that you can access anywhere, but not both.
So, I called up TAC (Total Assistance Center - Ha!) and first asked about the open ticket I had from earlier in the week that was supposed to be responded to by yesterday. After I was stonewalled on that, I brought up the new issue. 'ticity-takity-tic-tic-click-clack' a new ticket was electronically opened for my new problem (one more problem this week and my name will go up on a black list, I'm sure, and no one will talk to me). I explained that I needed a web site that I could FTP into.
BOY. You'd think that a help desk guy would know something about this. WRONG!
After 15 minutes of explaining, re-explaining, diagramming, and having him go to the website and then telling him to just try to upload a file or change a link, he put me on hold for 5 minutes. Then, he said he'd talk to someone from corporate.
My phone rang about 10 minutes later; and Mr. Help Desk was exited - a solution in his grasp! Corporate asked him to ask me if I had tried to right-click on the web page and select "Edit" to make a change to the file?
WTF??
I said, "No, but I don't think that will work. Maybe you mean having front page extensions installed or something, but that's not what I need."
Then he said, "Oh, I hit File >> Edit in VS and it worked! You should see a '$' down by the search."
Me: "Uh, no, you changed the file on your local computer."
Him: "Oh, really?"
Me: "Yup."
Well, he said he'd go back and tell the guy that it didn't work. He said, "I told him that I didn't think you could do that."
And there's the problem with bad IT guys - they never admit any possibility that they could be or were wrong. They bluster through problems and give outrageous excuses (how many times have you heard, "No, it's not our network that's the problem, it's theirs" from both sides?).
IT helpers play a dual role; 1) Adversarial - like testers who are out to find bugs to protect end users, IT Guys are out to save the company and protect it's servers; 2) They are supposed to help those in need; their _customers_.
In conclusion, when you work at a big bureaucracy, don't depend on your IT helpers to help you, they don't server you, they serve the company. Instead, you should outsource your hosting needs where possible to a company that is dedicated to its customers. I'd recommend http://www.webhost4life.com/ orhttp://www.godaddy.com/.

Back Home

The Boise trip wrapped up this morning with a final meeting and a mad dash to the airport to make the flight. I am not usually unnerved by flying, but this morning's flight was jinxed and I had a terrible feeling that our plane was destined to crash.
We were running late for the flight, and were debating on getting gas for the rental car or returning it and taking the $5/gallon hit for not filling it up. If we stopped to refill, we might miss our flight. As we passed the final gas station, still debating, our low-fuel indicator light blinked on at the very moment we passed the station. It was like a beacon trying to get us to pull over and get gas so that we'd miss our flight. Like a guardian angel that was a split second too late. (The rental agency charged $80 for the gas!)
We made it to the ticket counter and found out that our flight had been cancelled, but there was a flight leaving immediately that we could jump on. When we got to the gate we learned that there had been some fog in Seattle that had delayed the 6am flight for 5 hours, so those passengers and the passengers on the cancelled flight were all combined into a larger plane (still so small that we had to walk out on the tarmac to board) for the 1130 flight.
After we boarded, the pilot came over the intercom to tell us "the rest of the story." The plane that was supposed to have departed at 6am had just had some mechanical work done to it, but the mechanic forgot to sign off on it. They flew the mechanic from Seattle back to Boise to sign off on the work, but by that time the fog had settled in to Seattle. To complicate matters, the construction crew working on the new Seattle runway sliced a power line that ran the approach lights for the runway. No approach lights and some fog meant no flights coming into Seattle at all for a few hours. With all the back up on the beginning of what is supposed to be the busiest holiday travel weekend on record, there were piles of delays of planes trying to reach Seattle. The pilot then said we were going to take off, but if the weather went sour we were going to go to Yakima instead!
I was fine until we started speeding up down the runway, and then I had one of my psychic moments; I felt like the flight was doomed to crash. A few times in my life I have just known something was going to happen - like if my name is in a hat and someone draws it out, there has been two distinct times that I knew it was going to happen, and one of the times I even told the guy standing next to me so I do have some collaboration. This feeling was sorta like one of those times where I just knew something was going to happen.
We got off to a bumpy ascent as we plowed through the thermals rising off the desert plains. When we were a few minutes off the ground everything evened out, and the pilot reported the weather in Seattle was improving. By the time my Coke had arrived, I had forgotten all about my premonition. That is, until we started our descent.
We descended through a couple layers of clouds that bounced us around. By the time we were a few thousand feet off the ground the wind started whipping us around and the plane tilted back and forth like a see-saw. When we were about 50' off the ground, a gust of wind knocked us sideways and to the left; and I was sure the wing was going to clip, but we made it safely to the ground and the pilot taxied us to the tarmac. At that point, I remembered to say a little thank you prayer as I dried my palms on my dockers.
All I can say is it must take some nerves of steel to fly one of those birds day in and day out.
How was the business trip?? Well, it went smoothly, but it wasn't as interesting as the plane trip home!

Boise; it rhymes with noisy; but it's not cuz it's small

I'm getting shipped off to Boise, ID next week for two to three days. I'll be capturing the business rules - the if this happens, then this has to happen - in a flow charting software app.
There will be a group of clients, me, a business analyst, and a moderator. The three of us will sit in a room with the client, the analyst and moderator will ask questions like, "When Trynt takes the data and puts it in the spreadsheet, what does he do with it next?" And the customer will answer, "At the end of the week, he then prints it out and gives one copy to Peter to file, and faxes a copy to the HQ for filing there." Then I'll draw some little boxes and arrows in the flow charting software to capture that business rule.
When the three of us get back to our office after the trip, I'll tidy up the charts and hand them over to the other team members. They'll take a look at the tangled mess of business rules and then write a recommendation paper on how to automate and streamline the process. It might go something like:

  1. Instead of Trynt entering the data into a spreadsheet, he will log into a web application and enter the data there.
  2. Peter and HQ will be able to get to the most current data anytime they would like by loggin in to the web application and viewing it. They will have read-only access, and will not be able to change any data.
  3. Instead of Trynt distributing the data, Peter and HQ will be able to print out a report that summarizes the data by week.

I enjoy meeting with clients and figuring out business rules, so I'm looking forward to the trip. I have a talent for working well with clients; I'm good enough, I'm smart enough, and gosh-darn'it, client's like me. I think it is because I show them respect, and I try to act as their advocates (that is, I try to align myself with them rather than with my company). A good sense of humor helps, and warmth of personality. And, I am interested in what they have to say, which helps put them at ease and to talk freely; meaning more productivity. Why, one time a lieutenant commander of the USCG remarked to my boss that the 1/2 day meeting he had with me was the most productive meeting he had ever been to! I cherish comments like that.

Custom solution vs shrink wrap

A question was posed at our meet-the-big-shot meeting over lunch yesterday by a fellow co-worker of mine directed to the big-shot. The group of us were enjoying pizza from a local pizzeria while the big-shot explained our group's business plan for the foreseeable future (it was rosey, of course).
In a nutshell, it was asked if any consideration had been given to producing a resalable piece of software - the kind you can stamp on a CD, box up, and sell on Amazon (AKA COTS - Commercial OffThe Shelf, AKA Shrink Wrap) .
The answer began badly; very badly. In the cliche way you might imagine, the big-shot leaned back in his chair as if deep in thought and replied, "That is a very good question." He went on to spout something about how the Group had considered that possibility, and would continue to consider that possibility; as if he took a cue directly from our president. I can't tell you what he said after that because his manager voice lulled me into a state of hypnosis that was only broken when he asked, "Did any of that make sense? Do any of you understand what I am saying?" It was no exaggeration to say you could hear the electricity hum through the light fixtures it got so quiet. I think someone, and it may have even been me, nodded their head and we moved on.
The truth is that we are a consulting company, and not a software company. As a consulting company, we can produce a software solution, but not a software product. Each software solution we provide is going to be custom made for the customer, even if we reuse 90% of existing code from another production effort we will still spend the 10% to customize it. When we finish the solution it will have our customer's logo on it and look to it (branding), not our own. We will have used our customer's money to produce their custom solution. Depending on how the contract is worded, they might even retain the intellectual property rights, meaning that they own the code we wrote and we can't reuse it for anyone else.
Interestingly though, and I asked about this very point at the meeting, the customer can never own our experience for having created the solution; so we could go to another customer and say, "Look, we built this software that monitors how many times employees go to the rest room during the day, we could build a similar solution for you, but we have to start from scratch." And that would be perfectly legal.
Developing a software product, conversely, has a completely different strategy. First, you have to find the cash to build it yourself at your own risk. It has to be built to be flexible, it better be bullet proof, and simple, and useful for a large audience. Then you have to have your company tax and accounting systems set up to handle selling a product, you have to worry about manufacturing, supplies, distribution, and marketing. Not to mention a help desk, and bug fixes, and patch rollouts. At the end of the day, if your product is popular, it will probably be reverse engineered by a competitor anyway! It's very hard to make a big company out of selling software, but if anyone can do it, Joel can.
In consulting when our customer finds a bug in our system the exchange typically goes like this:
Customer: "Excuse me, my good fellow, but while I was waxing my mouse ball, I inadvertently came across this strange message: 'You have violated core security, shut down eminent'. I am sure it is something I have done, and I do apologize."
Consultant: "Oh, nady-dah; I will fix that problem straight away and load the new file to the server. You were ever so kind to bring it to our attention! Have a wonderful day, old chap, and do call again."
In software company when your product has a bug, 500, 000 people it discover it at the same moment, try to call your help desk (which was maybe wisely subbed out to India to save money for patch roll-outs), get frustrated and go to their blog to type stuff like:
Customer: "I H8 MiCrOsOfT! they R Jerx!"
My advice? Stick with consulting, kid.