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YOLO through a Pandemic (You Hope)

YOLO through a Pandemic (You Hope)

When the pandemic started last year, I posted this dire warning about how the fun was all over. Financial markets and supply chains were in deep trouble; Generation X could kiss their 401Ks goodbye. I guess I really thought we were in for some serious hell. I mean, doesn’t everyone remember the toilet-paper shortages? Didn’t it seem like we were doomed?

I don’t mean to be glib. 2020 was a terrible year for many – either because loved ones died of Covid-19, or because of economic hardship. And on top of that, politics in the U.S. hit a new low. But for many of us – those of us lucky enough to be able to work from home, those of us who didn’t lose family members – the lockdown turned out to be a boon.

For one, we spent less money. I keep a pretty close watch on my budget, and I know from having done so for years that the three things which eat up the most income are housing, healthcare, and food. Well, it turns out that not eating out ever means spending a lot less money on food. I know this was bad for the restaurant industry, but I’m telling the 2020 story from my perspective here.

In addition, because we were suddenly never leaving the house, I ended up moving in with my BFF. So housing costs also went down for us. Add in the money saved by not travelling, and our savings grew. Frankly, it’s also really nice not to have to commute. It’s hard to imagine now that I used to spend two hours a day driving to and from work – whatever for? Staying at home means an easier pace of life, with no rushed schedule and more time for family.

The icing on the cake: because of the measures to avoid infection by the coronavirus, we didn’t get sick from anything else either. Normally we catch a few colds each year, what with the teenagers going to school and the girl doing her theater work. But not in 2020.

It all just seems like the next level in the steady progression of my fortunes over the years of the Crisis Era. Literally, from 2008 on things just keep looking up for me. I know I’m not the only one having this experience. It’s like for some Gen Xers, the pandemic lockdown was the perfect situation.

We’re even seeing this idea now of the YOLO economy: workers ready to quit their jobs and pursue their passion, now that they have savings and have had a taste of what it’s like to *not* drive to work every day. Should I resign from my FinTech job to become a full-time blogger?

Now I couldn’t do that without first consulting with my partner. And for her, 2020 was a different story. She’s basically a gig worker in the theater industry, so the pandemic was a disaster for her from a work perspective. All of the gigs she had worked hard to line up just evaporated. So I’d better stick with my job that pays well.

Another story we’re hearing is that retail businesses are struggling with a hiring crisis now. Essential workers are better off on unemployment benefits than going back to their low wage jobs. It makes you wonder why they are deemed “essential” but then not compensated very well. Perhaps an improvement of the conditions of the lowest paid workers in our economy will be a lasting effect of the pandemic. Pandemic relief (“stimulus payments”) is sort of like basic income, after all.

Now that restrictions are being eased, my partner has actually been able to find gigs again, and I can tell she is excited to get back to work in 2021. But are we really out of the woods in terms of the pandemic? One of my projects this year has actually been research on pandemics throughout history, and from what I’ve learned I’m not feeling too easy.

Just take a look at this list of the worst pandemics in history. One pattern you’ll see here is that the more recent large scale pandemics are caused by ineradicable viral pathogens. The older ones chronologically are typically bubonic plague or cholera, which are controllable now thanks to improved sanitation and antibiotic medicine, or smallpox, which has been eliminated through vaccination.

But some viruses cannot be wiped out by immunization, both because they can reside in non-human hosts (waiting to infect the next generation of non-immune human hosts), and because they can mutate (nullifying previously acquired immunity). These include the influenza virus and the SARS coronavirus. We’re stuck with them, barring some next level development in medical science.

A pandemic like the Covid-19 pandemic, the eighth deadliest in human history according to that list, should be a once-in-a-lifetime event. But you never know. So enjoy your time on Earth, because as they say, you only live once.

Just Call Me A Zoomer

Just Call Me A Zoomer

It’s been six weeks in lockdown. Except for cashiers at the grocery store and a few curbside pickups of take out food, I haven’t interacted face-to-face in real life with anyone other than family. But that doesn’t mean I haven’t socialized. Like many of us shuttered in at home, I have videoconferenced – both for business and pleasure – using the software that has suddenly taken over our lives: Zoom.

So far I’ve attended a couple of hangouts with old friends, one of which was a surprise birthday party. I’ve been to happy hours with my work colleagues – and yes, we are welcome to have a drink. It’s nice to see the faces of my coworkers after a week of working online from home. I’ve also particicpated in a couple of script-readings for the eldest son’s script analysis class (put together by his attentive mother), including one where we were Zoombombed by professional actors.

Ok, we weren’t really Zoombombed, because the participants were invited. Ok, at work we actually use different software. I just mean to stick a label on this phenomenon where our socializing has abruptly moved into the digital space, as the Internet proceeds to the next phase of its complete takeover of our lives. We’re all Zoomers now.

It’s been fun figuring out the finer points of Zoom. Gallery view is best for a general conversation, but active speaker is good for the script reading. If you have a lot of participants, you can scroll through them to catch late arrivals, and make sure they get welcomed. And don’t forget about the chat option!

I do find that an online video hangout satisfies the need for social interaction. It feels like a change of scenery, and it alleviates the cabin fever. Good thing, because we don’t want this Sim’s mood to drop too low. Now if I could just get my virtual background to work…

I Have A New Job

I Have A New Job

Some moons ago I posted about my history of working in IT, and how I was focusing in data warehousing and working with many associates from India. That was back when I lived in North Carolina, and I predicted that there would be more corporate campuses in my future. When I moved up to Pennsylvania, I actually took a job that was in a downtown office building – a work environment with a different vibe. On a corporate campus you’re more isolated within the company’s culture, and usually eat at the cafeteria since it’s inconvenient to leave the campus. In a downtown environment you can escape for a walk, and eat at nearby restaurants.

Well, once more I have switched jobs and, as predicted, I am now working at a corporate campus again. It’s an interesting one, sprawling and maze-like, with buildings that are oddly colored and resemble warehouses. It’s like being in a giant art project, with the insides of the buildings filled with interesting art, too. The buildings all have open floor plans – that is, they are just one huge room on each floor, so they are warehouse-like on the inside as well as the outside. But it’s not that they are converted warehouses, as some office sites are – these were built this way intentionally.

My desk is in the middle of the floor, in a huge space that is cacophonous when the building is full. The power and network feeds are up in the ceiling, and connect to the individual desks via long, coiling cables called “pythons.” It’s a unique setup in my experience. The energy here is very dynamic, basically a perpetual commotion, like one might imagine a trade floor would be – and it is a finance company, so that is fitting. At least there are windows, so there is a little bit of natural light.

I am in the data warehouse group, and as usual, most of my coworkers have H1B visas and are from India. So the pattern persists. This has become my niche – token white guy on a fin tech data warehouse team. I’ve occupied this niche for twelve years, and with each job shift I notice the workforce getting younger and younger than me – disconcerting, but obviously inevitable. There’s so much aggressive energy from young people trying to prove themselves, and to me it’s all old hat and I’m just here because I need an income so I don’t retire in poverty.

Including this one, I have now worked a total of 18 IT jobs in 6 different Eastern states. My longest stint was for 5 years and three months, and my shortest (not counting this one) was for 5 months. It’s been a fascinating career, full of all kinds of experiences, and I don’t regret taking any of the jobs, even the ones that drove me crazy (but that’s a whole other story). Here’s to what adventures lie ahead.

A nest of pythons hangs overhead in my new workplace.
A Commute in America

A Commute in America

Pictured above is St. Paul’s, a 150 year old Catholic church located in Wilmington, Delaware. I used to drive past it every day on my commute to work. Between the exit ramp off the highway and the commuter lot in the commercial district where I worked there were a few blocks of gritty urban neighborhood to drive through, with this church planted in the midst of it, like a watchtower, or a fortress. This quick drive by provided a glimpse of a world unlike either the one I had just left at home, or the one I was traveling to at work.

There might be someone at the bottom of the ramp, begging with a cardboard sign, despite the posted warning of a fine for solicitation. A homeless person might be visible camped under the highway overpass (just to the left in that picture) – a figure seated amidst a jumble of bags and tarps, maybe with a shopping cart. Just down the street from the church there was a ministry which one must assume served food, given that there would sometimes be a long line of people at the door.

This was America, or a part of it anyway. These were Americans, of all colors and ages, though it seemed they were disproportionately older. But maybe I was just seeing the ones like me. Wondering if I could handle being my age – early fifties – but impoverished, desperate for a handout. And then I would park my car in the lot, and get on the shuttle bus that drove me to the office, and the bus would be full of people who were mostly young and mostly Asian. I would feel conspicuously out of place, a middle-aged white guy who was apparently on a different path in life than most other middle-aged white guys.

Of course, in the Asian countries my coworkers were from, there are teeming masses of poor people – people even poorer than the ones whose world I briefly became a part of during my commute to Wilmington. I just didn’t see them, because they were not the ones granted visas to come to the United States and work cushy tech jobs. And of course there are plenty of Americans my age prospering as well as I am, or better. I just happen to be in a field – finance tech, data warehousing – whose workforce is primarily Indian. India has reaped the reward for educating so many of its youth in the field of information technology.

The United States, meanwhile, is going to bring back manufacturing using trade wars. And tighten its grip on fossil fuel extraction. As far as I can tell, that is the current strategy for expanding economic opportunity for its citizens, which is the role of government in this new age of neoliberalism. I wonder, though, what kind of opportunity will be provided for the poor people of Wilmington.

Some voters thought Trump was going to bring an end to neoliberalism, except he’s a charlatan – a crook and a liar. How could they not see that? I wonder if any of the people I passed on my commute even vote at all. If not, as seems likely, then they get no representation in government anyway. How will any opportunity be created for them in this age of the market state?

Joe Biden for President, I guess.

Crisis as opportunity

Crisis as opportunity

I posted more frequently than usual the last couple of months, but then sort of stalled out. I’ve got some more generations posts planned, but I have been much too busy, at work and at home, to finish them up. So here’s a quick post with some thoughts about work.

Since the year began we have been involved in a massive undertaking to transfer about a dozen years of historical data to a group of data scientists modeling credit risk. It’s a big chunk of work that leverages my skills with ETL and database. Don’t ask me what the modelers are doing exactly, they are all way more educated than I am.

This leads me to think on how I have been employed in the financial sector for my last few gigs. First I worked for a mortgage services organization, basically at ground zero of the housing crash, for a company that purported to be the good guys helping struggling homeowners who were delinquent on their bills. Then I worked for an investment firm, on a project that modeled counterparty risk. And now for a consumer bank.

In both cases where I’ve worked with risk modeling, it is financial institutions directly responding to the GFC, and the implication of what another debt crisis could do. The response is both voluntary and imposed by government regulation – that is, institutions are complying with regulation, but also pursuing their own risk mitigation strategies. The Global Financial Crisis was a Big Chill for the financial sector.

A lot of money is being spent on all this analysis and reporting. It is basically overhead from the perspective of financial companies. Is it really going to do any good? I would say the answer is a clear maybe. Still, it hardly makes sense not to incur the cost. It is better to attempt some oversight, however uncertain its benefit, than none at all.

And for me, and others of my ilk, it’s clearly a great opportunity. All that regulatory overhead is paying my bills. It is part of the story where my life has only gotten better since the crisis started. So I guess I should be looking forward to the current administration’s trade wars destroying the global economy. Who knows what opportunities that will bring?

Lunch in the land of opportunity

Lunch in the land of opportunity

Someone at work left the company, which means the mandatory going away lunch happened. I remember at a previous position I was invited to a going away lunch in my first week on the job. It was just assumed that I knew that guy who was leaving. It was a strange way to start a gig, but of course I went along with it.

Anyway, at my current job, you may realize if you are following this blog that I work almost exclusively with Indians. So we all go to an Indian restaurant (which is one of my favorite cuisines) and enjoy the excellent buffet. The men sit at one table and the women at another. I am the only non-Indian present.

At the end of the meal, the guy who is leaving, who is at a somewhat senior level, gives a little speech. He very graciously thanks everyone, and then advises us all to always be working on our skills. That is the best way to ensure we will have confidence in ourselves and our careers will go forward.

I can’t help but think that India – or at least this man from India, or these Indians with whom I am lunching – has embraced the ethos of the neoliberal market state. That may be an over-analytic or pigeon-holing way of thinking, but these are just the kinds of thought that pop into my head. Here is this group of professionals, all in the United States on work visas, who clearly fit into the structure of a globalized, meritocratic labor force.

Meanwhile, young Americans are being told – or internalizing – a different message. Skills will get you nowhere, the economy is stacked against you, it’s better to vote for free college or universal basic income, we just gotta pry control of government out of the hands of the billionaires. I can’t help but wonder if my current situation represents an economic mode that is about to end, or one that will survive – even be vindicated – in the times ahead.

On Being an IT Guy

On Being an IT Guy

If you ever saw the TV show The IT Crowd, you probably recall that at the company where the characters work, the tiny IT department, consisting of two gacky guys and their hapless manager, is relegated to the building’s basement. Meanwhile, on the upper stories, the people who are employed in the company’s daily operations are all young and beautiful and lead glamorous lives. This clip from the show’s first episode illustrates what I mean.

Now, as someone who has worked in corporate IT – or Information Technology – for most of his career, I can attest to the fact that there is something like a class distinction between the IT workers and the people we serve, whom we call “the business.” They are, after all, the ones whose activities contribute to the company’s bottom line, and our role is to support their needs. We refer to their needs as “business requirements” and strive to develop software solutions to meet them.

Ultimately, an internal corporate IT organization is a service organization, and developing a service mentality is the best way to thrive within one. This is despite the fact that corporations do make an effort to capitalize the costs of software development, to try to transform at least some of that massive payroll into a corporate asset.

The IT Crowd exaggerates the difference between IT and the business, but the hyperbole is based on a grain of truth, of course. Where I work the employees on the business side don’t sit on a whole other floor, but rather on the other side of the same floor. They each have their own cubicle, while on the IT side we sit in an open environment. It’s an odd little status difference.

The business employees are more likely to be full timers as opposed to contractors. And they tend to have longer tenure and be a bit older. In fact, I’m a bit old for sitting over on the IT side, surrounded by people who are mostly younger, and mostly Asian. It feels a little like my career wandered off in a different direction than that of my age cohorts. Where is everyone from my graduating class? They must all be vice presidents by now.

It is a bit disconcerting to be one of the few middle-aged Americans that sits in my area, but that is where my choices have led me. I will simply continue to enjoy learning new technology and applying my knowledge to help my business customers. That is the value I provide, and that is the deal I have made with the corporate world. Being an IT guy may not be very exciting, but it sure does pay the bills.

My Work History in Turnings

My Work History in Turnings

In my life I’ve had many jobs and moved around a lot. The Nomad life course. I have a bachelor’s degree in computer science and have mostly worked as a contractor. For fun, and because I like categorizing, I wrote down every company I’ve worked at and the year the company was founded. Some interesting patterns emerged.

The majority of companies where I have worked were founded in the 2T or 3T of this saeculum. Many of these were startups that failed or got bought out. Not surprising since I am a software engineer but too old to be in on the ground floor of any 4T unicorns.

These jobs were all in the first half of my career, pretty much coinciding with the 3T of this saeculum. The other places I worked in this time period were two venerable public institutions founded in the 1T of the Great Power saeculum: Virginia Tech where I went to school and the United States Geological Survey where I interned.

Then in the second half of my career, starting just at the tail end of the 3T, I started getting contracts at more established companies, founded in the 3T or 4T of the Great Power saeculum (IBM for example). This reflects both my increased work experience and a life course related desire for greater work stability. This is my Nomad settling down in the 4T phase.

Here is a complete chart:

Saeculum Turning
First Second Third Fourth
Revolutionary   o   x
Great Power xxo x o x
Millennial o x xxxxxxxx

 

The cell is the turning in which a company where I worked was founded. An ‘x’ marks a company where I worked in the Third Turning, and an ‘o’ marks a company where I worked in the Fourth Turning.

You can see my flurry of positions at dot com startups (sadly I did not get rich from any of them) and how later in life I was working for more established organizations. And yes, that is a company founded way back in the Second Turning of the Revolutionary Saeculum, which is where I work now.

I thought it was a fun exercise and you might want to try it yourself!

The Mysterious Project

The Mysterious Project

At work I bill all of my hours to “Project Octon,” but amusingly no one can tell me what the origins of this project are or how it got its name. I can only assume that it came on the heels of “Project Septon” and hope that it isn’t going to run out of funding any time soon.

An Octon Hierarch Modron

Now, in Dungeons & Dragons, the Octons are the sector governors of the Modron race from the outer plane of Mechanus, but what they might have to do with the company where I work I could not tell you.

The whole mess reminds of me of the Jabberwocky Project from Better off Ted. If you haven’t watched that show, you probably should. I wonder if Project Octon was originally pitched like this? I’d better not let on that I don’t know what it means.

My life (so far) in the IT crowd

My life (so far) in the IT crowd

Last spring I posted a little recent career history. This was when I lived in North Carolina, and worked at a corporate campus nestled in a lovely wooded area in the famed Research Triangle. I ended the post with the hopeful expectation of more corporate campuses in my future. It’s been over a year now, and I have moved to Pennsylvania and have a new gig – in Wilmington, Delaware of all places – reportedly an up-and-comer as an information technology hub.

I don’t work at a campus, but rather in a shiny blue office building on the city’s touristy river front. It is also a lovely work environment, although there are not nearly as many nearby conveniences. The location is a strange kind of wasteland of office buildings, overpriced restaurants, and parking. But undeniably it is delightful to step out to the river front on a beautiful day.

My coworkers are, once again, mostly from India. Actually, the percentage here is much higher than at my last position – probably 90% of the IT staff. No sign of “Hire American” here, though perhaps those visa reforms don’t apply to my company or industry.

And, once again, I am working as an IT contractor. I started contracting in the late 1990s, after finding that “full-time” positions in the boisterous dot com era tended to be short-lived. Of the past twenty years, only a few have been spent working as a full-time employee instead of a contractor, and that has happened only when my position was “converted” from a contractor position. This is a mark of prestige in my business, sort of like being made (not really).

My contracts are generally through an agency, which means I am paying payroll taxes, and often have some access to benefits. The contracts tend to last between 1 and 3 years, and then I am looking for work again. I do enjoy at each new position the opportunity to meet new people, learn new workflows and processes, learn about a new type of business, and experience a company’s particular work culture. It can be a bit stressful adjusting to the new environment, but it is also exciting and satisfying when I learn the ropes and prove myself.

It is also stressful when the job search phase begins again, especially now that I am middle-aged and worried about age discrimination, but I’m not sure that being full-time versus a contractor would make any difference, since full-time positions are eliminated as surely as contracts come to an end. The main disadvantages of contracting are not receiving paid time off, and having to pay more for health insurance. For the latter issue, I have found the Affordable Care Act very helpful. For the former issue, judicious saving is required.

Way back, in the 1990s, the rise of temporary employment was decried as a deprivation of worker’s rights. Perhaps it still is, part of an overarching trend toward greater corporate power at the expense of the people. Or it could be thought of as part of the free-agency style that my generation brought to the workforce in young adulthood. In my life, a career of many short stints has served me well, but that could be because I am in the field of Information Techonology. It might not be so easy in other lines of work.

With more years behind me than ahead of me, I imagine I don’t have too many more stints left. But who knows what the future will bring.