The Thinker

Thrown into the deep end of the job pool

Monday I began my new job at the U.S. Geological Survey in Reston, Virginia. It’s been a very fast first week for me. I moved from a lackluster GS-14 job with the Administration for Children and Families, which is headquartered near L’Enfant Plaza in Washington D.C. ACF is an agency where even “casual Friday” meant dressing up like the rest of the week (but it was okay to leave off the tie). I always wore dress pants, dress shoes, a nice shirt and tie working at ACF. I kept a sport coat in my cube for those times when I needed it. One of our contractors required their women to wear dresses and hose. We called their men the “Men in Black” from their dreary utterly black business suits, white shirts and dark ties.

In retrospect ACF was a very dressy government place. At USGS though every day is business casual. My boss, a GS-15, shows up in cords, sandals and an earth mother shirt. Everyone knew I was new because for the first couple days I wore a shirt, tie, my best dress pants, patent leather shoes and my sport coat. In other words I was a fish out of water. It wasn’t until yesterday that my boss told me I could dress down. This will be a big change. I might need a whole new wardrobe –I don’t have enough business casual clothes to get through a workweek!

In this respect the USGS seems a much more relaxed sort of place. But the underlying tensions seem to be pretty much the same as I’ve encountered elsewhere in Club Fed. My new job is three miles from home but my pay is the same. However my responsibilities are much greater than those I had at ACF. I don’t know whether if at ACF we suffered from civil service grade inflation or whether USGS suffers from grade deflation. Being a GS-14 at ACF was no big thing. It’s a big thing at USGS. For one thing, I get an office. But not just an office: an office with a view. And a door that locks. My boss says I can have my office repainted if I want. The furniture in it is rather 70ish and was not meant for personal computers, so she is encouraging me to purchase some computer furniture. This is quite a contrast from ACF where we lived lives of cubicle gypsies. In my last two years I had relocated three times. Sometimes at ACF your cubicle was near a window, and while it was almost always larger than those given to contractors it was nothing special. I feel a bit spoiled at USGS.

Heck I feel catered to. I arrived in my new office to find my name already on the door and the help desk configuring my computer. My speakerphone arrived shortly thereafter. Next was the lady to help me configure my voice mail. Everyone is pleasant and low key. When I looked out my fifth floor window with a southwest exposure it seemed if I could extend my hands far enough out the windows they would touch the Shenandoah Mountains.

But make no mistake: this job demands a lot more responsibility. I am now officially a supervisor and what a strange team I lead. I have two employees who work locally, but also one in Montana, one in Alaska and a number of half time employees working for me in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Oregon. Since Alaska is 4 time zones away we have biweekly conference calls starting at 2 PM. This helps a lot, but a couple times a year the team must get together face-to-face, and that means agreeing on a city to meet. And as boss I guess I can pick the city. My boss said I could basically travel anywhere I need to pretty much anytime I wanted. I am sure our travel budget is not unlimited but it’s a weird and empowering feeling.

It’s also a strange feeling being a supervisor. There is a deference that comes from your employees by default when you hold power over them. It’s hard to tell sometimes when they are being sincere and when they are sucking up. And yet my boss doesn’t seem the least bit like my supervisor. She makes working there feel more like a social club and gossip hall. And if there is no time during work hours to gossip there is lunch hour club (in which I am already a charter member). I won’t be reading the paper much during lunch anymore; it has become that part of my job that seems to involve necessary social networking.

My commuting almost doesn’t exist. My 60-75 minutes commutes in each direction now are 10-15 minutes in rush hour. I haven’t parked at work in more than a dozen years. I’ve forgotten how cold it can be to walk into the office at 7 AM from a distant parking lot. But this is about the only part of my new job that is a detraction. The USGS campus is gorgeous, still looks modern (for being 30 years old) and is surrounded by woods. It is arguably the prettiest federal campus in the nation. Perhaps I am in federal worker paradise. The National Science Foundation has prettier workspace but their space is leased. At USGS in Reston we inhabit real federal office buildings.

Starting any job is at first a little like being thrown into the deep end of a very cold pool. You wonder if you will sink or swim. If you start swimming you wonder how long you can keep going. And it’s been that sort of week. It felt overwhelming at times because the data dump came fast and furious. It was difficult for me to associate names with faces and roles. At the same time I had to learn a new information system and come up on all the jargon and acronyms that were tossed around so freely. But by the end of the week I was not just swimming, I was doing a great backstroke. Thanks in part to my boss who gave me the things I needed to read in the order I needed to read them, and who made herself freely available to answer questions I feel, if not up to speed, at least a good part of the way there.

My job is to be the chief of the National Internet Data Systems Unit. Basically we are the folks that provide the real time water information for the USGS web site. If you have a hankering to know the number of thousands of cubic feet of water moving across a local stream per second we likely have the latest real time data and can serve it up to you in a variety of formats from the convenience of your web browser. (Surprisingly this is a lot of people; you should see our web site statistics!) I am blessed with a talented staff, half programmers, half hydrologists who can aggregate and format vast volumes of real time satellite fed data into something for public consumption. It’s an amazing feat of engineering that inspires something like awe in me. It’s an honor and a bit humbling to be selected as the person who has responsibility for this system.

It is a challenge but one I needed. This job also feels very much like a gift. It feels like the gods decided to smile on me and fulfill my heart’s desire. I hope I continue to feel this way. I sometimes feel a little overwhelmed and scared, but mostly I feel energized and excited by the job. I hope I can continue to feel this way when the inevitable plain of disillusionment sets in. I hope I have the wisdom to make sound choices. I hope I can demonstrate people skills I sometimes have lacked in the past. I hope I live up to the trust that others have placed in me. I believe I will.

 

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