Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Politics and My Technical Career

I started a discussion on two Linux lists by asking how much in demand for Fortran programmers there was today. I received the answer I expected -- that there wasn't much demand for this specialty these days. I also made reference to a political angle. This posting is about the admittedly rather unusual angle.

I am what is called a polymath. I am reasonably good a variety of significant different things. This is because I was brought by parents in a more 19th (and earlier) century manner than most people. My grandfather was Rutgers College class of 1890 -- degree in chemistry. His father was a corporate attorney. His mother is how I am related to John Donne. Educated people back in the 19th century were encouraged -- if not required -- to be more broadly educated than today. That attitude -- plus the necessary skills -- was imparted to me by my parents, my father especially. There are other ways of becoming a polymath. I'm just telling you how I became one.

Other things my parents taught me were to listen to and respect others, stand up for myself and try to do my best to help my fellow humans.

When I was a child I became quite interested in science and technology -- especially space exploration. My parents encouraged this interest. They also encouraged me to read widely. My childhood wasn't all Erector Sets and books about technology. My parents also encouraged me to read classics like "Treasure Island" and "Black Beauty."

Still, though, my initial interest in science and technology carried me through first a degree in physics from Rutgers, some work in the field and some graduate study (somewhat simultaneously). I, of course, picked up Fortran as my first computer language at this time. During my second year in grad school, I became increasingly dissatisfied. I thought I was becoming tired of physics and technology.

When I graduated from Rutgers, my parents gave me a really good 35 mm camera outfit. No one expected me to meet up with some artists and get really into photography, but I did. This definitely exposed me to the world beyond technology.

Because of the artistic influence, and the dissatisfaction with physics as a career, I began a search for a new life. I wound up in social psychology, studying at the grad level at Columbia University. This career path went well for a time, then also soured. I've written an account of why I left that field and academia in my posting Why I Am Not A Social Psychologist. Still, though, I learned a great deal about humans behave, especially in organizational settings.

While doing this grad work, I encountered the book "The High Frontier: Human Colonies in Space" by Gerard K. O'Neill. I was fascinated. My interest in technology was reawakened -- this time when I was a mature adult. I joined a couple of groups to promote O'Neill's ideas. By organizing things like New Jersey Spaceday I even became a leader in the L5 Society and later the American Astronautical Society's Space Times. I was hired in March 1990 to work at Goddard Space Flight Center.

The group I joined was a mess. Communications skills were sorely lacking. Management had trouble keeping staff. The larger group was dominated by a civil servant who was sometimes described as a "brilliant scientist" and "tough." In actuality he was an abusive bully who did not listen to people. "Yes" people got ahead. More independent people were kept out of formal leadership positions.

Still, though, I was more happy than not. The work was interesting. Most of my relationships were with people outside our group who used our group's services. I was also part of the larger Goddard community via such things as the Goddard running club and the theater group. The latter group really appreciated my services as a photographer.

The management of our group went from poor to disastrous. A woman manager was brought in who tried to control staff in all sorts of ways. One man -- about 40 and recently married -- was told to forget about his marriage and concentrate on work. I was hauled into a conference room with the accusation of using government computers for personal business. The proof? A piece of spam from a Internet pornographer. What I had actually done was to forget to update a .forward file on a little used computer that was receiving spam.

I started looking for a transfer. One was not forthcoming. I do not know why.

In 1999 I was subjected to extreme disciplinary action. I was told to either fall into line, find another job or be fired. This was after years of generally positive job reviews.

Since IT was still hot in 1999, I was able to quickly find another job. Still, though, I was very unhappy. Compounding that unhappiness was going to a high school reunion the Saturday after I left Goddard -- and finding out that one of the most wonderful women in our class had gotten really screwed up and committed suicide. She had just taken a job as a New York City school teacher the last time I met her.

When I was forced out of Goddard in 1999, I started showing up in old haunts -- the National Space Society, etc. People were happy to see me again, but wondering what had happened to me. I did tell a few people a bit.

Late in 2002 I came up with the idea of writing a paper on what I had seen at Goddard and presenting it at the Princeton Conference on Space Manufacturing. I thought this way I might be able to draw attention to what I considered serious problems.

Then Columbia burned up upon reentry in 2003. People started talking immediately about NASA management. I converted my paper into a lecture which I gave at Central New Jersey Mensa Regional Gathering (think weekend long convention) in March. My talk got top reviews.

The next my friends in CNJ Mensa invited me back to give a follow up now that the Columbia Accident Investigation Board report was out. In the audience was a career NASA civil servant named Steven Yaros. We'd never met. At the end of my talk, he stood up, told us who he was, and endorsed everything I said. He also said people at NASA were reading the report. I was stunned. A new path seemed to open. Steve later on encouraged me to find work in the agency.

Later that year a professional lobbyist gave a talk to the Rutgers Club of DC. During the talk he mentioned that professional lobbyists did volunteer work for campaigns to build relationships with politicians. Another light went on. In August I drove to Mikulski reelection headquarters in Baltimore and volunteered. Senator Mikulski has been known as a strong supporter of NASA -- and willing to say when things had gone wrong. I liked both. By doing this, I gained admittance into mainstream political circles in Maryland. I am glad I did so.

In 2004 I also joined the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. I hit it off well with the people I met. I wound up, among other things, becoming the Baltimore Section's webmaster and public policy officer. I've been leading Team Maryland during the annual Congressional Visits Day and attracting interest to our concerns that way.

Then in January 2006, a notice came to our section that Maryland's Governor's Workforce Investment Board was holding an Aerospace Summit as part of the Aerospace Initiative. I and other section members went and had an interesting day.

In June I received a invitation to a follow up meeting. I went and participated in the Industry Collaboration Committee. There was some talk about starting a Maryland Aerospace Association. At the end of the meeting government representative Art Taguding said we needed a chair to continue leading the group. Everyone looked at me. Art asked if I was surprised. I wasn't, given the way the meeting had gone.

I got our group off to a good start. We put together a proposal for an association over the next several months. Lots of people told me they were impressed with our work.

Then in December 2006 I had an interesting set of encounters via the Maryland Space Business Roundtable with a man who had been an executive at the company for whom I worked at Goddard. He asked me if I would be interested in taking a job with the company he now worked for -- in Hampton Roads, Virginia. This raised my eyebrows a bit. It would mean uprooting my life, leaving behind my community and political connections, etc. -- just for an undescribed job. I did send the man my two resumes -- the tech oriented one and what I call my civic leader one. I heard nothing more from the man.

The plan for a Maryland Aerospace Association failed to gather support. I had no direct contact with the people who did the rejecting. I was told by one man that one person had rejected our proposal without even being aware of what my group had done.

Throughout all this I remained quite active in AIAA affairs. People seem to respect and like me.

I am now telling people I need a more normal career. Taking on bits and pieces of work is neither satisfying intellectually nor economically rewarding enough for me.

People at the company who broached the idea of moving to Virginia have done so a few times since, rather informally. I'm not really interested. They haven't really sold me on what I would be doing there.

A few days ago I casually checked out the company's website. On their careers page, I found advertisements for Fortran programmers -- at Goddard, a few miles from my home. A job like that could get my attention. Technically it would not be ideal, but it would be a big improvement for me at present. I'm wondering why no one has thought of contacting me about this work. A political motivation seems like it might be at work.

Some managers like to refer to people like me as "disgruntled former employees." That really isn't a fair description of me. I am a change agent, seeking to reform practices that have been clearly shown to be dysfunctional. I can actually put on a social scientist hat and recommend changes that are clearly thought out. It's not unreasonable to think that some people who are benefiting from the old status quo don't want me around. These days I am quite active in advocating reform in tech industry. You can get some idea of what I am talking about by reading a few other of my blog postings:

July 10th Justin Ross is holding a fund raiser locally. Governor O'Malley will be attending. I could go and make a fuss. I'm wondering what to do.

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