A Work Life (part 2)

Working at Orion cured me of several bad habits, foremost was bad writing.  The absolute need for technical specificity (say that three times fast) put my brain into overload, and forced me to expand my vocabulary to include a wide range of scientific and technology terms and definitions.  It was an education, no doubt about that.  Adding to this, the progression of technology, capabilities, and conundrums (see, I can do alliteration) forced me to learn as I went, usually by spending time in bookstores and spending lots of non-existent cash on books and magazines to stay current.  I found libraries to be less than useful as the rate at which computer technology was changing outstripped their ability to stock current materials.

Though I played the part of “CIO”, I had no expense account or decision-making authority that went with it.  Part of that was due to my unofficial CIO status, and the other part was due to corporate culture.  Now, I guess I should touch on what it is like to work in a small office.  Having never worked in a private sector office before, I slid into my position at Orion with no concept of office politics, or personnel relations.  Some years removed from Orion’s small office work environment, I’m not sure if the lessons I learned (or failed to learn) translate at all into a large office. However, I did learn some valuable lessons.

  • First, be sure to alienate no one – I’m sure anyone who works in an office already knows that, but in a small office, if you manage to piss someone off, you’re guaranteed to have daily awkward moments when you cohabitate in small quarters. Perhaps in a large organization, you can ostracize Joe in shipping, but when it is someone you deal with daily, you’re just setting yourself up for failure.
  • Second, which follows on from the first, is be humble, and prepare to be humbled. Someone is always smarter than you, and sometimes the number of people who qualify is sizable.  Observe them, see what they are doing right, and be prepared to imitate.  It might be the sincerest form of flattery, or hypocrisy, but often it is a way to find success when your native efforts aren’t good enough.
  • Third, when you make mistakes, always apologize, even if whatever happened is not your fault. Mistakes happen, people get their feet stepped on, or worse, end up doing more than they should to pull your nuts out of the fire.  Learn to enjoy the taste of crow – sautéed in garlic is supposed to be tasty, or so I’ve heard.
  • Fourth, deal with people directly without involving the boss. Nothing creates toxicity faster than being pegged as a stool pigeon for management.  Thankfully, despite my many flaws, I never stooped to that, but I certainly felt the sting that comes with being on the receiving end of such treatment.  Not fun.
  • Fifth, cultivate openness, interest, and empathy with those you interact with. This aspect was (is) always my most difficult challenge, which I never fully mastered.  Of those that ran to the boss to complain about me, it was most likely my inability to listen and be empathetic that engendered that reaction.  If a co-worker gets the idea you don’t care about issues they are having with you, they are likely to do an end-run.  In those instances, where I was the guilty party, I don’t blame folks for tossing my nuggets into the corporate frying pan.
  • The sixth lesson is be honest even when it doesn’t make you look good. Hiding crap, ducking responsibility, and lying are toxic and will come back to bite you, and the company big time.  Plus, like Twain said, “Always tell the truth, then you’ll have less to remember.”  As I get older, I see that as a necessity.  Maybe that is why some of the most honest people out there are also the oldest.

I hope that I was a decent co-worker, but I knew that sometimes I was not.  I did try to be helpful, to fix things, and give my best effort.  Sometimes that wasn’t good enough, but in the long run, I believe I did more things right than wrong.  Some may dispute that, and I would not judge them harshly for it.  We are all human, and all make mistakes.

A Work Life (part 1)

Once upon a time, I did have a viable career, as the IT guru of a small company.  And when I say small, I do mean small – never more than 8 employees.  We did management consulting, which always invokes a puzzled look, as no one knows what that means.  You probably don’t either, so let me explain in a way that is not long-winded.  Management consulting is basically a job of being a go-between management and technical experts, handling questions and concerns, translating bureaucratic/techno-geek-speak into something the other party can understand.  It is a complicated and nuanced job straddling two cultures that often talk past each other.  Adding to the complexity is trying to balance everyone’s wants and needs.  Anyway, that is what the company did, and how I started as a jack of all trades, and one could argue, a master of none (which is probably an unfair statement, even for me).

When I started at Orion, back in “the day” (meaning the Jurassic age before the Internet became du jour, and Google and Facebook-owned everyone’s identities), we had three or four PCs, none of which were networked, and suitable only for basic word-processing.  There was also the ability to program systems to do limited things, such as stripping text out of files, or running calculations on banks of numbers.  Minimal stuff, but tasks which gave me the chance to get my foot in the door.  Later I expanded into creating and editing of advanced technology reports, on subjects that I only had a passing familiarity with, but required a deft touch.  As time passed, so did the technology; computers got faster and more capable, and we started toying with the idea of networking systems.  That is where my job kicked into a higher gear.

As I said, the company was small, and skill sets were diverse, though they did overlap a bit.  The problem was that no one had a definitive computer science background, except me.  I had a bachelor’s degree in computer science from Mary Washington College (now University of Mary Washington).  By virtue of that background, and the fact that no one wanted the odious task of setting up or maintaining a network of systems, I inherited the duties of a network administrator, without the formal title.  In all the 22 years of service I had with Orion, my official job title never changed much, except perhaps from “analyst” to “senior analyst.”  Yet, I acquired additional responsibilities that better suited my college-derived skill set than trying to create and edit technical documents on subjects I had very little background in, knowledge of, or an ability to contribute to, in a significant way.

The technical reports the company produced often mystified me. In retrospect, I should not have been too terribly surprised.  Government documents tend to be Frankensteinian creations, structured to meet strict requirements of nebulous regulations and directives that no one can find or understand, but which threaten imprisonment if they are not met.  Even more dubious is that sometimes what has to be done makes no sense on any rational level. So, what do you do? The wise old sage says, “sometimes you get paid by the hour.”  Isn’t that a rather comforting statement?  It evokes same sort of sentiment that the military lives by, “Always remember, your weapon was built by the lowest bidder.”

For me, what I found most confusing, besides the structure and format, was the vocabulary, primarily consisting of governmentese. A conjured stew of acronyms, titles and names of processes and regulations that, unless you had a dictionary or Federal register handy, was like trying to translate ancient Greek into Esperanto.  The other aspect of those reports was the stifling manner and style in which they had to be written.  High on technical accuracy, and low on anything that might keep the reader awake.

However, the process of writing, and more importantly, revision of these documents forced me outside my collegiate and personal comfort zones, particularly for writing.  To be perfectly honest, writing was not high on my list of interests going into college, and to be even more honest, was not a skill that I believed I could build a career around.  Coming out of Galesburg Senior High, I could barely write anything that anyone would want to read. To make matters worse, my poor writing skills trailed me into college and helped contribute to my less than stellar start to my college career (a story for another day).

Chapter 5 – Voyage To Hell (I mean the Mall)

The Kingdom’s only shopping mall, the BudgetMasher, sat above a vast stagnant swamp.  The entire complex loomed like a village built on stilts over brackish waters.  Normally having your prime retail area positioned over a fetid marsh would be a problem, but the fact was, the unwelcomed presence of snakes and mosquitos motivated shoppers to stay indoors, spending coin. That is until pesticide carriages swept through and dumped toxic quantities of insect and reptile repellent on the streets and sidewalks.  While that may seem extreme, it also provides a natural defense against other malignant pests of society, namely lawyers and politicians.

Despite this rather unusual setup, the mall did a brisk business, and most anything that folks wanted (but did not necessarily need) could be found in the multi-storey shops.  Rachel’s carriage rolled to a stop in front of Diana’s Dresses and Corsets.

Carleen led the way.  “Rachel Dahlin’, we must get you some decent formal wear, and a corset.”

Rachel’s skin prickled, and her hands grew clammy.  OMG!  A corset?  “You are joking, aren’t you?”

With a toothy but cold smile, Carleen replied, “My dear, I don’t joke.”

Why do I believe that?

Drek slid out of the carriage and straightened her back.  “Oi, I need a stiff drink.  Is there a pub nearby?”

Carleen frowned at her.  “Certainly not.  A lady never finds herself in such a den of inequity.”

Shrugging her shoulders, Drek looked around.  “Oh my, there’s Mike’s Dry Cleaning.  I’ll see you later.”  With a wink at the girl, she slipped toward the store, eyes gleaming.

Rachel eyed Carleen, who smiled thinly. Ugh, now it’s just you and me.  The woman held open the door to Diana’s, and in she marched. Rachel followed like a convict being led to the executioner’s block.  The next couple hours reinforced that impression and gave the girl enough subliminal nightmares to never again set foot inside a high fashion store.  On the other hand, Carleen beamed with malicious delight as Rachel squeezed her pre-pubescent body into form-fitting dresses, and narrowly avoided having her internal organs strangulated by a corset.

Then, of course, came the shoes, foot born terror and torture devices designed to tip Rachel up on the balls of her feet, and make it impossible to walk without stumbling into walls, and fracturing a pelvis.  At the point where she quite literally wanted to jump out a window, Carleen declared victory, hauled the detritus of the shopping massacre to the clerk. There the damage was calculated and added the Kingdom’s budget deficit.

As Rachel stumbled out of the storefront, she looked around but did not see Drek.

Carleen whizzed past and started for the carriage.

“Have you seen Drek?” Rachel asked.

“No, and I suspect we won’t.  She probably fell into the swamp trying to find something to drink.  For our part, I hope so, as I don’t wish to share a coach with that dreadful mess of a woman.”

She pulled the door open and was immediately greeted by a loud snort.  Inside sat Drek, pitched over to one side, a blissful smile on her face, and a puddle of drool running down the front of her frock.

“Oh my,” Carleen said, recoiling in horror.  What is this?”

“I would say Mike has some pretty serious dry cleaning chemicals,” Rachel replied, trying desperately to conceal her grin.

They climbed in, and Carleen sought to squeeze into the furthest corner from Drek.  Unfortunately for Rachel, she had to sit next to Carleen, because as the coach started to move, Drek slid further and further down in her seat until she lay sprawled across it.  Her loud snores rattled the windows and door, and breath carried on it the scent of several types of liquors, none of which Rachel was familiar with. Still, watching the gag reflex on her “handler” was quite entertaining.

“How long before we get to Summer Camp?” Rachel asked.

Carleen sighed, giving Drek the stink eye.  “Probably another three hours, by which that point, maybe that …” she pointed at the Drek “… will be awake, and be convinced to eat a breath mint.”


Time passed slowly, as one can imagine when stuck in a carriage with a snoring witch and an arrogant fashion diva.  Rachel tried to keep things light.  “So, how long have you been a Princess preparation specialist?”

“That’s Specialist in Princess Preparation And Matchmaking,” Carleen corrected. “You forgot the matchmaking part.”

I was trying too.

“But to answer your question, seven years.”

“And before that?”

“Real estate, I flipped castles on the market, which was fine till the bottom fell out.”

“Was the market that bad?”

“No, the bottom fell out of the castle I was selling, and it sank into a swamp. After losing my fortune on that one, I quit my career and instead focused on the two things that I’m excellent at.”

“Which are?”

“Fashion and marital incarceration.” She giggled with a surprised look on her face. “Oops, I meant marriage.  Speaking of which, who are you betrothed to?”

“Excuse me? Betrothed?”

“Certainly. Haven’t your parents arranged your marriage?”

“I’m twelve. Boys are smelly and stupid.”

Carleen waved her hand dismissively. “Believe me, they don’t get much better on that as they age.  The same can’t be said for their earning potential.”

“Wow, you’re absolutely mercenary.”

“Why thank you, dahlin’.”

To Backup Or Not To Backup — not really a question

With my twenty-plus years of experience in IT (information technology), it is not surprising that I exploit technology to help my writing. I have used many software programs, setups and configurations to help myself gain control and traction with my writing projects. That said, any venture into technology can result in an all-consuming task of trying to convince HAL (or Bill Gates) not to pull the plug on all my digital treasures. On that score, I thought it might be interesting to discuss some of the software I use daily for writing. For this first article, I am going to focus on doing backups. That might seem to be an odd jumping off point, but without some assurance that what you write is recoverable, loading a system with your precious literary masterpieces may be nothing more than sticking all your digital eggs in one basket, and hoping the gods of fate don’t decide to sit on it.

Now, if you are doing writing on a computer, keeping track of your files and backing them up is a high priority. One can create files ad-nauseum in your “Document” folder and hope and pray that the digital demons don’t squat and defecate on your hard drive. Not a good plan. At the very least you need to copy your files somewhere else—presumably (physically) outside of your computer. Why?

We all would like to believe that our beloved (or at least tolerated) computer system will run forever, but they don’t. The classic bathtub curve of failure (or reliability), states that systems fail either right out of the box or shortly thereafter. After that, system tend to run as they should (if used properly). At least until after some amount of time (usually a few days beyond the expiration date of the extended service plan or warranty) the device will start misbehaving, gyrate wildly, make strange noises, and then become totally useless (like the average American teenager). The gist of this is, enjoy the brief moment computing technology works because at some point it won’t.

Consider this, my rule of thumb based on my experience is that most electronics fail after about 10,000 hours of use. That is roughly 5 years. Many people, and IT companies, will say that is way too conservative. Perhaps, but I’m a unreformed Irish cynic who expects the worst and hopes for the best. If I’m wrong, your system continues to run. If the other people are wrong, you lose your data. So there ;-P

So, if your electronics are that old, you’re on borrowed time. You have even less time if you live with children, have pets, or the unfortunate tendency to spill coffee on your system. Then there is the occasional electronic surge (such as static electricity) which can fry sensitive electronics. Lastly, computers are not monolithic, they are a hodge-podge of interconnected hardware, not usually from the same source (unless you own Apple products) and since not all equipment lasts the same, all it takes is for one part to fail to take down your system.

In short, there are many ways your formerly reliable PC can expire. In the time I’ve owned, built, configured and managed systems, hard drives have crashed, video cards went bad, memory crapped out, power supplies fizzled. I even had a motherboard crack and melt. Like a toddler on vacation, computers will usually soil themselves without warning, and usually at the worst possible time.

If you want to get detailed on this subject, particularly in regards to hard drives, consider the following:

Regardless of which device you are entrusting your information to, consider using an alternative location to store it. Removable storage comes to mind (external hard drives, USB flash/thumb drives), and more recently, so does exporting your information to the “cloud.” Both approaches have their pros and cons, but they will, at least, give you a chance to get your information back if your computer goes belly up. Beyond having a backup location, however, remains the need and discipline to backup information on a regular basis. I find it best to look for tools that support automated functions for things that I tend to forget. Still looking for one that exercises for me, but oh well.

There are many ways to do file backups, and Windows (at least Windows 10) does this well. That said, I will admit that I tend to be leery of using Windows provided tools, as it is sometimes like trying to swat flies with a sledgehammer. However, if you’re looking for a readily available (and free) means of doing a file backup, consider giving Windows “File History Backup” a try. The process is not (as one might suspect) entirely intuitive, but rarely is anything in the world of IT, where programmers design software and users must deal with their Red Bull inspired design whims.

However, rather than me repeating what has already been said about using “File History Backup”, see the following articles on the subject:

One of the nice aspects of using Windows built in backup is that it is automatic, so once you set it, you can forget it. Just remember that as you add new folders to your system, you should consider adding the location to the list of the ones “File History” backs up.

Having to restore an entire system, or file system resource is beyond the scope of one blog post, and certainly beyond the scope of what I’m attempting to do here, which is to inform and enlighten, not necessarily to educate and indoctrinate. There are many other blogs and out there that discuss such issues in greater detail (and depth) than I do.


For day to day use, however, one can easily see the inevitable question – what if I simply need to restore a previous version of a file. What do I do? If the document was backed up using “File History” then right clicking on the file, and selecting “properties” will give you the option to select a tab called “Previous versions.” Doing so will list all the different versions of the file that were backed up. Pick the one you want and restore.

I’ve only scratched the surface of the whole issue of backing up information, if you could follow any of this, my hope is that you should have some ability to backup information.

Other considerations (more advanced concepts)

Some experts even recommend a “rule of 3” when it comes to backups (3 copies, 2 different formats, and 1 different location). This gets very involved, but if you’re interested consider looking at the following:

Well, I hope this helps. If you have any suggestions for other topics you’d like me to cover be sure to drop a note in the comments section. Thanks for reading.