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Career

What now?

These three interrelated thoughts could’ve been separate posts but they make more sense when read in sequential, ascending order.

The Magic of Writing

Everything I have ever written has come to pass, more or less, although not necessarily how I expected. In general, the process of converting thoughts, dreams, and ideas into written words forges my reality, for better or worse.

This may sound like suspicious nonsense, akin to “The Secret,” the so-called “law of attraction,” or some other form of wistful woo; but no doubt visualization makes real things happen, and for me the first step to visualizing something is crafting thoughts into written words.

A long time ago I had a writing teacher who claimed that she had shaped all of her success in life through writing. At the time I thought she meant that she had written some amazing stuff. Maybe she had, but now I understand this was not what she meant. Putting thoughts on paper, so to speak, has a very powerful effect.

This magic works both ways. Like most people, I spend too much time retelling inaccurate, obsolete stories about myself, and visualizing the wrong things. Writing keeps me in check.

If there’s one thing that separates my approach from wistful woo it’s this: I do the work. But the questions remain: what work shall I do, and why?

Work Week #1,354

It is the morning of the day before the work week begins and already I’m feeling blue. If my calculations are correct, this is work week number 1,354.

Two weeks ago marked the 26th anniversary of the start of my so-called career. That’s 1,354 weeks in a row of dreading Monday, but I also had that many weekends off, too.

I’ve been working some kind of job almost continuously since the 1980’s, when I began laboring away at my dad’s paint and body shop in Dallas, Texas, at the age of twelve; but I got my first post-college, office job in August of ’95, and that change 1,354 weeks ago was the start of what became a career.

The boring office job led to working in Information Technology, and as of now, twenty-six years of uninterrupted employment. Don’t let anyone tell you it goes by quickly. (It didn’t, at least for me.) I’m sure there are a lot of folks out there who think working for a corporation is the best thing there is. For me, it was (and remains) the easiest way to keep the money rolling in, and to keep everyone off my back.

In high school I saw what was coming. I used to refer to myself as the “future slave to commerce,” or “money slave” for short. Did I fulfill my own prophesy? Or (dare I wonder) was I the luckiest guy in the world?

In ’95 I wrote a lot about how I wanted to get into working on computers. I visualized working in a shop like a craftsman (or like Mr. Robot, for anyone who has seen the TV series). This would have minimized my exposure to groups of people. Socially, I was fine one-on-one. This was what I wanted to do.

Then lightning struck. A random, miraculous opportunity appeared. On a personal level, the past twenty-six years of working Monday through Friday may have at times crept along like a prison sentence, but in macroeconomic terms it was like surfing one big wave.

How I Surfed Through Two and a Half Decades of a Career

The Great Information Technology Wave came to a peak in ’95 for everyone, though I wouldn’t catch the wave until the end of ’96. It was a colossal wave, the kind an economy sees once every hundred years. It brought with it all kinds of opportunity. My weird, masochistic hobby of breaking and fixing my old IBM 33MHz computer was now a viable economic skill!

(1996-1998) WAVE STAGE 1: Lightning struck, and by come stunning coincidence I scored my first IT job at the CompUSA call center in Dallas, Texas, and pursued it with vigor, navigating the wave with a series of beginner moves: bottom turns and awkward cuts that allowed me to carve out enough experience and credentials to advance to the next stage of the wave. I joined CompUSA at its peak and left during its decline. Within a few more years the company would cease to exist.

(1999-2009) WAVE STAGE 2: My time at Nortel Networks was one big tube ride as the crest of the Great IT Wave began to curl, although there was plenty of subtle navigation necessary to stay topside during the tumultuous 2000’s. First there was 911, then the great tech bubble burst of 2001, and (for me) the outsourcing to Computer Science Corporation (CSC), numerous rounds of layoffs, reorgs, an in-source from CSC back to Nortel, Nortel’s declaration of bankruptcy, and the final outsourcing to CSC India during the economic collapse of 2009.

I endured a few miserable months at CSC India, and wrote a lot about what I’d rather be doing, and my future direction in life. Then, another random, miraculous opportunity appeared, taking me across the Pacific to work in Japan. This unexpected and dramatic professional opportunity opened the door to life-changing personal events. Meanwhile, Nortel would be divested and non-existent within a year of when I left.

(2010-2020) WAVE STAGE 3: I transferred to the CSC Federal division and ended up working ten years with the U.S. Navy in Japan. This change required what surfers would call a severe “cutback,” taking me from the shoulder of the wave back into the energy of the pocket. This ended up being another lucky tube ride through tumultuous waters, during which time I kept my feet firmly planted on the board. In ten years I switched from CSC to CSGOV to CSRA to GDIT, all without ever changing jobs. The first three organizations would all cease to exist during my decade overseas, and the GDIT contract terminated within a year of my return to the States.

(2021-????) WAVE STAGE 4: My current employment situation is an awesome professional opportunity. In the greater macroeconomic view I am the luckiest guy in the world. Throughout the years I imagined what I wanted (the easiest way to beat back the financial requirements to exist in the world), I wrote it out, and watched it come to pass. But still, it’s a means to an end. If money had not been a factor, then what would I have done instead? More to the point, what should I do now?

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Etc

The Great Return

Saturday, October 31, 2020

The plane lifted off the runway at Narita with me onboard. There was no going back. I was soaring against a strong emotional headwind: ten years of memories, dozens of tearful good-byes. My wife and kids would stay in Kamakura for a couple more months to conclude the school year, liquidate our household belongings, and move out of the house. On the other side of the Pacific I would start a new job, get settled, and prepare a suitable stage for the next act of our lives.

The plane banked east and leveled off, giving me a clear view of a crimson full moon over Mount Fuji on Halloween night. I had arrived in Japan just before a mega disaster (the great quake of 2011 with the tsunami that killed twenty thousand and the panic over the nuclear plant), and I was leaving during a disaster (the 2020 worldwide pandemic). In between those two disasters had been the best years of my life. So now it felt like I was leaving home and not going toward it.

I had imagined having some emotional reaction to leaving Japan, but instead I was numb. There was just too much to process, a lot of doubt and uncertainty, and too many various emotions weighing me down. For sure there would be many months of hardship ahead. But that was later. For now, I stared out the window at Mount Fuji until dark clouds obscured the view.

NOTE: ten months passed before I could bring myself to write anything about the transition. Part of the delay was due to being busy. (Imagine juggling chainsaws while getting sprayed by a fire hose on a relentless roller coaster ride that lasted for months.) But the bigger reason was that I lacked the emotional energy to re-live the experience in writing. The transition had taken everything out of me. There would be no definite “end” to the effort; but after ten months in America most of the various stressors had tapered off and my creative side began to reemerge. As part of my creative reemergence I wondered how I could get back on track with beneficial tech. What had I overcome? What had I learned? Where would I go from here?

Saturday, August 22, 2021

On paper the goal was straightforward enough: repatriate to the United States after ten years away, and settle my foreign-born family in a home where they could be happy and thrive.

In reality, it wasn’t so simple.

The only way out is through, or at least that was how I saw it. This would be my personal mantra for the better part of a year as I persevered through the most prolonged and intense gauntlet of challenges I had ever endured.

I had already conquered one great challenge, overcoming incredible odds by scoring a job that would allow me to work remotely and leap from working on legacy systems right to the bleeding edge of computing technology, and I had done this from the other side of the world, during a global pandemic. This had required hundreds of hours of research, interviews, and paperwork. Now the next set of challenges would begin.

In my first few days in America I experienced an unexpected euphoria, something similar to vacation, mixed with an unsettling undercurrent of doubt and sorrow.

I stayed with my brother and his family, in the foothills of the majestic Wasatch Mountains of Utah, of all places. I took lots of hikes and explored the mountain trails.

My brother and his wife helped me find a suitable rental house down the street, and I snatched it up, not wanting to spend any more time looking for a place to live.

I started my new job on the second week, working remotely. The first couple of days I was sitting on the floor hunched over my work-issued laptop in an otherwise empty house.

There were the initial trips to big box stores, Costco and what-not, where I bought all the millions of things we’d need to supply a household. We were shipping only clothing and personal items from Japan, but there would be another shipment of furniture coming from Colorado, along with all my other stuff that had been gathering kitty litter dust in my mom’s basement for ten years.

By the second week there was a realization of the tsunami of tasks that would crash down on me in the next few months, and the details were starting to become clear.

Our seemingly straightforward goal had its obvious, ordinary challenges: the coordination of hundreds of details involved in moving from the other side of the world, furnishing a household, unpacking a garage full of boxes, assembling twenty-three pieces of furniture (I kept track), physically squaring things away, and solving all the residual problems that appeared.

The tsunami of ordinary tasks would have been manageable enough by itself, but there were other factors at play.

For most of America the biggest stressors during this time were the COVID-19 pandemic and the social unrest surrounding the U.S. presidential election. I didn’t care much about politics, and a double dose of COVID seemed downright delightful compared to the pack of extraordinary demons on my back.

At first, the worst of these demons was reverse culture shock. It was so severe that I read a book about it, just to understand what was going on. The shock of returning home after a long stay overseas was always more severe than going away in the first place. How could this be?

Homesickness was something else that came along with reverse culture shock, because after ten years overseas the place from which I was returning felt much more like home.

Separation anxiety was another source of stress, especially in the first couple of months when I was away from my wife and kids. As a family unit we had never been apart.

But they weren’t the only ones I missed. In 2010 there had been a single tearful farewell when I left the U.S. for Japan (my mom). In the month before I returned to the U.S. there were dozens of emotional goodbyes, from our large circle of close friends (maybe a sixty people total, including kids), and from many others who I had come to know over the years.

This “farewell month” reminded me that we had been part of something essential to human life, something I had never experienced before living in Japan: a supportive community of associates, family, and friends. Now, in America, where everyone lived in their own isolated enclave, I wondered if I’d ever experience anything like this again.

Financial shock was another persistent demon gnawing at me from week to week. The actual moving costs weren’t too bad, but we spent the equivalent of the U.S. median household income on setting up a home for a family of four.

For many months it seemed the red tape would never end. I paid over US$25K in back taxes due to leaving Japan too early (twenty days before I would have satisfied the physical presence requirement for foreign-earned tax exclusion), and I made the mistake of hiring a bumbling tax account who cost us thousands more than we should have paid.

We were lucky to have the resources to pay all this out-of-pocket, but it still hurt. To mitigate the financial stress I came to think of the transition as the single biggest investment of my life, but what would it yield?

Two of the other demons following me around every day were professional burnout and so-called midlife malaise. On the one hand, it was a miracle I had been able to score a job that allowed me to work remotely, keep my tenure (most notably that sweet time off), and also revive my career. But on the other hand, the past decade of working directly with forward-deployed military overseas had worn me out. In my current frame of mind I did not want a job. Really, nobody did, ever.

Earlier in life I was driven to establish a career, but for the past decade or so it had felt like I was being pushed too much by outside forces, obliged to burn my precious time on this earth fulfilling the requirements and needs of everyone (society, employer, family, whoever) suppressing indefinitely the more creative and optionally less lucrative person I was meant to be. This notion became most intense at midlife. The clock was ticking. There was only so much time left.

On good days “malaise” was an accurate description of my attitude toward what I was required to do for income; but on bad days it was more like existential agony, the stresses of the day narrowing my vision into an endless series of workweeks and meetings that stretched into the horizon to my grave.

The muse defined the person I was meant to be. I was never sure what pronoun to use for my muse, but perhaps feminine was most accurate. The muse should have been an angel, but in a world dominated by time thieves and total work she was just another demon: an annoying, nagging bitch.

To appease her, I continued to write. I had written over a million words in the past decade, a small fraction of which had made it into published works. Throughout the transition I wrote almost daily, filling up a small stack of yellow legal pads with journal self-talk. Now, attempting to write something that other people might actually read was like waking up from a coma and trying to walk.

On top of everything else there was the actual stress of starting a new job, at a time in my life when I least wanted one. This was the hell where all my demons came to play, but somehow it was still preferable to the stress I’d receive over not having a job.

Furthermore this was no ordinary job change. It required major adjustment on multiple levels:

  1. From having worked with legacy technology, to working with the bleeding edge of technology (requiring intense learning and retooling of skills).
  2. From having worked a decade as a defense contractor with forward-deployed military overseas, to working in a soft, OSHA-protected corporate culture.
  3. From having worked at a soul-sucking, windowless data center on a Navy base to working remotely. (The move would have been impossible without this perk.)
  4. From not having worked not too much to working a lot (for much less pay).

Along with the professional transition came imposter syndrome. All my skills were outdated. It took a half a year or more to prove to myself I was worthy of the job.

Social anxiety was another demon. My natural inclination was to be quiet, imagine and observe. I loved spending time with my family, but didn’t need much more social interaction beyond that. The physical environment of the old job may have been horrible, but its demands on my social musculature had been minimal, allowing me to languish in my comfort zone for years. By contrast my new job required me to speak and present on a weekly basis. It was a major struggle every week.

Family was both the source of great joy and great stress. Kids didn’t stop being kids just because we were in challenging times. There was the continuation of thousands of days and nights of chaos, attending to everyone’s endless needs, and never quite fixing all the stuff they broke. Somehow the kids always reached peak insanity right before bed in the moments when I most needed peace, silence, and rest.

In the first few months, I shouldered all the family organization and errand-running, all while struggling to start a new job and build up a household from scratch. It was months before my wife got a license to drive.

During the first part of the year it also became apparent that my parents (who had been divorced and living in separate states since the 80’s) were probably in their last decade, and this created its own kind of stress. My dad was incontinent, half blind and mentally fuzzy. My mom had a seizure during this time related to a brain tumor that had been removed five years prior. Neither of them needed care-giving help yet, but it wasn’t looking good.

No surprise, I struggled with physical exhaustion. My knuckles required frequent cracking from the moment I had received the job offer in October. This oddity was accompanied by a mild case of arthritis in my arms and wrists and a bad case of tendonitis in my right elbow (after lugging hundreds of heavy objects around in the move, falling down the stairs and smacking my arm on the banister twice). I hadn’t slept well since the 90’s, which by coincidence coincided with the start of my corporate career. During the transition my insomnia had become extreme, at times medically untenable.

Oh, and then there was the unexpected return of a condition I hadn’t experienced in a decade: mini-blackouts, sudden heart palpitations and loss of breath.

So, to recap, there was the maelstrom of ordinary details involved in moving a family across the Pacific to a land where they had never lived; plus, for me, separation anxiety, homesickness, reverse culture shock, financial shock, midlife malaise, a nagging muse, family issues, the background noise of American politics, a global pandemic, professional burnout, a difficult job transition, imposter syndrome, social anxiety, physical exhaustion, and, finally, what appeared to be panic attacks.

The blackouts and heart palpitations were an obvious sign that something was wrong. I sought help from a speech therapist, as these attacks always seemed to happen while I was speaking to groups of people in conference calls on the new job. The speech therapist recognized a few of my coping mechanisms and suggested I see another specialist. I took some behavioral tests, sat through a couple of interviews with a doctor, and received a medical diagnosis of “high-functioning” autistic.

This label seemed overly optimistic, as I didn’t feel very high-functioning at all, but it did make sense. I had always been overly sensitive to sensory input, obsessed with symmetry, freaking out when the tiniest detail was out of whack. Now, in this transition, EVERYTHING was out of whack, and there were just too many concurrent challenges, changes, tasks, problems, people, opinions, anxieties, emotions, obligations, details, details, and more details, requiring me to operate far outside my mental capabilities for far too long.

According to the doctor I was experiencing something called autistic burnout (or relapse), that occasionally put me in a very low-functioning state.

The diagnosis created the meta-dilemma of awareness versus the danger of playing the victim card. On the one hand, there was this peculiar assumption that all of us believed to some extent, that any adult should be able to handle anything that came along, and if you didn’t handle it then shame on you. My default stance was to make goals and tackle challenges head on, but it was now clear I was taking on too much.

What I needed was an extended break, similar to what James Bond received in the film Casino Royale (in which he spends months rehabilitating in a lakeside chateau in the Swiss Alps after getting his balls pounded in a gruesome torture scene).

But there would be no luxurious break for me.

The only way out was through.

This paraphrase was taken from the Robert Frost poem, A Servant to Servants. The actual phrase is “the best way out is always through,” and this was still pretty good advice most of the time. I had overcome many challenges, but what had I learned? How did I know when I was “through”?

It was more of a feeling than a definite milestone. For many months I was fighting to get through each day with no clear idea of where I was headed or why. It was like punching a brick wall every day and having no effect. Then one day the wall cracked. Encouraged, I kept punching, until weeks later the wall crumbled to the ground.

No joke, meditation (and the failure to do so) helped. There was no such thing as “enlightenment,” but meditation was a constant reminder that all experience was transitory. It was always possible to begin again.

Daily physical exercise was another key component of getting through. I hiked the local mountain trails and parks in every kind of weather, from blizzard to scorching heat, never missing a single day. One month I walked over one-hundred-fifty miles, much it in inclement weather, on challenging terrains.

Nature was a huge factor to my normalization. Spending time in nature allowed me to reset and temporarily shed those demons off my back. As a family we skied in the winter and hiked in the warmer months. We camped in southern Utah, and for five days in Grand Teton National Park.

Family support was another a key component to getting through. At the nine month mark we had conquered most of the projects and major tasks on our list. We were starting to meet new friends. The balance of good times with family greatly outweighed any challenges we had.

Most of all, though, it was perspective. Conquering any challenge required knowing why the struggle was necessary in the first place. In my case, I returned to my journal entries of two years past, to the part where my wife and I met for a date night at a beer garden in the bowels of Yokohama Station to discuss our future plans. There in a journal entry dated August of 2019 were the reasons we were enduring this transition in the first place: the dreams we had for our kids’ futures, and the employment situation I was trying to escape.

Japan would always have a special place in my heart. I loved Kamakura and the Shonan Coast. We could have stayed there forever, but my soul would have continued dying a slow death at the place I was required to exist in exchange for money.

My journal contained the breadcrumbs that were key to my eventual survival, all thanks to the muse. She was no nagging demon, but an angel after all.

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Career

2020 Job Search Journey

This week marks the one-year anniversary since the launch of my job search. What’s the status now? Well, so far no offers, but I’ve got a couple possibilities in the works.

To be clear, it hasn’t been one year of intense, continuous effort. Unlike other long-term projects in the past, I have not given this thing everything I’ve got. There were several extended periods when I did nothing at all on the job front, for as long as six weeks at a time.

I may have been more motivated had the situation been dire, but fortunately the financial pressure on me was close to none. Nothing’s going to happen if I don’t have a job. Nobody’s going to stave. Our bills will still be paid. If my career matched my true calling in life then I’d be more invested in this thing, but I’ll save that riskier and less lucrative career change for a couple years down the road.

Normally I’m not negatively motivated, like someone who says they need a personal trainer to get them in shape. But negative pressure seems almost required in a job search, as it’s an activity that almost no one would voluntarily pursue.

I suppose there was some negative pressure on me, in the form of wanting to have more flexibility with my time and greater well-being.

My only real goals have been to do something new and interesting in a job that allows remote work. I want more flexible working conditions and I want to move my family to the States. The job search is unpleasant and time-consuming, but just like in Shawshank Redemption, I’m crawling through this shitty sewer pipe to reach the next stage in life.

With that said, here are the stats, the most important first.

Job Offers: Zero

Looking back, there are a multitude of reasons I haven’t crossed the finish line yet, but I’ll examine these at the end.

80 Applications

I take my time with job applications, customizing my resume and cover letter for each. The process usually takes about ninety minutes per application, though some of them required personality assessments that took a couple of hours or more. At ninety minutes each, this comes to 120 hours total.

Oh the Research

Over the course of one year I dumped at least 200 hours into researching companies, browsing job postings, and training to update my skills.

25 Interviews

The combined 320 hours of effort scored me 25 interviews with 16 different organizations. This resulted in 18 initial interviews (some were screenings with the same organization, different roles). A couple of times the initial interview turned out to be a full-on technical ambush, but usually it was a screening talk with a recruiter. A few times I chose not to pursue the process after the initial interview, due to bad vibes over the people and-or organization, but more often I’d receive a rejection email within a week of our first talk.

I made it past the screening stage 7 times, for 2nd or 3rd interviews with 5 different organizations.

As of this writing I’ve got one job pending decision after a third interview last week, and this one’s good. I’m hoping for the best.

32 Rejections

This number includes 21 rejections with no interview (which in most cases probably meant my application made it past the scanning algorithms, only to be rejected by an actual human being); 10 rejections after the initial interview; and 3 rejections after a second or third interview. The other 46 applications got no response.

Believe it or not these are decent numbers. According to one career site:

“Anywhere from 10% to 20% (positive response) is considered average and 20% to 30% is a good application to interview ratio.”

zipjobs.com

(18 initial interviews from 80 applications is 21%.)

True Interest?

Of all 80 job applications, how many of these were for jobs that I’d do if I had all the money in the world? How many were based on pure, honest interest alone? Maybe one or two.

And therein lies my greatest challenge. If I ask why I didn’t seal the deal on any of these interviews then I’d have to conclude my biggest challenge was that I didn’t care enough.

Challenges

Aside from my mental handicap of apathy, there were a few other challenges that came into play.

This job search comes with certain built-in disadvantages, like being on the other side of the world from where I’m trying to get a job. Sometimes I have to speak with people during business hours in the U.S. Eastern time zone, which is almost exactly my normal sleeping hours. I’ve crawled out of bed at wee hours of the morning for interviews, or stayed up late at night. Pacific or Mountain Time zones aren’t much better. Seven AM my time is the end of the business day in Salt Lake.

Some organizations still insist on contacting job candidates by phone, and they’re not going to call a number overseas. I have a U.S. phone, just so I can put the number on resumes, but it’s in the States. I can work around the annoying phone issue by getting a number and calling interviewers on VOIP, but the coordination and time zone difference are still a pain.

Luck played a part too, some good, but mostly bad. There were technical problems that prevented the use of video in a third and possibly final interview, for example, which probably cost me that job. Hell, even natural disasters conspired against me. There was an earthquake in Salt Lake on the morning when I was scheduled to “meet the team” for a technical interview. They cancelled, apparently spooked by the event (which happened to be just as COVID in America was heating up). They never replied to me again.

Two other companies discontinued the hiring process in the height of the pandemic.

COVID was also the source of miraculous luck, as suddenly every organization in the world was working remote, and willing to hire based on video call alone.

What Else?

What other challenges were there? Rejection notices are never specific, so sometimes it’s difficult to know what lessons to learn. I could’ve been turned down for a number of reasons in any of these interviews. It’s anyone’s guess.

Sometimes I applied to jobs for which I was overqualified. I didn’t mind taking a salary cut if it meant having flexibility and learning something new. I’m not sure I always did a good job of explaining why I had no interest in climbing up the technical ladder of success. For this reason I’d rather be under-qualified than overqualified for most jobs.

There may have been some ageism involved, but honestly I never detected this to be the case. If anything, some interviewers may have been spooked over potential costs, suspecting they’d have to pay too much for senior experience in a less-than-senior role.

Speaking of costs, I learned early on that organizations can be turned off by job candidates who are not local, because they don’t want to pay moving expenses. An international expatriation can cost fifty grand or more, but in my family’s case the expense will be a small fraction of that, as we aren’t taking any big stuff like furniture or appliances. So I got in the habit of letting interviewers know up front that I don’t expect any extra compensation for the move.

I may have zero offers to show for all my efforts, but there’s change in the air. I can feel it. Or maybe it’s the sudden cool weather signalling the end of summer, and the approaching typhoon?

One thing’s for sure: looking back years from now, scoring a job in tumultuous 2020 with all my unique challenges will look like a heroic feat.

UPDATE: five minutes later…

Just checked email after publishing this post. After one year of half-ass effort, this journey might finally be over. I have a pending offer. Well, how about that?

UPDATE: five days later…

It was a rather tense five days of working out the details of compensation and benefits, but I’m very satisfied with the final result. I’ll receive the official offer letter early next week. My current location might present some challenges with the logistics and timing of starting the job, but we’ll get everything worked out.

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Career

Career Metamorphosis – Part 3

This is the third (and final?) installment of the Career Metamorphosis series. See also: Career Metamorphosis Part 1 & Part 2.

How is it possible to score a job without having the required experience? It’s the problem faced by recent college graduates, and it’s a problem I face in my current job search, twenty-five years into my career. As a recent college grad with no experience, I attempted to lie, but succeeded with luck. Now, my approach is more complex.

Experience Dilemma (1996)

Twenty-five years ago I lied in an attempt to get my first tech job as a support technician at the CompUSA call center. I had some experience fixing computers. Okay, a single computer, my own, and I frequently failed at this effort. But the job qualifications were way beyond anything I had to offer.

Still, I knew with total certainty that I could kick ass at the job if given the chance. I wouldn’t recommend lying to anyone, but this was how I justified it back then.

CompUSA ignored me for weeks after I applied for the job, but I had a friend on the inside who elevated my resume to the top of the stack. I got an interview. Twenty-five years ago I still didn’t feel totally comfortable having adult conversations, let alone communicating in a serious business context. It’s funny to think about now, but back then it was awkward as hell. Some people are effective communicators upon graduating university. I was not. By this time I had spent a year doing customer service at Boring Office Job One (BOJO), but before that I had spent the maximum amount of time avoiding adulthood and the so-called real world.

My initial interview with CompUSA was uncomfortable for both the interviewer and me, but it wasn’t as bad as some of the humiliating train wrecks I had endured in the previous two years. This was where the lying happened. I exaggerated my experience fixing PC’s.

Then came the technical interview. I’m not sure what I was thinking. This was information technology. Lying did not work in situations where solutions were either right or wrong. My answers were so half-ass the interviewer cut it short.

To complete this painful ritual I was then asked to take an assessment test (a practice test for the industry-standard A+ certification for PC hardware repair, as it would turn out). Most of the questions were multiple choice with four choices. I guessed on most of them, somehow scoring under twenty-five percent. On average, a chimp would have done better on this test. The technician who escorted me through the process shrugged and said something like, “don’t call us, we’ll (probably never) call you”.

Just then my friend happened to be walking by. He took the printed assessment test results, disposed of the incriminating evidence, and escorted me out. Later he got me hired and brought me into his group. It was my first tech job. I was part of the team!

I may have started as the most incompetent employee CompUSA call center had ever hired, but I was determined to disprove the imposter syndrome that hung over my head. I devoured new problems and collaborated with other technicians, discussing various tricks of the trade. Within a year I became one of the most awesome technicians that place had ever seen. I received a Technician of the Year award at a ceremony to commemorate the opening of a new call center, attended by over a hundred call center staff.

Of course, social capital is very important, especially when you’re first starting out. For me, having social capital in the right place at the right time was a stroke of luck so improbable that it seemed miraculous.

I learned that it’s never a good idea to lie in an interview, even if you’re a master of deception. Lying might boost experience by +1, but it comes with a penalty of (at least) -1 to both personality and luck (bad karma). People will sense when you’re not telling the truth.

Experience Dilemma (2020)

Looking for a job with twenty-five years’ experience under my belt is way easier than starting with no skills at all, but surprisingly it’s no guarantee of success.

“Twenty-five years’ experience” doesn’t mean much in an industry fueled by rapid change. Employers need someone who can solve problems with the technology they’re using now. There’s never going to be a time when I can say I have twenty-five experience doing exactly what they need me to do. The technology changes too quickly for that to be possible. In fact it’s rare that a candidate will have even five years’ experience doing all the things a job posting wants. This is partly because individual technologies evolve quickly, but also because it’s there are just so many more technologies today than there were a couple decades ago.

“Twenty-five years” can also scare employers, suggesting that I’m set in my ways or over the hill. All the job search advice I’ve seen says to omit any mention of experience that’s more than ten years old. Fair enough. Most of the technology I worked with ten years ago is obsolete. At best, twenty-five years’ experience translates into good technical wherewithal, a broad understanding that allows me to see the most likely troubleshooting paths, and to learn on the fly.

Employers want to see a job change every two to three years, indicating ambition and a desire to stay challenged with new tech. This is weird because a long tenure at a company used to be a good thing, indicating loyalty and dedication to the job. This year I got a compliment from an interviewer on my long tenure at the only two places I had worked between CompUSA and now, and I got the feeling he was old school.

Job recruiters always want to know how many years’ experience you have with a certain technology. I understand what they’re getting at, but in many ways these types of questions don’t match the real world. The real test comes when you speak with someone who knows the tech.

For example, I started working with SQL Server in the year 2000. Does that equal twenty years of experience? It depends on how you break it down. The technology has changed so much since then that only certain core knowledge (e.g., T-SQL) and general understanding (ACID, RDBMS concepts, e.g.) are still relevant. In some ways ten years’ experience might even be better than twenty, if the candidate has shown resistance to adapt.

Then there’s the problem of how to calculate years. Using the example of SQL, some years I worked intensely with the product, but other years just a few days per week, or not at all. What is the quality of experience? For example, I’ve used some type of server software almost every week in the past twenty years, but some features I might only have to mess with once per year, or never.

Introducing Metamorph

My answer to all these weird problems? It’s a fifty-page document (yes, another journal) that I call Metamorph.

Metamorph isn’t lying. It’s to help me remember what I’ve done.

 Metamorph is a journal of every technology I’ve worked with, with an elevator speech for each. Interviewers want details. They want to know you can solve problems now.

It should be good enough to say “I can’t remember how to do that, but if you let me do some research…” It’s very weird this response is unacceptable in an interview, it’s exactly what you’d end up doing if given the task on the job. There are some things I did with a high degree of proficiency just a couple months ago, but I can’t remember the exact details of the top of my head. Metamorph is to help me remember, to keep things fresh in my mind.

So, we’ll see if my Metamorph strategy works. This morning I had a technical interview for a job that calls for experience working with technology I’ve never worked with in a production setting. I’ve played around with it quite a bit in my own sandbox, but as for real-world experience? Zilch. I was honest about this in the interview. All I could do was express my enthusiasm for the technology, and focus on my strengths. With any luck I’ll get an offer based on deep technical wherewithal and an ability to quickly learn.

Categories
Career

Lightning Strikes

This is an autobiographical account of a miraculous incident that got me my first job in the field of Information Technology, set in Dallas, 1996. It’s part of a journal I call the Brief History of Economic Me.

The modem dials each number in quick succession, opening a phone dialog of high-pitched squeals and the alternating tones of a sad slot machine, which I have come to believe is what computers sound like when they talk to each other. This mysterious custom of the digital world should conclude with a blast of comforting static, which I like to imagine as a torrent of twenty-eight thousand bytes (yes, bytes) of data surging through the phone line, except this time there’s no static. The screech-dee-dong handshake continues.

I wait a minute, hit cancel and retry. Same result.

The next obvious move is a reboot. My desktop beast trudges through its slothful routine of beeps, floppy disk drive honk, and internal whirling while cryptic command-line hieroglyphics scroll down the screen.

Another try. Still no connection. I thrust myself out of the chair and pace the flattened carpet of my bedroom, cursing, fists clenched.

Scruffy the arthritic mutt wakes from his nap under the desk, gives me one worried look, and waddles out the door. He can’t comprehend the depths of my frustration. This is no mere computer problem; it’s a mockery of my life.

My dad stops at the door holding a folded Auto Trader mag and a mega-cup of Diet Coke, half-awake after a Saturday afternoon nap. “Everything alright?”

“Computer stuff,” I grumble above the continuing screech-dee-dong, in the manner of a teenager shooing a parent away from his room, except I’m twenty-six.

Two years have passed since my encounter with The Man in the Gray Suit and his words still haunt me: get a job, any job. Make money. But merely making money isn’t good enough. Work needs to be interesting, too. Otherwise what was the point? My temp job at the credit card company is the exact opposite of interesting, but it pays the bills. It’s a life puzzle as perplexing as the guts of the computer here in my room.

I imagine computer repair as the antithesis of office temp jobs: something new, interesting and lucrative. Something that keeps me separate from soulless suits. I also imagine myself as someone who knows about computers, just like I imagine how a modem works and what it sounds like when computers talk. Only problem is there’s a light-year of space between what I imagine and reality, which is made all the more clear by computer meltdowns like this.

Gray Suit promised lightning would strike. All it takes is focus, he said. On any given day my focus is blown on computer games and other distractions to drown out the drudgery of time at the office, but I’m ready to focus now. I want to fix my life, which means fixing this computer. There is no walking away. If I get my foot in the door somewhere I can fake it to make it. My bolt from the blue is long overdue.

My first idea is to find the config.sys boot file. I open it and stare at the code like a dog who has stumbled upon an open algebra text and make some changes. But then I’m spooked by memories of my last self-inflicted disaster and close the file unsaved.

Next I shut down the computer, remove the cover from the PC case and take a look under the hood, as if it’s the ‘64 Olds I drove in high school, broken down on the side of the road. I wouldn’t recognize the modem if the phone cord wasn’t plugged into the back panel. There is dust, which I do my best to clean up, knowing it won’t help.

I remind myself there’s no shame in calling for help. Learning something new would be a small victory, but knowledge is hard to come by these days. On the odd chance someone is willing to help me, they’re looking to get me off the phone fast, not to teach a man to fish. I unplug the modem phone cord from the wall-jack and plug the phone back in, considering my options.

Keith and Dave are the computer arch-mages among my group of friends; but if I ask too many questions they’ll know I’m trying to learn. This exceeds my humility threshold right now. I’m the broke college grad who studied philosophy, and they’re making big money with no college degree.

Instead I call the local computer shop with the intent of hustling some free advice from a random geek, just a hint to point me in the right direction. But it’s soon apparent the once-humble shop has undergone a corporate metamorphosis, meaning they now charge for advice. The technician transfers me to call center support.

The inane cheerfulness of the phone tree voice amplifies the stress in my nerves. No, I do not have a receipt and no I cannot remember where I purchased the modem or when. My only option is paid support over the phone. This feels like total defeat and I’m thinking the awkwardness of calling Keith or Dave might be a better choice.

My finger is on the button to hang up when an actual woman comes on the line to take my credit card information. She has a thick Spanish accent, telling me the call has gone straight to Guatemala, and from this alone I sense the whole thing – the computer problem, my life, everything – is moving in the exact opposite direction I want it to go.

I give Maria my payment info anyway, with the same resignation I’d have if she was border patrol asking for my passport, and I wait on hold with the feel-good music again, which succeeds in having the reverse effect on my mood. I realize the phone I’m using is plugged into the wall-jack the modem used, making it impossible to troubleshoot the problem at hand.

At that moment an eloquent technician comes on the line and explains the pricing and terms with a faux-British accent, sounding like a worker at a Renaissance festival explaining the rules of an axe-throwing game of skill. Some hope returns. This is no third-world call center. Even better, I know this guy. “Victor?”

“Dex?” He uses my old call sign, not heard since my days of fantasy gaming and laser tag.

I go with it, and explain my problem with haste.

Victor cuts in, tells me to meet him after his shift ends at eleven, in the Chili’s parking lot across the street from the call center, so I don’t have to pay. Bring the computer he says. He’ll have a look.

Several hours later Victor concludes: “Could be the modem was zapped during last night’s electrical storm.”

Lightning. I should have thought of that.

Then he asks: “You got a resume? We’re hiring.” It’s a random opportunity, a bolt from the blue.

Categories
Career

1994 Job Search Blues

In 1994 I had zero contacts, zero experience, zero personality, and very little luck. I also had zero interest in working in an office. So how did I end up with a corporate career?

In the featured image I’m holding up the classified section of the Dallas Morning News. Smart phones wouldn’t be around for another twelve years, but if this selfie had been taken with multi-megapixel clarity, then we might have enough detail to pick out the date. Suffice to say it was June 1994, the pre-internet age, when people searched “want” ads in newspapers to find jobs. The tech back then may have been different, but the journey I took in the mid-90’s is pertinent to first-time job-seeking today.

The Big Something

When this photo was taken I was twenty-five, a year out of college with no real job. I had studied mostly philosophy, ending up with a degree in political science, and was discovering that the knowledge I had gained from these fascinating subjects was hard to monetize. My dad was nice enough to let me crash at his place until I could conjure some monetary magic, and I’d end up staying there for years.

I worked a part-time gig driving vehicles from one car dealership to another, from Dallas to other towns in Texas and surrounding states. All this driving gave me way too much time to think. There was this overwhelming pressure to do “something” with my life, but what?

At some point I started using a tape recorder to preserve my ramblings on these long drives. My training in philosophy may have been useless when it came to finding a job, but it had taught me how to organize my thoughts. I transcribed many of these recordings in a philosophical journal called “Income,” much of which I posted online.

Come to think of it, I was blogging before blogging existed. I crafted my own website using a simple text editor, just for fun.

One question I kicked around a lot was whether a job was unavoidable. Yes, I needed money to survive. Freedom was also a big theme for me. I possessed a strong desire to be free of debt. (In an elaborate effort to delay the decision of what to do with my life I had spent half a year studying Italian at a language school in Tuscany, from which I still had a “whopping” $1,800 credit card debt.) But did I really need a job to meet my financial goals? More importantly, did I want a job? Instinct told me NO. Hell, common sense told me NO. Was I going to spend the rest of my life doing something I didn’t want to do?

Bewilderment shows up loud and clear in my transcripts. I act as if I’m on track to do something big with my life, but my professional goals are hilariously vague:

“My goal is to find a self-sustaining, entry-level, administrative position at an organization with international interests.”

My Income Journal, 1994

Self-sustaining? I suppose that meant a job that would allow me to break even, pay bills. A quarter century later I take this for granted, but back then it was a big deal. At the time, only a couple of my peers had managed to reach such a lofty level of professional success.

“Administrative” was a word that I used to mean professional, anything that wasn’t manual labor. The “content and product” of the business I worked for mattered, too, but this was another vague guideline. Basically, I didn’t want to work for any business that was uncool.

International interests? That included pretty much every corporation in the world.

So with these goals I might as well have been searching for anything. I was caught in a catch-22 of not knowing where I wanted to go because I was following a map that was blank.

“Part of the problem is lack of information. I really don’t know enough about what’s out there to make the best decision.”

My Income Journal, 1995

The pressure to do “something” was coming from society, but also from my mom, who of course was part of society, but who was also a vice president at a corporation based in Denver. She wanted me to move to Colorado and look for a job up there. My mom very much had the attitude of “suck it up and be a businessperson”. I know she wanted the best for me, but her vision of success did not suit me at all. She was one of those people who thought working for a corporation was the best thing ever, though things weren’t all that great in her own professional life. I noted in the income journal that she seemed to hate her job, and “despite the group therapy arranged by (her company), she and others at the office are hating life.”

At one point I considered joining the military, just to avoid the burden of making a decision about what this big “something” was going to be. The pressure from my mom must’ve reached a point of unbearable irritation, because moving to Denver became my absolute last choice, even lower priority than enlisting in the military at twenty-five.

In January of 1995 I took a part-time office job at an import-export business owned by an Italian family. They had first emigrated from Palermo, Sicily, to New York City, and then to Dallas-Fort Worth. This work paid even less than my car dealership gig, but at least it resembled professional work, and I could put it on my resume. It also allowed me to speak Italian during the day. In general the job itself sucked, but it was more or less an internship, bumping up my experience from zero to zero point one.

Meanwhile I kept looking for a real job.

By June of 1995, a year after my official job search had begun, I had made an estimated “seven hundred phone calls” and had “mailed over two hundred resumes,” resulting in a handful of embarrassing interviews and zero jobs. (I guess these were the days when you could call a company directly to check on the status of a job application.)

After a year of effort I was left with this brilliant spark of wisdom:

“It’s strange, but I find myself working very diligently to locate a job that I’m not sure I even want.”

My Income Journal, 1995

Twenty-five years later I can still relate.

The Big Trap

After a year of job search failure and frustration I flew to California and embarked on what would be a life-changing backpacking trip in the High Sierras, with my brother, and another dude who went by the name of Hound Dog. It was July of 1995.

This ended up being much more than a vacation. It was a spiritual sojourn in nature, during which I stopped thinking so much about what society expected and started applying more introspection into what I wanted to do.

On the flight back from Reno I recorded this comment:

“I came remarkably close to joining the Navy, which, at this point, kind of scares the hell out of me.”

My Income Journal, 1995

If only I knew that fifteen years later I’d start working overseas with the Navy, and this would evolve into a very big chunk of my career!

I returned to Dallas and wiped all my previous goals. Instead, I’d focus on three things that came naturally to me: “creativity (writing), freedom (nature), and adventure (international)”.

This was the beginning of a period in my life that some of my less-accomplished slacker friends would refer to as my “rise to success”. (Insert the 1980’s “Eye of the Tiger” Rocky theme song.) I went for peak physical condition, running daily and lifting weights. I maintained fierce focus and ruthless discipline, with an eye on getting my life on track. From the outside it may have seemed like I was training for what most people considered “success,” but in reality my motivation was unique. As I’d write years later in another journal, Brief History of Economic Me:

“Money motivated me, as I lacked it in a big way, but the hottest fire in me burned to get society off my back. I wanted to build a space between me and the world.”

Brief History of Economic Me, 2016

Who was this “society” anyway? To me this was the source of all greater expectations and obligations, the most traveled path in life. Society enforced all the bullshit you were supposed to do.

I began looking at my future in terms of income opportunities, not as a mere search for a job.

“My conclusion is to listen to my heart, and to make decisions with spiritual eyes (not so logical). It is something I have never truly done, but I need to start now. Otherwise I will find it increasingly harder to break free of the trap that such a vast majority of our society find themselves in.

My Income Journal, 1995

My horizons broadened with this new world view. I entertained the idea of beginning a carpentry apprenticeship, as I valued independence and I liked building things. I imagined running a business that restored old houses. (An endeavor that still appeals to me today.)

“By last Wednesday, the 16th of August, I had grown confident of my plan to move to California, pay off my debts then put myself in a position to start my own small business enterprise. I talked to my mom about how I had become disenchanted with the idea of working in the typical corporate environment because of the sheer lack of spiritual content. It seemed that I had talked her into it, and she even sent me literature on outdoor organizations to help me pursue employment.”

My Income Journal, 1995

The next morning, Thursday, August 17th, 1995, I got a call from someone named Missy at Resource Staffing in Carrollton, Texas, to discuss a job at SeaLand, a global import-export company (this fit roughly into the category of “international” in my triad of new goals).

I had already failed to impress SeaLand in three previous interviews. The fourth interview was a failure, too. I didn’t get the job, but the next week Missy called back about a low-level clerical job at (I’ll just call it Boring Office Job One, or BOJO for short), which I accepted. It was the kind of thing where you just showed up to work, no interview involved. My department was a bunch of middle-aged women who took frequent smoke breaks, along with an older gay guy who was crazy about cats.

“All of this intense discipline fortified my anti-social, loser self with just enough courage to set foot in an office and work the lowliest temp job in the world.”

Brief History of Economic Me, 2016

Eventually BOJO offered me a permanent position, at a cool $20,100 per year (around $34,000 in 2020 dollars). Again I accepted, by now hooked on the steady trickle of cash.

I paid off my credit card balance a few months later, and would remain debt-free for life.

With that financial milestone out of the way I began feeling the “sheer lack of spiritual content” involved in processing paperwork and calling other bored office workers on the phone. I was making some money, but failing on all of my goals.

The Big Break

By the spring of ’96 I had been at BOJO for the better part of a year, and already the endless cascade of Monday-through-Friday weeks was killing my soul.

In the evenings after work I fought off the inevitable soul-death by writing about nature. Over the course of several months I wrote and revised a 25,000-word account of my recent adventures in the High Sierras. The theme was (ironically) “the courage to pursue freedom”. My corporate job didn’t afford me the freedom to spend much time in actual nature, but I could at least experience it vicariously through my own written words.

Even today the “Tahoe Journal” is a pretty good read. It was the longest piece I had written at the time. This too went on my prehistoric blog.

But with “Tahoe” complete, I wasn’t inspired to write anything else.

In the summer of ’96 I began a new off-hours routine that would end up changing the course of my life. Every night I came home from the soul-sucking office, went for a run, and retreated to my room. (Yeah, I still lived with my dad.) There I engaged in a secret hobby. (No, it wasn’t porn.) I spent nights dismantling my computer, swapping out hardware, and – when luck was with me – getting the thing to run again.

One tech-heavy sentence for the initiated: these were the days of Windows 3.1 and DOS, setting hardware jumpers for system resource use, and configuring arcane boot files like the config.sys and autoexec.bat.

There was no internet to guide me in these endeavors, only advice from friends. I was way out of my league. At least I had the foresight to save my journals to floppy disk. More than once I accidentally wiped my hard drive clean.

I’m not sure why I did all this. It wasn’t future job training – that much was for sure. Something about it satisfied my curiosity and meticulous nature. Maybe it was the occasional victory. Troubleshooting PC hardware issues involved mostly angst and frustration, but the elation of fixing something was sweet indeed.

The important thing to note is that I didn’t engage in this geeky pastime because I thought it would get me a job. In fact I did it because it felt like flipping the middle finger to the very concept of a job.

Sure, I knew it could lead to a career. A couple of friends of mine – the ones who had managed to attain the “self-sustaining” lofty level of success – were making good money in the blossoming field of computers, double what I made, and without college degrees.

But for me this was just a weird, masochistic hobby. It appealed to me naturally, and it was something I liked to do. Like the primitive blog I had created with a simple text editor, I did it for fun.

So playing dangerously with computer hardware changed the course of my life, eventually getting me “the big something,” which happened to be a career in IT. Did it lead to everlasting job satisfaction and good times? No, it did not. But overall it led to a decent compromise with the Man.

Two and a half years after that blurry selfie, I was safely above zero in every category needed to start a career. I had acquired a few contacts, and my experience working in a professional setting was at level one. My business personality was starting to come around, too, thanks to all the mind-numbing customer service I had done at BOJO. I had contacts, experience, and personality, but what about luck?

Within a couple months I would get smacked in the face by the most miraculous luck imaginable. But this luck would have gone unnoticed had I not learned that valuable lesson in the High Sierras. Some might say that luck happens when the stars are aligned, but sometimes luck happens when we get ourselves aligned with the stars. In other words, we start applying more introspection into what comes naturally to us, and ignore what society expects. After that it’s just a matter of paying attention, and seizing what the universe throws our way.

Categories
Career

Career Metamorphosis – Part 2

See also Career Metamorphosis – Part 1.

Recent college graduates and I have something in common: we’re both trying to score jobs that require experience we don’t have. No matter who you are, you really have to fake it to make it, for almost any job you want.

Every job seeker knows the deal. You need four things going for you to get hired in the corporate world:

  1. SOCIAL CAPITAL
    Contacts and connections, someone on the inside. A lot of times this trumps even experience. An internal candidate or someone referred by a current employee is almost always going to be hired before anyone from the outside.
    
  2. EXPERIENCE
    Experience can be a tricky beast in a rapidly-expanding, ever-changing industry like Information Technology. It’s always best to have more experience, of course, but for experienced candidates there’s a paradoxical fine line between having too much experience and not enough.
    
  3. PERSONALITY
    Charm can sometimes trump experience, too. If the hiring manager “feels” good about you then you have a good chance of getting hired. We’re all human. That’s just how it works. Personality can mean anything from outright deception to good salesmanship, or a combination of both. A little bit of salesmanship is always needed in a job interview, in the form of “you have problems to solve and I have solutions” type of talk. Some people have so much charisma that they can sneak into a job by simply lying. This was the case with a guy named McSquiggins, who will forever be immortalized as the god of deception in the personal pantheon of imposters I’ve encountered in my career. This is rare in industries like IT, where it’s blatantly obvious when ideas either work or they don’t, but it does happen.
    
  4. LUCK
    Luck is when the gods of employment smile favorably on you for reasons totally out of your control. It’s an epic role of the dice to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. For example, the favored candidate decides to withdraw her application; or you’re on the other side of the planet, there’s a global pandemic, and suddenly in-person interviews are unheard of and video interviewing is the thing to do. Hooray!

So, it’s all about contacts, experience, personality, and luck.

As a recent college grad, getting a corporate job seemed about as impossible as booking a trip to Mars. I rated laughably low in each category. Let’s take a look at my character sheet circa 1994.

Contacts: zero

Experience: zero

Personality: zero

Luck: unknown?

I started with zero business contacts. I went to university in Colorado and moved back to Texas, my home state. There, my only friends were slackers who hadn’t done much with their lives. On top of that, I didn’t want any business contacts. I’m an introvert, so the process of making connections seemed lame.

My business experience was of course zero.

Personality was most definitely something I could not count on to get me hired. In fact it was an extreme handicap. My anxiety in interviews made others uncomfortable. At that time I lacked self-esteem and didn’t really know how to talk.

Luck, well, that was out of my control. Or was it?

In the next post I’m going to turn the dial back to 1994 and explore my so-called “rise to success”.

Categories
Career Health

Thank You Dear COVID

Last Thursday I woke around five in the morning with chest pain. Eventually I’d attribute it to a combination of:

  1. having slept weirdly on my side (pulling a muscle),
  2. “air conditioner disease” (fungus and cold dry air from the A/C above the bed),
  3. and possibly a seasonal allergen;

…but I had never experienced this peculiar brand of discomfort. It gave me real concern.

Another overarching cause of my condition was very likely mental and spiritual,

4. “Monday through Friday Forever” disease, a result of having burned ten hours per week for the past ten years in the effort to transport my body to and from the place where I was required to exist in exchange for money. On a deep level this was my body, brain, and soul telling me I needed a break.

To get this peculiar brand of discomfort checked out, I rode the bike a mile in the heat of the summer afternoon to the doctor near Hase station, on the Daibutzu (Big Buddha) street. Riding a bike two miles round-trip with chest pain may not have been the wisest move, but the warm, humid air soothed my lungs, even if my chest and left shoulder were still sore. This told me it was at least partially a musculature issue, and I felt a little better by the time I reached the doctor’s office.

Inside I wore a mask, of course, but curiously the doctor did not. I liked this doctor. He was a Star Wars fan. There was a big Yoda in the examination room. The doctor wore Michael Jackson parachute pants. I explained to him that for several weeks I had been struggling with a dry cough and gunk in my throat – not like flu phlegm, but really sticky stuff that had me clearing my throat all the time. It persisted the week after we had had the air conditioners cleaned. For the past month I had also felt fatigued, burned-out, and run down, again, the “Monday Through Friday Forever” disease.

The doctor concluded that I had an infection in my lungs, but it wasn’t influenza. He gave me a prescription for what would turn out to be an ineffective pain killer, and directions to get COVID testing later that night. The doctor wanted to rule out COVID before prescribing anything else.

I didn’t think I had COVID. My “fever” was one degree above normal, and this was likely due to my bike ride exertion in the saucy afternoon heat. I didn’t have any of the usual symptoms. Still, I was curious about the COVID testing procedure and agreed to check it out.

My appointment for COVID testing was at 20:30, at Kamakura City Hall. I was given detailed instructions on how to prepare and what to expect. The payment (26,280 yen) needed to be paid in exact change, cash and coins, sealed in a Ziploc bag. I was to look for someone with a flashlight in the parking lot, bringing payment and the paperwork from the Star Wars doctor, keeping a distance of twelve feet.

For whatever reason the whole process was shrouded in secrecy. The Kamakura municipal government was taking measures to make the testing as discreet as possible. So as to not alarm the locals? I wasn’t sure.

At around 20:20 I rode the bike down to City Hall, which is on the wooded grounds formerly occupied by the Emperor’s summer estate. It was adjacent to Onari Shogakko (Onari elementary school), my older son’s favorite place. The night air was humid and smelled of old vegetation. I stopped before entering the parking lot and put on a mask.

Sure enough there was someone to meet me in front of City Hall, a woman with an orange flashlight wand, like something used by air traffic controllers. She called out my name when I approached, “Waito-san?” and pointed to where I could park the bike.

Further away there was another light-wand individual beckoning me forth, and then another after him. Keeping their distance, they herded me through the darkness, down a long ramp leading to the back side of City Hall. Here there was a small parking area, brightly illuminated by flood lamps, with a stool placed out in the open. The whole area was enclosed by concrete walls six meters high with vines hanging down. An older guy approached out of the bright light. He was dressed as a physician, with white lab coat, face mask, goggles, visor, and gloves. Were all Japanese doctors gray-haired men? He asked me to sit on the stool, so that’s what I did. The whole scene looked like a place where someone might get interrogated, tortured, or killed by cold, sadistic scientists; but I was amused by the whole thing and feeling healthy after having taken a long nap.

There was a small table about five meters from where I sat on the stool, and a small Japanese-sized van another five meters beyond that. The engine was running. There were some professional-looking people sitting at tables on the other side of the van, but I couldn’t see what they were doing. The old physician yelled over and asked that I place my sealed Ziploc bag with payment and paperwork in the tray on the little table, so I got up and put the stuff where he asked. He waited until I was safely back at the stool before approaching the table. He sprayed down the Ziploc bag with something, and then carried it away, handling it like it was the most toxic thing in the world. A few minutes later a small older woman came within shouting distance and asked me to go to the back side of the little van, where there was another stool.

The back window of the van had two circles cut out of the glass. A pair of long rubber gloves protruded from the circles, sealed to protect the inside of the van. Inside, a young woman sat at the back window with her hands in the gloves, a testing swab pinched between two rubber fingers. She motioned for me to sit on the stool with the other rubber glove. She wore a mask and visor in addition to being inside a sealed little van, but despite her face coverings I could tell by the look in her eyes that she was amused, too. I tilted my head back and she inserted the swab. It went deep. I swore she touched brain. Afterwards I was asked to return to the first stool. A minute later the old physician came back and said I could go. I asked when I’d get the results, and he said the next morning. Good enough.

The next day I was feeling well-rested and somewhat back to normal, aside from the mild irritation of occasionally clearing the gunk out of my throat. There was no way I was going to “work” with a COVID test pending, so I let my management know what was going on. I certainly was in no hurry to get back there. A good portion of my general fatigue was related to the ridiculous and unnecessary physical presence requirement of my job. It had been a long six months of working in a COVID hot spot, for no reason at all. I needed a break from that place, and wished the COVID results would take weeks. Instead they took hours. The result was negative, of course.

Still, I wanted to get my chest double-checked, in the unlikely event that there was some serious problem lurking in my heart or lungs. I rode the bike back to the Star Wars Doctor’s office for a “letter of introduction,” which I would use to enter a local hospital and get checked out. The letter had all my medical information and the COVID test results.

Our neighborhood was rich, so our neighborhood hospital was rich, too. The hospital was new, and the reception area looked like the lobby of a tropical resort. I was the only patient there. Hell, the place was so quiet it felt like I was the only patient in the whole hospital. Apparently that big wave of COVID just hadn’t hit. I handed over my packet of information and sat down to fill out the usual annoying forms (even though I had just given them a letter that contained all of the information I would be required to fill out).

A lady approached and asked if I was covered by Japanese state insurance. No, I was not. I had Cigna corporate-subsidized health insurance for ex-patriots, allowing me to go to any hospital in the world. She sucked air over teeth when I explained this, but there was no outright denial of my admittance, so I continued filling out the forms.

Another receptionist walked over to explain something, which sounded a lot like they couldn’t admit me because I had just been tested (negative) for COVID. This made no sense, so I called my wife and asked her to translate. Sure enough, it made no sense. They wouldn’t let me see a doctor because I had just been tested for COVID, even though the results were negative. Was there any situation in which COVID test results were re-examined and reversed? I didn’t think so. Anyone on the street could have the virus and not know it. I had none of the symptoms in addition to having documented proof that I didn’t have the virus, but for this hospital, incredibly, that was too much risk.

The next day I went to pick up a packet of medicine from the pharmacist that had been called in by the Star Wars doctor. It included nasal spray, pills, and Chinese medicine, a magical powder that tasted like thousand-year-old Tang. Within a couple of days the infection in my lungs would be under control. But what about “Monday through Friday Forever” disease?

Later that day I logged into work email to let MGMT know I was taking Monday off, too, knowing one day wouldn’t be enough. To my surprise there was an email from MGMT, urging me to work from home the next week. Like the hospital, it seemed they were a little freaked out that I had gotten COVID-tested, despite the result. Again it made no sense, but for me this was ideal. It would be the most restful yet productive week of the decade. “Monday through Friday” didn’t seem so bad without the enormous waste of time and energy involved in the commute. Thank you, dear COVID. Working remotely, I regained physical and mental health.

Categories
Career Teleworking

Career Metamorphosis – Part 1

It sure would be nice to secure a stable source of income prior to relocating my family to the other side of the planet. For me, income means getting a job, and a big part of getting a job is sharpening my tech skills.

In the world of Information Technology, learning new tech is the greatest “GOOD” of any career. It’s as important as keeping helium in a blimp. If skills languish, then you might float for a while (or, if you’re working with government, then it could be a LONG while), but eventually your career will crash into the mountain and erupt in flames.

Learning new skills in a fast-moving industry is a challenge in the best of situations. I’ve always been above average when it comes to learning new technologies and getting the certifications to back them up, but in my current situation these efforts call for extra resourcefulness and grit.

PROBLEM: My current work situation presents two great obstacles to staying current and relevant in IT. Together they represent the great “EVIL” I fight every day.

  • A physical presence requirement.
  • Legacy, proprietary tech.

The physical presence requirement is a bitch, not only because it is an illogical, unnecessary waste of time and finite human energy (and in COVID times, an actual risk to health), but because it severely limits my ability to use and learn new tech. There are many learning resources that are inaccessible on the “safe” side of the firewall. I can access cloud resources, but cannot connect to a VM, for example. Theory is useless without real-world practice. I can watch training videos, but cannot connect to a live system and take the technology for a spin.

The physical presence requirement also makes learning during the day my only practical option, as it drains most of my energy in the effort it takes to transport my physical meat mass to and from the box where I’m required to exist. Weekends and nights are busy with family activities, but even if I can find the time at home I’d usually prefer to do anything other than stare at a digital display.

The concrete box where I go during the week is also infamous for its legacy (and sometimes proprietary) technology, which is either outdated or configured in such a way that working with it drives one’s career backwards. It is most fortunate that I’m not required to do too much actual work, because working with legacy tech would sink me further into the morass, drawing me further from my goal. The whole place is filled with would-be tech enthusiasts, starving for any scrap that might keep their knowledge pertinent to the real world. As a former colleague put it, “This is the place where skills come to die.”

To combat this, I have a few on-going goals:

1. Learn new tech in an inexpensive, cloud-based sandbox.

2. Leverage the most out of my time during the week.

To sum up: sharpen skills, in the cheapest way possible, while making the most of my time.

Overall, this effort requires a third goal:

3. Fake it to make it.

For this, I began studying and scripting my knowledge over one year ago, in a document called Career Metamorphosis, or Metamorph for short. As of this writing, it is currently fifty-four pages in length, fifteen thousand words. I’ll write about this in more detail, in a future post.

Categories
Career

The Next Adventure

  • I played Dungeons & Dragons in high school, and I still consider it to be the greatest game ever made.
  • Magic was one of the many things that made D&D awesome, as it combined well-defined rules, limitless possibilities, and (with a lucky roll of the dice), the ability to turn an otherwise impossible situation into victory.
  • I want my real life to be as cool as the magic in D&D.
  • I also want to relocate my family across the Pacific, to the States. This is a big project, perhaps the biggest adventure of our lives.
  • To meet this goal, income would be nice.
  • I don’t have to get a job, but it’d be cooler if I did.
  • But jobs suck!
  • Or do they? I haven’t looked for a job in twenty years.
  • Is it possible to make this income transition fun, instead of a burden? If so, how?
  • My skills and knowledge would be viewed as magic by someone living in ancient times, or even by some older people today.
  • In a sense, I am a magic user of the modern world.
  • Okay, that sounds more fun.

So, with that loose chain of logic leading the way, this post is about a temporarily changing the direction with my writing here, getting down and dirty, casting some mean spells. For a couple of months, I’m going to insert some extremely grass-roots tech, the kind of magic I conjure up to bring harmony to the kingdom, and to keep orcs and dragons at bay.

Can I change the direction of this blog? Sure. Why not? I don’t sell anything and nobody reads this stuff anyway. Do they? Probably not, and that’s good. This obscurity grants me all the creative freedom I need.

The Goal

Right now I’m thinking of doing twenty blog posts in sixty days. My original mission with this blog was to explore ways I could use my tech skills to be beneficial in life, but now is the time for pragmatism and action. My experience in Japan has been rewarding and life-changing on a multitude of levels, but after ten years here it’s time to return to my homeland, the good old USA. I’d prefer a more stable year to return to America, one that did not include a pandemic, protests, riots, soaring unemployment, toxic politics, and impending economic doom. But why not make things interesting? What the heck.

The chaos might actually work in my favor. Schools are closed indefinitely due to the virus, so there’s no hard deadline to get the kids enrolled.

Also, everyone who works in tech is now working from home. After a decade of commuting ten hours per week in Tokyo metro, I’m looking forward to joining them. If there was an emotion stronger than envy then I’d be feeling it now. Working remotely (at least part of the time) is the only way to go, even in the best of times. Work Is Not a Place. It’s great that the IT industry has seemed to hang in there through this weird pandemic / pseudo economic depression we’re in, and doubly great that so many jobs are now suddenly open to remote work. I’ve been preaching the remote work gospel for years and the rest of the world is finally hearing The Word. This pandemic has been great in so many ways.

Working remotely is exactly what I want to do for as long as my corporate citizenship lasts, and it’s looking like it might last a while, with the goal of gracefully transplanting my foreign-born family to the other side of the world, staying solvent at the same time.

The category of the twenty posts in this detour will be “Applied Tech,” unless I can think of something better. Maybe “Applied Magic” would better match the theme. This will be a batch of twenty-plus posts about applying the right kind of magic to get the jobs done – both transitioning my employment situation, and the job of moving my family to the States.

There’s a lot I like about tech. I love learning new things, solving problems, and making tech work for us (as opposed to us struggling with tech). I like working with people – customers, clients, and colleagues alike – but with a certain control over the volume knob that only remote work allows. I’d work with tech even if there was no money involved (and in a way there isn’t, as I’m fortunate to have not lived paycheck-to-paycheck in twenty-five years).

So that’s “why” I’m getting more technical with this blog, to move my family back to the States, in a financially responsible way.

But why am I looking for a job?

This is the kind of question an alien from outer space might ask, an intelligent creature blissfully naïve about the way things work in early 21st Century Earth, sort of like a high school kid who plays D&D. I’ve been asking this question every day since high school, and there’s no reason to stop now.

Health Insurance, I’m Your Bitch

As mentioned, I like tech, but sometimes I don’t want to work with tech every day. Sometimes there are other types of work I’d rather do, work that does not necessarily make good money. My household needs income, of course, but we don’t need the kind of money that an all-encompassing full-time corporate job provides. My ideal work week might involve working a tech job a few days per week, with maybe one day in the office and two at home. The rest of the week I’d work on creative and constructive projects of interest, or devote my time to enriching the lives of my family and community. At this point, money is not as important to me as time.

This dream week of mine would be completely tenable if not for one factor: In America, health care is a life-altering expense. The only way to reasonably afford coverage for a family in the U.S. is health care subsidized by a corporate job. This ends up having a huge impact on quality of life.

In Japan, health coverage for my wife and kids is around US$2,000 per year (it would be free if we were poor). In America, the same coverage, if self-paid, costs ten times as much. (With extremely high premiums it’s possible to get family coverage for around US$4,000 per year in America, but this means hospital visits only for life-threatening emergencies, and no dental.

What are the alternatives?

Start my own business? No health coverage.

What about consultant? No health coverage.

Part-time work? No health coverage.

Gig economy? No health coverage.

With a family to support, it all comes down to health insurance in America, unless you want to roll the dice and hope nobody gets sick or hurt. (This was my dad’s strategy during my teenage years, like twenty percent of Americans today. Somehow we all got lucky, one bone fracture and a sprained ankle notwithstanding – an elementary school misstep that I was obliged to “walk off”.)

I don’t feel that lucky with my family.

Health care, I am your bitch.

The Grind

So, American health care, you slave-driving destroyer of dreams, it looks like I’ll be working Monday through Friday, fifty hours per week after week after week after soul-crushing week (into infinity), at a job that I won’t necessarily want to be working all of the time. This is a common routine called “The Grind,” and I’ve been doing it for twenty-five years.

Toward the end of a rare one-week break from work I’ve usually shed enough of the psychic trauma to see a glimpse of a future for myself and loved ones outside The Grind, but when starting a new job in America the standard is two precious weeks off per year. PER YEAR! I don’t have that many years left. In a sense, nobody does. Why do we do it? It’s insane.

It’s supremely ironic that I’ll be suffering through all this in the name of health insurance, because this rigid routine compresses one’s vision of the future into two sequential events: more of The Grind itself, and death. (Okay, there’s a slight intermission between the two, the vision of me on my death bed, hooked up to tubes and wires, all paid for by my marvelous health coverage, until the slow beeping of the EKG collapses into a solid tone, and I finally get some much-needed rest.)

Going Forward

The above vision is a delusion, a curse cast by an evil mage. I realize this now, but it’s a constant battle to resist its corrosive effects. For me there are only two ways to make The Grind tolerable, only two incantations that can dispel the curse. The first is remote and flexible work. This is a mandatory requirement for any new job. The second is, well, let’s just say it’s a material component of magic-user spells that will be covered in far future blog posts, when we’re on the other side of the Pacific, settled in the States.

Adventures are not easy. They’re usually fraught with danger, requiring great sacrifice to overcome. I’m ready to take on all the challenges listed above, but there’s no reason I can’t make it fun. What kind of magic will I practice in the journey ahead? I’ll stick with my core bag of tricks, while pushing the boundaries a bit into subject matters I like. If my search could be written into a WHERE clause then it would look something like this:

I’m not quite sure about this syntax, but in plain logic it’s a pretty good picture of what I want to do.

Another thing I want to do with these blog posts is something I’ve been thinking about for a while, which is storytelling with data. I start with a problem statement, something bad happening in the environment, a wandering monster to slay. There are complications, each worse than the last. There’s a catch hidden somewhere in one of the complications, which ends up leading to the solution in the end. The next twenty-plus posts will not be D&D-themed, at least not to the point that it detracts from the tech. However, I do intend to unlock some possibilities and turn an otherwise impossible situation into victory with a few lucky rolls of the dice. Most of all, I intend to have some fun.