Blog: Work

Most of these posts were originally posted somewhere else and link to the originals. While this blog is not set up for comments, the original locations generally are, and I welcome comments there. Sorry for the inconvenience.

Employers, how many of those vacation days are real?

When you're considering a new job, one of the things you'll find out as part of the package is how much vacation (or PTO, "paid time off") the offer includes. The US doesn't do as well in this regard as some other parts of the world. In tech, you can probably expect two to three weeks of vacation days per year plus six or seven designated civil holidays. In some companies, after you've been there several years you earn more days per year. (At my current company, after five full years I started earning one extra day per year.)

Next time I consider a new job, I have to remember to ask not only how much PTO is included but how much of that is actually mine. It's not mine if the company says I get X days but that I have to allocate some of them for Christmas week "because we all need time then to be with our families". That would be patronizing and presumptuous even if Christmas were my holiday! It's not, so that makes it even worse.

It's fine if an employer says "we're closed that week for business reasons". Sometimes companies do that. But in that case, they should either grant those days (as if they were civil holidays) or reduce the PTO claims in their job ads and HR policies. I use several days per year for my holidays, ones they don't grant, plus (in non-pandemic years) actual vacations that I choose. I would like employers to tell me the number of days I really have, the number that are my choice.

When I joined my current company I was told how many PTO days I get per year. Later, they started declaring mandatory shutdowns for Christmas week. I can use my vacation days or take the days unpaid.

Retracting vacation days, which is what they do when they say I can't use them freely any more, is akin to cutting salary (as is saying "then take it unpaid if you didn't save vacation days"). Employers, be honest about that: you're reducing my compensation. Do not pretend you're doing it for my well-being, for my family time, for my holiday -- you're not. How valued am I really, if you reduce my compensation so casually?

I've always found the last week of December to be a great time to get work done; I can focus on things that keep getting pushed off or interrupted, because there are few or no meetings and other interruptions. Meanwhile, I can use those days for my holidays. Everybody wins.

Companies should actually consider giving top employees more vacation days, rather than only the tenure-based allocation. When someone consistently performs above the norm, then not only should you reward that, but you're still ahead of the norm if the person takes that time off! Employers, please start considering PTO increases as part of the mix that includes salary increases, bonuses, and assorted perks that people use inconsistently.

It's 2021 and this still happens

Me: Here's a bug.

Male peer: I don't know why that happens. Not my fault.

Me: One way that can happen is if you do X.

Him: (condescendingly) Of course you could do that, but I didn't.

(Ok then! Done teaching.)

Separately, other male peer: One way that can happen is if you do X.

First male peer: Oh, you're right.

Again. In 2021.

I didn't say he did X; I'm not in his head and wasn't looking over his shoulder, so how would I know? I just offered one (common) way that this particular problem manifests, because we've seen it before. But from me it wasn't worthy of consideration.

This sort of thing happens far too often, even now, even among people who in other regards present as open-minded and inclusive.

2020

Somebody on Twitter asked:

What did you learn in 2020 (besides how to make bread)?

I responded there:

  • To grow food in pots.
  • To cut men's hair.
  • To cook more new things.
  • That my cat loves me being home all the time.
  • More about community-building.
  • How to set up a nonprofit foundation.
  • To cut people w/no morals or human decency out of my life.
  • And yes, sourdough.

I was up against a character limit there, but I'm not here. Read more…

"Blah blah blah."

Today's bit of randomness:

When I was a young programmer I worked for an AI company on a text-categorization project -- for a commercial client, all hush-hush for a while to preserve their competitive advantage and such, apparently really innovative (didn't realize then; I was just writing code to solve a problem, y'know?). Then somebody accidentally published the training dataset. And apparently it's gotten quite a lot of use in the research community, which I was completely unaware of, having never really been that kind of researcher.

For 30+ years there's been a mystery in that dataset that people have noticed, commented on, and apparently never tried to track down...until now. This podcaster got in touch with me and some others last week, and here's the result: Underunderstood: The Case of the Blah Blah Blahs. (36 minutes; has transcript).

It was neat to hear this trip down memory lane, and also to hear other parts of the story I'd never known about before, including the discussion from a researcher from the "other side" of one of the big arguments in AI in the 80s.

Our legacies are not always what we think they will be

In the mid-80s, in my first full-time position after college, I worked for a now-defunct software company doing artificial intelligence, specifically natural-language processing. The most significant project I worked on while there was a text categorization system. I was the tech lead (this was 1987ish). The client was Reuters, who at the time had literal rooms full of people whose job was to skim news stories coming over the wire, attach categories to them, and send them back out quickly. Our job was to automate that -- or, more realistically, to automate the parts that machines could do and send a much smaller set of "don't know" cases to humans. I'm writing this from memory; it's been more than 30 years and details are fuzzy.

I left that company and went on to do other things. I was vaguely aware that, at some point, the corpus of news stories we used for training data had been released publicly, by agreement between Reuters and my then-employer. I wasn't a researcher, wasn't in the NLP business any more, and lost touch. Technology moves on, and I figured our little project had long since faded into obscurity.

Tonight I got email with a question about that data set. My name is in the README file as one of the original compilers, and somebody tracked me down.

Somebody still cares about that data set.

I Googled it. Our data set was popular for close to a decade, during which time people improved the formatting (SGML, baby!) and cleaned up some other things. It spawned a child -- the original either had, or had acquired, some duplicate entries, and the new one removed them. (The question I got was actually about the child data set.) And now I'm curious about the question I was asked too, because I either don't know or don't remember how it got that way.

Neat!

Well, he asked...

A (newer) coworker asked if he could pick my brain about a certain part of our product. Sure, I said -- and I asked some questions to figure out what he already knows (or doesn't). We chatted a bit, and then I said "Ok, I have some homework for you -- please read X and Y before we talk".

He responded with "pop quiz next Wednesday at 3".

So I scheduled the meeting. I mean, wouldn't you? :-)

A day much like any other

Get up, shower (because we do not let hygiene lapse).

Make coffee. I seem to have learned to drink coffee. Between us we're going through 4-6 K-cups per day; that jumbo box isn't going to last as long as it looks like it should. And that's with tea and cold drinks as well throughout the day. Remember to drink water; it matters.

Box of tea arrived yesterday. Good.

Plug laptop into dock, start work day. Visit the "pets" chat channel. Mon/Wed/Fri, join the virtual coffee break mid-morning just to see and interact with coworkers. Try to work productively. Pay particular attention to my mentee who joined the company two weeks ago in the midst of all this. Read more…

Young coworkers

Last week the director of engineering sent email announcing prizes for an "improve our tests" hackathon. He labelled one prize (about finding and fixing the most bugs) as "write yourself a minivan".

Later, in response to questions, he sent a copy of the 24-year-old Dilbert strip.

Over the weekend our CTO, in response to questions, sent email explaining what a minivan was.

I'll be over here, weeping into my prune juice and yelling at kids to get off my lawn.

Windows: accessibility obstacles

I got a new laptop at work last week, so naturally it came with Windows 10. Some of the software my group uses requires Windows; I'm currently still on Win 7 on my old machine. (And haven't gotten updates since last November. Eventually IT would have noticed. But even aside from that, the machine is five years old and starting to become unreliable.) The migration has been...challenging, with some accessibility regressions I don't know how to fix.

On Win 7 I defined a custom theme which had the following important properties:

  • Window background is not bright white but a light tan: bright white backgrounds hurt my eyes a lot, especially over a sustained period. This is set at the OS level, so all applications get it by default.

  • Font size for menus, window titles, and assorted other UI elements is increased so I can actually read them.

  • Colors for the title bars of active and inactive windows are very different so I can easily spot which window is currently active.

Read more…

Patches and fixes

Yesterday, a delivery person came to our office door asking if so-and-so worked here -- he had a package that omitted the company name, so he wasn't sure where to deliver it. The package did have the suite number on it, which got him to the right floor, but he helpfully pointed out that none of the doors in our building actually have numbers posted on them. Huh! He's right!

After he left, I took a post-it note and a marker, wrote "suite #" on it (with our number), and stuck it to the wall next to the door at eye height. (The door itself has a company name at eye height.) That was a patch.

Today someone else printed a sign with a nice, large font and taped it to the door under the name, taping on all four edges to increase its durability. That was a fix.

If somebody else decides to make it pretty, with a splash of color and art, that will be marketing excess. :-)