Sunday, April 12, 2015

Bureaucracy and Off-boarding

I am totally excited to announce that I started work last week at the Wikimedia Foundation, the parent entity of Wikipedia.  I rarely talk about my job on my blog; this seems like an appropriate moment for reflection.

When I returned to the US after graduate school in Singapore, I wanted to keep working for non-profits, preferably as an employee rather than doing more consulting.  I also applied for "a flagship leadership development program at the entry level for advanced degree candidates"; maybe I could help some IT project in some corner of the goverment stay off the the long list of disasters.

After consulting for a few Silicon Valley startups, I ended up joining the Office of Personnel Management, moving to DC for a year to get started and then back to California as a teleworker.  OPM is the government's HR department, setting policies and monitoring compliance and providing HR tools and services to the rest of the government.  (OPM was briefly rumored to have a role in the upcoming Obamacare website, but that ultimately went to HHS.  I do often wonder how many project managers involved in that disastrous launch screamed their heads off only to be ignored; I'm also happy to see that got straightened out fairly quickly) 

Anyway, I worked on USA Staffing and related projects for five and a half years.  As part of my fellowship I also did a four month rotation in the HR IT group of the Los Angeles VA hospital system, which was very educational.  There are a lot of stereotypes about government; here's what I can report back:
  1. The typical government worker is sincere and dedicated about their job and about public service.
  2. The negative stereotypes that are sometimes true, such as the dysfunctional bureaucracy and the crazy rules, are failures of systems, not of people.  For example, a list of all laws related to cybersecurity takes up pages 52 to 61 of this FAS report.  Can you imagine reading all of those laws cover to cover before logging in to your computer?
  3. The US government has goals of both efficiency and fairness, and comparisons to institutions that aren't obligated to be fair can be misleading.
That said, USA Staffing was a great project to work on, thanks to the dedicated and effective people, and because it operates on a competitive basis.  As an example of point 3, although it's run by the government and staffed by federal employees, USA Staffing sells services to the rest of the government, and has to compete with Monster and other private companies.  Its market share increased dramatically during my tenure, which was very exciting even though it wasn't my doing.  In the last few years I provided process coaching, estimation and forecasting, and release planning for a major new version of USA Staffing (which, if you go back far enough, used to be a microfiche system.  To the best of my knowledge, however, it never existed as COBOL).  In other words, I ran lots of meetings; after good ones, programmers would tell me, "I hate meetings, but I can see why we needed this one, and at least you kept it quick."

This work reached a major milestone a few weeks ago when the Federal Maritime Commission was the first agency to post some jobs via the new version.  If you have a passion to "foster a fair, efficient, and reliable international ocean transportation system and to protect the public from unfair and deceptive practices", the deadline to apply is April 15th.

So far the new version hasn't garnered any attention in the Washington Post (the gold standard of federal failure) so I hope I made a contribution.  The problem with having a job where you try to predict and mitigate problems is that it's hard to be certain how much you are responsible for the lack of problems.  But I find it a little unfair to mock the Y2K bug fixing effort as completely ridiculous in hindsight just because nothing really bad happened, so you know my bias.

Meanwhile, I'm excited to get back to non-profits, doing much the same thing as I was doing for the government, but instead of a top-ten federal website ("Application Manager" on this list), for a top-ten global website.

And I do have an amusing anecdote at the expense of the federal bureaucracy: I had to complete a form 4754not the Federal Wage System Job Grading Standard for Cemetery Caretaking, 4754, and not the form Hillary Clinton was accused of dodging when she left the State Department, but the OPM Employee Exit Clearance Form:

There is a fair amount of paperwork involved in leaving federal service.  Everyone I worked with was very helpful, and it all went smoothly.  Well, almost.  I was told I needed seven signatures on this form, proving I returned all my hardware and keys and ID cards and parking passes etc etc, or my last paycheck or benefits might be held up.  I guess this process was designed for people who can walk around one big building and collect signatures, not for remote workers.  I ended up with three signatures, from people who took the time to print the form, sign it, scan it, and email it back.  On the one hand, it's funny that they didn't just e-sign it.  On the other hand, whoever created the form in Adobe enabled e-signatures for the employee and the supervisor but not for the seven other signature fields.  And on the third hand, that's some real dedication to go to all the trouble of printing, signing, scanning, and emailing just to help some stranger jump some silly hoops to prove they never had a parking pass to return in the first place.  To the three out of seven bureaucrats who went to great lengths to sign a stupid form for me, thank you very much; I am proud to have served with you.


  1. Congratulations Joel on the new job! Looking forward to hearing more about life at Wikimedia as you get further situated. Hope all is well!

  2. Nice, informative post. Thanks.