Overqualified and Unemployable

The irony of today’s job market.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about a friend of mine. For the sake of anonymity, I’ll call her Sally.

Like me, Sally spent years writing computer how-to books, turning her expertise into easy-to-understand instructions readers could learn from. Like me, she had strong selling titles that earned her a good income. She writes about more technical topics than I wrote about: mostly web-related programming. And unlike me, she stuck to freelance work as her main source of income where I grew and then slid into a career as a helicopter pilot.

A few months ago, Sally mentioned on Twitter or Facebook that she was looking for a full-time job.

A full-time job.

I thought at the time about how I’d feel if I had to get a full-time job after more than 20 years as a freelancer and business owner. A job where I had to dress a certain way every day, work regular hours, attend pointless staff meetings, and answer to a boss with his/her own personal agenda or baggage. A job where my daily tasks would be determined by someone else, without giving me any choice in the matter. A job where the term “weekend” actually meant something.

I shudder at the thought.

Don’t get the idea that I don’t work. Or that Sally doesn’t work. Freelancers work when there’s work to do. When there isn’t, we’re usually looking for work.

But these days, the kind of work Sally and I did as freelancers is getting harder and harder to find. People don’t buy computer how-to books when they can Google the answers they seek. People don’t spend money on the educational content we produce when they can get it for free online. So publishers are letting books die without revision and, one-by-one, freelance writers like us are losing our livelihood.

The reason I’m thinking about Sally lately is because this week she posted another Twitter update to say that she was looking for a full-time job. She was using Twitter to network, to put out feelers, to help her connect to someone who might be hiring. I’m sure she’s following other avenues as well.

What resulted was a brief conversation on Twitter between me, Sally, and another freelancer our age. And that’s when I learned a tragic fact:

Sally had applied for a job at a college teaching the computer language she’d been writing about for years. In fact, the college was using her book as the textbook for the course. But they wouldn’t hire her. Why? She didn’t have a Master’s degree.

Now those folks who are working to get a Masters or already have one probably think that’s a good thing. Makes that extra two years in college really worthwhile, huh? Gives you job security, right?

But does anyone honestly think they can teach the course better than the person who wrote the textbook?

It gets worse. Sally wanted to work for a local organization that has a tendency to hire young people at low starting salaries. When she applied, she even offered to work at that low salary. And she was turned down.

I know why. Young people are inexperienced and far more likely to do what they’re told instead of tapping into experience to suggest improvements as they work. Employers don’t want smart, helpful people. They want drones — bodies to fill seats, push pencils, and get a job done without questioning what they’re told to do.

I saw if myself firsthand when I flew at the Grand Canyon in 2004; the young pilots just did what they were told while older folks like me saw places where the operation could be improved and tried to suggest them. Or, worse yet, used their experience to to make a no-fly decision when weather was an issue. Can’t have that.

So employers are turning away older, more knowledgeable, more experienced workers in favor of young, inexperienced people who might have college degrees to meet arbitrarily established requirements — even when the more experienced workers can be hired at the same cost.

What does that say about our society and values?

Stop Whining and Just Do Your F*cking Job

A Google search phrase touches a nerve.

Every once in a while, when I check the stats for my blog, I also take a look at the search engine terms and phrases that visitors used to find posts on my blog. This list is never complete — Google has begun hiding search words/phrases for privacy reasons — but it certainly is enlightening. It gives me a good idea of what people come to my blog to learn. That, in turn, gives me ideas for future topics.

During the first six hours of today, the following search phrase stands out:

i m a girl and i want become a pilot so what can i do

This is a seriously sore subject with me. You see, I don’t believe a woman should do anything different from a man when pursuing any career. The career path to becoming a pilot is the same no matter what your gender is: get the required education and training, get job experience, and move forward.

How could this possibly be any different for women than it is for men?

Women need to stop thinking of themselves as women when out in the job market. They need to stop thinking about men vs. women and simply think of job candidates vs. job candidates.

The way this search phrase was written, I get the distinct impression that the searcher was a young person — perhaps even a teen or younger. After all, she referred to herself as a “girl” instead of as a “woman” or simply “female.” That means that for some reason, she’s been taught to think of herself first as female and second as a professional. Why are parents and teachers doing this to our young people?

These days, there have been far too many whining complaints from women who are complaining about different treatment because they’re women. I’m calling bullshit on all of this. The reason you’re being treated differently is because you’re acting differently. Maybe you’re making different demands from your employer — excessive time off to deal with your children. Maybe you’re dressing differently in the workplace — short skirts, tight pants, and low-cut blouses. Maybe you’re acting differently at the office — spending too much time on the phone or gossiping about coworkers.

If you want to be treated the same as your male counterparts in the workplace, you need to stop acting like a woman and start acting like a worker.

And before you share your sob stories with me or put me on your hate list, take a lead from me. I’ve been in and achieved success in three male dominated careers — by choice — in the past 32 years:

  • Corporate auditing/finance. Straight out of college at the age of 20, I got a job as an auditor for the New York City Comptroller’s Office. I’d estimate that only about 20% of the people holding the same job were women. By the age of 22, I was a supervisor with 12 people below me, most of whom were men. Three years later, I moved into an Internal Audit position at a Fortune 100 corporation. I’d say 30% of our small audit staff were female. From there, I moved into a financial analyst position at the same company; 25% were women. I got good pay raises every year and with every promotion. (And yes, I was promoted.)
  • Technical computing/computer book authoring. In 1990, I left my full-time job to pursue a freelance career as a computer trainer and book author. This is clearly a male-dominated industry with roughly 10-20% of the people doing what I did being women. Yet I was able to get and hold a number of computer training positions, land over 80 book contracts, and write hundreds of articles about computing. I’m still doing this work.
  • Aviation/piloting. In 2000, I learned to fly and began building a career as a pilot and charter operator. How many female pilots do you see around? And helicopter pilots? I can’t imagine more than 5% of all helicopter pilots being women. It’s a seriously male-dominated field. Yet I built my company over time to the point where it generates a good amount of business, especially through summer contract work. For the past two seasons, I have been the only female helicopter pilot doing cherry drying work in Washington state.

How did I achieve such success when surrounded by men doing the same job? By simply doing my job without whining.

Ladies, take note! You want the same opportunities as men in the workplace? Stop whining and crying about how different you are. Stop being different. Focus on the work and get the job done. Do it to the best of your abilities. Be a team player.

Nobody likes a whiner. I’m sick of being lumped into a group — women — who incessantly whine about how different they’re treated when all they can do is show how different they are.

And if you think you’re a woman first and an employee second, you have absolutely no place in the workplace. Employers and clients don’t want men or women. They want people who get the job done.

November 6, 2014 PM Postscript: Here’s another blog post from 2013 that also discusses this issue, but with quotes from female pilots.

Twitter and Writing

Some thoughts on a New Yorker essay.

Twitter LogoI read an interesting essay on the New Yorker magazine’s website yesterday: “The Ongoing Story: Twitter and Writing.” It was one of those pieces that, as you read it, you realize that you and the author are sharing the same thoughts about something that you thought you were alone in thinking. As I read through the piece, I found myself wanting to highlight different passages of it — the parts of it where the author put into words what I’d been thinking or feeling for a long time.

So I figured I’d blog a little about it to store those thoughts here.

For example, the author of the piece, Thomas Beller, writes:

Most great writers could, if they wanted to, be very good at Twitter, because it is a medium of words and also of form. Its built-in limitation corresponds to the sense of rhythm and proportion that writers apply to each line.

And that’s the challenge of Twitter. Sharing a complete thought in 140 characters. I wrote about that back in October 2010 (was it really that long ago?) in my blog post titled “How Twitter Can Help You Become a More Concise Writer.” After all, anyone can write a string of tweets to tell a story. But how many people can convey that story in just 140 characters? How many people can be interesting, funny, provocative, witty, sarcastic, ironic, or insightful?

Yes, it’s true: I do tweet photos of some of my meals. (Don’t we all?) But occasionally I get more serious. Occasionally I dig deeper and come up with something witty or profound, something that other people find worthy of retweeting or, better yet, favoriting.

(Ever wonder how the word favorite became a verb? I did, too. Then I asked all-knowing Google and it pointed me to this article that explains it. It shouldn’t surprise you that Twitter is involved. But once again, I digress.)

And sometimes — just sometimes — I can paint a visual picture with those 140 characters that’s as clear as a glacial stream on a spring day.

Two more passages touch upon why and how I use Twitter:

Does a piece of writing that is never seen by anyone other than its author even exist? Does a thought need to be shared to exist? What happens to the stray thought that drifts into view, is pondered, and then drifts away? Perhaps you jot it down in a note before it vanishes, so that you can mull it over in the future. It’s like a seed that, when you return to it, may have grown into something visible. Or perhaps you put it in a tweet, making the note public. But does the fact that it is public diminish the chances that it will grow into something sturdy and lasting? Does articulating a thought in public freeze it in place somehow, making it not part of a thought process but rather a tiny little finished sculpture? Is tweeting the same as publishing?

And:

I had always thought of Twitter as being a good place to work out ideas: a place to mull things over in public, and a way of documenting a thought to make it more likely that I would remember it. But is it like a conversation or is it “talking it out?” Is it a note to oneself that everyone can see, or is it, like iPhone photos, an attempt to offload the responsibilities of memory onto an apparatus that feels like an extension of ourselves because it is always in our hands? I sometimes wonder if I might ever be accused of stealing my own idea.

And that’s how I use Twitter: as a sort of running list of my thoughts and the things going on in my life. (That might explain why I’ve tweeted more than 44,000 times since I joined Twitter back in 2007. I think a lot and keep pretty busy.) It’s easy to whip out my phone or iPad and tweet something that’s on my mind — or to save a picture of what’s in front of me in a place where it’ll be forever (or at least a long time). It is an offloading of information so I don’t have to remember things.

Mr Beller wonders whether articulating a thought in public freezes it in place somehow. It does. It freezes it in the Twitter archive, which I can download for my account and search at any time. (How do you think it was so easy for me to come up with the tweets you see here? Imagine that archive in the hands of a paranoid and delusional stalker!) That makes it possible for me to go back in time, to see what I was thinking and doing on a specific date since my first tweet in March 2007.

I can’t think of any easier way to make life notes. Stray thoughts can be captured before they drift away, to be pondered at my leisure. And sometimes — just sometimes — they become the seeds for blog posts or conversations with friends.

Twitter was introduced as a “microblogging” service and that’s exactly how I use it. I assume other writers do the same.

But is tweeting the same as publishing? I don’t think so. It’s more like standing on a soapbox in a crowded park, making random remarks. Some folks who know you’re there and find you interesting might be there to listen. But otherwise, your words go mostly unheard. You can argue that the same can be said for publishing, but publishing seems to be a more legitimate form of communication. Or maybe that’s just old-fashioned thinking on my part.

Managing the anxiety of composition is an essential part of writing. One must master the process of shepherding the private into public. There are bound to be false starts, excursions that turn out to be dead ends. But these ephemera—notes, journals, drafts—are all composed in a kind of psychic antechamber whose main feature is a sense of aloneness. They are the literary equivalent of muttering to yourself in a state of melancholy, or of dancing in front of the mirror with music blasting when you are alone in your room. Both of these are best done when no one is home.

I’ve never found it difficult to write; there is no anxiety for me. That’s not to say that I don’t have false starts and wander down to dead ends. Or, more often than I’d like to admit, write crap.

There is an aloneness to all writing, including Twitter. And yes, tweets are like talking to yourself, but with the very real possibility that (in my case) 1600+ people are listening and may respond. No one is home here except me — I’ve been alone for a long time, even when I supposedly wasn’t.

Almost everybody who is a writer these days gets, at some point, a lecture on the necessity of being “on” Twitter and Facebook. It’s a tool of selling and career building. It is, for writers of all ages and stages, not so much required reading as required writing.

I also got this lecture from one of my publishers. I didn’t need to be sold on Twitter — I took to that like a bird takes to the sky. It was Facebook that I avoided for as long as I could. So long, in fact, that I lost a contract because I wasn’t involved enough in social media. Imagine that! An early adopter of Twitter with tens of thousands of tweets not being involved enough in social media.

Twitter gives writers the ability to put ourselves out there for the world to see. Does it help my writing career? Perhaps — to a point. It certainly helps attract blog readers and give me a steady stream of intelligent people to communicate with.

After five years and more than 44,000 tweets, I know one thing for certain: Twitter has become a part of my writing life.

Mind Boggling

One definition.

Today, while sitting at my desk in an RV parked in the middle of Central Washington State farmland, I watched a live, full-color feed from outer space on my phone of the historic docking of a privately developed commercial spacecraft to the multi-government built International Space Station. Here’s a screen capture from my phone:

Dragon Docks with ISS

I am old enough to remember when the Apollo astronauts landed on the moon. It was 1969 and I was almost 8 years old. (Aw, come on, don’t do the math.) My mother made us stay up to watch it on the family TV — a big TV console that stood on the floor and required you to get up to change the channels because there was no remote control. The picture we saw of that historic moment looked like this:

Apollo 11 First Step

Do I even need to point out that my phone has more computing power than NASA had when it launched Apollo 11?

We’ve come a long, long way.

I call that mind-boggling.

Juggling Internet Bandwidth

Working with bandwidth limitations.

This summer, I’m on the road again, working out of my RV, the “mobile mansion.” And, after dealing with crappy, overpriced Internet service at my first stop for the past three years, I decided to go it alone this year with a My-Fi.

Why My-Fi?

My-FiThe reason I picked the My-Fi (instead of setting up a mobile hotspot from my smartphone) was twofold:

  • The My-Fi unit came with better plans. There was a 3GB plan for $35 which would only cost $10/GB if I went over. I knew I’d likely go over at least a few times a year — last summer, I had an 8GB month. The other plans would have been far more costly for that overage.
  • I’m a Verizon customer and I wanted to be able to talk on the phone while using the Internet. I admit this was not a primary concern. Last year I used mobile broadband tethering from my BlackBerry and did occasionally get interrupted by a phone call while doing my Internet thing. It didn’t kill me to wait until I was done talking. After all, I spend very little time actually talking on my phone.

I should note here that I do know that the Virgin Mobile My-Fi has a plan with unlimited bandwidth. But what good is a device that doesn’t work where you are? The Virgin Mobile device doesn’t have coverage in the areas I travel to. Verizon does. That’s the same reason — or one of them, anyway — why I don’t have AT&T.

My Plans

Last summer, I was spoiled. Although I paid for Internet at my first stop, I also had free unlimited Internet access through my BlackBerry. I’d had tethering for years and was grandfathered in on a plan that offered unlimited bandwidth for only $15/month. That plan was not available for either iPhones or Android phones and I needed a step up from my BlackBerry. Turning off that plan was one of the hardest things I ever did as a techie.

Of course, my iPhone and iPad also have 3G coverage, giving me access to the Internet from either device without a Wi-Fi (or My-Fi) connection. The iPhone’s plan has unlimited 3G, which is nice. But I’ll be the first to admit that the last device I want to surf the Web with is a smartphone. For the iPad, I went with a limited plan offering only 1GB per month. The idea was that I’d do my heavy Internet lifting with my desktop or laptop computer and limit the iPad’s use to reading RSS feeds, doing a little Web surfing, and sending the odd e-mail.

My goal, of course, is to not go over any bandwidth limitations for the entire summer. And that seriously changes the way I access the Internet.

For example, right now my My-Fi is turned on and ready to access. But the AirPort (or Wi-Fi) connectivity on my computer is turned off. Why? Because my computer seems to access the Internet any time it can, sucking down my bandwidth for no apparent reason. No, I don’t have a virus or worm. But my computer does like to check in with the various services I use — MobileMe, DropBox, etc. — to see whether it should download any updates or get any files. It does anytime it’s connected. While I could disable a lot of these automatic checks, it’s a lot easier to just turn off Wi-Fi until I actually need it.

SurplusMeter

SurplusMeterYou might be wondering how I know what my computer is doing. Last summer, I picked up a Mac app called SurplusMeter. It’s kind of neat. You set it up, tell it how much monthly bandwidth you have, and what day the month starts on. You also tell it how you’re connected to the Internet. It calculates a daily allowance; the idea being that if you use less than your daily allowance, you have a surplus to use during the rest of the month. Then it runs in the background, monitoring your network access. You can launch the app at any time to see what your totals are. Here’s mine for this month, which started just a few days ago. Last night, I was in the red, so even though it’s early, today’s allocation has been partially consumed.

Now, of course, I can use as much Internet as I want per day. The idea is for the monthly total to be less than — or, ideally, exactly — 3GB. SurplusMeter helps me rein in my Internet usage so I can minimize it.

Two things to note about SurplusMeter:

  • I’m only running it on one computer. That means it’s only logging bandwidth usage on one of the four computers I have with me. (Don’t ask.) Laptop access is not being logged. This results in an understatement of total usage.
  • It logs all AirPort activity, including local network activity. That means that every time one computer talks to another — for example, to share files — that usage is also logged. This results in an overstatement of total usage.

I’m hoping these two discrepancies net each other out.

And no, it isn’t worth it to set up multiple copies and use some other file transfer method to get more precise information. All I’m interested in is ballpark numbers.

But if you do know of a better app for the task that doesn’t cost a fortune, please do let us know about it in comments.

Getting the Big Fat Files

Of course, I still have to access the Internet for things that would make a serious dent in my allowance. For example, right now I’m working on a Mac OS X 10.7 Lion book. The Developer Previews I’m using as I write are about 4GB in size. There are two problems with this, and both are pretty obvious:

  • Downloading a 4GB file over a My-Fi with a max download speed of about 1Mbps would take more than 10 hours.
  • If my monthly allowance was only 3GB, I’d exceed that with just one download.

Fortunately, I’m running Lion on a laptop. Over the years, I’ve identified some Wi-Fi hotspots with pretty fast download speeds. One is in Wenatchee, at a coffee shop, where I was able to download a 900MB file last summer in less than 12 minutes. There’s a gas station in Quincy that used to have pretty quick Wi-Fi, although I admit I haven’t tried it yet this year. And there’s a coffee shop in Quincy that might have decent speed; the only time I used it, speed was not a concern. I do know that the local library’s Internet absolutely sucks, so it’s not likely that I’ll be using it for Internet access anytime in the future.

Yesterday, while in Wenatchee, I used the coffee shop Internet to download podcasts, check for updates, get maps for ForeFlight on my iPad, and do whatever I could. If I’d stayed in Wenatchee a few more hours, I would have gotten the big file I need today. I figure I’ll try the Quincy coffee shop first and if that isn’t fast enough, I’ll try the gas station. If that’s not fast enough, it’s another trip into Wenatchee for coffee and a high-speed Internet fix.

Doing Chores with iPhone

In the meantime, I’ve been trying to use my iPhone as much as possible for small tasks such as checking e-mail and sending/receiving Twitter tweets. After all, there’s no bandwidth cap, so it just makes sense to maximize usage. For some reason, I’ve been getting a ton of spam lately — 10-20 messages a day about dieting or “male enhancement” — and it’s quick and easy to just delete these from my phone so neither my iPad nor my computers need to retrieve them.

I know this is a drop in the bucket as far as Internet usage goes, but the way I see it, every little bit helps.

Rising to the Challenge

This summer is an experiment to see how well I can limit my usage and stay within budget. I’m prepared to pay for the extra bandwidth, but I like the challenge of working within limitations. It’s a lot like trying to conserve energy by turning off lights and turning down the heat/air conditioning.

It’ll be interesting to see how I do.