Tuesday, December 25, 2007

A Thought at the Close of Christmas Day

The thing about trains... it doesn't matter where they're going. What matters is deciding to get on.

-- the Conductor, The Polar Express

The photo above is the tail end of the train featured in a post from earlier this month.

Christmas... In the Moment

Taken within the half hour, sans flash...

Monday, December 24, 2007

For with the Blessing of These, I am not a Failure

Updated at 12:42 p.m. on 12/25 to correct a case of mistaken identify for sthrngal and Karen. Added props to C-Marie.

Updated at 9:55 a.m. on 12/26 to correct a broken hyperlink in the reference to Dad's Life. Added a tip of the hat to former blogger LBP.

… remember this: no man is a failure who has friends.
-- Clarence, in a note to George Bailey, It's a Wonderful Life

In a post from over ten months ago, I invoked the character of Clarence, the guardian angel, during one of many dark chapters of my life. I cannot claim to have ever been visited upon by a heavenly host such as Clarence. However, as my tortuous quest for new employment draws to a close, it is only right to acknowledge that I have been challenged, comforted, and ultimately strengthened by a multitude of angels and archangels who call the blogosphere their home. It is unto them that I dedicate this post and offer up my deepest gratitude.

What follows is an attempt to thank several of them by name, but I also fear that I may forget some of them. A year and some 300 posts is a lot to remember. If someone notices an omission, please let me know so that I can add them to this posting.

Anais -- a longtime and loyal reader who has imparted wisdom in areas from the mundane to the profound. She was the one who first clued me in on Schnarch. In both comments and IM conversations, she has been a source of encouragement. My only regret is that I did not make it to the Big Apple for an interview so that we could finally meet in person.

Drunken Housewife -- bold, blunt, and ever helpful, Drunken, along with a guest appearance from her Sober Husband, has been a resource on job searching, wellness, and legal matters. Her own blog posts on her kids have been a nice diversion, and you couldn't ask for a better hostess in the Bay Area or anywhere.

ChelseaGirl -- although our discussions were more offline than on-the-blog, this local commenter listened sympathetically to my kvetching over many months and encouraged me to stand my ground with my wife. Although our communication is much more limited now that she is working toward finding happiness in her own life, she has been there with affirmation and offers of help.

sixdegrees -- a sage advisor in the areas of job hunting and relationships, leaving very useful insights in the comments section. I also have him to thank for clueing me in on the book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.

Tom Allen -- a kink-minded blogger who has been great about challenging me on my interpretation of Schnarch's writings. He also has contributed some useful insights on effective assertiveness both in this space and over at Joe Flirt's blog.

Therese in Heaven and Recovering Soul -- this husband and wife blogging team have served as an inspiration regarding the hope of mending a marriage on the brink of dissolution. Moreover, their suffering reminded me that seeking an EMR is not worth the damage it causes once it is uncovered. Therese has also kicked my rhetorical booty a few times in the comments sections here and there.

Have the T-Shirt -- a source of encouragement pretty much in my own back yard. She has offered good advice in preparing for divorce, and I've found her own personal story to be a cautionary tale of the hardships that divorce can visit upon the parent and the child. She was the first blogger I met in person.

Digger Jones -- a blogging institution in his own right, Digger is probably the largest source of recurring visitors in this space. His posting Top 10 Ways of Identifying a LL Partner is a classic in my opinion. He has given me much to think about. And judging from the banter over on one of his blogs, I seem to be returning the favor.

John (Dad's Life) -- a stay-at-home dad with doubts over the long-term prospects of his marriage, John has been the source of several engaging threads, most of which are over on his blog. I think the most powerful comment he ever left was one where he talks about his own father's regrets over not taking opportunities to advance his career to placate his wife.

m is for _____/some poems don't rhyme/i hope so -- a Bowenian-minded therapist who once used a quotation from Schnarch as a tag line for her blog. I've seen in her writings some similar struggles with big questions in life. She seems to be attacking them much more effectively at a much younger age than I did. Aside from Anais and John, I think she might well have been the only blogger who could read my posts about differentiation and not look at me as if I was some sort of crazy guy in the River Jordan screaming "Repent!". Not that I needed her validation or anything. ;-)

Karen -- a reader who this summer reached out help me get my job application in the right hands for a position that I really wanted. Although I didn't get the job, I am grateful that she took the time and risk of anonymity to do that.

Kristy -- a reader who found my blog while searching for references to Schnarch in weblogs, she was kind enough to share her story about hitting critical mass.

LawGirl -- a wickedly hilarious blogger whose posts have given me ample fodder for comments on her blog. She has also been kind enough to offer sage advice about not getting screwed over in divorce and inviting me to partake in adult beverages.

Lisa (Sunset Pig) -- a fellow blogger who is in the process of getting a divorce, her own emotional ups and downs remind me that I am not alone in this difficult place. Her photography is amazing.

EuroPosh -- a wonderful Bay Area blogger whom I had the privilege of meeting a couple weeks ago. This past summer, she was kind enough to get me a good chunk of career advice from one of her software developer friends out in the Silicon Valley via private e-mail, and discussing the oddities of American culture with her is a joy.

LBP -- a commenter from the Diggersphere who was a brilliant essayist on his own blog. His post lamenting that power struggles in marriage were not resolved as cleanly as they are in the canine world ranks up there as one of my all time favorites. His meme on stage roles succeeded in getting let my hair down a bit in this space. (tongue planted firmly in cheek) I only wish he would have explained those enigmatic *ding* posts before closing down his blog.

C-Marie -- a loyal reader and encouraging commenter who has toughed it out during my job search despite her own admission that my account of it gives her nightmares.

Cat and FADKOG -- witty comments and superb tastes in music. 'Nuff said.

Sassy -- a onetime frequent commenter who not only gave me a lot of reassurance, she introduced me to the term "TSN Turning Point".

sthrngal -- This longtime reader was one of the early commenters who provided another viewpoint to my struggles to understand my wife's behavior. Later, she would help me make sense of a cryptic rejection e-mail from a recruiter.

Trouble -- a onetime frequent commenter whose blog I Can't Believe He's Still Single has given me many a belly laugh.

GodsKid -- a reader who has left many reassuring comments and has brought out the nerd in me.a time or two. I am grateful for the words of encouragement.

The Train Lady -- a blog reader whose comments are more private than public. She is someone from across the pond who knew me before I started 2amsomewhere. She's been quite generous in her praise for my writing, and she has impeccable tastes in music.

Crescent Moon -- an occasional reader and poster in this space under several names over the lifespan of this blog, her own blog 63 Miles is pure poetry.

Samantha Jones -- another local reader with whom I corresponded more in IM than on the blog. We met in person only once, very briefly. I stopped by her workplace in September, at her invitation, for a strawberry lemonade. We led very different lifestyles, but we were both trying to find ways to get our lives back on a more authentic path. For her that meant enlisting in the Marines this fall. I haven't heard from her since she left for basic training in mid-October. I hope she is doing well.

GODrums -- a reader who popped up on a post around the time I was getting ready to do my September interview tour de force. We had some offline discussions about career opportunities on the west coast, but I didn't pursue them further due to burnout. I am grateful that he reached out to help, though.

Elise -- a onetime blogger who was restless in her own marriage, chronicling her feelings and fantasies on a blog called Ringfinger. The blog went dark earlier this year. I wonder how she is doing or whether she managed to seek resolution to her problems.

Like I said earlier, if you find any omissions, please let me know. They weren't intentional.

To these and all of my readers, who may have found this space helpful, I wish you all the best for the holidays, whichever ones you might observe!

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Late Night Listening Installment XXI: Daylight Again

Before I get into the latest news on my personal life, I'd like to note a piece of news that came over the wires a day or two ago, but didn't blog about. In a prior posting, I lamented the loss of Dan Fogelberg to prostate cancer. Now there is news that Stephen Stills, the "Stills" of CSN and sometimes Y, will undergo surgery for the same affliction, on the third day of the new year.

Those of you who are unfamiliar with the individual voices of this supergroup will recognize him as the lead vocalist on "Southern Cross", the song whose lyrics influenced the titles on my blog's sidebar. I was surprised that no one had uploaded the band's video for the studio recording, but this live performance is nice.

The song never rose to the greatness of their earlier stuff. This is no "Suite Judy Blue Eyes" or "Teach Your Children Well", but the lyrics are beautiful poetry.

When you see the Southern Cross for the first time
You understand now why you came this way
'Cause the truth you might be runnin' from is so small
But it's as big as the promise, the promise of a comin' day

So I'm sailing for tomorrow, my dreams are a dyin'
And my love is an anchor tied to you, tied with a silver chain
I have my ship, and all her flags are a flyin'
She is all that I have left, and music is her name

Indeed, there has been many a moment throughout the history of this blog that I've felt like my dreams were dying in some way. And given that this is my 21st post featuring musical selections since July, it wouldn't be too much of a stretch to say that music has helped get me through it all.

The last couple weeks have felt like a high stakes poker game... a near write off of Company Line, an offer from Bonded and Insured, resignation drama with my current employer, red tape from Bonded and Insured, and finally signs that I might have an offer from Company Line.

One of my regular commenters, and a source of good advice, sixdegrees, offered up this gameplan over the weekend:
So here's my take - I suspect that the recruiter for B&I was either having a bad day and didn't want to deal again with a case file that she thought was a done deal, or that she had some ulterior motive for getting you on board before the end of the year (bonus points that make her look good to her boss?).

In any case, I can't imagine that the manager would have strong feelings about moving the start date for a long-term position. And your point about starting the job before all the background and drug checks are in is a very strong point for moving the start date back.

In the meantime, how fast can Company Line put together an offer and decide on a start date? I would go back to them on Monday and say you are very interested, show me the money. If they can put together a competitive offer in a short time frame, then they win and B&I's recruiter ends up with egg on her face. If not, B&I sounds like a much better option than your current employer.

And I decided to act on it. On Monday morning, I called my contact at Company Line and asked him for a ballpark figure on salary and cost of insurance. He said that he would have an offer drawn up for me and that they would try to get it out on Monday.

Later that afternoon, I got a call from the recruiter at Bonded and Insured. I was busy, so I let it go to voicemail. Her message just asked me to call her back. I needed to stonewall her in the event it was about the drug test, so I didn't reply and sent her an e-mail that evening saying that I would be in a meeting Tuesday morning and would try to connect that afternoon.

I wasn't lying when I said I had a meeting on Tuesday morning. My employer had arranged to give a presentation to the group at the medical device manufacturer for whom we had performed a security audit. The CTO had thrown together a huge PowerPoint presentation, almost fifty slides in all.

I had contributed some of the content, including recommendations on tuning security parameters, selecting a PHP framework, and documenting security issues with several applications. A lot of it seemed to have been copied and pasted from other sources, and the organization was somewhat scattershot. But he impressed the client, and he promised them a more detailed report before the end of the year.

Afternoon rolled around. I called home to see if an offer letter had arrived via either regular mail or overnight delivery. My wife said, "no". I was starting to get antsy about the offer, so I sent an e-mail to my contact and asked whether he could send me a duplicate by e-mail. He said that the offer was going to be sent by e-mail and that it should be out to me by the end of the day.

While I was at the security audit meeting, the recruiter at Bonded and Insured had replied to my email, saying that she wanted me to give her a call in regards to me starting on Wednesday. I about blew a blood vessel because our phone conversation from the prior Thursday had ended in agreement that she would contact the manager about a later start date and then get back with me.

I called her around 4 p.m. on my way home from work, leaving early because my wife had to work the girls' dance school supply store and my younger daughter was sick. I told the recruiter that her presumption that I would be ready to go on Wednesday had put me in an awkward situation. She tried to claim that she had tried to call me on Friday, but the caller ID stacks on neither my cell phone nor my home phone showed that she had done so. Moreover, she said that I should have presumed that if I didn't hear anything adverse that I should have been ready to start on Wednesday.

I explained that it wouldn't be good if I called my soon-to-be-ex employer and told them that I wouldn't be showing up, given that I had already caused a stir a week and a half before. She said that that they really shouldn't complain because I had already given them two "bonus days".

She then let slip that they had gotten the results of the drug test and background check that day, so the could not have guaranteed me the position until then. I said that it didn't seem fair that I had to shoulder the risk of possibly being totally unemployed because of their policies, but they would not be flexible enough to move my start date at my request.

She then said that it would cause a lot of paper work problems if they didn't start me on Wednesday, and that my managers wanted to start training me as soon as possible. She was not going to budge. Not wanting to deal with her anymore, but not wanting to slam the door entirely in the event that Company Line didn't come through with a competitive offer, I asked whether I get back with my bosses and then give her a call or e-mail her that evening. She agreed to do that.

I got home and checked my private e-mail. The offer e-mail from Company Line had arrived shortly before 5 p.m., and the offer was wonderful! They beat the salary of the Bonded and Insured by $7,000, and they threw in a reasonable health plan and stock options. I was very happy. There was one sticking point, though. The letter listed a start date of January 14, which would really put me in limbo.

Not being able to stonewall any further, I rolled the dice and left both an e-mail and a voice mail in the wee hours of Wednesday morning with the recruiter saying that I would not be taking the position after all. I didn't receive a reply, and I hope i don't because I'm sure that I torched the bridge over at Bonded and Insured pretty well.

Also on Tuesday evening, the CTO contacted me asking me to prepare a formal letter of resignation for my records and to give them a firm end date so that they could have that squared away for the payroll deadline at noon on Wednesday.

On Wednesday morning, I sent an e-mail to my contact at Company Line to let him know that the offer looked good but sought clarification on start date. I asked if it could be any earlier than the 14th. He wrote back promptly, saying that I could start earlier, but anything earlier than the 2nd would be difficult to accomplish. I said that was no problem and then asked them to amend the letter so that it had a start date on the 2nd.

That was enough information for me to safely say that I would be out of my current situation by the end of the year, so I notified the CTO and CEO and wrote up my resignation letter, with language that clearly stated that I would formally resign the position at the end of business on December 31.

I didn't get a reply to that e-mail, so this morning I sent another e-mail, attaching a signed and edited version of the offer letter showing a start date of January 2. I added that if I needed to sign a newly generated letter, I could do that, too. This afternoon, he wrote back apologizing for the delay in replying, and then he said that the letter I sent should be okay, and that he'd be looking forward to me starting on the 2nd.

And so the deal was concrete and completed. After over a year of job searching, countless interviews, and a large number of rejections, I finally have a job, and I can feel the rays of sunlight warm my soul. Such a happy occasion requires at the very least the infamous dancing banana, so here he is:

This occasion brings to mind another song... At Notre Dame football games, it is a tradition that whenever the Irish score a touchdown, the marching band plays a clog called "Damsha Bua". Members of the Irish Guard and even the cheerleaders dance to it. There isn't really a good clip out there of the performance, so you'll have to settle for this snippet.

I think that the offer is the right for me on several levels. I will be charging headfirst into a lot of new skills (LAMP, AJAX, and web services) and learning about building scalable websites, stuff that would have probably made me a better fit for ShovelSite and other high end jobs. If I succeed, this will definitely make me a better fit for the tech hubs out west, should I decide to move out that way. In that respect, it will be keeping some dreams alive.

I will be working in a location that isn't too far from my daughters. The location is a lively place, rich in culture and creativity. The pay will be a 30 % increase in salary. I will be able to use public transportation. And, amusingly enough, I will be spending my time developing a blogging application.

I have a lot of people to thank for having helped me get to this point. Before the weekend is up, I plan on writing a thank you post because there are too many for me to think of right off the top of my head, and I don't want to give anyone short shrift.

Stay tuned, because the story continues...

Monday, December 17, 2007

2am. Somewhere Else. Part II

A few days ago, I wrote in a post:
As you will find out in a post elsewhere, I had a chance to meet up with a fellow blogger during my travels. It was just for coffee, but the real-life interaction a nice pick-me-up.

The post is now up at EuroPosh. Enjoy!

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Late Night Listening XX: Not the Same Auld Lang Syne

I read in the news this evening that the son of the leader of the band has died, and it is a sad day indeed.

When this song was enjoying top-40 radio airplay, I was back in school, a mere fifth grader. And now I'm about nine years older than what he would have been when he was recording that song.

Those of you who have read the back story of my life know that my wife was my first serious relationship, so I don't have a history of old lovers into whom I might run at a grocery. The closest I've ever come to something like that was running into an old classmate in the building where I work about a year ago. We weren't close, not even in the same social circle really. But she remembered who I was.

I'm sure that with time, once my wife and I go our separate ways, news of my marital status will propagate through my hometown's grapevine. Shock will probably be the normal reaction. Word might make its way to the town's diaspora, many of whom call this city home. I wonder whether someone might try to contact me for the purposes of friendship or something more amorous. Who knows?

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Late Night Listening XIX: Taking Two, Because I'm So Hard to Please

Our first selection is the third in a series of songs that jingle sans an explicit Christmas motif, the Bangles' cover of the Simon & Garfunkel classic "Hazy Shade of Winter".

The song came to mind this afternoon as I made my way across the parking lot of the local Wal-Hell, on a spur-of-the-moment errand to get more MiniDV tapes for the camcorder. I had just passed a bell ringer for the Salvation Army, and somewhere in the distance I heard a trumpet playing, which made me think of the song's reference to the Salvation Army Band.

But, as things are with a mind that won't let an idea remain idle, I thought about this passage of the song's lyrics:
Time, time, time, see what's become of me
While I looked around
For my possibilities
I was so hard to please
But look around, leaves are brown
And the sky is a hazy shade of winter

And, boy, does that ever sum up my spirit at the moment.

Deal... Or No Deal?

In a post from Thursday, I gave an account of the problems I had run into completing a drug screen for the job offer from Bonded and Insured. By mid-day Thursday, I was seriously worried that I might be in a situation where I would have no job at the beginning of next week.

In the early afternoon on Thursday, I sent an e-mail to both him and the CEO about an expense report for my trip to the Bay Area. The CEO brain cramped responded saying that I should go over it with the bookkeeper when she was in the office on Monday. Apparently she had forgotten that I had spoken about starting a new job on the 17th.

A little while later, the CTO IMed me, asking me what day exactly was my last day with them. Seeing an opportunity to hedge my bets, I said that I didn't think we had finalized a day. I then added that the new employer had expressed a desire to have me start on the 17th, otherwise they would have to start me after the holidays, which was true. I said that if they needed me to help wrap things up at the end of the year, I could get a hold of the future employer and see if they would still be willing to start me on the later schedule. He said that they would appreciate it.

So I got on the phone with the recruiter, with whom I had spoken earlier in the day regarding the drug test delays. I reminded her that the reason they wanted me to start on the 17th was to beat the holidays, and that given that they wouldn't be able to start me before the middle of the week, would it not be better for them just to hold off on starting me until the week of the 31st?

I said that the snag with the drug test had raised some concerns that I ran the risk of putting myself in an employment limbo. In essence, they wanted me to make commitments to hire on with them, sign an offer letter, and be ready to go, but they still wanted to have the postpone my start date and retain the right to withdraw the offer, should there be any negative findings on their background check and drug test. Moreover, had I taken on the risk of stoking up ill will with my current employer with the short departure notice. The added time would allow them to complete their background checking and would allow me to leave my current employer on better terms.

The recruiter was resistant to the idea. She said that they really wanted to start me before the end of the year because this position had been open a long time. I asked whether there would be that many people in the office to train me during the shortened weeks. She said that the offices were open on both 12/24 and 12/31, but conceded that most people wound up taking those days off.

She also said that they wanted to start me in December because that way I would be eligible for health coverage in January instead of having to wait for another month to roll around. I said that wasn't a problem because right now my family and I were covered under my wife's health plan, so we didn't have to worry about any kind of transitional coverage like COBRA.

Her tone was markedly different from our initial conversations and was more like the salary negotiation. I felt like she was playing hardball, but I refused to give in. She finally said she would check with the managers to see if it was OK to move the date. Between the red tape of the drug test and the inflexibility, I was quickly losing the warm and fuzzy feeling about this opportunity.

Nonetheless, I completed the drug screen bright and early this Saturday morning. The lab nearest me is one of the few branches with Saturday hours, so I went in when they opened at 7 a.m. I held off from going to the bathroom when I got up so that I would be ready and not be diluted.

Now throw in another piece to complicate this circus, the third ring, if you will. On Monday, I got an e-mail from my contact at Company Line. He said that they had completed the reference checks and for the most part they had turned out well, but there was something that he wanted to discuss with me in person before they made an offer.

I was dying to find out what this was all about, so I played phone tag with him for a couple of days, finally making contact early Wednesday morning. I set up an appointment for 1 p.m. on Friday at the company's offices downtown.

We talked things over at the Coffee on Every Corner. He first apologized for the delay in getting my references checked out, explaining that they had employed an outside recruiter to do the checking. Not only did he send out questionnaires for the referred parties, but he also did phone follow ups.

He said that my former boss had said that my productivity went through a decline during my last years there when I was working as a telecommuter. I acknowledged that this was indeed true. Once kids came into the picture, it became more difficult to remain productive when working from home. It was then that I started to look for employment locally.

He said he was concerned whether their working environment would be good for me, noting that both he and the other full-time developer worked from home a lot of days. I said that was a valid concern because one of the things that had been a morale buster at my current workplace was that I found myself in the office alone so often. Although I'm not an extrovert, I found human conversation to be a necessary ingredient to my well being.

He said that they thought I was a great match with respect to both technical skills and the ability to learn new things, but they didn't want to make me an offer if I didn't think that this would be a good place for me. He said that I could take the weekend to think about this, and if I wanted to move forward, they would extend an offer.

I also had a number of questions about the technology and the operations of the company, based on what I had seen at my current employer. He gave me the impression that they do things quite differently, which was reassuring. I also asked him to give me a demo of the product, so I would see what their software did. All-in-all, we spent an hour and a half talking.

So this weekend, I find myself weighing my options and questioning my motives.

Compensation is a big question mark. My guess is that with $1 million in financing from this summer, they have enough to pay their employees about as much as what I would be making with Bonded and Insured. He said that equity would be part of the package. Health insurance probably will be more expensive, and I will have to pay for parking at Company Line since they are located downtown.

As for challenges, Bonded and Insured won't be as difficult from a technology perspective. I'll have a bit of a learning curve with their database and the financial information connectivity, but their very vanilla when it comes to computing. Indeed, when I was down at the standards group meeting, I crossed paths with an independent consultant who lives up in the north suburbs and used to work for the parent company of Bonded and Insured. He groaned about the company's resistance to newer technologies. The real learning will be in the business domain, where I'm picking up knowledge about the bond market. Those skills might be useful in the long run if I want to move out east and work in finance.

Company Line will be a whole new slate of fresh technologies, mainly in the development of scalable web applications and rich user interfaces. These are the kinds of things that would punch my ticket to either the Puget Sound or Silicon Valley. There is also a growing market for these kinds of skills in this area.

Then there is the quality of life issue. Bonded and Insured is located up in the land of suburban office parks. There are some trees, lots of grass, and retention ponds galore, but you need a car to get everywhere, and cars are all you see when you're looking out the window. I would have a one-hour commute from my current location, and once I moved out, I would probably trade that off for at least 40 minutes distance from my kids. Company Line is located in the heart of downtown. The Circle is teeming with life and culture, and I think this is someplace I would be happier. I would be much closer to my kids.

Barring some divine epiphany between now and Monday morning, my plan of action will be to call Company Line to get a ballpark figure on the salary and cost of health insurance, if the numbers are comparable, I might clench my teeth and roll the dice on them.

The questioning of motives comes into play in a couple of areas.

The first regards my emotional souring on Bonded and Insured. Does Company Line look that much better right now just because I'm mad at the Bonded and Insured Recruiter? Am I doing this just to punish her in some passive aggressive way? Do I really want
to burn that bridge?

The second was whether my pull toward Bonded and Insured may have been partially due to a desire to get as far away as possible from my wife. Am I motivated more by the need for a geographical barrier to keep her from controlling me?

Or is all this indecision the result of some subconscious desire to self sabotage? Man, I am hard to please.

A Special Treat for Commenter GodsKid

In a comment on a prior post, GodsKid writes:
Hey - any video with gorgeous guy and great dancer Gregory Hines is a great video!

I thought about posting a link to the video for Phil Collins and Marilyn Martin's "Separate Lives" since it is from the soundtrack to White Nights, but upon further review, that one doesn't have a lotta Hines in it. So that left me with Lionel Ritchie's "Say You, Say Me", but longtime readers of this blog will remember that I've already used that song in a prior post. Fortunately, someone has been so kind as to post the dance scene from the movie. Enjoy!

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Late Night Listening Installment XVIII: Testing the Limits of Respectability

I'm sure someone's going to bust my chops for putting this one on the jukebox, but I'm keeping with the theme of my prior Late Night Listening and selecting a non-Christmas song with jingle bells. I give you Whitney Houston's "Exhale":

Ok, now that you've stopped pelting me with vegetables and countless bean bags of varying mass, I'll ask you to look pastall that baggage that you've managed to associate with the tragic celebrity figure that is Whitney.

There's a couple of things that stick with my memory some 12 years after its release.

First, the musical accompaniment follows Houston's lead, kicking into gear only after she's sung "Everyone". It trails her throughout the song, like the ripples of water emanating from a boat as it glides across otherwise quiescent waters.

For the most part, the lyrics aren't much to write home about, long on glib cliches and smothered with unimagniative scat singing. Unless you just go ga-ga over the non-word "Shoop", you won't find much of exhilaration here.

Yet, among this all banality, I find this verse somehow speaks for my present.
Sometimes you'll laugh
Sometimes you'll cry
Life never tells us
The when's or why's
When you've got friends to wish you well
You'll find a point when
You will exhale (yeah, yeah, say)

As I made my way off the plane from my return trip last night, 30 minutes behind schedule, with nothing to greet me in the midnight downpour other than a fluorescent lit parking shelter, the cold reality of the loneliness hit me like full speed dodgeball to the gut at recess.

The fits and starts of trying to move from one job to another has left me facing some pretty deep emotional lows, and they're getting harder to pull myself out of. I really need to see a doctor for medication, and I need to start reinforcing the friends I have out here on the ether with real life friends.

As you will find out in a post elsewhere, I had a chance to meet up with a fellow blogger during my travels. It was just for coffee, but the real-life interaction a nice pick-me-up.

Yes, Drunken, the War on Drugs Does Indeed Suck

In a comment from a couple posts back, the Drunken Housewife writes:
Sorry about the horrors of the drug testing (isn't it all so ridiculous? This "war on drugs" crap is so nonsensical).

Yes, you are right. It's costing me a minimum of two days' pay now.

I didn't get a chance to write about this on Monday because I was in so much of a hurry , but it's worth recounting because it underscores the amount of time this little test has consumed.

As I mentioned on Friday, I attempted to take the drug test, but was unable to produce a sample of adequate volume within the hour before the collection lab closed. Because the form, once it is written upon, cannot be used for another collection time, the collector destroyed the form and told me I'd have to go get another one.

So, I made arrangements to pick up a new form from the company's HR offices up in the north burbs. At my current job, we have a bookkeeper who comes in on Mondays, and someone has to be in the office to let her in. Since I would be the only employee in town that day, I was the lucky doorkeeper. I had to stay until she wrapped up her work, which was just before 11 a.m. I drank a couple of large cups of water.

I booked it up to the office to pick up the form. That put me at 11:20. I had asked the HR person to get me a list of drug test locations nearest to their offices. The list showed one a couple miles away, but it didn't give hours of screening, only that the collection site was closed for lunch from noon to 1 p.m. I called the number for that site. A recorded message said that they cease screening after 11:30 and resume at 1. I knew from experience that it would be very unlikely that they would squeeze me in that quickly. So I decided to wait until after 1.

I went back to my office, went to the bathroom, and packed things up for the trip out west, and then headed over to another screen location that wasn't too far out of the way. I ate lunch and then headed over to that lab at 1 p.m. The listing for that site indicated reopening from lunch at 1. I get to the site, and there is a handwritten note on the door that reads, "Sorry, closed until 1:30." I was already starting to feel some pain in my bladder, and this just added to the stress.

At about 1:15, I decide that I can't take it anymore, and I go to the bathroom and try to let out just enough so that I'm no longer in agony. Around 1:30, the collector returns from lunch and reopens. I have to wait another 15 minutes because the person in front of me has paperwork that the collector is unfamiliar with. I do the collection, producing an adequately voluminous sample, and I'm on my way.

This morning, I got a call from my recruiter telling me that the test came back as too diluted, so they need me to do it a third time. Moreover, because of this snag, they will not be able to start me on the 17th as originally planned. At the earliest, it will be the middle of the week.

I expressed my exasperation with the amount of time that had been consumed dealing with either rude or tardy service at two of the drug testing lab's collection sites, but agreed to do the test because I'm not left with much of a choice. A form is being overnighted to my house, but it won't be here until tomorrow.

It's also worth noting that the roll served to me at my lunch at the standards body group on Tuesday was garnished with poppy seeds.

If the next test consumes as much time as my other two, I will have spent more time dealing with drug testing than I have with interviewing for them.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Greetings from the Bay Area!

I survived talk number one at my standards group meeting. Fortunately, the prior panel discussion went far into overtime, thereby whittling away the amount of time I was on stage. The second and final talk is tomorrow morning at 9:05 am and is the undercard for a series of presentations and discussions for two competing standards.

Just in case you think I'm having too much fun in my 36 or so hours out here, I'm pulling out a description from a blog post that isn't about this meeting, but describes rather well a lot of the stuff that goes on here.
The next two weeks were spent sitting in meetings with people who, clutching Use Case for Dummies, became alarmingly obsessed with whether a wireless connection was an actor or a role, or whether opening a door was a task or a scenario. The assembled architects lovingly raked up irrelevant anecdotes from their past, created fiefdoms and cliques, and meetings were dominated by aging personalities who seemingly loved nothing more than to hear the sound of their own voice while they argued irrelevant minutiae.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

... A Date Which Will Live in Infamy

OK, maybe 12/07/2007 won't ever match the infamy of 12/07/1941, but it will still be a big turning point in my life. To understand why, we have to rewind a little way back.

November 21, 2007

En route to his in-laws for Thanksgiving, the CTO calls me at work in the morning to let me now that he successfully downloaded the 19 GB of emulation environment files and got them working on his computer. After discussing some other tangential items, he instructs me to start looking at flight itineraries for my scheduled trip to the standards body technical meeting Dec. 10 - 14 because he's worried about flights filling up for the holidays.

Recalling that he did nothing with my proposed itinerary back in September, when I prepared it on a similar request, I chose instead to come up with a flight plan and then keep coming back every day to see if the flight was still available. I would send it to him when he e-mailed me to ask for it.

November 26, 2007

After over two weeks of silence regarding the third party contractors that were supposed to be working on the security audit for our client, word arrives that they are back on board.

A teleconference is held with the second group at the medical device manufacturer to discuss their security audit. The IT guy is expressing skepticism about our company's security credentials, saying that the sample audit reports that the CTO sent his way were several years old and that our website does not advertise any security consulting services. He also says he has doubts about the company being able to complete the audit by early December because their architecture is complicated and very different from that of the other department. He wants a more detailed explanation of the company's methodologies for becoming familiar with newer systems.

My coworker hears from the CEO that if this department balks at the deal, they will proceed with the audit anyway since they have a signed purchase order, and then they will send them the bill. My coworker and I agree this seems like a wrongheaded thing to do, because whatever work product emerges from such a hamhanded approach will contain information of limited value to the client.

November 27, 2007

A teleconference is held with the contractors, wherein we give them the information for downloading the emulation environment.

During the meeting, the coworker notes the IP addresses of the contractors as they log into the machine and note that they are residential cable modems.

November 28, 2007

Shortly before 1 p.m., I get an e-mail from the CTO asking me to send him the flight itinerary. I send him a PDF of the flight combination that I had been eyeing. Lag time between his e-mail and my response is less than two minutes. No e-mail arrives regarding plane ticket.

November 29, 2007

In the morning, we get an e-mail from the contractor saying that one of them has looked over the emulation environment and supporting documentation. He has concluded that there is 25 % more work than what we estimated in the proposal. Instead of 40 hours, it would take 50 hours. Moreover, given their preexisting time commitments, they will not be able to complete the contract before January 15. The CTO's head explodes after hearing about this. During lunch, my coworker has an IM conversation with the CTO via Blackberry. The CTO tells him that the audits have to be completed by the end of the year for tax purposes and "the deal." My coworker asks, "What deal?" The CTO offers only the terse response, "The deal in LA."

Later on in the afternoon, my coworker notes sends me an IM link for a website maintained by one of the guys who works for the contractors. It is recently updated and suggests that he is an independent consultant, leading us to speculate that our subcontracted contractors are subcontracting themselves.

No e-mail arrives regarding plane ticket.

December 3, 2007

The contractors' huge deadline shift has produced a series of nastygrams between the CEO and the contractors. My coworker is in CCed on the exchanges and sends me copies. The CTO is outraged, complaining that he was misled by them on their availability and that their time estimates make no sense.

The contractors defend themselves, saying that two weeks were wasted exchanging e-mails and voice mails regarding the contract. The original contract provided by my employer was supposedly intended for an individual subcontractor. They said that they took on the expense of having it revised by legal counsel to make it more relevant to the actual project. He also noted that they had been doing all of this without a signed statement of work.

The talks break down with the CTO exasperated, claiming that he will not be able to use the contractors. The deal collapses. With one department backing away from it's audit, and the other in such a state of disrepair that it might not get done, combined with the CTO's failure to purchase a plane ticket, I'm beginning to wonder if the wheels are about to fall off of this jalopy.

My coworker and I note the irony of the CTO complaining about the contractor not having enough resources to do the job at hand. It just so happens that the main reason we had turned to them was because he was promising to do something before a deadline without having the requisite resources himself.

I am put on a new task, which involves learning how to hack policy files for a Linux based security framework so that we can get rid of several error messages in the security framework's logging.

At 2 p.m., I have a second in-person interview with Bonded and Insured. I am to meet with the company's president and the controller, two very high profile positions, so I come dressed in a button down shirt and slacks. After arriving in the parking lot, I put a tie and suit coat on. I forget to move my keys from my winter coat to my slacks. I throw the winter coat into the back seat, lock the car door, and then close it. It is at this point that I realize I have locked myself out of my car.

Already cutting it close, I decide to remain calm and go meet the recruiter. I tell her about the mishap as we're getting ready to do the interview and ask her whether there might be a security guard in the office park who can help me out. She says she doesn't think so. She asks whether there is anyone who might be able to come help me. I say that my wife has another key, but she is clear on the other side of town, so it would take her almost 40 minutes to get here. Given that she was supposed to be taking our older daughter to preschool and pick her up at this time, I didn't think this was a feasible option. She says she will see what she can do.

Both interviews are non-technical conversations, more interested in who I am as a person. It's pretty clear that they're checking for a personality fit. The president is eager to learn about my outside interests, focusing on sports and hobbies. He seems like a pretty down-to-earth guy. I impress the controller by bringing up Sarbanes-Oxley compliance and how it would impact the work I would do.

During the interview with the president, the recruiter says that they are getting the city police department to get the door open. During the second interview, the recruiter asks me to come out to speak with the officer. It turns out that he has succeeded in shattering the driver's side window, ostensibly because it is so cold out.

I ask whether it is legal for me to drive the car. He says he can punch the window out, which he does. He says normally they don't assume liability for damage during these kinds of procedures, but because he failed to get my consent, he says that he will contact his superior officer to see what they can do for me. He takes my personal contact information.

I drive home with an extra breeze, stopping at a hardware store to pick up some polyethylene sheeting and some clear adhesive tape. Before going to bed that night, I jury rig an ersatz window for the car. My wife is mad at me for not calling her and says that I'll have to wait until the end of the week to get the window fixed because we don't have the money.

Later on, I check our bank account balances via the web and find that we have less than $100 in savings and less than $300 in checking. I express my unhappiness at her, given that we are now supposed to be bringing in more money because we've switched our health coverage from my employer to hers and she's now working 32 hours a week instead of 10. On my paycheck alone, that freed up over $300.

Her reply is that I should have expected this because "we were barely making it on what we had before." I said this didn't make sense because we now had more income. I said that I didn't know where the money was going and what I could do about it. She just told me that maybe I should go find another job and move out so that I could be happy.

Throughout the day, I receive e-mails from my references indicating that they have responded to requests from Company Line, which means that they are moving forward with the references. However, the week would pass by without a word from them. By the end of the week, it will have been three weeks since my technical interview and the subsequent request for work references. My confidence in them to execute in a timely manner is slipping substantially.

Still no e-mail arrives regarding plane ticket.

December 4, 2007

The drive to work is very loud with the polyethylene film making lots of flapping noises and becoming frighteningly deafening when a semi passes by.

I have therapy with my counselor. She told me it was time to start getting tough with my wife, going so far as to separate the finances, having my pay deposited in different bank account where my wife has no access and then doling out an allowance to her. I agree in principle but argue that it probably doesn't make sense to do this with my current job since I'm on the verge of jumping ship. If I put in notice this week, it may be impossible since past experience shows that it takes a couple of weeks for them to get the adjustment made. I decide that I will institute this on the new job instead.

I get a hold of my car insurance and find that we have full coverage for glass breakage. They set me up with their preferred repair shop to have someone replace the window that afternoon.

I get a call from the recruiter at Bonded and Insured saying that she wanted to get a feel of whether I was definitely interested in the job. She says that the president doesn't like to go through the paperwork of making an offer if the compensation isn't what the recruit is expecting. She asks me what it would take for me to come on board and disregard the potential offer from Company Line. I say that I need to sleep on it and do some salary research.

Still no word on a plane ticket.

December 5, 2007

Coworker and I discuss the current state of things, wondering what is going on with the security audits and the revenue chasing with Red Crescent Cable. I note that we are barely doing any work developing a sellable product that it's almost an act of fraud to go out to that standards body meeting.

In the afternoon, I call the recruiter at Bonded and Insured to discuss an offer. I ask her what they were thinking in terms of compensation. She says that their HR department does a thorough survey of market compensation, and they came up with a figure of $70K.

I said that I've watched advertised compensation figures in job postings for a long time, and I had compared breakdowns for similar positions on salary.com and came up with a figure in the mid 70s. She counters that is a huge increase from my current compensation, and it might limit my ability to get raises in the future.

I said that I had been working for an underfunded startup for two years at a below market rate without a raise. I add that people working at startups will sometimes forgo compensation for bigger rewards in the future.

She asks if I would consider 72.5. I ask her to nudge it up to 73, just to make it more in my favor. She agrees to go clear it with the higher ups. An hour and a half later, she comes back with an OK and says that an offer letter will be put together and sent out either that evening or the next morning.

The offer letter will be part of a larger packet that includes two copies of the offer, information about benefits, and what I will need to do on day one. She said that the offer is contingent on a background check and drug test.

We talk about starting dates. I tell her that I probably need to give two weeks' notice, but given the circumstances they might let me go immediately after giving notice. She says that seems to be a more frequent practice among employers.

She says that the earliest I could start would be the 17th of December, but if I can't start then, they would probably have to start me on the 31st because of the holidays.

No word on a plane ticket.

December 6, 2007

My coworker is feeling ill, complaining of symptoms that suggest a sinus infection, so he opts to work from home. He sits in on the teleconference with Red Arc Cable wherein the CTO makes all kinds of fradulent claims about existing features. We agree that the talk of a deal to sell the company to the guy in LA is just that: all talk. The security audits and the sales pitch to the cable company looks like an ac of desperation.

I chair the weekly teleconference for the standards body group. Only two other people attend, and those are the only ones who have been attending and contributing on a regular basis. Given that I still have no plane ticket, no lodging arrangements, and no meeting registration, I feel like a fraud acting like I'm actually going to be out there.

In the early afternoon, I get an e-mail from the service that is doing the background check for Bonded and Insured. Attached is a consent form to do the check. I complete that and fax it back to them.

Sometime shortly after 3 p.m., I get an IM from the CTO who tells me that he's preparing to purchase my plane tickets and wants to know if I want to fly out on Sunday evening or early Monday morning. This tells me a two things: First, he completely ignored my e-mail from over a week ago which had a Sunday evening departure. Second, he had not bothered to look over the information I had communicated to him about the meeting, which made it very clear I needed to be there by Sunday night.

I sit there about ready to blow up. I really don't want to go, and I have this feeling that he won't be able to book me a flight back on Friday evening. I sit there trying to think of what I should do. About 20 minutes pass by with him sending me two "rut" messages and a buzz. I finally IM him and tell him that I will give him a call on his cell.

I make the call and tell him that this is going to be a difficult conversation, but one that needs to be done. I say that I had received an offer for a job within the past 24 hours and planned to accept it. They wanted me to start on the 17th if possible.

Given that I would be leaving the company, I said that I didn't think I would be the best person to represent the company at the standards group meeting. Moreover, given that I had heard nothing from him the week since I promptly responded to his request, I had questioned whether they had the necessary resources to send me to the meeting.

He asked me why I was wanting to leave. I said that the cumulative effect of uncertainty over the company's future and last minute planning like this had taken a huge emotional toll on me. I said that I just couldn't do it any more. He said that he needed to talk to the CEO and then he would call me back.

About half an hour later, he called me back. He said that he said that I would probably wind up regretting my decision to leave because there's uncertainty in any job and I wouldn't be treated as well as they had treated me, especially with respect to flexible work schedule.

He then said that my decision to leave the company and my desire not to go left the company in a bind. Everyone else was booked, so if I left, no one would be able to fill in for me. He said that they would have to withdraw the RFP, which would cause huge damage to the reputation of the company within the standards organization.

He also said that they needed my help with finishing up the security audit for the medical device manufacturer, and he wanted to know how I was coming along with that. He added that was revenue the company needed.

He then said that regardless of the last minute itinerary planning, there should have been no doubt that they were going to send me. They had plenty of money, he said, adding, "Just in case you hadn't noticed, (the CEO) and I are on the road all the time and spend lots of money on airfare and expensive hotels, so we can afford to send you out to the meeting." In retrospect, I probably should have asked that if they had as much money as he said, why had I been working for two years without a raise and a worsening set of benefits.

Then he had the nerve to say that the last minute planning was done as a courtesy to me so it could take into account any last minute changes in plans on my end. For those of you who remember my go around with him for the September meeting, you know that this is a flimsy excuse. He has done the same thing (scroll down to the subsection titled
"Tales Told from the Titanic") with my coworker as well.

He complains about my lack of professionalism in not giving them two weeks' notice and says that he hopes I'll reconsider my decision to avoid burning bridges.

I ended the conversation saying that I was in no space to reconsider my position, but that I would speak with him further on the subject tomorrow morning. He said that I could call him before 8:30 a.m. the next morning because he would be in between flights.

December 7, 2007

I call the CTO at 8 a.m. and try a more conciliatory approach, saying that if the RFP gets voted on and approved at this meeting, the timetable is such that letters of intent to respond to the request are due on February 12. If I'm not with the company, and the CTO is still as busy, there won't be anyone on hand to do the work, even if a letter is signed and submitted.

He says that they will find someone to replace me. I respond, saying that the skill set is so exotic that they will have a very hard time for them to find a candidate locally. They will probably have to open the search nationwide, and then it might take them several months to find a candidate.

I also note that we've had a very difficult time getting people to attend the RFP teleconferences on a regular basis. I could think of only one vendor who might join in on a response, and if that was the case, the submission wouldn't have much credibility either with the standards organization or other companies that are working in this space.

He then asked me whether withdrawing from this meeting would cause a bunch of scheduling hassles for those sessions that had planned on seeing a presentation. I said that there were only two sessions that had set times for us to give a presentation. One on Tuesday and one on Wednesday, both in the mornings. The session on Wednesday precedes a set of presentations and discussions dealing with a fragmentation controversy between two competing submission groups. The drama and time needed to discuss this is so big that I add they might not miss us.

He decides this drama in the other group is our best hope at saving face. Our standard is supposed to complement that standard, he says. Given that their controversy will delay the adoption of the standard until the next meeting in the spring, it would be jumping the gun to have people start preparing proposals that are due in April when the earliest the other standard could be wrapped up is late March.

He tells me to call up the chair of the task force sponsoring the Wednesday meeting and get his thoughts on us withdrawing the RFP for a vote at this meeting and postponing until the next meeting in March. I agree to do so and call the chair around 1 pm since he's out in the Bay area. He seems concerned about whether other vendors might be tripped up by the shifting deadline. He says that he wants me to get in touch with the other vendors to see what they think.

The only other vendor with a serious investment in time and effort is large company whose contact is over in the U.K. I fire off an e-mail to him and get a reply in the late afternoon, saying that the shifting schedule is no problem. I think notify the task force chair that we're good to go, so he contacts the voting bodies letting them know that the RFP will not be up for a vote.

The CTO asks me to please at least give presentations on Tuesday and Wednesday. I respond by saying that I think having him give the presentations and calls for greater participation would carry more weight, but he says he won't be able to do it without a major rescheduling on his end. I agree to this, so he books me for a flight out on late Monday afternoon and a flight out on Wednesday early afternoon. I'm back in town shortly before Wednesday 11 p.m. Circle City time.

On the job front, the offer letter from Bonded and Insured arrived via overnight carrier late in the morning. The packet includes drug test form with directions to nearby collection labs. The offer letter instructs me to arrange for the test within 48 hours of receiving the offer letter, so I set out to do this during an interlude shortly before 3 p.m.

I get called in to do the urine collection at around 3:15 p.m. I have trouble getting the bladder to produce, and after a few minutes rude attendant bangs on the door and tells me to come out. I'm told to go drink some water, no more than 40 oz. I can try again after half an hour, but I can't do it after 4 p.m. because they don't do any more tests.

I drink my water and wait my time. I try again, this time only producing half of the minimum required. She bangs on the door again ordering me out, verifies that it's not enough and that I will have to come back again. She tears up the form that I had brought. I then wig out and ask how I am supposed to get the test done. She says that I'll have to get a new form from my employer, seemingly unconcerned about the problems that it may cause.

So after I get home, I call the human resources contact in my employment offer packet and inform them that I need to get another form to do another screen. Given that I will be out of town from Monday afternoon through Wednesday evening, I probably won't be able to get the test done until later that week. I'm feeling embarrassed and frustrated.

So there it is. I have an offer on the table that I intend to take. It's a lot more than what I make now, but not quite what I would have liked to make in order to live comfortably on my own. The red tape involved in getting the offer finalized has got me snagged up until the end of the week, and I'm going to be making a trip that I don't want to make. I will be glad when this week is over.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Some More Scenes from Days Gone By

I'm working on a huge update post. To tide you over until then, I'm pulling more images from my railroad photo collection.

About 10 months ago, I posted a photo from a wintry day in January 1995. Tonight, I pull another couple of scans from that same day, taken in the morning at a town about 15 miles to the east of the previous photo.

Here, we see the Lakeshore Limited gliding its way to the depot, probably running behind schedule.

The train seldom ran on time, earning it the derogatory moniker Lateshore Limited.

The cool thing about this photo is that the tracks leading up to the depot are covered with snow, providing the illusion that the train is running atop nothing at all, not much differently from the magical train in the book The Polar Express.

The wedge shape of the pillars supporting the signal bridge is very retro, don't you think?

The second photo is a closeup Conrail 6115, a General Electric C40-8W (six axles, 4,000 horsepower, 8 series, wide cab).

This photo was taken as the engine was idling on the outskirts of the east side of a very large railroad yard. The spray of snow on the engine's pilot and the icicles dangling from the locomotive's frame just give one a feeling of "brrrr".

After CSX and Norfolk Southern carved up Conrail in 1999, this blue mammoth would find itself in the CSX camp with engine number 7325. Someone took a rather beautiful shot of it on Iona Island in New York in the summer of 1999. It has gone through two different paint jobs since then.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

I Say, Ol' Chap, How Goes that Job Search of Yours?

On Monday of last week, I had an 80 minute phone interview with some guys down at the Bluegrass Printer Manufacturer. They said they liked what they heard and wanted to invite me down for a half-day on-site interview. I decided to pass because the job was more along the lines of build engineer than software engineer, although it did have some software development aspects.

On Tuesday of last week, my contact at Company Line dropped me an e-mail saying that he would be calling my professional references early this week. Assuming that they checked out okay, he said they anticipated making me an offer soon thereafter.

I was supposed to have an in-person interview with Bonded and Insured, but because of the big file upload/power supply problem, I had to reschedule for Monday. The interview took place yesterday, and it went well. I spoke to five people, four of whom bore the words "vice president" in their title, plus one HR person. I suspect that this lead might result in an offer in the next few days as well.

After many rounds of phone tag, I managed to have my phone interview with ShovelSite. It was a good conversation, but I could tell from some of the questions that I wasn't what he was looking for. That was verified in a followup e-mail, which thanked me for my time but indicated that they would not be moving forward. I'm thinking that were I to go the startup route and hire on with Company Line, my skill set would be better tuned to their needs.

Just for grins, I called the recruiter representing Safe-T-Call. I got sent to voice mail. I don't think I want the job so much as I want to just torture the recruiter for stringing me out so long.

No word from Large Indigo other than a "thank you" e-mail from the contact to whom I addressed my resume and cover letter.

On Tuesday, I got a response from my contact at Susie Student Loan Co., who said that things had not changed since the interview got spiked a few weeks ago. He said that they were hoping to resume the search after the beginning of the year, and that I would be the first person outside the company they would contact once they got the green light.

Late Night Listening: Installment XVII

In keeping with the spirit of the forthcoming holiday season, let's celebrate the mid-80s Minneapolis way by dragging out "The Belle of St. Mark" by Sheila E.

The quality of the audio isn't the greatest, but I believe that the track does have jingle bells in the background.

Bonus points to readers who can name the Prince single whose B-side was "Another Lonely Christmas" without Googling.

Monday, November 26, 2007

19 Gigs, and What do You Get?

Last week started off in a not-so-fun state.

Earlier this month, I wrote about a consulting gig that our company had taken on.

The day after that post was written, we met with a couple of departments at a large medical device manufacturer with operations here in town. One department had approached us about auditing the security of web based applications and the server that hosts them.

The other department's interest was driven by a network effect. The manager of the first department was friends with the other manager and had told her about the project and decided that might be a good thing for them to do with their own applications.

In the two weeks since the initial meetings, not much had happened. There was a teleconference with the first department, where we got to meet the technical contact for their web hosting service. There was a teleconference with the second department to talk about what information we needed to do the audit.

My action item was to create a virtual machine, a software emulation environment that mirrored the setup of the staging server so that the contractors could conduct their security tests against it rather than the actual server. To accomplish this task, I had copies of the operating system installation disks and a huge three-ring binder manual that documented what was done during the install two years ago.

After a day or so of work I got the installation mostly done. Part of the setup involved installing a few gigabytes of patches on the simulated machine. Some of those patches had dependency issues that could not be easily resolved, so I held off installing them rather than forcing the install by bypassing the dependencies. Almost all of the problematic packages were peripheral utilities. The only exception was the webserver program itself.

Another issue was the collection of files that comprised the application. This was a huge collection of data, consisting of scripts and media, totalling 17 GB of disk space. On the company's weakly DSL connection or my own weakly DSL connection, it would have taken over two and a half full days. There was talk of us doing an on-site checkout of the files from a revision control server that is owned by the client site.

Finally, there were several system configuration files that would need to be edited to reflect the setup on the server. The client had not supplied these files or the contents thereof to us.

I documented my progress and listed the problematic packages in a memo to the CTO. A week passed by with no acknowledgment or further guidance. Last week early Monday morning (like right-after-midnight-early), the CTO dropped me an e-mail instructing me to send him a set of DVDs for the virtual machine so that he could set it up on his laptop. Later on in the morning, I wrote back advising him that the install was not complete as per the issues described in the memo.

During the early afternoon, while I was on a phone interview, he called my coworker to have him relay new instructions. I was to go down to the colocation facility where our external servers reside. Among those servers was the sandbox server that belongs to our client. Although this server is supposed to be close in configuration to the staging and production servers, it is not rigorously audited. I was to do a network file copy operation from that server to the virtual machine. The thinking was that a direct connection would proceed more quickly than one over the internet. Once that was done, I was to finish off the configuration of the virtual machine by copying over a select set of files and then upload the virtual machine data to one of the servers so that my boss could download it to his home, about 200 miles away.

I told my boss that I had pre-existing commitments to watch the kids after work from 5 - 9 pm, but that I would take care of this once I was done with watching them. So I headed out to the "colo" after 9 p.m. with my laptop, some Cat 5 cable, and the installation binder. I started the file copy operation. Based on the transfer rate, it looked like it would take a little under two hours.

After the two hours had passed, I realized two very disturbing things. First, the disk space consumed by the transferred data was 19 GB, 2 GB more than the original file system. Second, it seemed to be copying the same set of files over and over. A little research determined that the copy operation was following a symbolic link in an infinite loop.

I called my boss and explained the situation, and then he realized that my diagnosis was probably right. He then told me to create a TAR (UNIX Tape Archive) file of the 17 GB file collection and then download it to the virtual machine. I said that wouldn't work because the virtual disk partition that where the TAR file could reside was 24 GB. There wasn't enough room to hold a TAR file and its extracted result. He told me to go ahead and download the file to the Windows XP host operating system and then figure out how to make the file visible to the virtual machine in the morning.

I created the TAR file, which took over an hour, and then started the file transfer on Windows XP. Something wasn't right because the transfer rate was 1/4 of what it had been with the virtual machine. I tried another file transfer program but transfer came to a dead halt at 4 MB for reasons unknown. I reverted to the original program and set up my laptop to sit in the server rack. I went home and got in at 2 am. I wasn't happy because I was scheduled to have an interview with Bonded and Insured at 9:30 am. I figured I could still make the interview by getting up early and stopping by the colo on the way to work.

When I got up on Tuesday morning, I went to check my e-mail using a web interface to our mail server, which is hosted at the colo. I couldn't get to the server. I was about to have a heart attack. I checked our external website. It was down, too. I knew that I needed to get up to the colo ASAP because something was really wrong.

I made it to the colo around 8:15 am. My laptop was running, but a low power warning dialog box was visible, indicating that the laptop wasn't getting any current and hadn't received any for about an hour. The firewall through which all the external servers run was down, too.

I called the CTO and left a voice mail to let him know about the situation as I frantically tried to diagnose the problem. Both the firewall and the laptop were plugged into a uninterruptible power supply (UPS), which then plugged into the power strip of a neighboring server rack. Yes, my employers were so cheap that they stole power from other server racks. I managed to find a power strip opening for the firewall and my laptop to get them back up and running. The UPS appeared to be non-responsive, even with a change of outlet.

I looked at the clock. It was 8:45 am. I figured that I still had a ghost of a chance at making it to the interview up in the north suburbs, so I headed out. I got as far as the near north side of town, when I got a call from the CTO. He said that the external web server machine was down, so I needed to get a power strip as a stopgap measure. I clenched my teeth and said I would take care of it.

I doubled back, stopping to call my HR contact at Bonded and Insured. I said that I would need to reschedule the interview because I had to take care of a mission critical server outage. I apologized and expressed that I was still very interested in going through the interview. She said she would take care of it.

Then I stopped at an inner city drug store to buy the cheapest power strip and extension cord I could find. I then headed back to the colo and got to work. I transferred everything from the UPS to the power strip and got them back online. Then I called my coworker to verify that it was working. It was, so now I could get back to the virtual machine stuff.

Fortunately, the 17 GB archive had been transferred successfully. Now I needed to figure out how to make the host system's file system visible to the virtual machine. After fumbling my way through the product documentation, I figured out how to get that working. The next step was to do the extraction, which took well over an hour.

After the extraction was complete, I had to do some additional software installs. One package appeared to already be at the required version, so no update was needed. The second failed because of a missing user interface library, but I don't think it was lethal because the utility was used only for viewing PDFs, and that probably wasn't needed for the website.

A third tool was supposed to be built from source code, but the build failed because the header files for a library upon which it depended were not installed. So I had to go track down a matching version of the library from a download server and get that built and installed. A couple more hours were lost fooling around with that.

Once every thing was set up, I started creating a ZIP archive of the virtual machine files. I did this using Windows XP's built in Send To -> Compressed (zipped) Folder menu command. Because I started the operation by right clicking a folder a couple levels above the collection of files, the compression code did not do a sanity check to see whether the collection was too large. It proceeded to create ZIP file approximately 5 GB large over a period of an hour or so. No error or warning messages were displayed.

I transferred the 5 GB file up to the download server and sent out a note to the CTO that he could now snag the file from his home. I went out to the car and did my phone interview with ShovelSite, which used up close to an hour. Then I went home, anticipating that I would be able to relax for the evening.

I got an e-mail around 7:30 pm from the CTO saying that he had downloaded the file but that it appeared to have problems because he couldn't extract it with any utility. After some research, I turned up Microsoft Knowledge Base Article ID 301325. The gist of the article was, "Yes, there are ways to create a ZIP file larger than 4 GB. No, the archives won't be valid. Yes, there is a workaround: Don't do that."

So I wound up having to compress each virtual machine file individually. Since the largest of these files was 2 GB, they could be zipped safely. The total byte count of the compressed files was over 19 GB, and it took over two hours to create them. With the new archives in hand, I drove up once again to the colo to do another file drop. This time I turned off the virtual network adapters created by the virtual machine and got double the file transfer rate that I did the night before. I was done shortly after midnight and in bed by 1 am Wednesday morning.

It suffices to say that I was dragging on Wednesday, but I went into work anyway. The CTO called me on his way to his in-laws in the Keystone State. He said that he had gotten the files downloaded successfully and that he had gotten them to run successfully on his laptop. The CEO took my coworker and I out to lunch, and in recognition for my efforts, I got to pick the restaurant. I selected a nearby Italian eatery that has a damned fine chicken Parmesan sandwich.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Move 'Em On, Head 'Em Up. Head 'Em Up, Move 'Em On. Rawhide!

Keep movin', movin', movin',
Though they're disapprovin',
Keep them doggies movin' Rawhide!
Don't try to understand 'em,
Just rope and throw and grab 'em,
Soon we'll be living high and wide.

-- Theme to Rawhide

Let's just dispense with the usual and customary groveling over blog reticence and get on with the updates, shall we?

Job Search

In my last post, I mulled over a list of options I had drawn up in an even earlier post. Options (5) and (6) were looking like the best alternatives. There has been movement in both of those directions.

Regarding Option (5), I had an introductory phone interview with one of the lead R&D guys at ShovelSite, a well-funded and wildly popular website that makes its home in the Bay Area. We have agreed to conduct a more extensive technical interview, but we've been having trouble finding a common time block on our schedules. The current plan is to do the interview sometime in the early evening (my time zone) on Monday.

There's been a lot of activity on the Option (6) front.

On Monday, I got contacted by a sister company of the staffing company that set me up with an interview with Bluegrass Printer Manufacturer back in late July. They said they were looking for someone who has experience with C++, UNIX system programming, and automated build tools (like make and imake). From the description, it sounds like a cross between a software developer and a release engineer.

Like the earlier position, this would be a year-to-year contract, but the pay would be about 45% more than what I make now. The downside would be that pay is only for what you work. There is no paid time off. I have a phone interview with the staff on Monday morning. If that goes well, they will invite me to an on-site interview.

Last weekend, I stumbled upon an opening that had been on one of the boards for a few weeks. It was with Bonded-and-Insured, a local company that deals with fixed income investments. From what I understand, they do some trading based on quantitative models, just like some of the investment banks and hedge funds in the Big Apple metro area.

Almost three years ago, when I was thinking about leaving my former employer, I had seen a position advertised by several different recruiting agencies, perhaps five or six of them. After doing some search engine detective work, I determined that it was Bonded-and-Insured.

Back then, I didn't get any traction. The recruiting agency through whom I replied didn't respond to my follow up e-mails. I applied through another, and then learned that trying to go through two different agencies to the same employer can get you disqualified for consideration. It was a useful lesson that has served me well to this day in dealing with head hunters.

When I applied this time around, I didn't have high expectations. Bonded-and-Insured uses one of those third party web submission systems, which might as well be a big black hole. However, on Thursday afternoon, I got a call from an HR person who asked me some basic questions, including salary expectations. She said she would set me up with an initial phone interview. A few minutes later, she called back with the time, 10 am on Friday morning.

The interview on Friday morning was a technical screen, asking me about my experiences with UNIX, C++, perl, and databases. The follow ups to his questions seemed to suggest he was skeptical of my skills, especially when it came to perl and databases. I used some concrete examples from past experiences that I thought would support my ability to come up to speed quickly. The interview wrapped up after 40 minutes.

I got a phone call not much more than an hour later from the HR person, telling me that they normally don't move this quickly on an applicant, but they wanted to bring me in for an in-person interview before Thanksgiving, so after some back-and-forth with the interviewers, we agreed upon a 9:30 am - noon block on Tuesday morning. I got a the list of interviewers, and it looks like mostly non-technical management. I suspect that this will be much like the interview I did with Susie Student Loan a couple weeks back. They want to make sure I would be a good match not only on my skills but also on my ability to interact with different portions of the company.

Also on Thursday, I had my two-hour technical interview with Company Line. They are a local startup that was founded toward the end of 2006, and they are developing a Software as a Service product for companies that want to publish customer facing blogs. They got a chunk of financing over the summer that should allow them to grow, and they're hiring.

The interview was a mixture of whiteboard coding and design discussion questions. I found out that the company is really small, currently at 10 employees. I would be the third full-time developer in the company's history, so I would be trailblazer. I think the interview went well because the interviewer asked me to send him a list of professional references.

On Saturday, I was doing some searching on the web regarding that new computing research facility that was announced by Large Indigo Computer Company. It turns out that they were advertising for this position out in the open on a university job mailing list about a month or so before they put the postings up on the job boards. The mailing list message included a direct contact and an e-mail address, so I decided to roll the dice one more time by sending a resume and cover letter to the guy.

Tales Told from the Titanic

In a prior post, I lamented my current employer's tendency to build facades.

My coworker did get a plane ticket for the trip to Beantown late Wednesday evening. The price of the round trip ticket, which departed on Thursday afternoon, was almost $500. He said he thought it was quite a waste of resources, given that they basically had him fly there and back for a two-hour dog-and-pony show, wherein his only apparent purpose was to:

  • Be introduced as the Senior Project Manager.

  • Take notes on the meeting.

They were pitching the product to Red Arc Cable Company. True to form, the presentation made lots of claims regarding features that existed only in the company's website literature, which hasn't been updated since 2004. My coworker said he had trouble keeping a straight face through it all. Afterwards, he said that the CEO and CTO complemented each other on how well the meeting had gone. In reality, though, he said that most of the people in the meeting had tuned out after the early stages of the presentation, either toying with their laptops or PDAs.

This week, the CEO and CTO were out of the office, spending most of their time out in Tinseltown with their client. My coworker was saddled with the task of figuring out why the consulting client we met with the week before couldn't access our portal. It turned out to be an issue with their firewall. Only the CTO could make the changes needed to get things working, and he wasn't responding to e-mails and phone calls from my coworker.

There's been very little movement on the consulting gig since the kickoff meeting almost two weeks ago -- two teleconferences and some e-mail exchanges. I've done my part, setting up a virtual machine for the third party contractors to use for testing, but its setup needs to be validated against the current hosting environment. I provided a status update on this to the CTO over a week ago, and he hasn't even given me an indication that he's even read the report.

Then there's the third-party contractors, whom the CEO and CTO hired to take care of the grunt work. They still have yet to sign an agreement so that they can start work. When my coworker asked the CTO about this on Friday, he said that the CEO was taking care of that and refused to elaborate further. If I've learned anything from having worked with this company for the past two years, if the CEO is involved in a negotiation, you can usually count on it falling apart.

My coworker has been getting a lot of micromanagement static from the CTO through all of this because his role is supposed to be the Project Manager, but he really doesn't have the resources or authority to make relevant decisions on the matter. He's so sick and tired of it he actually applied for a job lead that I sent his way earlier in the week. He also grumbled about possibly quitting at the end of the week.

During quieter moments, my coworker and I have been speculating over what might be going on. Our guess is that the grand design to get bought out by the Tinseltown friend of the angel investor is not going to happen. Perhaps the friend doesn't see the value of buying a company with little intellectual property and not much in the way to offer for staffing talent. Why not just rent them for a while as is being done now or even hire the CEO and CTO? One other possibility is that there is something that got uncovered during due diligence that suggests exposure to risk, and they haven't been able to resolve it.

We think that at some level the CEO and the CTO are aware that the grand design to sell the company and perhaps continue to develop their product has fallen through, but they haven't been willing to admit this to us. They always talk up emerging opportunities and make it look like this is going to be a done deal. But after a while, you never hear about them again.

We think the consulting deal and the sales pitch to the cable company are last ditch efforts to stir up cash flow because whatever they're making on the Tinseltown gig isn't enough for the long haul or might even dry up.

About that Massage

I had my first massage at the clinic on November 10. Admittedly I was nervous going into this because it was the very first professional massage I had ever experienced, but I was determined to confront and face down the anxiety. I disrobed all the way down to the boxers and let the masseuse do the full one hour routine.

Because I wasn't sure what I was going to be encountering, I don't think I was able to get the full benefit of relaxation, but it went really well. The masseuse was very understanding and checked frequently to make sure that I was comfortable with what she was doing. She noted that my calves seemed very tense. Of all the parts of my body. I'm not sure if that comes from the fact that I use the stairs to get to my third floor office or if it is because I sleep on a couch that's not as wide as I am tall.

When I got up to walk, I could tell the hour had made a really big difference. My body didn't feel nearly as tense. I noticed that I slept a lot better this week as well. It helped some with the lack of touch, but it's just a stopgap for now.


I had a counseling session about two weeks ago, and I have another one coming up this coming Monday. Most of it was devoted to workplace stress and the control issues with my wife. The therapist said that my whereabouts the night I went out to the bar should have been non of her business.

My therapist's advice was to let go of the hope that this marriage will dissolve neatly if I just play nice and placate her concerns. My wife's incapacity to view me as a separate person means that this will get uglier as the move out draws nearer. I will need to be strong and stand my ground.

The holidays are going to be difficult because there will be a lot of guilt being tossed my way throughout. I'm pretty sure that when I do have a new job in line, and the new year is here, I will be moving out on my own.