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.

Conflicts between work and holidays

Someone came to Mi Yodeya with the following problem: everyone is expected to attend an important work summit, but it's scheduled on Rosh Hashana. The person asked how to explain the significance of the day and tell the boss that attendance wouldn't be possible.

My answer:

I have faced this problem several times - sometimes a holiday and sometimes Shabbat (directly, or not having time to get home). How I handle it depends in part on whether the plans can still be changed, but the broad outline is the same. It goes roughly like this:

(Name), I'd really like to be able to attend this event. (Something about why it's important.) Unfortunately, it is currently scheduled on an important religious holiday and I cannot attend. I'd like to find a way to avoid scheduling conflicts in the future; how can we work together to do that?

Key points:

  • You want to fully participate; you value the activity. Sometimes people make excuses to get out of things they don't want to do; this is not that.

  • It's a scheduling conflict, not an accusation. Don't say "but you scheduled it on Rosh Hashana"; that can sound like personal criticism. This is a time for passive voice.

  • "Currently": if you think it can still be changed, leave that opening and ask if changes are possible.

  • You offer to be part of the solution. We are a minority and even if they know about our holidays they might not know about two-day days or days starting the previous day (from their perspective). At one company I maintained a calendar and included some time info when especially important (like erev Yom Kippur). Expect the burden to fall on you for a while, though they might learn in time. (After several years I changed a culture of Friday-evening gatherings at one place.)

I usually don't try to explain specific holidays unless they ask. I do explain that it's very important to observe those days and that work on those days is a violation of religious law. That's been sufficient for me so far.

Even partial lessons are lessons

Last week I was at corporate HQ, where the rest of my group is, for a few days. Everything about the trip in on Monday was a model of efficiency -- the plane got in early, getting off the plane was faster than usual, Uber came right away, traffic was light -- so I got to the office about half an hour earlier than any of us expected me to.

Given that, I was a little surprised to be greeted with "oh thank heavens you're here!".

The previous weekend there'd been a catastrophic power failure and many of our servers came tumbling down. (I didn't hear the gory details. We have what I understand to be the usual precautions, and yet...) The small team responsible for that infrastructure was understandably frazzled. My teammates were happy to see me because the (internal) documentation servers are not managed by that team but by us. But their main custodian, G, was on vacation, and another person who knows relevant stuff, J, was on vacation, and that left me. I know some of the systems well but not others -- which put me ahead of anybody not on vacation. Okay.

Our doc infrastructure team has two newer members, an experienced writer who joined the company last fall and a recent grad who joined the company last month and the infrastructure team a couple weeks ago. The former has been focusing on git as my backup, and the latter is solidly in learning mode.

So first we did the usual dance of "this is not the right dock for my laptop / these are not the right monitor cables / why TF can't Windows see both of these monitors? / network, we have network right?". Once I could actually use my laptop, I settled down to investigate -- with the two newer team members watching everything I did and taking notes. It was kind of like pair programming, I think. Read more…

Poor user experience, hardware edition

I call these "Don Norman doors". It's been 30 years since he wrote The Psychology of Everyday Things (aka POET) and people are still doing stuff like this:

door with handle and 'push' sign

But hey, they recognized the problem -- and "fixed" it with documentation. Yay?


I was recently mystified by the following control in a hotel shower:

faucet with two concentric knobs

One of those controls temperature, but it moves most of the way around so it's not clear whether you need to turn clockwise or counterclockwise. The other one controls which of two different shower heads to dispense water through. Why there are two shower heads is left as an exercise for the user, I guess. (And, of course, when I'm trying to operate a shower, I don't have my glasses on.)


(There's lots of discussion of affordances in general and shower knobs in particular in the comments.)

Visit to Cambridge

I visited our main office for a few days this past week. (Sorry to folks I didn't connect with.) I met our two new team members, one of whom is our new manager, and our intern for this coming summer, and I had lots of productive conversations. I also played one game of Caverna with coworkers.

I wondered what airport security was going to be like given the government shutdown. Monday morning in Pittsburgh the line was probably about 15-20 minutes long, but somebody came by to tell us the alternate checkpoint was open and had no line, so some of us went there. All of the agents I saw were polite, professional, and not acting disgruntled. I and several other passengers thanked them for being there despite the situation. Everybody there understood that the mess was not the fault of anybody there and taking out frustrations on the wrong people would be bad. Yay for people acting like adults!

Thursday night at Logan, the first checkpoint I found was closed but the second was staffed. It took me five minutes to get through. Again, people behaved themselves.

Wednesday afternoon our new writer and I took a walk through a park/wetlands area near the office. We saw lots of ducks and one heron. We later saw the heron catch a small mouse; I hadn't previously known that they ate mammals.

Photos: Read more…

Bad IT day

Because of corporate changes (spun off from one company and merged with another), we have to remove our last dependencies on the old company's IT infrastructure. In this last round, they move our email and our (Windows) login accounts to a new domain. My migration was today.

They've sent lots of email about this over the last few months, but they left out some important details. Read more…

Tech overflow

I guess, in retrospect, it makes sense that I had three active computers on my desk today.

At work we are in the end stages of an acquisition. In this last step, they move us off of the old employer's domain. That means email migration and new login credentials for our PCs. The latter is being implemented as: create new account, copy files from one profile to another, leave the end user to clean up the resulting mess. Read more…

Mixed messages

It's benefits-enrollment season at work. The web site is predictably slow and flaky, but after having key pages time out several times, I've finally got a stake in the ground. You can make changes up to the deadline so I figure "choose something now, review in more detail later" works better than being part of the last-minute crunch.

My costs for the main health plan and for the dental plan are both doubling (comparing apples to apples as much as possible). On the other hand, the long-term-disability insurance I pay for now will be covered in full next year. I, um, don't know what message they're trying to send there -- getting sick is more expensive but if you get really sick we'll cover you? Probably not what they intended.

(I assume that their actuaries simply optimized for the lowest corporate expenses traded against offering benefits employees won't rebel over, and there is no deeper meaning. But oh, the subtext!)

Aviary visit

We had a short team outing (with out-of-town guests) to the national aviary today.

Here are some pictures from the rainforest room. I don't know what kinds of birds these are (didn't match them up with the display cards). Read more…

What have I done?

[This was a locked post at the time, and it has comments so from people who saw it was locked, so I'm not opening the original.]

A former colleague contacted me a few weeks ago to make a pitch: we worked really well together, my team needs what you do, wanna talk? After a lunch conversation it sounded interesting enough to proceed, so I sent him a resume.

I'm a technical writer, a very good one in my opinion, and very senior. Part of what I do, what this person specifically values, is that I contribute usefully to software development. I bring the user perspective and I also bring decent software-engineering clues. He told me he's particularly interested in the latter because their team doesn't have a lot of senior people. When (before we started talking about this) he asked me what I was currently doing and I mentioned that I was particularly happy to be able to mentor our junior team members, his eyes lit up.

What I don't do well, or attempt to do any more at all, is write production code. I used to be a programmer. I'm not now. I have a decent reading knowledge, and enough core knowledge to be able to ask good prying questions about behavior, performance, and so on.

So I'm a "tech-writer++", one who fits well in the right kind of software organization, but not a programmer. I'm overqualified for most tech-writing jobs and underqualified for most software-development jobs. My colleague wants to create the right opening in his group. I gave him some calibration on level expectations.

Their in-house recruiter contacted me last week to schedule some time to talk, and referenced a very generic, not-senior tech-writing job posting. When we talked this morning I asked about that and compared it to what I understood from my colleague, and she said others had told her that job posting wasn't going to cut it either. It sounds like we're just going to ignore that posting and she just needed something to attach my resume to.

She said the next step would be a phone screen with one of their technical folks. I suggested some dates and times. A couple hours later I got email scheduling that call (fast work). What I wasn't expecting was that during that interview we'd use a collaboration tool for me to write code in real time (and don't forget test cases, it said), and I should sign up with Top Coder and browse some of their problems to get an idea of what to expect.

Eep? Am I really getting the software-developer interview process, or is this email -- like the job description -- a generic template that we're not really going to follow? Can I write correct, compilable code in real time while being watched, where every stupid typo or goof stands out? (Oh right, for arrays it's .length, not .length() like you expect! Oh right, I can't cast a string that contains only digits to an int directly; how do I do that again? Can I consult Stack Overflow? Etc.)

Well, one way or the other, it won't stress me for too long. I've got until Monday -- and Pesach is between now and then -- to scrape off the rust, do some practice problems, and see what happens. My goal is to not embarrass myself. Because even if it turns out they're looking for someone who'll write production code -- in which case I am not their person -- I still don't want to look like an idiot to the interviewer. Which is stupid because it's not "idiot", it's "mismatch", but try telling my subconscious that.

Beyond that, the worst that happens is that this particular job that came looking for me, not the other way around, isn't a fit. There are still lots of ways it could turn out not to be a fit that aren't related to this phone screen, after all. I've asked very few of my questions so far.

Another misguided recruiter

Like many others, I get lots of unsolicited email from recruiters who claim to have read my LinkedIn profile and have a great opportunity for me. They're almost always wrong about both. But I usually skim the tech-writing ones when they arrive, to (maybe) learn a little about the state of the field.

The latest one, about a "fast-paced innovative team", started off generic, as most of them do. (Hint to recruiters: if you want me to respond, give me a reason to. I'm not actively looking; you have to show me something interesting.) But the list of responsibilities included "work with architecture and UX teams to understand how best to organize and present the documentation" -- hey, they have a UX team! That's unusual (in a positive way). I kept reading.

Then I got to the requirements, which included:

  • Experience with Cobol
  • Strong working knowledge of Microsoft Office

Ha ha, no.

Also, it's in New Jersey and the ad doesn't say anything about remote employees. Bzzt.