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.

Passing through the retirement door

Deciding to retire so far has been all about getting our financial ducks in a row. I’ve been doing this for many years. The 401K seems to be large enough. The pension looks generous enough. Our liabilities are paired down: just $35,000 remains on the mortgage, our last debt. The daughter has graduated college and thanks to us does so debt free. Today she cemented a job that looks like it will at least be reasonably interesting, tangentially related to her degree, and which pays a decent wage (with benefits). Our financial adviser is pondering my last questions about whether to announce my early retirement. The gun is loaded and my thumb is on the trigger.

I had told my boss of the moment, Dane, that I planned to retire next year. I wanted to leave with everything neat and tidy, and I figured I needed about a year to do this. It’s the engineer and the professional in me. Now, I just don’t want to wait that long. It’s increasingly clear to me that leaving things neat and tidy can’t happen. There is too much organizational change going on. Still, it’s hard for me to put my finger on a primary reason I want to retire soon. There are lots of little reasons, though, even though I am only 57.

Unquestionably, I am tired of doing my current job. I realize I peaked a few years ago. Although I met my professional goals there was never a time to rest on my laurels. It’s just more of the often frustrating business of managing people and trying to do so with increasingly smaller resources. Management and supervision pay well, but the responsibility can be crushing and you rarely make people happy. That’s because if you are doing your job right, you are instituting change, and people naturally resist change. You have to coax them, and it works for a while, but not forever.

So you figure if you want to work, it would be nice to do something you enjoy more without losing your standard of living. With retirement of course, you don’t have to work, but if you do, you have the option of something that is more part time and pays less per hour. For me that probably means doing programming again because I sure don’t want to do more management. In any event, while I greatly admire everyone who works for me, we still often rub each other the wrong way. It’s too much time together. It’s thousands of conference calls and Webex sessions over ten years. Frankly, a lot of it is due to knowing people too well, and telecommuting often exacerbates it. I figure I’ll like them a whole lot better when I no longer have a power relationship with them, and see them a lot less, like at holiday parties. They might appreciate me more too. I am sure I wasn’t the most pleasant boss or leader at times. Distance may bring us both perspective.

It will be a pleasure to forget the details of my job. Every domain is full of domain details that only make sense to those who inhabit that world. My passion is information technology; my domain is hydrology. It’s the water domain with its myriad parameters and the thousands of electronic pathways and processes that we created to bring science to the public that feels overwhelming. It takes years to be proficient where I work, not because of the technology, but because the domain is so deep that gaining proficiency resembles a medieval apprenticeship. It will be a pleasure to unload the responsibility of worrying about release agreements. I won’t have to fret about people I manage who are also about my age also about ready to retire, full of domain knowledge, but with few coming through the ranks to replace them. Republicans have decreed that government must be smaller, and in the process they are cutting the legs out from the people who must carry the organization into the future. It is so penny-wise and so recklessly pound-foolish. But soon it will also be someone else’s problem: someone likely younger, with more energy, ready to make their mark on the world, and who will hopefully build on top of the infrastructure that my team and I spent ten years working on, but never fully completed.

A lot of people are retiring in my agency. The new leadership has come in with bold ideas for the future that may work or may not. One thing is for sure: it’s not the same place. The workforce is older and smaller; the offices are mostly vacant and quiet and the office feels more like a tomb than a workplace. It whispers to me: it’s time to leave.

Yet I still wonder if retirement will actually agree with me. There is no way to know until I try it. While I won’t have my somewhat lofty position and its status, I will have freedom again. I will move from something of a minor somebody to a nobody again: Joe Citizen with time on his hands.

It’s not too hard to see my future. The future most likely includes relocation, more my wife’s idea than mine, but now I feel vested in it. We hope it will be in 2015 and it will probably be the Pioneer Valley in central Massachusetts. It’s not hard to see many cruises in our future, and vacations in Europe and elsewhere. We tend to be cat people, but somehow I see a dog in my future. This is because I’ll want to get outside a lot, and I’ll want companionship, and it probably won’t be with my spouse due to her host of medical issues. I’ll also want it because I sense I’ll want some space. Just as coworkers, however nice, can be grating when they are so often in your face, a spouse in your face 24/7 can be grating as well. So I can see working part time, consulting probably in an office in my future residence, but perhaps teaching at a local community college, largely just to be somewhere else for a part of my day. I see daily hikes around Mount Tom near Northampton, Massachusetts. I imagine myself exercising at the local gym. I picture myself attending the Unitarian Society of Northampton and Florence Massachusetts.

But when? Likely formal retirement won’t wait until in May 2015, my original plan. Now I am thinking I will retire this summer. I won’t leave things neat and tidy for whoever fills my slot, but I will leave with our release agreement largely accomplished and with all software tested, released and stable. I feel some responsibility to bring to a close the major activities I started. But I can’t wait that much longer. I am restless. I want to walk through that retirement door, even if it means a slightly smaller pension. I’d rather buy a year of leisure instead. I will be grateful to be able to retire so early, and have what I hope are many good years ahead of me.

Because I know it’s going to be a one-way door. The last door is the one where you exit this life. This new room will have many chambers, but it really only has one exit. The challenge will be to make the most of the time ahead of me and to do so happily and with gratitude for having the time to enjoy more of life. I just need the courage to pull that trigger.

Soon. Very soon I expect to be filing the retirement paperwork. I first want to hear from my financial adviser.

Cutting the apron strings

She took her final exam today, the very last exam for her very last class in a journey that consumed five years (two in community college) and three at Virginia Commonwealth University. “She” would be my daughter, age 23, who now merely needs to wait for the mail to get her diploma for a bachelor’s degree in English. Despite some prodding, she doesn’t want to attend her own graduation.

Which means she is mostly home now and we will continue to pay the rent on what will likely be her empty room in Richmond through the end of July. She needs to find a job but if her experience is like mine it may be a year or two before she finds a “real” job, assuming there are real jobs for people with English degrees. There are a few of them out there, and I am not talking about “do you want fries with that” jobs at the local Burger King. A real job for a while though might be working at a Costco or Wegmans, where they pay a living wage, which would be great because I don’t want her to get too attached to her old bedroom. Rather, it’s time for her to move out once and for all.

It’s hard to say how long that will take but I’ll lay odds somehow a year from now she will still be inhabiting her bedroom. Young adults today are painfully aware of the true cost of living, which is much higher than it was when I was a youth. This may be because so many things are assumed: the car, the smartphone, health insurance, high speed Internet and they are used to mom and dad paying for them. I don’t care if $12 an hour really is a living wage these days; that probably won’t buy you all of the above, even with a roommate or two.

What she wants to do is goof off, sleep late, stay up all night and when not distracted by things on the Internet write the great novel that probably won’t get sold, at least not without a whole lot more pain and suffering. Fortunately she is a bit more realistic now and is sending out random resumes, which suggests intent to find a job but not necessarily serious commitment. She could live a lot cheaper, assuming she lived alone, by settling in Richmond where she just finished her degree. But the jobs would pay a lot less and she seems happy to be home on a more or less full time basis. She actually cleaned her room and removed heaps of trash off her desk the other day. Either she is trying to get her life in order or she is planning to start a new burrow. Time will tell.

We’ve suggested some employers that might hire English majors. A friend at my church works for Motley Fool, and they hire English majors. Except she knows nothing about personal finance other than living on our money and making her allowance stretch until the end of the month. She wants to learn less, although I have provided a couple books on personal finance as a “gift”. The headquarters of Learning Tree in nearby Reston is near us. They teach mostly leading edge technology courses to people whose employers have deep pockets. They need people to write content for their web pages and course curriculum. And I have another friend whose office is always willing to hire college graduates, providing they want to learn the business of making specialized contact lenses. She worked there briefly out of high school and found it didn’t agree with her. I doubt she would want to give it another try.

Still, it is an accomplishment having a degree of any kind, and getting a degree in English is more interesting than it seems. She wrote a thesis on arguably the world’s worst English poet, William McGonagall. She learned a lot about Old English, and obscure Scottish literature. She interned at a Richmond publishing house and worked with female prisoners at a local jail teaching creative writing. Mainly she had the university experience, such as it is today, minus the fun stuff like sororities. She is not social enough for that stuff. She had the usual mixture of brilliant and mediocre professors, ate in the dining halls, learned that parking tickets cost real money, and that you can have really crappy roommates.

We learned that college education today is very expensive. Once we entertained the idea that, as parents with one child, we could send her to a private university. What a crazy idea! Her bachelor’s degree took a year longer than we budgeted. We paid for two cars, only because she wrecked the first one driving home with a homeless kitten. The expenses added up quickly. The nearly final total according to Quicken:  $116,238.05, or $36,238.05 more than the $80,000 I thought we were going to spend. And these are just the direct costs. It’s amazing anyone can afford to get any kind of degree these days. At least she graduates debt free. We were her scholarship fund.

Parenting is not over. Now comes the coaching phase, followed by the nagging and heaping on the guilt phase if necessary. The job hunting is still poor, and bad in particular for English majors with lackluster GPAs. At least here in Northern Virginia the unemployment rate is relatively low, but the mere hassle of commuting around here will probably ensure that she calls someplace far away from here home eventually.

A new adventure called real life awaits her. “What’s it like, dad?” she asked me some weeks ago. “Well, it’s not a lot of fun. But you get used to it.” And really, that’s about the most honest thing you can say about adulthood. I wish you the best, kid, but it’s time for you to cut the apron strings and fully direct your own life. Hopefully, we gave you enough of the tools to make your life meaningful but for the most part the rest will be up to you.

Stepping through the retirement door

Should retirement be scary?

Presumably the answer is no, providing you have your ducks lined up. This generally includes having a decent pension (if you are lucky enough to have one), a well stocked 401-K, maybe an IRA or two and a house that is either paid off or close to being paid off. Ideally, you would retire on something like eighty percent (or more) of your pre-retirement income. Then it’s off to do what retired people are supposed to do, which is play golf and go on plenty of Elder Hostels.

The sad reality is that many Americans simply cannot afford to retire. Many others found that they have been thrust into an early and de-facto retirement. They are laid off and no one wants to hire them because they are fifty-plus and thus old. Maybe they got an involuntary retirement with a token “thank you for working for us” one time payment of $50,000. In any event, they are too young for Medicare (age 65), too young for social security (age 62), and too old to get any affordable health insurance. They are hoping they don’t have to move into a mobile home or, failing that, a cardboard box under the freeway.

Yet people still retire all the time, often before they would like to do so, but sometimes because their stars were properly aligned. I am eligible to retire next year a few months after I turn fifty-five. I always assumed that before I retired from my somewhat senior federal job that I would have some other job lined up. Playing golf does not appeal to me, but staying busy and productive does. One way to stay busy is not to retire from my federal career. The other way is to retire from a federal career I have known for thirty challenging years and start another one.

It’s a dilemma that should be a good one, but is one that for some reason fills me with trepidation. The reason I am considering it at all is because a full time faculty position is being created at the local community college, the same college I have taught at as an adjunct off and on for eleven years. They will be interviewing candidates in the spring and the new instructor will start in the fall. Presumably, I would have an excellent chance of getting the job. They already know me and know that I am a reliable commodity who knows the material. My credentials and experience would be difficult for other candidates to match, and since the job would pay about half what I make now, they will be unlikely to fill it with someone other than an eligible retiree like me. However, with my pension as a retiree, I could teach and maintain something like my current standard of living.

So accepting the job if it is offered should not be a hard decision. I would retire from one career and formally start the next. I wouldn’t feel the pressure to play golf or spend days sitting on park benches. I would stay gainfully employed, which is probably a good idea until the house is paid off. And I like teaching, at least a good part of the time, otherwise I would have not been doing it for so long.

But instead I feel this nervousness and trepidation. In fact, a whole host of feelings I did not expect are welling up inside me. I ask myself interminable questions. Like why should I leave a job I really like? It’s rewarding, pays great and my work has achieved some note. I do sometimes feel that I’ve contributed all that I can, so there is no compelling reason to hang around if other opportunities open up, like they are doing now.

Moreover, I have also learned that teaching is not all it’s cracked up to be. It’s a noble profession because you have to be a bit crazy to do it. Students are often lazy and apathetic, and some of them cheat. I caught two cheating in my last class and had to flunk them, which was not a pleasant experience. Many of the classes are quite elementary, hence not too interesting to teach. And yet, there are rewards. There are always a couple of interesting and talented students in a class. Occasionally, you can make a real difference with a student. Last semester I taught a thirty something man with ADHD. I was his first attempt at college after a failure long ago. He succeeded in my class, mostly due to his hard work, but also with my help and encouragement. I may prove a pivotal transformative figure in his life. That’s neat.

Yet I expect that teaching full time would be a different experience than teaching a class or two a year in the evenings.  There are a lot of aspects of teaching that are not much fun. Lesson plans. Grading homework. Discipline. Students who blow off classes and then expect you to bend over backwards for them. In short, the job would likely be more of a challenge than the one I already have, a lot more tedious and with murky rewards. Watching a student or two in a class rise to true excellence is rewarding, but more rewarding than the work of the team I am leading? How do I top my career with the great things we have already done together? It’s a career that really excites me: watching the promise of information technology being delivered in ways that make the world a better place. Users of our system send tracking information to Google Analytics, which I can monitor in a control panel. Today I marveled watching the real-time usage of our site in Google Analytics, which reported 350-450 active visitors at one time, with five or more web pages being sent every second. That’s an accomplishment, certainly not something I can claim credit for, but which I certainly orchestrated.

And yet any meaning from my job is something I alone ascribe to it. Retiring from my federal job would be closing a thirty-year door on my life, but another door would open, different but potentially more rewarding. One thing I am reasonably certain about: when the door closes on my federal career, it closes for good. I would step into a much different and more challenging world, one that may piss me off more than please me. One that may ultimately say to me: what the hell were you thinking?

And while I might close a door behind me, there would be tendrils from that past that would follow and affect the rest of my life. A pension is as good as gold, at least until Congress in a fit of austerity decides it doesn’t want to pay it, or decides to reduce it. If history is a guide, it won’t happen, but you never know. There are no certainties in life, not even from Uncle Sam. In any event, drawing a good salary today guarantees more security than the promise of a pension at half pay once out of it.

I’ll figure my way through this bittersweet dilemma. Life is about living and life is defined by change. Life may be offering me a new opportunity, meaningful in new ways but still meaningful. If offered the job, the real dilemma will be finding the courage to step through that door.

Real Life 101, Lesson 1: Job Basics

Having turned 50 recently, I realized that I have finally mastered some major lessons from the school of real life. I thought I would use the excuse of my birthday to pass on some of these lessons to younger generations. While I enjoy pretending to be a fountain of wisdom, in reality, like most bloggers, any wisdom I have achieved is likely more the result of successful marketing than anything else is.

Today I am starting an occasional series of entries in a “Real Life 101” series. Maybe you can find these on Motley Fool or in a Dummies Book, but here you can get them free. These strategies have been tried, tested and proven true in the sphere of real life. Unlike a stock market investment, where you earnings are never guaranteed, these principles will work. They have been painfully acquired from navigating through real life for five decades and in many cases through making the wrong choices. They are not always easy to implement, but life never is.

Today’s topic: job basics.

Unless you happen to have inherited a large estate, the most important factor in avoiding misery is a good, steady and well paying job. Ideally, the job will be one that you will also enjoy. While there is no lack of jobs out there, few of them meet all these criteria. Most likely, you do not have one of these jobs. Here are some strategies that will get you there.

When it comes to any job, consistently going beyond the expected almost always reaps rewards. I am amazed by how many workers cannot seem to grasp this basic truth, even after their fourth or fifth job. Strive to be exceptional in whatever you are doing, no matter how menial or mundane. In the unlikely event that your efforts are not noticed in your current job, your attitude will be noticed by some future employer. Save the snarkiness for when you get home. When you are at work, focus on your work. Be the first to volunteer to do difficult or not so glamorous work. Unless your chain of command is full of pointy haired bosses, most likely your work attitude will be quickly noticed, and you will be given more challenging and interesting work as a reward. It is quite possible that you will earn a promotion and/or more money too. Having demonstrated your value you are much less likely to be pink slipped or downsized.

Constantly steer toward jobs that offer the three critical factors: steady employment, good wages and benefits. While I generally do not like debt, I have gladly gone into debt so that I could compete for better paying jobs that advanced my career. Be hard nosed. For example, it is better to go into debt to get a degree than a certification. It might seem a worthy goal to be a Microsoft Certified Software Engineer, for example. Nevertheless, certifications have a limited shelf life. A degree in software engineering though will carry the broad education that you will likely be able to apply for the rest of your career.

Few things have the potential to be more personally catastrophic than unemployment. This means that you should always do your best to avoid being fired or laid off. Regardless, you will probably get a few periods of unemployment in your career. If it happens to you, expect to feel devastated, but do not think that you are unique. Unemployment happens. You will recover from the experience and reemerge on your feet. In most cases, you can anticipate your termination. If you sense that you are likely to lose your job then take action. Start aggressively looking for your next job. Rats know when to desert a sinking ship. So should you.

Another rule of thumb: the best job for you will likely not come from a newspaper or an internet jobs site. It will come through a referral from someone you know. You would probably not pick a doctor out of the phone book. Instead, you will get recommendations from friends. The same applies doubly with jobs. People’s actual experience with employers will tell you a lot. After all, you do not want to waste your time dealing with the trauma of a job that does not fit you. Consequently, you need to develop networking skills.

Recently a contractor I have not worked with in seven years sought me out. We kept in touch and traded occasional emails and holiday cards. We would meet for lunch every year or two when our schedules allowed, which they usually did not. She was interested in applying for a job and wanted to know if I knew anyone who worked at the place where she was applying. It just so happened that yes I did know and worked rather extensively with someone who worked there. Although it had been several years, I contacted the man I used to work with, who I considered part of my own personal network. He gave the background on the culture of the place and what they were likely looking for. It sounded like a good match for her. She has applied for the job and will use me as a reference. I suspect that if she is interviewed she will do well. In addition to having the skills, she will have an understanding of the culture of the place to carry into the interview. We all know people with whom we can network. It could be your friend, a neighbor, a coworker’s spouse, or someone you know at church. By marketing yourself to these people, you are actually marketing yourself to a larger number of people, and they will likely keep you in mind and let you know of opportunities. Make networking a habit and if you are in the position to return the favor, do it.

Since unemployment will visit most of us at least a couple times in our life, devise a proactive approach so you can be prepared when it strikes. If you are chronically low on cash, your backup strategy might be to move back in with your parents for a time. (Please check with them first to make sure they will agree.) Putting your expenses on a credit card is the wrong way to go, so strive to create a nest egg that will play for at least three months of expenses. The current trend, unfortunately, is that while unemployment is happening less often, when it does happen it lasts for longer periods. Most experts are now recommending saving six months of expenses to emerge from unemployment financially intact. Whatever your strategy is, you must be realistic about it. Even if it is to live off your credit cards, you will still need income to make those monthly payments. This means that while being unemployed you will likely have to be underemployed by doing some work that you would normally consider beneath you.

Your first jobs are likely to offer little in the way of benefits. If you are young you may be able to go without health insurance for a while, but it is always risky. Benefits should be a primary consideration for accepting any job. Health insurance in particular is a crucial factor. Granted, the job has to pay enough so that you can afford the health insurance premiums, but you should make it your goal to find a job that offers health insurance benefits.

Another way to judge an employer is to find out how much money, if any, they will contribute toward your retirement. Many small employers simply cannot afford to contribute to a 401-K plan, but will let you contribute your own money into a plan. Others cannot be bothered. A decent employer will match your contributions to at least three percent of salary. An ideal employer would double this amount. If you can find an employer that also provides a traditional pension that would be nirvana, but it is not realistic anymore. If you want this degree of protection, look toward state, county or federal employment.

Of course, if you get benefits like these do your damnedest to take advantage of them as soon as possible. Health insurance is most important, since any condition you may have or develop can leave you financially devastated. Otherwise contribute to the 401-K as much as you possibly can. You will pay less in the way of taxes and, of course, the sooner you start, the more you will reap when you retire. You may not believe that the money will actually be there when you retire. Do not be stupid. You too will age and if you are lucky, you will live to see your retirement. You will not want to eat dog food in your retirement. While social security may be problematical, your 401-K will generally be invested in commercial stocks and bonds. Our financial system has shown extreme resiliency. Even the Great Depression did not wipe out the stock markets. Invest early, invest regularly and invest until it hurts.

More job and career advice will follow in subsequent entries in this series.

USGS: a great place to work

For about two years now, I have been working for the U.S. Geological Survey. I work at their headquarters building in Reston, Virginia. I am a civil servant with twenty-three years of federal service. The USGS is actually the fourth federal agency where I have hung my hat. For me there is absolutely no question about it: working for the USGS is a wonderful and stimulating experience. For twenty years, I worked at agencies full of mediocrity. Sometime they bordered on being dysfunctional. Consequently, sometimes my hard work was not appreciated. Now, I look forward to coming to work. There is no reason for me to look anywhere else in Club Fed. USGS is where I will hang out until I retire. The only thing that upsets me is I had to spend twenty years wandering the federal wilderness before I found a home at USGS.

If you take the time to visit the USGS jobs site, you can read exactly why it is a great place to work. For the most part the information on the page would apply to any federal agency. Arguably, these days any one of these standard federal benefits would qualify it as a great place to work. Try getting a defined pension benefit plan as a new employee even at IBM these days.

One of the reasons I like working at USGS is that, of the four agencies for which I have worked, it feels the least like a bureaucracy. It is more than the casual dress. USGS is part of the Department of Interior, and our unofficial department motto seems to be, “We don’t need no stinking suits and ties!” Of course, since we manage federal lands many of us spend our days outdoors getting very personal with nature. However, many of us are still tied to our desks. Except for some in the Department of Interior headquarters in D.C. and various senior executives scattered across the country, few of us do the suit and tie thing. Even my Associate Director usually arrives in slacks and a button down shirt (no tie). He keeps a sports coat and some emergency ties discreetly in his office should the situation warrant. Casual Friday? I am trying to imagine how that would be different. Every day is casual day where I work. I wear jeans to work every day. I generally avoid wearing T-shirts, although many employees wear them routinely. I could wear sneakers too but I prefer wearing modest hiking shoes instead. The only time I have to play the dress up game is when I am going to an important meeting offsite. For example in December, I had to attend a meeting at the National Science Foundation. I still skipped the suit, but I felt compelled to do the dress pants, shiny shoes, long sleeve shirt and tie thing.

Of course dressing casual is more the business norm these days than dressing up. However, those of us who live and work around Washington, DC usually have to play the dress up game. The degree of dressiness is directly proportional to your distance from the White House. Particularly if you reach a certain federal grade level (generally GS-13 or above) the peer pressure to dress up can get quite strong. For more than twenty years, I did the dress up lite routine, which meant everything but the suit. In later years as I advanced to the upper grades I learned to keep a sport coat in my office for those occasions when I had to interact with people more than a grade above me. Needless to say it didn’t fit me. I always felt I was projecting the wrong image of myself when I dressed up for work. I am more of a jeans and polo shirt kind of guy.

So perhaps the casual dress culture is not that much of an asset. For me the most amazing thing about the USGS is that employees are fully empowered. There is of course a top down hierarchy; it is just that most of the time it does not matter. My associate director, for example, is a man named Bob. He expects a relative peon like me to also call him Bob. Everyone I meet feels fully vested in the agency and knows that their work matters. It matters because their work really does matter. USGS is, after all, an institution chock full of scientists. Scientists as a rule are far more concerned about science than they are about politics or hierarchies. Nothing is more precious to us than our reputation for accurate science.

In other federal agencies where I worked, many employees were clock-watchers. It’s not that they hated their jobs, it’s just that their evenings were far more enjoyable than their working hours. At USGS, most of us do not watch the clock. We are too busy happily engaged in our jobs. I trust that all of my employees will accurately account for their time and I am sure they do. Some I know will routinely work many more hours than they can charge for without authorization. They do it because they are involved with their work. They know that their contributions make a tangible difference to the quality of our science and the products that we put out. Consequently, their job becomes fun instead of a chore.

USGS is a very spread out agency. It has to be that way since ours is a big country. We need to be close to where the science is happening. Each state generally has a central office, and most have branch offices. To collaborate you have to work across geographical boundaries. Of course, this means a lot of conference calls and online Webex sessions. It also means a fair amount of travel. I am sure we have employees who never travel anywhere, but I think they are the exception. It is an unusual employee who does not have to travel somewhere on business at least once a year. Last year I was on an airplane five times for my job. I could have likely been on an airplane many more times had I elected it. Mostly I go to Denver, but last year I also visited Helena, Atlanta, San Francisco and Portland, Oregon. It is good to get out of the office during the year for a change of perspective and scenery. My job has just the right amount of business travel. Often I have the opportunity to see some unique aspects of the areas that I visit. In my other jobs, I could go years between business trips, if I went on any at all.

No matter where I go though, the people who work for USGS are uniformly friendly, professional and interesting. Despite seeing many of them only once or twice a year, it is as if they are just down the hall from me. The many conference calls between business trips fill in the gaps. We are truly one big team. The only challenging part is dealing with the time zone problems. Invariably for those of us on the East Coasts this means our many conference calls are packed into the afternoons.

As far as I can tell, the only downside to working at USGS is we cannot own certain kinds of energy stocks. Since geology is the best-known part of our business (we also do water resources, biology and cartography), those engaged in geology may have insight into areas that are profitable for oil and natural gas exploration.

I suspect there are other federal agencies that are similar to USGS, but not many. I would bet NOAA and the National Science Foundation share many of our values too. I do know that I feel very valued and engaged at USGS. I appreciate the non-hierarchical culture; it is a perfect fit for me. If you want to impress people at USGS, do better science. For the most part though we are too engaged in our science to care too much about whether our own egos are puffed up or not. We are professionals in the best sense of the word.