Friday, December 21, 2007

A Very long, and Educational, Hiatus...
Yeah, I know. I ain't been around to bitch at y'all for some time. Well, there's a bunch of reasons for it, some of them little more than lame excuses. But, there's always this...

To begin with, I've been trying (still!) to obtain permanent work in my chosen profession, I have recently come to a clear and terrifying realization: my chosen profession no longer exists. It hasn't for quite some time, despite protests to the contrary.

See, 22 years ago I got into Computer operations. Back in the day, this was a fantastic job; it was interesting, it paid well, opportunities abounded and in terms of the future, the sky was the limit. We were on the cusp of the Information Age, and there I was, at the tender age of 18, in the vanguard. While my contemporaries were attending college studying drama and anthropolgy (which prepared them well for their future careers as waiters, file clerks and hotdog vendors at Yankee Stadium), I was earning a living. A very good one, too, by the standards of 1985.

The technology kept evolving, and becoming infinitely more complex and interconnected, so that the field became increasingly an interior one; there were no schools to teach people how to run mainframe-based data centers (there still ain't for the most part) it was reserved, basically, for those who did it and those who knew about it. Those of us who were there in the beginning simply did what so many others before us had done: we learned by doing, we learned every aspect of the job, we worked long, hard hours, and then we got rewarded. We followed a career path that would have been recognizable to anyone: computer operator, supervisor, manager, and then we branched into one of the specialty fields surrounding operations (communications, programming, technical support, et. al.).

That, of course, was before The Business Model Changed.

The Business Model of that golden age was simply this: you produced a useful/superior product/service, you supported the hell out of it, improved it whenever you could, and then delivered it to your customers for a reasonable price. If you did this, you made money. Lots of it. The New Business Model threw such quaint notions right out the window.

The New Business Model no longer revolves around providing quality for a reasonable price; it revolves around narrowing the consumer's choices and then squeezing every last penny out of him while maximizing 'shareholder value', which is a codeword phrase for 'screwing your employees' while stuffing the executive's pockets . As an example, I toss out the last company I worked for, CitiGroup.

CitiGroup is a conglomerate of 16 (and counting!) financial services companies: CitiBank, Smith-Barney, Primerica, Travelers Insurance, and a few other companies you've probably never heard of, but you get the point. It exists to provide it's customers with every financial service they could ever require all in one place. Need a checking account? No problem, open one at CitiBank. Need a retirement plan? No worries, see our professionals at Smith-Barney. Need a mortgage, call Primerica. You get the idea. Sounds like a wonderful idea; I can get all this STUFF, that I NEED, all IN ONE PLACE!

And then you realize that your Checking acoount no longer pays interest, like it used to. That you get charged $50 just for the privlege of having an account, and God forbid you bounce a check (that's $50 a pop). Smile while you pay $2 to use an ATM at your own bank, let alone some other bank's, because you're a 'valued customer'. Your stockbroker charges you fees for basically granting him the privlege of handling your money. If you make a trade on your stock account, expect to pay half-a-dozen processing fees and a double-digit-percentage commission on top of it. Don't make trades all that often? Be prepared to pay a fee for having an account with money in it, but no activity. Static accounts still require people to keep track of them, auditing and paperwork needs to be filed with the government, not to mention mailing you your statements. Of course, your stockbroker is an agent of the state; he has to report your trading activity and holdings to the Fed'ral Gubmint for tax purposes, and that costs money too, you know. Buy insurance and you very often discover that your responsibility is to simply pay the premiums and the insurance company's to find every way it legally can NOT to pay you when you DARE to invoke your policy. All the while, CitiGroup takes your fees, pools it all to make CitiBank look like a huge cash-cow (which draws even more money to it) and then distributes it all to it's shareholders (the preferred ones, not the peasants with common stock) and executives, and when that isn't enough to sate their greed, it "trims the fat", which means it lays workers off, cuts their benefits, freezes their wages..and then uses the money saved to line the CEO's pocket, bribe a politician to help then make some more money, or to buy another firm to add to the collection. The cycle continues ad nauseum.

In the modern world of business and finance this process is being repeated in every conceivable human endeavor.

Which brings us back to my original proposition; my field no longer exists.

See, one of the problems I 've been having with finding a steady job is simply this: the steady jobs have disappeared. They have been shipped overseas to Third-World countries where people may be just as smart as I am, but they work cheaply and don't require benefits (assuming they know about them!). This is called outsourcing, and the idea behind it is that when you don't have to pay workers high wages and benefits, shareholder value is maximized because you have held onto more profit. So, when you ask around about Operator jobs, you find there are none. When you ask about Technical Analyst jobs, you get much the same answer. When you ask about Management positions, you quickly realize there is nothing to manage. Today's IT manager doesn't manage anything: he simply fills a chair in meetings and generates the proper reports (which no one reads, incidentally).

But WHAT there is a lot of is what's called "Contract-to-Hire" (CTH from now on) positions. Basically, a Contract-to-Hire is the technical equivalent of migratory farmwork. What happens, typically, is that you are told that there is a "Unique CTH opportunity" available; the contract will last a year, pay a fantastic amount of cash, and the employer in question "has a good track record" of hiring it's CTH's to fill later full-time positions (presumably the position that you yourself will be creating with your own work!). So, you sign that "one year contract" (which has a provision in it stating that the employer can declare the contract null-and-void any damned time it pleases), and you show up for work.

On your first day, whoever it is you report to will try to explain what is expected of you. I say "try" because he/she is often very much in the dark about what is expected of THEM, except that "this project must be finished within the alloted time" because "it's very important to the future of this firm"or some other such bullshit. You are basically left to your own devices; the systems you're working on have been programmed by people who left there (or were laid off) 5 years ago, and who are unavailable to you to ask rudimentary, but often necessary questions. Nothing is documented. Your support staff is in Calcutta, Shanghai or Moscow, or worse, aren't even employees (even foreign ones) of the company you now work for, but employees of a third-party vendor hired by your employer to relieve it of the necessity to pay for it's own support staff, and they're probably in Singapore (if you're lucky!). You're already flying blind; you have no practical experience of the specific systems you need to work on, with it's nuances and peculiarities, and there is no one to explain the why's and wherefore's of this particular system or application to you.

Unless you wish to spend five hours a day on the phone with Sanjay, who doesn't have any clear idea, either, but at least he's a pleasant fellow. But I digress.

You are now being harranged on a daily basis to "make progress". The sooner you get this project done, the better your evaluation will be, and this poositive evaluation will "go a long way" to helping management decide wether they wish to keep you as a full-time employee once the project is complete. Of course, you see very few "full-time employees" anywhere in the office, just other CTH's, but that's beside the point. They hold out the hope that you could be one.

After slaving like a three-legged sled dog for a few months, one of three things happens:

a) You complete the project early and competently(God only knows how)...and you have your contract nullified.


b) You take "too long", defined as "having the audacity to take the words One Year Contract literally, believing that you do, in fact have a year to work...and you have your contract nullified.


c) The bean-counters upstairs, who know nothing about computers and data processing and system's prgramming and all that stuff, but who originally demanded the project you're now working on be made a reality, post-haste, are handed a report which causes them to "consider a rapidly-changing business environment" and they now decide that the idea that they just poured several million dollars into and signed you to a contract to complete and gave you ulcers and migraines for is no longer necessary, and therefore, no longer a justifiable expense...and you have your contract nullified.

And just like the migrant lettuce-picker, it's off to the next field, taking whatever terms you can get, working on a day-to-day basis, utnil the crop is in or the bossman decides he doesn't need you anymore. That is what the world of "High Tech" is like nowadays: real "Grapes of Wrath" stuff...only with a tie. It's time to start looking into another field of endeavor.

Plumbing sounds good. Because this entire experience has taught me that there's a good living to be made in shit.

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