The Thinker


Life is full of transitions of varying degrees. I have begun a transition that will culminate in about a month when I leave my current job with The Administration for Children and Families and begin a new job with the U.S. Geological Survey. After a week and a half of nervous reference checking, USGS finally made a decision. Somewhat to my surprise they chose me to fill this job. It involves the collection and presentation of large volumes of real time water statistics. I’m not entirely clear where the boundaries of my job will begin and end, but you can see part of it at the USGS Water Web Site.

I shouldn’t have been surprised. The vibes in my interview felt great. My new boss is not the caustic, aloof and somewhat pompous man who hired me at ACF. She feels comfortable. I’ve been told a good marriage feels like slipping into an old shoe. A good boss should give the same feeling. My new boss Susan evoked this feeling. During our ninety minute interview (which had been scheduled for half an hour) we talked candidly and freely. I realized that we were two of a kind. We’re dedicated but pragmatic, involved in our jobs but not owned by them.

Many of my job transitions have been traumatic. The most traumatic was when I abruptly was laid off from my job with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in 1988. I found unemployment a new and very unwelcome experience. I scrambled and found temporary work that kept me from missing mortgage payments. I eventually wended my way back into the civil service (elapsed time, about 3 months, perhaps a record breaker.) In the long run I lost no money but it was a nerve wracking experience. It felt good to be back in “Club Fed” after a brief experience in the private sector, even if it did mean returning to the Department of Defense and working at my least favorite federal building in the whole world: The Pentagon.

But my move out of the Pentagon to ACF was not without trauma either. I was working for the Air Force at the time as a technical leader. Mostly I managed a large client/server development project. My project manager abruptly turned on me and kicked me off her project in a display of temper that still shocks me to this day. I was wholly pissed to be thrown off this prestigious project that I had nurtured and work hard on for years, to a lot of great acclaim. I felt I didn’t deserve it. From her perspective I wasn’t as liked as well as I should be by the members of the team, and that was a fatal flaw. Perhaps she had a point. What really annoyed me is I could not get either my immediate supervisor or his supervisor to even hear me out. So I decided the organization must be dysfunctional and I should not be part of it anymore. I put myself on the federal job market again.

It turned out that what my project manager saw as a fatal flaw was exactly what my new boss at ACF was looking for. Literally the day after I interviewed he had hired me. I felt more than a little vindicated but figured it was all for the best in the long run. I was sick of working for the Department of Defense anyhow. Working for an agency whose mission didn’t usually involve killing people or snooping into their private lives seemed very appealing.

So one goal for this latest transition is to do it right. I want to leave this job with my coworkers actually feeling some sense of loss. Both my boss and team leader have been supportive. They gave me glowing references when they could have sabotaged the whole deal.

Overall I have enjoyed working at ACF. It was the most fun early in my tenure when I was putting together our agency’s first extranet. This project was very fun, heart stopping at times, but quite successful. It won me a lot of recognition. It’s been less fun the last few years as the sexy projects have been few and far between. I have a lot of talent and sometimes I felt management has been too busy to notice it or to use me properly. But it wasn’t enough for me to look for jobs actively. The USGS has an email job announcement list. I subscribed to it, saw this job, and applied. I had applied there before and even had one interview. In many cases I never heard a word, or positions mysteriously vanished. Lots of USGS jobs are only open to those who are already working there, which limited opportunities even further. I’ve been told by a number of people that I was very lucky to get this job.

Now I move to a job where I don’t necessarily have to rise out of bed before the cows wake up. For the first time in my twenty year career work will be three miles away instead of twenty plus miles. I can revel in the luxury of meeting my wife for lunch any day I want to. I can even bike to work. If emergencies happen I can be available on short notice, rather than ninety minutes away or more.

And perhaps I will feel less physically vulnerable. Since 9/11 I have been uneasy working in D.C. Perhaps no dirty bombs will explode here. Perhaps no truck full of plastic explosions will level my building. Perhaps the first suitcase nuclear weapon won’t explode on the Mall. But if it does, I likely won’t be a casualty. I will survive.

My expectations of my new position may be false. But I don’t think so. This has the earmarks of a job I will happily keep until I retire. The USGS is a gorgeous campus surrounded by trees and populated, I hope, by friendly and good people. I want it to be my ideal federal job. I hope it turns out that way.

Club Fed is a good place to work most of the time because you don’t necessarily have to stay in the same job of agency for your entire career. The trick though is that you have to be quite a bit above average, or at least perceived that way, to move from agency to agency. Performance appraisals are routinely inflated in the federal government. Most of us get Excellent or Outstanding Ratings, and not all of us deserve them. Some get them as a result of being some boss’s favorite employee; others because managers are afraid if they give Satisfactory or Fully Satisfactory they will lose the employee and the position won’t be coming back.

Many managers I’ve worked for have little idea what I did for them because they were too busy responding to their managers. I’ve been writing my own performance appraisals for years. I’m not even sure if most of the time my boss even reads them; he doesn’t seem to have the time. But I figured since I was writing my own appraisal it was up to me to make them shine, and I worked hard to have some significant and difficult accomplishments I could show each year. This was not always easy because I was not always given sexy projects, and my projects often spanned years.

During the last performance cycle I was a bit miffed because I went from an “Outstanding” employee to an “Excellent” employee. I realize not everyone can be outstanding, but I was working as hard as I always had and doing all the same things, if not more, that I did in previous years. Perhaps because I was more than a little pissed, I pressed my boss for an explanation. The explanation was very revealing.

What it came down to was that the benchmarks had been raised and we hadn’t been told. Essentially he was being told to score everyone lower. While that wasn’t the catalyst for me looking for another job, it certainly was one of the factors. It was unilateral and unfair. But our Deputy Assistant Secretary was simply implementing Bush Administration policy, and the Bushies hold us rank and file civil servants with more than a little contempt.

In fact, let’s be truthful here: the Bushies basically loath us. They wish they could unilaterally fire about half of us and they don’t care how badly our mission would be hampered as a result. And they think we are vastly overpaid. There must be something contemptible about us because we haven’t run large corporations and don’t come from privilege. That we manage year after year to do the impossible on shrinking budgets and with fewer personnel, all while policy makers keep changing the rules on the fly, doesn’t mean squat to them. We’re not from their social class so we must be held at arm’s length.


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