Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Wandering Along The Career Path

That long silence was caused by me having to take time out to focus on changing jobs. Did you ever get to the point where you absolutely could not stand a job any more, and getting out of the position was the only sensible option? Well, my last job and I reached that point back in September 2006: let's not dwell on the sordid details, but suffice it to say that I regret ever having accepted the position in the first place. I started looking for another position, and several times I thought I'd found something suitable, only to have some unanticipated problem thwart my efforts - hiring freezes, redefinitions of role, whatever.

However, the job market stayed busy right into December, so I kept at it. I have done some truly silly interviews in the last few weeks: the prize for most pointless must go to the consultancy that listed a position with a role description listing all sorts of technical qualifications, most of which I have. The interview, when I got to it, appeared to be for a non-technical business analyst. I could find no connection between the position description and the job interview. Add to that the now apparently obligatory interviews with Google (honestly, is there any one those people haven't interviewed?), and the whole exercise has been a time consuming nuisance of the first order. However, I have accepted a position with a reputable consulting firm, and I start on Monday.

It will be a huge relief not to have to deal with recruiters and HR folks for a while. Very few recruiters appear to be worth the oxygen that they use, and I worked out long ago that the sole and only purpose of HR departments is to prevent the employees from sueing the company over mistreatment, stress, working conditions, or anything else. Once you understand that HR is there to protect the employer from the employee, their machinations make perfect sense, and can be handled with the minimum of wasted time and effort, except when you are trying to get a job, at which point you have to put up with their nonsense with such grace as you can muster. In the category of "nonsense" I include psychometric testing, any and all "staff review" processes, and HR's feeble efforts to "screen" resumes, to identify suitable candidates. Allowing HR people to review resumes simply means engaging a poorly trained pattern matching engine, which is as likely to reject good candidates as bad ones, because none of the "patterns" have any real meaning to them.

I've always had trouble understanding people who have a career plan. I mean, I can see that it would be nice: I'm the sort of person who can't function without a contingency plan. I like plans. I have a plan for what to do if I get a flat tyre on the way to work, even though I don't expect that to happen. If I have a plan, I feel I have control of the situation. But my career plan has never been any more detailed than "do interesting work, feel useful, pay bills". That's it. And this plan, feeble though it may appear, has taken me from a badly paid job as a public service librarian to a very well paid position as a senior IT consultant.

I couldn't possibly have planned the transition - at the time I was working as a librarian I barely knew that there was such a thing as an IT consultant. Any career plan that I might have developed as a librarian would only have involved being a more senior, better paid librarian. But because I wasn't focussed on achieving a particularly detailed career goal, when an opportunity arose out of left field, I could take it and still remain true "my plan".

And so I wandered into the IT industry, where by happy chance I learned Unix (well, Xenix actually) first. Only later did I have to cope with the various incarnations of Windows, and even for a few horrid years, Netware. Every time I find myself working in an environment where Windows is in wide spread use for anything more complex that office productivity, I find myself working with people who confuse me. They work with software that crashes regularly, is prone to all manner of malware and is expensive to licence. They consider this normal, have invested time, money and effort in achieving certifications to prove that they are qualified to administer this muck, and are extremely defensive when they encounter other operating systems.

I should know better, but I've done it to myself twice in a row: taken jobs where some version of Windows is in wide spread use on servers in production environment. And to compound my errors, I've worked directly for end user organisations. I have now come to my senses: 17 months is enough. I am going back to a consulting job, working with Unix - Solaris, Linux, HP-UX, perhaps a bit of Mac OS, whatever. I have instructed my husband to remind me the next time I suggest working for an end user company that this will not work for me, or them. I am adapted to consulting work, and that is what I should do.

It has taken me a little while to work out exactly what the difference is between consulting (regardless of technology) and working as part of an end user team, and I think I have figured it out. When I turn up on a new customer site, as a consultant ready to deliver "something", I have two advantages. One is that whatever I am contracted to deliver will have been approved and paid for by a business person, who has no interest in the actually technology used (unless it impacts on training costs or business continuity planning). So even if the folks on site don't like what I am doing, they can't stop me: my orders come from above. If they do manage to slow me down, the wrath of the project sponsor is likely to fall on them, because my charges will go up to cover time wasted.

The second advantage is that I don't have to live with the consequences. If you are working directly in a team, you have to labour to get buy in and cooperation from a disparate group of people, and if anyone feels that they weren't listened to properly, or that they got a rough deal, you have to put up with sulking, obstruction through non-cooperation and sundry pettiness. Heaven help you if what you are trying to do threatens someone else's position or devalues their skill set. I once worked on a project which involved installing several racks of Sun servers into an environment which was almost all main frame based. The main frame guys initially refused to allow us to put our equipment into "their" server room. We were instructed to install it into the room the system operators worked from. Their management intervened when the operators began to complain about the heat and noise the new equipment was generating, and the whole lot was moved into the server room over the protests of the main frame folks.

If you are a consultant, you do what you are paid to do, and get off site, and someone else gets to sooth any ruffled feathers. I've had this happen to me on numerous occasions: some manager will get a consulting team in to do something his/her own people were perfectly capable of doing themselves, but the project is politically unpopular. So "the consultants" do it, and after they leave the building, they get blamed for any subsequent grief. Usually in words such as "I'm afraid the consultants did it like that, and we can't change it", or better yet "if we change it, we'll void the warranty". There's no line item for "taking the blame" in any statement of work I have ever seen, but it's there by implication.

Weird as it seems, I find I miss this type of work. I can hardly wait for Monday to come.

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