The Thinker

Synopsis of a career

Tomorrow I retire. I don’t plan to stop working entirely. But I will end a federal career of 32 years and most likely I will never work full time again. It’s unlikely that I will need wages to survive again, so what paid work I do will likely be for my own amusement and to keep engaged in the community. Retiring is okay, so the experts say, just make it an active retirement. Do stuff; preferably stuff that engages both mind and body. Don’t sit in hammocks and sip mint juleps. Among other things, it increases your risk of developing Alzheimers.

Information technology turned out to be my accidental career. My bachelor’s degree was in communications; which is about as marketable as a degree in art history. My parents did warn me but I didn’t listen much. I sort of envisioned myself in the 1970s having a career in media. The closest I came to using my degree was some part time work editing 16mm film, and that only lasted a week or so. Like a lot of recent college graduates today, I struggled out of college. My parents weren’t thrilled with me coming home. I wasn’t thrilled about living in Daytona Beach. I ended up in the Washington D.C. region because my brother lived here at the time. I lived in a group house, and then in an apartment with a roommate. I worked a crappy retail job at a Montgomery Ward selling shoes then lawn and garden equipment. This was not a career. It was keeping alive, barely.

Those who remember the early 1980s remember high unemployment and high inflation. I was caught in that cycle. Just about anything was better than what I was doing. I joined the federal government because my friend Tim at Wards had gotten a job there. It was nothing fancy. I did typing and filing. It was a foot in the door. It paid modestly but better than Wards and had benefits. It only took a few months, now that I was on the inside working at what was then the Defense Mapping Agency, to find a job more suited to me. It turned out to be across the street in another building, which was principally the printing plant for DMA at the time. I did more clerical work there, but it was more interesting. I tracked the production of mostly classified maps and charts, but also these things called “service requests” which allowed people in DMA to get graphic arts related work done, like images resized. It was late 1981.

It was also the beginning of the personal computer revolution. There was a lot of need for people that could make these computers do useful stuff, but not a whole lot of people who had the talent. Universities barely taught computer science, and programming back then meant mainframe computers and punch cards. It was not the least bit appealing. The Wang 2200T mini-computer in the next room though was interesting, and accessible. I hung out with a guy named Warren who programmed it in BASIC, discovered it was much more fun than the Fortran course I had in college, and the feedback was instantaneous. I eventually leveraged my learning there (and on an Apple computer also in the office) into a job one floor up, as a COBOL programmer. The year was 1986 and I had just started my first professional job, just one that had nothing to do with communications. Like many of us in IT at the time, we just picked it up. A degree in IT did not matter much, in part because doing IT right was poorly understood. We were making things up as we went along and if it worked everyone was happy. Agility in spinning up systems was more important than their endurance. I could do that.

I was a mediocre COBOL programmer, but I was a great programmer for the PC. I inherited and enhanced a map and chart inventory system created by a chief warrant officer who had retired, written in something called DataFlex. Maps in those days were ordered electronically by sending military telegrams formatted in a specific way. I wrote a BASIC program to make it easy to create these orders. I got some recognition and I got a way cool business trip: two weeks, one in Japan followed by one in the Philippines where I taught military people to track their inventory using microcomputers.

Even so, I was restless. Information technology was blooming all over the place, but I didn’t want to keep programming in COBOL. I did like this DataFlex stuff though, and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee needed someone who knew it. So I resigned and worked downtown, just south of the Capitol. A year later I was unceremoniously laid off. It wasn’t anything personal, but a budget thing they do right before elections when they are trying to give more money to candidates. But it left me scrambling. I found three months of work as a subcontractor for the Department of Labor. I created a system using dBase for them to track their audiovisual requests for service. But I really needed a steady paycheck again, which took me back into the civil service. There I stayed, until tomorrow.

The Air Force 7th Communications Group was hiring. They did unsexy things in the Pentagon to make the Air Force staff happy, mainly maintain and extend in-house applications written in PL/1. Working in the Pentagon was a mixed blessing. There were all these blue suits and people saluting, not to mention very important people with buzz cuts and stars on their shoulders. There was also a cast of characters there straight out of The Office, including a guy who never bathed, a guy with sleep apnea who kept falling asleep in his chair, and hosts of junior officers running in and out of the organization trying to quickly advance their careers. There were also some incredibly brilliant people and sizable chunks of money. They were very worried about doing software engineering, which was not fully defined back then. On the Pentagon’s dime I got all sorts of training in this and other things, including tuition reimbursement as I started my graduate degree in Software System Engineering. While there, I helped move a massive system from a Multics machine to an IBM mainframe, and cemented an understanding of relational databases on IBM’s DB2 and the Multics MRDS database. I also got to work on this newfangled thing called “client/server” systems, written in this cool but proprietary language called Powerbuilder. If you were doing this stuff in the mid-1990s, Powerbuilder was hot and so by extension was my career. I also got promoted to what then seemed an unattainable grade, a GS-13. Within a year we had sold the townhouse and bought our single family house. I also became a technical leader for a number of systems.

And then it went awry. Maybe I was too arrogant, maybe I wasn’t, but I for sure ticked off my project manager who basically bullied her management to take me off her team. I realized I had been in the Pentagon too long, nine years, and I didn’t like doing defense work anyhow. So much paranoia, so many clearances needed plus they were in the business of killing people. So I let fly applications and in a couple of months I was in a completely different universe within the federal government. I was working at 3rd and Independence Avenue S.W. for the Administration for Children and Families, part of the Department of Health and Human Services. They saw a lot of talent in me where my previous project manager saw someone difficult to work with. And I knew Powerbuilder. Their grants management system was written in Powerbuilder.

My career peaked early there. Working with a team of mostly contractors, I created their first extranet. An extranet is basically a secure internet application. People out in the states typed structured information into web forms, it was centrally collected in our database and the whole process of collecting mounds of paper from fifty states became wholly electronic. I don’t recall getting an award for it, but it was the first of its kind there. I was promoted in less than a year to a GS-14, which I still am today. Even rarer, I was promoted to a technical GS-14. I managed no one. My system quickly became institutionalized, but the remaining work there was far less sexy: lots of boring project management.

And then 9-11 happened. I was caught up in all that working downtown. I thanked my lucky stars I had gotten out of the Pentagon. About a year later, we were abruptly moved to another building near L’Enfant Plaza overlooking the railroad tracks. All day I watched trains going into and out of Union Station and I wondered what would happen if one of those trains was wired with explosives, a reasonable scenario I thought. I’d be, like, dead, and that was a depressing thought. But I also wondered why I was still enduring these long commutes every day. Maybe I could stay employed as a fed and work close to home instead? So in part to assuage my 9-11 anxieties, I applied for jobs near me. I was either lucky or talented because it was only a few months before I was hired by the U.S. Geological Survey in Reston, Virginia. Here I have worked happily for more than ten years, until tomorrow when my federal career ends.

I won’t repeat myself too much about my career at USGS, except to say it’s a terrific place to work. I inherited an excellent and top-notch team, all federal employees, all gung ho, which made it possible for me to give my best and do work that had the sort of impact I wanted to have during a career. I would like to say I am terrifically talented and that accounts for my success these last ten years. I hope that is true but I don’t feel qualified to judge myself. I do feel fulfilled, and I feel I have met all my career goals.

I also feel it is time to let others walk in my shoes. As a system manager as well as a supervisor, I had the privilege of making a lot of managerial and technical decisions of fairly significant impact. I also had the burdens of management, probably not as bad as in many places, but challenging situations and people. I learned that even I have human limitations. You can only herd the cats for so long.

My financial planner said I could retire, which I had planned at age 57 anyhow, my current age. So I will be glad to retire tomorrow and see what the next stage of my life brings.


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