Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Swept away (about to be)

Uh oh, looks like I’m about to be swept up. – Yes, another job related problems post, no pictures and no funny stories.

I started this job in January. I’m a computer programmer, specializing in FoxPro, which is a language used on IBM PC type computers. I used to work on big machines in Cobol and Fortran and Assembler, but moved to the PC when it first came out because I could be in control. I worked in several languages, with Assembler being my favorite. For you non-techies, assembler is a really low level language, really figuring out how the computer hardware works and directing things one itsy bitsy step at a time. Very few programmers like it because of the detailed computer knowledge required.

But I drifted to FoxPro because it made it very easy to keep thousands of pieces of information, and tie them all together. In Southern California there were lots of bigger companies using FoxPro. In Las Vegas there are very few. The biggest employers in town are the casinos, and they mostly use big computers with accounting programs they buy and have been using for years. Usually in Cobol, they employ some programmers to make special reports and keep things running. With the Internet now some casinos bring in programmers that can make fancy web sites and take hotel room reservations, so they are expanding.

I was hired here at the bank because they have FoxPro programs that have been around for years. The main one I work with is used to keep track of credit card applications. The bank decided a while ago to move forward and rewrite this system in one of the new languages, C#.net, and make it a web based application. In one way this is going backwards in time, to where one computer did everything and people just looked at what that one machine was doing.

So a team was put together to design this new system. There are seven people on the team, myself included. Of the other guys there is one Oracle expert, one business analyst, and the rest are .net people. I wanted to learn .net, since it’s the ‘latest and greatest’ craze, and most of the jobs around here are going that way. Time to move forward, give up the buggy whip carving and learn how to make car navigation systems. But I’ve been so busy fixing problems with the current system and making changes there that I haven’t had time to learn the new stuff. I’ll have to, because when it replaces this system I will have to keep the new one going, and need to know the new stuff.

Started back in April, I was involved in the design meetings as I know the current system, and what users need. But when it got into queues and starting up services it quickly became too detailed, and I just concentrated on current problems. There were group meetings three times a week, Monday Wednesday and Friday at 4. Management was shooting for a September installation, which seemed quite fast for a system this complex. I was to learn a new reporting style, using Microsoft Reporting Services. So I hit the web and spent a few hours getting suggestions. Stopped by Amazon and bought three books (yes, the $75 books but only $55 each at the big A). But then ongoing support problems kept me away. The new reporting services shifted to other team (our tech group has two ‘teams’ of six programmers each) and Rod kept coming by to borrow my books – MRS is a new thing for almost everybody here. The boss read about it, so that’s what we will try.

Three weeks ago my boss came around and said he wanted me to work on a specific part, and when I was free please come by his office. I was inundated with fixes, and did not get time to go – but he came around every two or three days saying he was waiting for me. Last Thursday past I finally went to see him, and he brought in the project manager and he talked about three pieces I could do. Not understanding most of what he was saying I responded that since I did not know anything it didn’t matter what piece he put me on. Then I attended the Friday meeting, my first in about six weeks.

At this meeting the boss laid out the August schedule, with demos the second week, customer testing the third, and people running live data the last week of August. From listening to everyone talking around me in the cubes for the past several months I knew this was very ambitious, and probably not possible. At the end the project leader, John, got up and said that in order to meet this schedule we would probably be working twelve hour days, including weekends. Great – my first meeting and I get hooked into this. Of course it is not a spontaneous idea put out by the project manager, the boss was right behind him, and they always plan things out in advance. But the boss was shifting the feelings down to the PM as if it was all the John’s idea.

Now I have no problem in working strange hours – most computer people are used to coming in to fix things when they break. I’ve worked many nights and weekends to recover from problems, and make things work. I have no problem in putting in many hours to do something I promised to do. But this is replacing a system that has been in use for years, and still works well. The only reason for getting the system installed by the end of August is so that the boss can get a check box on his review. He worked with his boss at the start of the year, laying out his goals, and I am sure that he promised a new system back then. I bet a big bonus check is based on meeting goals, that being the motivation system used by big companies like this for management.

So here are seven people, expected to put in 90 – 100 hour weeks for the next two months. One guy is planning on going back to India to get married on August 20th. The analyst has been planning a big family reunion in LA for this week (which he has cancelled). Sorry, but I’ve been dong this for thirty years, and have had deadlines like this many times in the past. The flunkies are never rewarded for all the work – OK, maybe a three day weekend and an ‘at-a-boy’ certificate. All this so the boss can get his big bonus, which of course is never shared. I am not about to do these hours, and kill my weekends, for a management check box. But I do know well enough to keep my mouth shut.

Normal hours here are 8am – 5pm, with an hour lunch. I shifted things forward an hour so as to be available to the night operator who works from midnight to 8am. We have been working on new printing programs, and figuring out some check printing problems he has been having. So I usually leave at 4, when the meetings start. I just left when this one was over, and did not have an enjoyable weekend. I did pull out the Sunday newspaper employment section, figuring I might need it when I don’t put in the time.

Last week the PM never came around to go over the new stuff on my list, and I did have a pile of problems to fix. The rest of the team started staying to midnight, and worked last weekend to prepare for a big top level management demo yesterday. I put in my normal 7 to 4 (well, 6:40 to 4:20, but since we don’t punch a timeclock who knows? After the demo one programmer came by to ask when we could get together so he could teach me the new reporting stuff, one of the areas I was scheduled to learn. I said first thing this morning would be OK.

So it looks like I’ll be drawn down. I am on one hand looking forward to learning the new language and style of programming. But on the other hand I am not about to put in the hours discussed. Since I will be doing back end reports that are not critical to the flow of the system I will be kind of isolated. So I will just smile and nod when John says they missed me over a weekend. I’ve got vacation scheduled Aug 17-21, trip back to San Diego, which I do plan on making. But I guess some extra hours will be required. Drawn down into the dark side of the new Microsoft philosophy. Sigh. At least I won’t need a light saber, just my trusty keyboard and mouse. OK, I’ll admit it, don’t use a mouse but a track ball.

So here I am, waiting for Rod to come by and review Microsoft Reporting Services. I’ve got a new C# - a Programmer’s Introduction book to read and a stack of the others I bought from Amazon. Only have one work order reporting a problem on the existing system to fix. So I thought I’d take time here to complain.

All I could picture is Dilbert’s pointy haired boss. Just read about something new, promised management a new system and a delivery date, and the group just has to do it. Can’t back down and say that November would be more practical, no, just wear everybody out meeting a schedule laid out a year ago. Unrealistic then, even more so when people were not taken off of ongoing tasks in order to spend time on the new system. So fewer resources up front can be compensated for by whipping people at the end. Kind of like a horse race, but keep the old nag over there plowing the field, and when time is about to run out take of the harness, get out the whip, and if you whack hard enough maybe he will reach the finish line and the master can get his check. Then back to the plow. But what usually happens is that technical people start taking those calls from the recruiters, and remember what happened, and in a year there is a whole new team that has to learn what was lost. Good management style.

But that is how it has been at almost every job I’ve been on. Guys down at the bottom making the one at the top look good. That’s why he’s got the office and I have a cube. I never wanted the headaches and a** kissing it took to keep upper level management happy. Always figured out good work and competence would be better. Just keeps me where I am.

Maybe it's time for a total change. How are the programming jobs in Scotland? I’ve always loved Paris, how much French would I need to know before getting a job there? In most of Canada they speak the same, but it’s cold up there. Australia is an option – maybe it’s time to give up on W and the Republican atmosphere and take off like I talk about. Probably time for something new. I’ll learn the .net stuff and see what happens. Or I could switch to a totally new field - I'm good at plants and gardening, but really can't afford to give up the money I've moved up to and start back at beginner's salary, so it looks like I'll compute forever.

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