Thursday, January 31, 2013

The Working from Home Experience

Last Friday was one of those days when my decision to Work From Home (WFH) paid off extra dividends.  A dusting of snow hit Chicago though nothing major by historical seasonal standards.  However, whenever there is snow, people do seem to experience a sort of amnesia when it comes to driving.  Based on some of the posts on FaceBook and other sites I frequent, it seems like I avoided one big hassle.

Working from home has been around since the Brady Brunch and probably before, though it was more for lawyers and accountants who had their own business and decided to utilize a spare room in their home as an office until they could afford to lease a traditional brick and mortal office in more prime Corporate America locations.  Beyond that, the first iterations of WFH were probably put in a bunch of hours at the office, and then feel free to do as much more work at home as you want. 

I could WFH in this office if it also had a pool table

At the No-Name Software Company, we got to WFH once a week as a concession for moving our offices to the Siberia of Downtown because the CIO wanted to live closer to his new condo.  Because we we call-takers, we were expected to work a specific shift that matched our office hours. 

At the Low-Rent Consulting Company WFH was limited to the rare occasion when I was sent to some north suburb job, finished up and there was no valid reason to make me return to downtown, i.e. only an hour left in the day.  Usually they still made you come back to base because the EC was a vindictive troll who liked to wield her power.

At Big Buck Law Firm 2.0, WFH was not encouraged either.  I could do it but there had to be a justifiable reason like I was waiting for the furnace repairman or expecting a critical package or something out-of-the-ordinary and it certainly couldn't be done on a recurring schedule.  Of course I was free to do as much work at home as I wanted after putting in 8+ hours at the office.

At my current place of employment, TopFive, WFH has been taken to a new level.  People can officially request a specific recurring day (or two) to WFH or they can do like me and ask on a weekly basis for a WFH day.  At one of my 1-on-1s my boss said I could WFH more than once a week if so inclined.

Most people split their WFH day by logging on, doing some work, then they take a break to take their kids to school, or shelp them over to some after school activity.  Then they come back and clock in a few more hours. 

I'm a big proponent of the WFH thing and really think that it will become more common in jobs where leveraging technology provides the ability to WFH.  Nightingale is a nurse and will probably always have to go to the hospital.  But even she has figured out a way to do some of her computer work at home so that she can duck out early to avoid traffic.  So even though she will not likely work an entire day from home, she will be able to take advantage of the benefits of WFH once the culture in her industry catches up.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

What is it exactly that you do around here?

The Greatest American Hero was a show that chronicled this teacher's adventures after a group of aliens gives him a red suit that gives him superhuman abilities. Unfortunately, he immediately loses its instruction booklet and thus has to learn how to use his powers by trial and error, often with comical results.

I don't know what is more profound, that the show lasted three seasons or that it had talents like Robert Culp and Connie Sellecca.

My cubicle, complete with Wife Prepared Lunch and Ethnic Flag

My current position is a lot like that.  I was intended to be a superhero for some but I have no
instruction booklet.  My boss isn't completely sure what to do with me because he manages a bunch of developers and code monkeys and I'm kinda tossed into that group for some reason.  The only thing I know is that he is grateful that I came along because he was having to manage the projects I'm on and do the day-to-day system support and it was not something he signed up for as they say.

My interview was with 5 people over the course of a morning.  I've had interviews with multiple people at a company before, and it makes a lot of sense: as long as I'm there, why not get everyone I'm gonna work with or report to together so that everyone is only inconvenienced once. 

The funny thing that I really didn't pick up on at the time was that each person had a slightly different idea of what my role/position would entail.  The business "client" expected me to be her day-to-day personal application administrator.  The IT Director felt that I would be the System Architect for the entire Enterprise Archive initiative.  The two people I was replacing were just relieved they didn't have to deal with her anymore. 

There's a saying that when you have more than one boss you really have none.  The corollary to that saying is that when you have too many loosely defined roles, you really have a hard time writing your resume.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

When Time moves slower than light

In several of the companies I've worked at in Corporate America, they've had the lunch with the bigwig shindig.  Essentially its an informal sitdown with your peers where you can talk openly and honestly about life and work at Company_that_currently_employees you.

While I suppose there is some company out there run by ex-hippies that really care about employee grievances, this is mostly just smoke-and-mirrors.  Make no mistake, any serious grievance should not be aired at this meeting.

In a healthy company, an unspoken understanding that anything said remains at that table and if there is some trivial cost-free item that comes up a lot it might be addressed. i.e. bring back the free soda in the break room especially now that you're making us work 70 hours a week again.

In dysfunctional companies, the hope is that some naive employee will say too much and higher ups can gauge if a new policy was too restrictive or just tolerable enough.

And if you think about it, anything serious enough to be a deal breaker would probably have you already submitting your letter of resignation on your bosses desk.

At No-Name Software Company, we had After Hours rotation.  In the early days we were very unmanaged, so former Tech Lead JT managed this rotation schedule.  Every  so often he'd re-do it, coincidentally when he noticed that his rotation would come over a holiday, which was usually when our after hours calls spiked up.  After all, the best time to upgrade software is when your users aren't around, like over a holiday weekend. 

So he'd redo it and being the jerk he was, he would not have any regard for who was just on call.  Usually I was the one who got put on the deck on the new schedule because I wasn't one of his buddies and having a master's degree was a threat to him. 

And there was no governance or infrastructure to put him in check, so naturally I got the short end of the straw and was resentful and bitter.  Which is one of the reasons why I didn't feel too bad when he contacted me a couple months ago begging me if I knew of any job opening anywhere.

JT had a very good arrangement at No-Name Software Company.  He got to come in half an hour before the Call Center opened so he got to leave at 4:30 to catch his train.  That 4:30 started sliding to 4 and then 3:45/3:30.  He always worked from home on Fridays and could not be reached on IM after 4 pm.  He basically abused his limited power and position by not giving much back.  Eventually, like all support engineers there, his salary became too high to justify.  You cannot sustain too many engineers at the top of your pay scale when you can hire two entry level techs for almost the same cost.  So when his abuse outweighed his usefulness, he was forced out like so many others.

Monday, January 21, 2013

DIY Wood Shop

And you get to play with cool tools
During my time as a Nurse's Widow, when I had too much free time and not enough to fill it, I offered to make Montana69 a shelf.  Her parents have this shelf that she loves because it is apparently hand crafted. I said I could take a crack at it if she could provide photos and specs. She did though the photos came through upside down and in movie format in her text and despite my Computer Geek Wizardry, I could not figure out how to separate them from my Android Smart Phone in order to see them more clearly.

Luckily, she also provided a trace of the curvy part of the shelf and the measurements so I was able to buy the appropriate amount of wood and get started.  Originally I was going to make this shelf using nothing but a jig saw and a mini router my FIL bought me.

Then I signed up had Nightingale sign me up for wood shop classes at Portage Park.  I investigated the options a while back and talked to the guy at PP, Benny, and he basically said that it's very informal and you can do what you want, you just have to bring your own project or projects to work on.

Benny will show you how to do things and help you along but you have to bring your won project and materials.  You also have to ask specific questions like why are we doing it this way or why do we want to cut this before sanding that.  I suspect there will be a lot of YouTube supplementing and I'm okay with that.

Basically, for $30 you're renting a solid workshop for 11 weeks.  Most guys will take that deal because for about $1/day you get access to decent equipment and a good sized workshop that you could not easily replicate in your garage or basement.
So I decided my first project would be Montana69's shelf.  It turns out I would have been better off just bringing in the wood without the jig cuts because then we could have used the table saw more extensively.

Still, the shelf didn't turn out too bad and now I can can give it to her as a pre-wedding gift. 


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Sunday, January 20, 2013

Since it's so cold, enjoy this picture from last summer

In the last two weeks I've run about 21 miles.  That's respectable for sure.  There was a time when I would have done that in a single week, let alone for the entire month. Those are also mostly treadmill dreadmill miles as it has been too cold to run outside especially for short distances. 

Austin enjoying our deck last summer
At work I'm having issues with a project manager that doesn't want to manage our project.  I've seen this movie before and it doesn't end well. He says he will do something and then he doesn't do it.  I called him out on it at our last meeting and he tried to turn it around by saying he expected more initiative out of me.  Yeah I guess I should have shown initiative by doing the tasks he assigned to himself. 

The problem is he is overcommitted to other projects.  This project is only allocated for 25% of his time yet it requires at least 50% of it.  The reality is that I don't give a shit because he is very unsympathetic to my work needs and expectations.  And I cannot complete my tasks if you do not tell me what they are.  Expect this battle to continue.

In other news we had a long meeting with our financial adviser.  He's a long winded fellow who refuses to leverage technology to make my life easier.  We spent 90 minutes listening to a speil and providing print out of paystubs and mortgage statements.  I thought about sending them to him electronically but I knew that he would 1) print them out anyway and 2) not look at them before the meeting so it would have been a waste of effort.

So essentially we are taking valuable money that could go into our Roth or towards a trip to Hawaii for our friends wedding and using it to pay him to look over our income, expenses and debts and determine how much we need to put away in order to retire at X age and earn an income of Y wages after retirement.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Future Marathon Plans

Me and SHB at Soldier Field 10
Since I get asked now and again, I thought I’d write my thoughts down.  This is more for me though I will certainly send people this link when they IM or email me and ask.  (If you've been sent the link, you might want to skip to the Here's the Plan down below).

While I don't have any marathons planned any time soon, I do believe there is at least one more marathon in my future.  Possible a few more throughout my sunset years.

If I'm gonna run a marathon, there has to be some extra prize at the end.  Since my first marathon in 1998, I've run 22 marathons so I certainly have proven that I can push my body through 26.2 miles of pavement and in spite of the cliché, for me it's more than just simply finishing. Last year's marathon in Detroit was about overcoming the ego and proving to myself that I still had it.  Mission accomplished.  Now I don't want to run/walk another marathon again.  So the next marathon will at the very least be about running at least 80% of it before bonking.  Hopefully it's about more than that.

The other things to keep in mind is that training for a marathon is a big commitment of time and resources, especially if you're gonna do it right.  My first two marathons I did half ass and the results back that up. The typical training schedule is 16 - 18 weeks and it gets old getting up early to run to beat the heat or trying to squeeze a run in during lunch or after work.  

When you train for a marathon, you find yourself married to a training schedule and making the time to run those miles can be tricky.  Most people think that you just go for a few runs on the weekend and before work and you're set.  No Charlie, it's much more than that.  When the mileage gets high, it takes even the fastest runners at least an hour to cover the mid week long distance and that isn't factoring in the time to change in and out of your running clothes and showering.

When I started this marathon business, I did one a year.  After a few years I got the crazy idea that in order to improve, I needed to keep my running base up all year so I would do winter training which eventually led to spring marathons because if you're gonna do the work you might as well get the results.  So I switched to a two marathon a year schedule which foolishly morphed into doing three marathons a year at one point (2007, 2008).  This led to injury and along with old age, has cut my marathon career a bit short. 

Alright so here's my plan:  For 2013, I will not sign up for nor run a marathon. I will instead focus on increasing my running stamina which means 10 milers and half marathons in order to accumulate the appropriate mileage.  Assuming all goes well and I can run distances greater than 10 miles without petering out the way I sometimes did last summer, I'll move on to increasing my speed.

That will mean sped work and a marathon in 2014.  My hope is that I'll be able to do one more gracefully than the Detroit Marathon in which I essentially walked at least 10 of the 26 miles.  The ultimate goal is to be able to qualify for Boston Marathon although I really will be happy to just run a marathon from start to finish in less than 4 hours.

So the caveats.  If it doesn't seem like I'm going to achieve any of the above, there's no need to run said marathon.  If my running stamina doesn’t' return to the levels it was in my mid-thirties then I'll be content with just running a maximum of 6-8 miles on weekends and 3-5 miles on week day runs.

Also if Life Gets in the Way and things are too busy to maintain a marathon training schedule or even a consistent running schedule than all bets are off as well.  If Nightingale and I have a kid or two, that would certainly truimph any marathon comeback for a few years if not forever. 

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

So many questions for Electric Cars

In the 2006 movie? Documentary?  Who Killed the Electric Car, Filmmaker Chris Payne explores the many factors that played into the ultimate failure of the electric car to catch on with consumers, even as gas prices began to skyrocket.  

The thing about conspiracy theories is that many of them are just plausible enough to believe.  Others require more suspension of belief than the average Hollywood Action Adventure.  Do I think the oil industry and other institutions influenced or sped up the demise of the E1?  Yes.  Do I think it would have gone to any lengths to stop it from achieving success?  Of that, I'm not yet convinced.  I do believe that Big Auto killed the Electric Street Car so it isn't too much of a stretch.  It certainly is suspicious that they wouldn't let those hundred owners who begged, pleaded to keep their electric E1 vehicles and ended up destroying the majority of them. 

I like the idea of an electric car and am somewhat surprised that they don't exist in abundance today.  Growing up watching the Jetsons, it seemed like it was only a matter of time before the electric flying car replaced the ground-limited fossil fuel polluter.

From a practical point of view, it isn't quite economical to invest in today's current fleet of electric or hybrid vehicles.  The cost is too high, especially when factoring in the extra effort required to charge the vehicles and the travel limitations.  According to some reports, the E1 was to have an improved battery that would increase its range to 300 miles.  So maybe they did engineer something too good that would have eventually ended our dependence on fossil fuel.

A year ago we were looking for a car for me.  I had my heart set on a Honda Element and we found one.  Nightingale wants something a little different.  I do think it would be cool to have an electric car since she really needs to just get from our home to Northwestern and back, and with rush hour traffic, she isn't going much faster than 30 mph on average anyway. 

I suspect there will come a day when we do have electric cars (or cars run on some other fuel source) and I also suspect that Nightingale and I will witness it at the front end with all its quirks and limitations (think pre-smartphone cell phones) and our children will experience the benefit of those early beta models.
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Tuesday, January 8, 2013

The More Things Change

You know you've been away too long when you forget your ID badge and drawer key:  So first day back in the office for a regular work week.  I'm still a bit of a flem factory (gross, I know) but at least I feel 100% better.  Without my ID badge I may not be able to get into the gym at the office tonight after work, but we will see.  Alternatively, I could go for a short run around the park when I get home.  [Update I managed to get in by hanging out around 4:45 and waiting for someone to walk out.  They looked at my suspiciously so I assured them that I did indeed belong there and had merely forgotten my key card.  Look workout bag!]

What I'd like our office to look like
One of the projects I'm working on at home is rebuilding our home network and increasing the wireless range.  I also wanted to set up wireless printing so that we no longer have to pull the USB cable from the printer to whichever device Nightingale is using.  Unfortunately her archaic printer doesn't support Airprint and we do just enough printing that it might warrant investing in a new printer.  Lastly, I may or may not run some CAT-6 cable through the walls and put in actual LAN ports in the office.

This is part of a bigger project of course.  We are trying to make the office a shared office instead of my office.  Since I now do most of my goofing off on the iPad and have a work issued laptop, I really don't need to sit in front of a desktop much these days.  So I figured I could get rid of my old corner computer desk and replace it with one of these.  my thought is that someday that folding table/desk can be converted into a changing table.

No real point, just starting to write about this for future posts:  Every once in a while, a lot lately, I think back to my first Post-College full time job.  Somehow I landed a job as a junior paralegal at a BigName Law Firm 1.0 in the Litigation Dept.

Though I really only have the one place to draw any comparisons, the culture of the workforce in Corporate America in the 90s was vastly different than it is today.  It's an understatement to say that I just didn't fit in.  I think I was from the future because I really liked to leverage technology to make life easier and I worked with people who feared technology because it was new and scary.  Looking back, I acknowledge that I did have what would be perceived as a bad attitude.  I think my intentions were good but my execution and communication were poor, which is always a bad combination. 

It probably didn't help that I was a homegrown instead of brought in paralegal.  By that I mean BigName Law Firm 1.0 was one of the few at the time that didn't require paralegals to have their paralegal certificates.  So I started out as a junior paralegal who then was promoted along with LL (another Jr Paralegal) when most of the senior ones left for greener pastures.  It was never anything I wanted to do for a living but it was a paycheck.

There was a definite noticeable difference in how the others treated new hires versus LL and me.  We just were never invited to play in their reindeer games. 

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Happy New Year to my Five Readers

It was a busy month especially with the holidays so blogging basically took a holiday from its regular light workload.  At least I did write more posts in 2012 than the previous years combined.  I attempted to expand my audience and monetize my blog with mixed results.  I created a FB fan page and put myself out there and did get some more exposure. I also somehow pissed off the Geeks That Be at Google Adsense and got my account suspended because the spike in web traffic didn't please their algorithms. 

The truth is I came to the blogging game very late and tried to make up ground quickly.  No one is really interested in anyone's personal blog and I don't have a single subject to write about that will attract readership.  I hope to change that in the coming year by blogging more consistently on Chicago Now about our house-hunting adventures, while this space will be used more for personal blogging and future archive.

The little monkeys taking a short break from wrecking havoc
We were in Nashville for Christmas.  It was a sort of controlled chaos.  The in-laws have a new three bedroom ranch house which is just too small for three couples and a single person with two dogs.  The first night we got the master bedroom and the in-laws took the air mattress in the living room.  They discovered this isn’t really good for their backs so we switched with them for the rest of the week.

Nightingale had a wonderful time seeing her family and wishes I would feel the same way.  She noticed that I was rather quiet this trip.  It's not like I had an aweful time.  It's just it's more of a transistion for me to adjust to since I’m coming from a different experience than her.  I never stayed over at a family for the holidays; it was always a day visit and a late car ride home, in my own bed before midnight.  Also it’s very hard to keep my brain stimulated because the kids are 2 and 5, they really cannot just sit quietly unless an iPad is involved.

The family puts DIY network and HGTV on for me.  The thing is, between the kids being so loud and my hearing starting to go, I cannot hear the episode I’m watching.  Like my family they have the amazing ability to be silent during commercials and then start talking during the show.  Because it’s a ranch house, there isn’t anywhere to get away from everything.  That was kinda of the issue at Married-SIL place here in Chicago – there wasn’t anywhere to go that was kid free.

Her dad does this thing were he starts asking random questions like “how close do you live to Wrigley Field?”  I answer and then try to re-direct the conversation to something less Rain Man Like but I don't have the right conversation tools yet.

Nightingale got sick earlier in the month and I managed to catch it.  My usually resilient immune system might have been able to fight it off had we stayed in town.  Or had we avoided young children.  Or airports.  However, the combination of all three probably overwhelmed my immune system to the point where it was just too much to handle.  I felt it coming on Thursday the 27th but it really hit full on the next day during my Sharepoint Training class.  Luckily, the classmates decided to skip lunch and power through so that they could leave early and avoid Friday traffic.

An indoor river at the Opera Hotel
I was still miserable Saturday so I canceled all planned social activity.  When I was single, I use to regret missing out on parties because it was an opportunity to meet new people, including potential future girlfriends and almost girlfriends.  Since I'm married, I no longer care about that but I do respect the Social Maintenance angle. 

Message to Past Self:  You are the only one who thinks this way; most people will skip a party if they have a sniffle, especially if the party isn't 50 yards from their abode, or requires any effort beyond jumping on the El or catching a cab for less than $10.

The only thing we had to do was waiting for the cable guy to show up.  We decided to get cable over DSL because of the alleged higher speeds.  I did meet up with my friend FF because he was in town for a rare visit and wanted to see us.  He and his wife were to meet Nightingale and me for a drink the night before, but a kid related snafu caused LF to be over an hour late picking him up at Union Station.  Between my cold and the late hour, I suggested we attempt lunch the next day if it was feasible.  To get him to come all the way to the North Side, I offered to buy him lunch. 

Sunday I was still pretty out of it.  The pattern by now established.  When I first wake up in the morning, I'm achy and miserable.  Once the medication kicks in, I'm more functional. 

Chicago Bears -- while I'm disappointed that they couldn't get into the playoffs, I'm not as upset as I was the two times they missed with 9-7 records.  Those were better Bears teams deserving to be in the post-season that were denied it by silly tie breaking rules.  This 2012 team did not deserve to be there.  I'd like to believe they could have stepped up like the 2007 Giants and gone all the way, but I know better.