John Klossner's Ink Tank

In defense of teleworking

At the risk of blog nepotism, I have to tell you that my wife was on the phone for seven hours recently trying to get a flight. That might sound like another airline horror story and, unfortunately, in a way it is. But those seven hours, starting just before dinner, going through our children's bedtimes and ending after I had fallen asleep, weren't spent in search of a great deal on some vacation hot spot. She was trying to find space for 11 people and 4,000 pounds of supplies to get to Haiti.

For the past three years she has been assisting in media relations, fundraising and delivering supplies with a small 501(c)3 organization that has been building a school outside of Cap-Haitien in northern Haiti. The school and its community were not physically affected by the recent earthquake, but the woman who heads this operation, Lucia Anglade, is a Haitian-American who lives outside New York City and whose brother and sister live in Port-au-Prince. Besides the harrowing days of waiting to hear from them — she is one of the fortunate ones: they both survived — Lucia spent the time gathering supplies from individual donors and looking for a way to get them to Haiti. Her sister is a nun who runs a nursing home, Asile de St. Vincent de Paul in Leogane, west of Port-au-Prince and actually closer to the quake's epicenter. Her compound houses homeless, sick, orphaned and elderly residents. The compound of buildings was destroyed, and 10 residents and one nun died in the quake and its aftermath. Lucia turned her attention to providing whatever supplies her sister could use — tents, sheets and linens, utensils, medical supplies, clothing, etc.

Asile de St. Vincent de Paul nursing home in Leogane before the earthquake

In the days following the quake, Lucia's Web site was contacted by individuals wanting to contribute to her organization and offering either money, supplies or services. The typical donor to Lucia's organization is attracted by the small, presence-on-the-ground-already-established nature of the operation; donations make their way to the injured with a minimum of bureaucratic hurdles. One of the potential donors was another small organization that had access and clearance for a plane from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to Cap-Haitien. This organization offered Lucia and her supplies space on its flight with one catch: They had to be in Fort Lauderdale by Wednesday morning. It was now 5 p.m. Monday. At that point my wife started her phone marathon trying to find a sympathetic air carrier for a small band of Haitians and two tons of bandages, medicines, sheets and clothing.

Asile de St. Vincent de Paul nursing home in Leogane after the earthquake

After running through her personal network looking for anyone with connections, my wife found a reservations agent (no connection, just cold calling) at JetBlue who said they thought they could offer unlimited cargo space to passengers carrying relief supplies. The problem was, between gathering the traveling party's personal data, such as passports and other documentation, and sitting on hold with JetBlue personnel, my wife ended up dealing with multiple personnel and having to start the story all over again with each new person. This was further complicated by a) flight prices going up every 15 minutes and it taking 30 minutes to explain/plead the extra weight situation, as well as enter the name and personal data of each passenger, and b) the fact that she could never get a complete guarantee from an agent that they could take the additional cargo. Also, the organization had a limited budget and the rising flight fees forced her to reconfigure the plans as each person was booked. She was transferred from agent to agent, and each successive agent had to be re-informed of the particulars of this trip, AND each new person was less sure that they could guarantee allowing the extra baggage. The flight for 11 was not the problem; it was getting 4,000 pounds when each passenger is only allowed 100.

After booking everyone on two separate flights to maximize the chance that the airline would be able to handle the cargo, she realized that there was no guarantee that the airline would do so. To cover this (and provide a carrot for those helping out), she took the following steps:

  • She left an 11 p.m. desperation message for JetBlue's public-relations people. (They got back to her at 8 a.m. the next day, letting her know they were aware of her and the group and that they had contacted the appropriate people at corporate headquarters).
  • She was finally able to reach someone in the airline's corporate responsibility office who took the lead and ensured that all the proper notifications were made.
  • She contacted the local press in New York City and Fort Lauderdale with a story idea (did I mention she is a former newspaper reporter who now works in press relations for a federal agency?) — "A planeload of Haitian-Americans and supplies will be en route to Port-au-Prince" — which they were more than eager to cover.

The people and supplies made it to Fort Lauderdale without a problem. As you might imagine, there is a lot of story left to tell, with many transportation and communication contortions. Among the highlights:

  • In order to get the supplies from the JetBlue flight to the private plane in Fort Lauderdale, my wife started calling organizations in southern Florida to see if anyone could help. She finally found someone at the Big Brothers/Big Sisters of Broward County, Fla. The executive director, as it turned out, had experience in disaster relief. (It also turned out that the organization's clientele includes a large Haitian population.) They took the lead in contacting local media and the airport. Our band of travelers arrived in Florida to be greeted by a group of Big Brother/Big Sister volunteers and local media who assisted them in transferring their cargo and getting them food and a place to stay while waiting for the flight to Haiti (which ended up being delayed).
  • After arriving in Cap-Haitien, the supplies had to get overland to Leogane. Lucia, having grown up outside Cap-Haitien in Milot, got access to the local hospital's helicopter, which flew her to Port-au-Prince, where she borrowed a vehicle and drove the 12-hour roundtrip to Cap-Haitien and back with the supplies. (For those of you who have never had the pleasure of driving from Port-au-Prince to Cap-Haitien, it isn't a pleasure trip.)

Why am I telling you this? For starters, in case you missed it, Haiti has been in the news lately. But also, more importantly, because my wife is a telecommuter — I guess the term is now "teleworker" — for a federal agency. She works part time, two days in a Boston office and one day at home.

I am sharing this because one of the reported obstacles to telework becoming more widely implemented is management's worry about how these employees will spend their work hours away from the office. Describing how my wife spent hours on a non-work-related project might not be the smartest way to defend telework (and she has made a point to tell me every time I ask her about the sequence of events that none of this took place during her work hours), but I would like to point out that as someone who has been a teleworker since before the term was coined (although it is probably more accurate to describe my workstyle as "contractor," so I guess I telework for myself), the people I know who work away from their central offices are all highly motivated people who can't afford to waste time. These are people who are aware of, and use, the hour(s) they save each day by not commuting. These are people who, based on my experience, don't take long lunches, if they take a lunch at all.

In an earlier posting, I remember making the point that having physical proximity to your co-workers was a plus: It is easier to make contact, you don't have to wait for them to return a message, etc. Although I still hold this to be true, I don't think it should be used as an argument against the trustworthiness of teleworkers. As one commenter pointed out, if a manager is concerned about an employee's behavior away from the office, then they probably have concerns or negative experiences with their behavior in the office. In other words, they have suspicions based on the personnel, not the location.

One last point, remembered while reading that the D.C. area has been socked by a winter storm while I look out at green patches of lawn in Maine: I imagine there have recently been snow days for many people working in the greater Washington region. Teleworkers don't get snow days. Although it's true that there are probably fewer office-related chores to tend to when the office is officially closed, teleworkers are still expected to work.

So let's look at this again. Teleworkers don't have snow days, they typically don't go out for lunch., and they don't have a commute to have time by themselves. (I know, I know: The commute often isn't an attractive part of the job, but that's for another blog entry.)

So, am I selling teleworking or arguing against it?

By the way, my wife is now looking for another plane, medical personnel and engineers to help rebuild a compound in Leogane, if you have any laying around. She's willing to put in long phone hours.

FCW Feb 8 Klossner blog

Posted by John Klossner on Feb 08, 2010 at 12:19 PM1 comments

The funniest thing about mandating security certifications

If I accomplish nothing else as a parent, I want my children to know that the TV show America's Funniest Home Videos isn't. Funny, that is.

Most of you may know this already, and consider this a pointless goal given its obviousness, but I am finding this to be a bigger challenge than I first thought. At a recent social gathering of families, I came upon a group of kids flocked around a television watching AFHV, and laughing uproariously. I have to admit, I'm not an expert on this production, but I've seen enough episodes to help me get the gist of the format. The particular episode my kids were watching seemed to have a theme of people riding vehicles — bikes, wagons, skateboards, etc. — that ended up crashing into things.

My kids were not pleased with me as I commented, "That's not funny," after every clip of someone riding their bike off a roof.  (I think I may have been embarrassing them in front of their friends.) I pointed out to my captive audience that the show cut away after every "funny" accident, never showing the participant getting up and walking away from the scene. The children got especially touchy when I started listing the injuries I imagined the people in the videos suffered— "Oooh, that's probably a broken collarbone"; "Ouch, he tore his ACL," etc. — and they asked me to leave when I began chanting "That's not funny, that hurts" after every video.

This isn't too different than the slapstick-oriented comedy I ingested as a kid — the Three Stooges, Keystone Cops and Little Rascals shorts, and any Warner Brothers cartoon. I think my problem is partially in the titling. Calling something "funny" is subjective enough, but calling it "funniest" draws a line. I think the majority of us are instinctively cynical when presented with anything called the "___est."

(If they had labeled those movies from my childhood "The Three Funniest Stooges" I might have had a more cynical outlook. But probably not. Which is why, as an adult, it is my responsibility to ensure that my children know the difference between humor coming from the exposition and universality of the human condition and the humor of a 40-year-old riding a tricycle off of a shed roof into an inflatable wading pool.)

This is similar to the qualms I have with IT certification programs. Certification is awarded to those who complete a course in their particular expertise, whether it be software, maintenance or, in the administration's current proposal, security. This is like calling them "America's Smartest Security People." (Okay, it would be more accurately titled "America's Most Qualified Security People," but you know how TV shows go for hyperbole.)

The comedian Don Novello, better known as Father Guido Sarducci, had a routine he called the Five Minute University in which he proposed a college program comprised of everything you remember from college five years after graduating, which would be about five minutes of material. As he points out, college is just memorization for the tests, much of which is soon forgotten. There was little real-world experience in this program.

I think most folks' concerns with certification are similar. Do I want someone working on my network who learned the particulars in a six-week program or someone who has been working with the technologies for years and has real-world experience?

There is also the "one-size-fits-all" aspect of certification training: Can one course in security be equally applicable through the many different systems and needs of agencies? One worry about certification training is that a central body — in this case Congress — will be deciding the security needs that are better known by the individual agencies. This is the equivalent of picking one style of automotive tires for the entire country to use in winter.

That said, I think certification training serves a purpose and should be encouraged for all federal personnel, not just IT workers. I have found that taking courses in work-related fields has helped me pick up skills and, more importantly, learn the vocabulary needed to speak with the real experts. I might not be a good Web designer (I'd call my show "The Goodest Web Designs"), but through the equivalent of certification courses, I'm able to recognize my needs and converse more effectively with someone who is. Having the entire workforce familiar with the terminology and technology involved would be helpful to all.

But don't take a course and then put up a sign telling me you are an expert. And don't ride a skateboard off a cliff and tell me it's funny.


Posted by John Klossner on Jan 19, 2010 at 12:19 PM8 comments

How insourcing would work as a New Year's resolution

I take our dog for early morning walks in the woods behind our home, before the world in our neighborhood has woken up. Sometimes we rouse deer that bed in these woods. This past summer there was a doe and yearling bedding in a small field surrounded by brush. I know this not because I ever saw them in their beds but, as the leaves fell last fall, I could watch them run away from us through the bare trees. Usually my dog didn't notice them until they were in motion and had gained some distance from us, at which point she would take off in pursuit, never really coming close.

One day the deer's alarms hadn't worked, and we came across them in their beds. I watched our dog take off after them, running alongside them through the trees. As she neared the doe's haunches, she had a look on her face that said "Now what do I do?" She then pulled up and let the deer run off.

For some reason this image comes to mind when I read accounts of the administration's desires to "insource" -- that is, return work to agencies that had been contracted to the private sector. The administration wants to get agencies back to doing work that only agencies should be doing -- what’s known as "inherently governmental." A worry is that during the years in which so much work was contracted out, agencies have lost the skills -- not to mention the personnel -- needed for projects essential to the agencies' missions.

In the eternal debate between the federal workforce and the private sectors, each side is convinced that they can do a better job, given the proper numbers. Sometimes the quest to replenish the workforce becomes larger than figuring out what that workforce will do. The administration is advising agencies to avoid this problem. Kind of like knowing what you're going to do with the deer you're chasing, should you actually catch it.

Fortunately for agencies, it's a new year. It is the time when many of us may want to catch up on some reading, get into shape or take up a new hobby. What if the agencies treated insourcing like New Year's resolutions? Imagine what could be accomplished.

For example, given an additional 100 employees, an agency could do the following:

    •Lose 90 pounds (99 people losing one pound with the 100th person gaining nine).
    •Clean 99 desks.
    •Help the 100th person "focus on cleaning their desk."
    •Repaint the meeting room.
    •Learn 99 new yoga positions.
    •Help the 100th person get untangled from the new yoga position.
    •Come up with 100 projects that are "inherently governmental."
    •Find two people who agree with the "inherently governmental" list. 
    •Give up snacks between meals.
    •Deal with the 100th person when he is caught at his cubicle with a secret stash of Snickers bars.
    •Read 100 white papers -- okay, maybe ten.
    •Run a marathon (one person running, 99 people congratulating them the following Monday).
    •Come up with some projects to do after everyone stops following the resolutions.

Posted by John Klossner on Jan 14, 2010 at 12:19 PM2 comments