Thinking Positive

I have finally started being a little more optimistic lately.

Things at work are going better.  Not a lot better, but some of the irritating things are better.  We also have better support.  With our New project manager we also got people assigned to the team in other slots that had been vacant since 2005 and in one case since 2003.  We are still down one senior programmer.  Granted, most of these new folks have a steep learning curve, and there is no guarantee that they will still be around a six months from now, but at least they are enthusiastic and bright.  One of the things that was worrying me was our broadband connection.  When the broadband doesn’t work, neither do I.  It was finally serviced and (knock on wood) appears to be stable again.  As soon as I am up to it, I am going to anchor the antenna with some quy wires.

My health is better.  Overall, that is.  I had the worst bout of back-to-back colds in December that I have had since returning to Ohio in 1999.  Yesterday, I twisted wrong, and I have a spasm in my upper back.  But these are the anomalies.  I have been getting good exercise and my back has been much less of a problem overall.  Now that we are watching the grandson less, there will be less sharing of the colds his parents bring home from work.

My comfort level with writing is the highest it has ever been, I think.  I have been able to write at least 100 words each day since the new year began (actually, since before the new year, I just started counting on Jan 1st).

I realized while I was sitting here reading emails and blogs, that I really have been tinking positive lately.  It feels good.

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Who’s my Boss? – Part III

{work rant}

It has been less than a year since the last reorganization announcement from the bosses, and we get hit with a new one.  Things are not much different.  I did not know who my direct line bosses were anyway.

There is a person in an acting position as my project manager, and a person (I have narrowed it down to one of two people) who is in an acting position as my leave approving supervisor.  That’s right these people are “acting”.  They are not permanent, and they have other primary duties.  I haven’t had a permanent supervisor in a very, very, long time.  I don’t think that I have been under-supervised because I am held in high regard by the bosses.  It think that is it because I am part of a dozen or so developers who work without causing any waves.  Being overlooked is fine with me.

The name of the “office”/”arbitrary division”/”group” that I belong to now is OED (likely to be pronounced “owed”).  That’s right, OED.  Oxford English Dictionary.  That is the only thing I knew OED stood for until this morning.  Since other people were guessing what OED stood for (i.e. Overly Educated Dimwits), the bosses finally told us.  OED= Office of Enterprise Development.   That’s me!  I develop enterprises!  The OED (Oxford English Dictionary) defines enterprise as “undertaking”.  Oh!  That must mean I write software for undertakers…

Think I am being overly silly?  Heh.  The bosses are the ones that have lost it.  It seems that they define enterprise as a business.  This then means that I am developing software for the commercial entity known as the VA.  Except…  The VA is part of the US government an as such can not run a business, unless they play shell games like they have for the US Postal Service.  To put a finer point on this “enterprise” in the name, the government has been directed to hand out for free, as defined by the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), any software that is developed.  That’s our “business” model.  Write software and give it away.  (Hey, if FOIA includes the word “of” in its acronym, shouldn’t we?  That would make us OOED, likely to be pronounced the same as the word used to describe the word people say while watching fireworks–“oooooh”.)

Office of Enterprise Development.  Sheesh.

Beam me up, Scotty.

Who’s My Boss? – Part II

{work rant}

With great fanfare and chest pounding the bosses in charge of the continuing reorganization of the folks responsible for creating and maintaining the software running at all Veterans Administration medical centers nationwide met yet another milestone. The first wave of “Supervisory Assignment Letters” were sent out to the first cohort of employees. I have not had an official supervisor since April 1st, 2007. I have been looking forward to this news since April 2nd.

There are some aspects about not having an official supervisor that can be thought of as good. No one objected to, or negotiated for, any vacation days that I took off. The bad part is all of the team fell into this category, and we did have one instance when we were all out of the office at the same time. If there had been a problem, the lack of coverage could have been disastrous, or at least very inconvenient. As it turned out no one but the team members noticed.

I do have a PM. Project Managers use to be supervisors until the reorganization team made some bad decisions. Over the past few years many of the skilled PMs have been replaced by contract employees, and a contract employee can not make policy decisions about employees, new projects, current project design or any of the other myriad things that a supervisor must do. All PMs do now is process the paperwork associated with their project, and give status reports. A contract employee can do that.

Today my “Supervisory Assignment Letter” arrived in my email system. The preamble stated that first and second level supervisors would be disclosed, but that because of current staffing shortages some employees might see a vacancy in their “primary and/or secondary” supervisor.

Pause for effect.

Guess what?!! My letter tells me both my first and second level supervisors are vacant positions. I still have no supervisor!!!

But the reorganization team can report up the the Department Secretary that they met this milestone because they sent out the all important “Supervisory Assignment Letters” before the deadline of Oct. 1, 2007. I hate bureaucrats.

But at least I have a Project Manager, right? Hmmm…. I do today. But because he is a contract employee, and because the bosses failed to continue the special contract employee funding that includes my project team, it is likely that my PM will not be allowed to continue working in the new fiscal year, which starts Oct 1, 2007.

No supervisors, no PM. That laughing you hear is the hysterical type.

As of the date this rant was posted, I have 8 years, 3 months and 17 days until I can retire. That is 3031 days–minus 433 weekends of course.

Cleaning is hard for a pack rat…

(re: Thing #13 – Clean my office space)

I made a good start at cleaning my office space. I still have a lot more to do, however.

I am a pack rat. My sister and I joke that it is a genetic trait that we inherited from our maternal grandfather. Grandpa White didn’t seem to throw anything out. He did have the good habit of using what he hoarded. He made a cattle watering trough from an old bathtub and used at least three different types of pipe to feed water to it. He had a storage room full of toys, some of which had mixed parts, that all of his grandchildren played with. His brother Andrew never threw away any mail, including junk mail, and when it came time for him to move we filled two truck sized trash bins of the useless paper.

I am working hard to stop my own hoarding. It is difficult. My office space is small, but over the last six years I have accumulated a lot of “stuff” in it. Not all of it is work related. I have memory items from my childhood that I “decorated” my space with. I have coin collection related items, hiking stuff and of course–books.

On the work side of things, I still had a CD to restore the hard drive of the work computer I have not had since 2003. I had software that I do not need now, and will not run on my current workstation. I had notes on projects that I finished years ago. I had every single empty FedEx envelope that has been sent to me (I do reuse these as file folders). I have business cards that vendors and coworkers have handed me over the years; cards that I have never used.

I am being ruthless in throwing things away this time. Just not the important things. I am keeping those special cards from Doris. And fun things like my Eeyore Pez dispenser. Practical useful things like paper clips.

Everything else has to go.

Procrastination Cessation …

Hello. I am a procrastinator. I sometimes can keep my head down and get things done, but over the last year I have really let a lot of things slip. I am going to rectify that.

I stumbled across an interesting meme here on the internet. It is called “101 Things to Do in 1001 Days“. The idea is to complete 101 preset tasks in a period of 1001 days. The tasks must be specific (i.e. no ambiguity in the wording) with a result that is either measurable or clearly defined. Tasks must also be realistic and stretching (i.e. represent some amount of work on my part). I realize that some of the tasks on my list may not seem to fit the requirements, but I think that even the most mundane ones will be stretching (and hopefully breaking) my procrastination. I like this meme because it gives focus like other “beating procrastination” exercises, but it also sets a time table that won’t cause panic or frustration. 1001 days is approximately 2.74059 years. That is a long time.

I am going to participate. But a lot can happen in 2 and three quarter years. Kids get married or graduate from college. There could be more grandkids. We could win the lottery. For this reason I am reserving the right to revise this list based on a major life event. I mean, if I win the lottery then fixing the van is not a stretching task anymore, right. A stretching task to replace the van task would be setting up trust funds for loved ones, or building them houses.

My list of 101 Things can be found on the sidebar as a sub-page under “About Me.” It contains such mundane things as taking care of all the broken door knobs in our house, and using and returning a power washer I borrowed from a friend over a year ago. It contains necessary things like doing my back exercises and and cleaning up my pack-rat messes (I am a hoarder of useless things. It’s genetic.) The task list has a few hard things like learning to read music (which I have failed at before), and important things like working with my parents and sister on formalizing the ownership of the family farm to protect it from seizure should my parents’ medical costs spiral out of control. It also has fun things for me, like going on a “get away” with just Doris (beach, cabin in the woods; something we have talked about for years), and reading all the Hugo Award winning novels that I have not yet read.

I took me the better part of a week to create the list. I strove hard to keep all the tasks realistic and important, even the fun ones. Don’t wish me luck, tell me “It’s about time!”

Write Something Each Day

My writing skills really suffered over the past two decades. I like to blame it on working for the government, but it is really my own fault. I admit that I took the easy way out by writing in the style the bosses expect. Mostly passive voice and repetition of information are the two main things that I see myself doing when I sit down to write fiction. These are odd things to do, but it gets the job done at work.

Early on in my career with the government I was forceful and energetic in my writing. However the bosses up the line were for the most part timid indecisive people that recoiled at any kind of exuberance. They didn’t want to make decisions, and people that brought attention to any issue whatsoever were working counter to that goal. Most of the time the only feedback I got was that boss-so-n-so didn’t like the presentation. There was rarely any comment on the content of the presentation, just on the presentation itself. It didn’t take long for me to figure this out. I remember sitting and rewriting a proposal so that it was in the passive voice. It was well received. I waited and waited for a decision on the content. I realized that I needed to be persistent. I wrote the proposal again. This time I found at least two, and sometimes three, different ways to say the same thing. Again I was thanked for the proposal, yet this time (after another long wait) the boss-so-n-so actually mentioned the topic at a meeting and eventually the ball started rolling as a “perhaps somebody should look into this” non-decision decision. My immediate boss took this as full approval and we did the project. Nothing was ever said by boss-so-n-so. He didn’t have to make an official decision and something still got done.

Needless to say have become the master of the repetitive style of passive information sharing. I mean I am able to fire off a proposal that would not scare the high up bosses, and yet mention the topic enough times that it would start to take hold. People have come to me to polish up their proposals by finding different ways to share that information with passive bosses in such a way that said bosses would actually read the document which just so happens has the side effect that some information might sink into their minds. This paragraph is a good example of the style I am talking about.

I hate it!!!

But I have been doing it so long that it has become they style that flows out of my mind. I even find myself talking this way from time to time. You see, I also learned that at meetings and teleconferences that if you speak this way to the passive “never met a decision they couldn’t ignore” bosses, sometimes they actually hear something.

ACK!!!

I have decided that I need to break this style habit. From this day forward I am going to write each day. Some days will only be a blog entry. My goal is to write fiction; however, no matter what I write (except for work) I am going to make sure that I avoid the passive repetitive style.

Wish me luck, eh?

Who’s my boss?

{Warning: Rant about my job}

I don’t know who my boss is. Well, to be totally accurate, I don’t know who one of my bosses is. Because of “reorganization” that has been going on for over three years now, everything has gotten muddled.  I do know who my project manager is, but that person is only there to monitor my work on my current assignment, and give me a new one when I am finished.  What I don’t know is who is the manager I am to request sick leave or vacation from, seek training through, ask for a new project to be assigned to, and any of the other myriad of administrative manager tasks.

I have been operating in this vacuum for around six months now.  I just take leave whenever I want, apply for whatever training I want, and such.  I am afraid to question this too ardently because there is someone out there signing my pay sheet every two weeks, and I don’t want them to stop.  And it is likely that they will stop if too much pressure is applied.  My guess is that the person signing the pay sheets is doing it because there is no one else doing it and it needs to be done.  I wouldn’t be surprised if technically they are not suppose to assume that responsibilty.

Nearly a dozen upper managers that I am familiar with have retired or found other jobs.  This is what happened to all but one of the managers in charge of our section.  The remaining manager was transfered laterally to another section and can’t assist us (although I think he is the one signing the pay sheets.)   My opinion is that he was transfered because he was to effective and was making all the other managers at his level look bad.

But why this rant today?  I need to get this out before it ruins my weekend totally.

I write software; I am a software developer.  As such, I need a computer environment that allows me to do just that.  But we don’t have one that is really good enough.  We have been hobbled with the current computer setup since this “reorganization” began over three years ago.  Finally with enough paper work, or project manager has secured the promise of hardware, operating system support and a robust database.  All the pieces are in place, and have been for weeks.  All that is lacking is the signature of the administrative manager responsible for my section.  And as I have said, we don’t know who that is.  So we wait for someone to figure out who is suppose to sign the damn paper.

I volunteered to sign it myself.  I think the project manager thought I was joking.

When the broadband goes away…

{another rant about work}

I find myself heavily dependent on my broadband internet connection. For the most part it is because of the way my job’s VPN security works.

I use to be able to remain productive and keep working when the broadband connection was down. Not any more.

You see, because individuals have lost, or allowed to be stolen, data that should always remain in secure areas, the bureaucrats have massively over reacted. This is the world we live in post 9/11.  Instead of looking at the individual instances of data loss and getting rid of the people that allowed the data to be taken out of our secure environment and fixing that bit of lax security the bosses treat us all like we are dunderheads that can’t follow some very simple rules.

A laptop with over 26 million secure data records was stolen from an individual. That individual had no business taking 26 million secure data records out of the secure building. The response from the bosses? Penalize everyone that uses laptops or workstations outside of a secure building, regardless of how secure their data needs to be.

I access work via VPN which stands for Virtual Privacy Netoworking. For most that is more than enough security, but not for my job. Now specialized software must be running on my workstation for the work network to recognize me as legitimate. I guess they don’t trust VPN. That person that lost the laptop with 26 million secure data records wasn’t even using VPN. They were supposedly taking the laptop home to do work they hadn’t finished. If they had been using VPN, they could have securely accessed the data from home, and if the laptop was stolen it would have been no big deal because the data would not have been on the laptop’s hard drive.

Did that stop the data breaches? Nope. You see since it got harder to take laptops out of secure areas, other individuals decided that it would be okay if they dismounted the hard drives and carried them home to install in another computer. A further 8 million secure data records were lost this way when the idiot with the hard drive left it on a commuter train. But did the bosses react reasonably? Heh. They must not trust that the software that proves legitimacy on top of VPN either because they decided that all hard drives had to be encrypted. Did they do anything about the data walking out the front door? No. But now if some other idiot lost a laptop or a hard drive at least no one could read the data. So now I have an encrypted hard drive with special software that proves I am legitimate when I connect to work via VPN.

Guess what! Yep, some other idiot lost more data. Somewhere around the 12 million record range. The bosses hushed this one up and it was barely a blip on the news media. How did this happen? Well since the idiot couldn’t take a laptop home that had data on it, and the encrypted hard drive wouldn’t work when he installed it on another computer at home that did not have the encryption software, he decided to take the data home on a USB flash drive (jump drive, thumb drive). And he lost the USB flash drive.

Now do you think the bosses would have wised up to the fact that the problem was not with the hardware security, but the humans that were using the hardware inappropriately? Yeah, right. So now they will be issuing encrypted USB flash drives, so in case anyone else is taking secure data home (which they are not allowed to do) at least no one will be able to read the flash drive. It would have been much simpler and less costly just to provide these idiots with VPN access. But, no. That can’t happen.

So, you ask, how does this impact Devenbert? Why can’t he be productive when his broadband is down?

Before the laptop data loss I could use VPN from my personal home computer over my dialup ISP account. That extra software that checks for “legitimate” connections put an end to that.

Before the USB flash drives were encrypted, I could at least download documents from the work computer and use my home computer to email them to my bosses and coworkers via my personal email account. But now I can not even get a simple non-secure document out of my work computer. USB flash is encrypted and my home computer can’t read it. And now when my broadband connection is down I can’t connect to the work network via the extra special VPN. I can’t use my home computer as a backup. I am literally, and completely, dead in the water.

Maybe when my broadband goes down next time, I’ll polish my keyboard or do something equally useful, like leave an empty box on a street corner.

Obstructionist Policies

(The following is a rant about my job.)

It is getting harder and harder for me to do my job. The current batch of bureaucrats in charge keep instituting obstructionist policies. I really don’t understand the reasoning behind it. If the policies helped make a better product, or saved time or money, I could at least understand and not complain about them even if I did not agree with them.

But these new policies… are just stupid. For example:

When creating software it is not uncommon for a developer to create many versions during development and testing. Every time the software product reaches a milestone event, like sending it to an alpha or beta testing site, or sharing it with co-workers for their review/input, the version number gets increased by one. The rule of thumb is that if the software product leaves the development environment for any reason, it gets a new version number. This way there is no confusion about what changes or fixes are included in a particular version that a test site or individual has.

The newest policies (or are they directives? I get them confused) deal with the testing life cycle and the length of time that the software must be successfully running at a test site before it can be released nationwide. Historically if the software, the part that makes the computer do something, changes then the testing cycle starts over. However, if only the documentation changes, then historically the software life cycle continued. Each testing life cycle was based on when the software itself was changed, not when any other part of the software product changed.

Enter new policy number one. There is no longer a distinction between a software change or a documentation change. Now if the software has been running at all the test sites for months without any problems, and a typo has to be corrected in the documentation causing a version number change, the testing clock is reset. This had the effect of causing massive delays in releasing software to all the hospitals. We complained and eventually something was done.

Enter new policy number two. There is no longer a requirement to increment the development version number if only descriptive elements are changed. Hmmm… Now if an important documentation update occurs, say, a change to the installation instructions, then there will be no new development version number and there will be no way to easily tell who may or may not have the correct installation procedures.

So, because some bureaucrat who does not understand what it is we do, and seemingly does not care, has decided that every version number change requires the testing life cycle clock to be reset, we are now in a position having incorrect documentation being shared across the nation.

How is this better? It is not. It is more confusing, and time consuming. It places developers in the situation of using other mechanisms (memory, pen and paper) to keep track of who has what. And if the developer should slip up, whammo, the Software Quality Assurance managers will hang them up; figuratively in terms of public executions, and literally in terms of delaying the product’s release. They took away an important tool and now blame us for no longer being able to use it.

This is just one example of the many obstructionist policies we are now having to follow. It seems as if there is a purposeful effort to tie development’s hands. If this keeps up, it will take a year just to issue a patch that five years ago could have been released in two weeks. Could it be that my conspiracy theory coworkers are correct and that “they” are trying to shut down our relatively inexpensive internal software development teams in order to “buy” more expensive, and less useful, software from corporations that just happen to have lobbyists with offices on K Street in Washington, D.C.?

Does anyone have a lever?

(another rant about work)

I have a place to stand, but apparently I am am not allowed to have a lever. We have a deadline. The deadline is god.

The project team I am on has been working without the proper tools for several years now. Oh, they keep fancy and powerful PCs on our desks. We have the latest and greatest communication aids and the appropriate software development software. None of that does any good if we can not test the software to ensure that it works (yet, we must produce useless paperwork to insure the bureaucrats against its potential failure.)

We can not adequately test the software because they refuse to give us a development environment that has robust data. Without data we can not prove the software works, and we put test sites at risk because of it. This is not rocket science. This is common sense.

Let me explain. Say you are asked to develop a math formula that does a whizbang calculation. You work and come up with “a+b+c=47“. You think it is right. You can invent numbers for a, b and c that will make the equation correct. But is it? What are realistic, real world examples of the values for a, b and c? What if in the real world a and b are always greater than 24 and c is never negative? Well, the formula is bad, and you need to develop a new one. Big deal right? You send the software to a test site, they find the error, you fix it; no problems, eh?

Now, imagine that a is a blood pressure value, b is a potassium level, c is a white cell count and 47 represents a patient’s life. The software I write is meant to assist caregivers in helping treat patients. As such, if the caregiver is working from a bad formula, real harm can come to the patient. Let me say that again a little more clearly. Bad software can harm patients.

However, we are not permitted to spend the time to understand and then create realistic data to test our software with. You see, the deadline is god. There is a process to allow software to be released “with known defects” just so that the deadline can be met. And this causes a big enough concern that the bureaucrats have developed a policy to deal with software that contain “patient safety issues”. Who cares about the patient as long as there is a strategy to deal with blame?

What they haven’t done is to develop a strategy to deal with the fact that the vast majority of our software developers do not have realistic data available to them to properly test the software before it is installed at a test site. We have lots of paperwork to protect the pointy-haired bosses from blame, but none to protect the PATIENTS!

I get to bring this topic up again during a meeting today. Is it a sign of a broken spirit, or a firm grasp of reality, that makes me so sure that I will be handed another answer similar to “we are looking into the problem and if it is indeed a problem we will request funding for a study on how best to deal with the problem”?

Some day’s I hate my job.

I have a place to stand. All I need is a lever that can move the bureaucracy into action. I am afraid that Archimedes would have had an easier time moving the world.