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.

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