Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Outside looking in

I've always been a non-group person, also known as an alone person. That means I've always shied from group things, support group, focus grups, meetings, events, etc., and I only go to photograph them now. But that also means I always looked at groups and their issues from the outside, like someone who peers over the edge of a box looking inside where everything happens.

While it's not afforded me the opportunity to be part of anything or a group, and obviously missed a lot of the inside stuff and work, it's afforded me a different perspective on those same groups and their issues and stuff. But this being outside wasn't all my doing or choice as I've found many groups are often very elistist and heirarchal, meaning new members aren't heard or seen, just there, and for the grunt work.

Well, I don't take to that attitude. I had this the time I joined the Sierra Club. I had been a member for years but decided to become an active member when they announced a weekend workshop for interested new members. Except it wasn't so much a workshop as a weekend camp of work while the team leaders and senior club members and leaders behaved like dictators.

Since I paid for the workshop I expected more than what happened. For one when I arrived I was told where I'd sleep, some old bunkhouse without rooms let alone bathrooms and what I'd be doing in the kitchen, meaning cleanup for which meals - aka, busboy, dishwasher, and dining room cleanup.

Then I was told what workshops I was eligible for as a new member, which were lead by people who told you the Club's views on issues and what you'd be doing to help the Club on those issues. And when I raised question or questioned their views on the issues, I was less than politiely told there was the Sierra Club's view (straight from SF office) expected from all members. No other view or opinion is tolerated.

Here I was with a MS degree and many years in the USGS ready to help on water resources issues and problems, and I'm told I have to start by writing letters, stuffing envelopes, and making phone calls for ballot initiatives. They simply didn't care what education, experience, skills or talents you had, you're just a body for their bidding and work. Not what I do.

Suffice it to say, I left early telling them where to stick their workshop and where to put the Sierra Club. I also left the Club at the end of the next year's membership - I didn't renew it. While they have achieved a lot for the environment in this country, I still think the Club sucks. I don't and would never recommend being a member of it.

But that's what I could do being outside looking in, to see them at face value and in the light, and then walk away shaking my head. And, as I said, I didn't get there wholly by myself. Only it started by being naive and becoming a believer in that old button, "Question Authority".

Unfortunately I learned this in the Air Force with my court martial, but that was after a previous incident. Once a year the squadron had to assemble for a full inspection, meaning the General walked through and looked at, and sometimes stopped and talked with, every member of the squadron.

After the inspection four lower grade Non-Commissioned Officers (NCO) were called to the commander's office for a talk for presentation and uniform violations. We met the commander as a group and he proceeded to exclaim what we did wrong and what reprimand would occur when I asked, "Why were there only four of us picked and not any senior NCO's who were obviously and some more so in violation?"

I was taken aside and asked about it and I explained since the senior NCO's were the one to called the troops for violations, they didn't note any of them when I saw several worse than me - sideburns, pants too short, unshined shoes, etc., within eyesight. The general wanted names which I refused to give until he promised anonimity after which I told him.

Well, that didn't sit well with the senior NCO's, because half a dozen were reprimanded and we (four) were exonerated. But the squadron first sargent was cool with it and told me thanks. But this started me on the life of that button, always question and always ask why.

And it continued through graduate school, being one of two "representatives" of the graduate students to present the Chairman and faculty of the Department with grievances (I didn't volunteer but was "elected") and into the USGS, but there I learned when I got promoted to middle management and a supervisor to pick my fights, but still, when the chips are down, always be willing to bet your career against management.

I say this because I learned if you did your homework and had support from some regional or headquarters senior staffers you could challenge local management on almost any issue and win, or at worse get a draw. I helped others' careers and work, and earned respect for being a manager who did represent and speak for the staff. But I lost recommendations for promotion for it - you need their approval and recommendation.

They didn't want me one of them at that level, being a data chief, and it pretty much sowed the seeds with my bosses (two layers up) to retire earlier than planned. But while they thought they won, they lost. They lost a great employee, dedicated believer in the USGS and its work, and passionate manager for the staff.

But I won my freedom. And even now on forums or in groups I'm still the outsider looking in and getting in trouble with others who disagree with me. They don't understand or don't want to understand opinions are just that, opinions. Everyone has one and everyone's is equal. Just don't tell them that.

Which is something I haven't learned yet and likely won't now. People hold onto their opinions so hard and tightly they can't see the truth and reality of them. They don't know to put an opinion, idea, decision, whatever, on the table for everyone to see, review and question. You never know where a better idea, more information, or something to change your mind will come from and from whom.

But if you live in a box, you'll only get the views and opinions from others in the box. Outside I can see more and see the broader life and world. While it's often lonely standing out there, outside of any box, But then I've always try to follow the advice I keep on my quotes Web page.

"Be good, be kind, be truthful, and be free."
"I know what it takes to be lonely; I know what it takes to be free."
"Knowledge is free, but you must bring your own container."

And especially the lines from the song "That's what living is to me" by Jimmy Buffett

Be good and you will be lonesome.
Be lonesome and you will be free.
Live a lie and you will live to regret it.
That's what living is to me.

Not much more to say except I'll keep on wandering outside the box.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Being a Data Chief

At one point in my career, mid-1990's I considered to try and be a Data Chief. This is a job where you are responsible for the operations and management of the basic data work of the Water Resources Program (WRP) for an individual state - each state being an automonous district within the WRP. It's a separate section within a district along with the respective investigations section for the scientific work of the USGS WRP in the state. And to me it was always a cool and really neat job.

Ok, you don't go into a senior district management job thinking it's cool and neat, but I loved basic data. Everything about it is interesting and all the people in the field office terrific. After 13+ years of field work in three districts (states) and then the section chief for the data management work, I knew I could be a Data Chief, which involves managing 20-40 people and a few million dollar program with two to three dozen cooperators.

It's a job where you oversee and lead the whole basic data operation for the state working with everyone from the field people to the managers with the various cooperators (government agencies, organizations, companies, etc.). You are the one that makes it all work, keeps it focused on the future, and provides the leadership to the staff. What's not to think isn't cool or neat about that?

And add the importance of the public and you get something really cool and neat. You see, the USGS WRP collects most of the water resources data in the United States, and produces and disseminates it to anyone interested. The work is paid through the contracts with the cooperators, mostly through tax dollars or water/power rates. In short, it's all paid by the citizens of this country to share with everyone.

So, I began applying for Data Chief jobs around the West or elsewhere, eight in all over a span of about three years. I got a few interviews and some recommendations from senior regional and agency folks, but wasn't the one offered the job. It turned out, not understanding politics at that level, five were predetermined for someone in the district. Of the remaining three, I was second in two.

And so after awhile and passing 50 I kinda' knew the chances of another opportunity were slim to none. In the USGS WRP you get a window of opportunity in your career and rarely once it closes it doesn't reopen. Many people had their potential careers shortened when it closed, so it wasn't new. And in pursuing my career goal I did manage to anger some folks.

You see I have a view of the job which conflicts with what most senior managers like and want in their executive staff. You see I have some basic views about being a boss/supervisor, which are:

One, it's who work for you that matters, not who you work for.

Two, you represent the (section) staff to management and not management to the staff.

Three, be a Data Chief, meaning believe in and promote data and the section to everyone, and don't be a senior district manager.

Four, be a human being, meaning be understanding and honest with people, and respect people for themselves.

Five, be yourself with management, don't play politics for the sake of management games.

I put my priorities as first, the staff (who does the work), second, the cooperators (who writes the checks), third, the public (who funds the programs) and lastly, management (who does something else).

So you can see I don't sit well with senior managers. I was passionate about basic data, from the field work and people to the production for the cooperators, the public and the reports. Everything else fits inside that, and isn't a priority over the work and the staff.

It's why I didn't get the chance to be a Data Chief. I'm not sure I would have been all that good, but it sure would have been fun to try.

The sound of rain

I've always like the sound of rain against something. It's why I live in the top floor apartment of the building, the rain against the roof. And during the summer I forget the sound until the first serious rain storms sweep through the Pacific Northwest and just rain for hours on end, only changing intensity and occasionally clearing overhead to remind us the sun is still there above all those clouds.

This last week I had to drop the van off for its annual service. Their shuttle service doesn't cross the Tacoma Narrows bridge so they drop me off at the last on/off ramp and I walk home, just about 2 miles one way, most of which is across the new bridge. The day I went to pick it up, it had rained most of the night and had lessened only slightly in the morning during the walk. But when I got to the pickup place the driver called to say he was running late, about 30-40 minutes.

So I stood there, in the rain, waiting, when the rain decided to pour down in earnest and not let up. But I wore my Northface Expedition rainsuit which I bought about 20 years ago. I had wore out my original Gore-Tex rainsuit from work which I bought in 1978 (now in the extra clothes bag in the van for emergencies). I remember paying about $750 for the Northface then because it could withstand any storm and had a lifetime guarantee.

Well, it does and I've never had to test the warranty yet. But just standing there, all dry and warm, was interesting just listening to the rain against the hood and coat. It reminded me what my boss said when I started with the USGS and came back from the first winter field trip.

I had bought myself one of those clear plastic raincoats. And on the 2nd day of the week field trip it leaked and then tore. I spent the rest of the trip in the Oregon Cascade Mountains cold and wet. When I got back and talked to the lead technician about the weather, the boss, an old crusty guy about my age now, said, "There's no excuse for being cold or wet."

Well, that day I spent $100 for a new technology Gore-Tex rainsuit. It last the five years I spent in Oregon and the five years in Arizona. It didn't survive the Washington winters so in 1988 after resealing the seams and repairing leaks every few trips, I replaced it with the Northface suit, and never got wet again.

Cold, however, is what you wear underneath it, and there are times when the cold doesn't honor clothes and just goes right through you to chill your bones. When that happens there is nothing you can do to in the field except work fast. But mostly the Northface was a champ holding in heat too.

What I also learned years later about my boss is that he could say that because he rarely did his field trip in the rain, and never in the cold. He had the easiest field trip and always tried to go when the weather was warm and clear. He always found excuses for worst weather, and only went we had to measure floods, but even then he often sent us as he had to "man the office" during the events.

Yeah, right. Anyway, I remember doing many field trips for the week in the rain. I grew to hate it sometimes because you were always in it and you had to write which meant my hands were always cold and wet even with fingerless gloves. It eventually lead to the onset of Raynaud's Syndrome and getting out of field work in 1991 when another job opened in the office.

I still continued to hike and bike in the rain, but then slowly faded out those trips to Mt. Rainier NP when I spent a hiking trip in the rain and got tired of everything being wet all the time. I eventually just hiked out and went home. Rain now is something I like to pick when I go out in it and how long I stay.

I also continue to run in the rain, and in fact love it more than when it's not raining. Rain forces you to focus on the run and mostly the road and trail. Since the runs are shorter these years (30-40 minutes tops), I don't really get very wet with a good rain/wind shell and pants, and know home is always at the end of the run.

But sometimes, though, it's just nice to stand there letting it fall on and all around you, just to listen and feel it. And remember.