Tag Archives: work

The Prince (analyst edition)

Warning:  I was a bit unsure about the wisdom of posting this since I suspect it may very well be the most pretentious drivel I’ve ever written (and, let’s face it, that’s really saying something.  eds.) but one of my blogging rules is not to censor myself so I’m going to give it a go.

Recently I was talking to an analyst who had been moved to a new job within their same agency and wasn’t particularly happy with the move.  Apparently, her new position involved an almost exclusive focus on data entry and retrieval and virtually no analysis.  While her pay and title remained the same, in terms of job responsibilities this was clearly a very big step backwards.

‘If something doesn’t change this will BE my job forever’ she said (opportunities for advancement or even lateral moves are vary rare) ‘and there’s no way I can do this for the next 20 years!’  Her personal/professional situation rules out relocation and the current economic climate means that other opportunities in her area are virtually non-existent.  She was (well, is, I guess) pretty stressed out.

And so I began thinking, what advice could I give her to at least improve the odds that this need not be her lot in life?  As I’ve said repeatedly, analysts tend not to have much power or influence (and, as usual, I’m talking not talking about the Federal IC but rather analysts in the law enforcement (federal, state, local), homeland security (regional, state, local), et. al.).  They’re relative newcomers to the field, rarely have a seat at the table in terms of…well anything really and so have few opportunities to use official levers of power to change things.  This is why I’ve often advocated ‘guerrilla analysis’ where analysts have to use their skills to force their organizations to change.  In my earlier writings I’ve been pretty vague, however, and what’s probably needed is a bit more in terms of specifics.  So, in what may  be the first of a multi-part series, I’m taking inspiration from my old friend Nicolo and offering my own humble thoughts on how an analyst should act in a situation in which they find themselves seemingly powerless against individuals or institutional forces  which work to undermine their role.

For while we may not be princes, we certainly fill the role of counselors.   It is we, after all, that best fit the description of the types of people the prince should surround himself with in order to give him advice:

…a wise prince ought to hold a third course by choosing the wise men in his state, and giving to them only the liberty of speaking the truth to him, …he ought to question them upon everything, and listen to their opinions, and afterwards form his own conclusions. With these councillors, separately and collectively, he ought to carry himself in such a way that each of them should know that, the more freely he shall speak, the more he shall be preferred;*

Chapter 1:  On the sources of power of councillors (hint:  Ms. Joplin is relevant here**)

When one thinks of analysts, one rarely considers them the repository or ‘power’ or possessing much influence in shaping the environment around them.  Rather, they’re often seen (even amongst themselves) as powerless when compared to the forces around them and see little choice other than ‘going with the flow’.  I believe in many cases that’s due to a fundamental misunderstanding of the environment that they find themselves in.  They do, in fact, have power to wield.  Allow me to propose several examples:

  1. In many cases they’re civil servants.  This usually means that they’re affiliated with a union of some sort and so the probability of dismissal or any serious punitive action is relatively small, especially if your ‘friction’ with the organization is centered around recommendations to the existing system (including the pointing out of flaws).  While I have, on occasion, heard analysts cave into institutional pressure citing the fact that they didn’t want to risk their job, the fact is I’ve never heard one able to describe a situation where an analyst had been fired.  They had just been so conditioned by our private sector culture they weren’t able to see how their situation was different.
  2. In addition to not needing to be particularly concerned with punitive action, among analysts there is little opportunity to be ‘rewarded’ by ‘playing ball’.  Since many agencies have refused to develop or implement a career advancement program for analysts, sublimating your sense of how intelligence analysis should work in the hopes of reaping professional rewards later will have about as much chance of success as winning the lottery.
  3. These factors are important when considered in combination with the fact that analysts are usually surrounded by people who have opportunities for advancement or banishment (virtual or actual) to various nether regions.  Analysts can exploit these facts by supporting or undermining the professional agendas of those people (as opposed to the mission of their agency which they’re ethically bound to support).

Now, I’m not advocating being a jerk but these factors do give you a degree of freedom to speak ‘truth to power’ and you should exercise that freedom for all it’s worth.  Just remember a couple of ground rules:

  1. Put it all in writing.  Yeah, informal conversations and water cooler discussions allow you to blow off steam but since there’s no record of them their effect will begin to dissipate the moment the words come out of your mouth.  Write it down in a well organized, thoughtful way.  Lay our your arguments and make your recommendations.  Oh, and keep copies of everything.
  2. Know your audience(s).  Look, let’s be honest.  There are a lot of vested interests in every organization and analysts generally don’t get a seat at the table.  So, you need to be aware of which one of those interests might want to use you (and your ideas) to further their own agenda and figure out a way to make sure they know of your existence.  Just make sure you leverage any such opportunity to benefit yourself and your fellows and, as much as possible, avoid becoming an foot soldier in someone else’s factional fight.
  3. Increase your profile.  There’s a cliche about the impossibility of being a prophet in your own land.  Maybe that’s true and maybe it isn’t.  What is true, however, is that you’ll never be a prophet if no one hears you.  Recognition outside your agency (ideally by entities which command the respect of your agency) not only increases the chances that your lot will improve but makes it more difficult to dispatch you to the equivalent of Siberia.  So, all that stuff you were writing?  Make sure you distribute it…widely.  Start a blog.  Take every opportunity to speak publicly you can (even if you hate public speaking).  Get out there.  Keeping your head down, plugging away and keeping a low profile will usually guarantee you of blending into the woodwork and being taken advantage of.  It may not be fair but that is the world in which we have found ourselves.
  4. Know what you’re talking about.  Chances are few others do.  Take the time to learn about your profession and understand the current thinking about it.  Understand your agency’s (stated) mission.  Figure out where the two coincide.  That’s the sweet spot.

*I could go on at length about that passage and how Niccolo essentially identifies the need of princes to have a strong, coherent planning and direction process but that may be for another time.  Given that one of my central tenets is that such a process is almost universally lacking my advice has to also revolve around how an analyst can guide ‘their’ prince to wisdom.  Or, at least, away from ignorance.

**Or, ‘Freedom is just another word for nothin’ left to lose’.

It’s not you…it’s me

A few months ago I applied for a position with a federal agency whose name will not appear in this post.  I received a positive (if automatically generated) message saying that, yes, I had met the minimum criteria and I would be notified if anyone wanted to take it to the next step.

Well, dear reader, I knew I was qualified for the position and had some unique attributes that, I felt, would guarantee an interview if not the job.

But I heard nothing.

I had the reason narrowed down to two possibilities:  either I was the victim of a petty personal/work related feud that may be entering its third year (I’m not sure to be honest), or someone might have googled me and seen me refer to the agency I had applied to in less than flattering terms (the phrase ‘incompetent goons’ comes to mind).

Well, I’m pleased to announce that it was neither of those two after all.  I just received yet another automatic message stating that the position is not going to be filled after all, which has interesting implications of their own.

But, truth be told, I’m just as happy I didn’t get the job.  I suspect that green I saw on the other side of the fence wasn’t grass but rather toxic sludge…

Three pennies in the fountain

I started a little experiment today.  Through a strange set of events I accidentally dropped a nickel in the urinal at work (don’t ask how it came to be that I was holding a nickel while I was closing in on a urinal but I’ll just say that it should be filed under the dork category rather than the ‘eww, that’s gross or sick’ category).

The thing splashed in (I’m kicking myself now for not having my camera at work and not knowing how to get pictures from my cell phone onto my computer) and is now in about an inch of water (or whatever).  It’s positioned in such a way that flushing will not dislodge it down the drain.

So, now I’m wondering if anyone will take it out.  I think I’ll give it some time, and if not, maybe I’ll add a little more cash to the pot and see how much it takes before someone takes the plunge.  I’ve never really known what to do with those Sacagawea dollars (which reminds me, let’s quit screwing around and get rid of the penny and dollar bill already, they’re starting to piss me off).

As I’m thinking about it, it is 8-8-08 which is supposed to be lucky, right?  So, I guess I’ll consider this my contribution to my local wishing well.

Stay tuned…

“There’s two kinds of jobs out there….

…those I’m not qualified for and those I don’t want.”

I just just finished reading (for the second time) this book:

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It’s a painfully hilarious book and I decided to pick it up again after having a stressful day at work a couple of weeks ago. The author has his own website (of course) if you want to get additional fixes of his point of view.

Someone accused me of being an anarchist at work a few weeks ago because I wouldn’t ‘get on board’ with their stupid plan doomed to failure. The plan was one of those office politics maneuvers that is ostensibly designed to make things work better (that’s how it gets sold to the people above and below) but is really an scheme to accumulate power. People can pull this hocus-pocus off by pretending that a flurry of activity is the same as progress. Generate some new, fancy looking letterhead and start playing great musical fanfares every time you do something and perhaps no one will notice it’s the same old crap that was being produced before.

I’m down with that and totally understand it but I just have two small objections:

  1. Don’t expect me to get excited about what is essentially a waste of time
  2. If someone asks my honest opinion about what I think, don’t be surprised if I give it

Well, someone did ask my opinion (unfortunately, it was the person who was perpetrating the scheme) and I did give it and ohhhhhh boy. The fur was flying.

I gotta learn to keep my mouth shut.

Slacker Tales – part 1-

About a year ago, it was decided by the powers that be at my place of employment (hereafter referred to as MPOE) that we needed a consultant to come in and fix the way we do things. Consultants…..If you know anything about them then this will fall into the ‘true and funny only because if I don’t laugh I’ll cry’ sort of humor category.

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But, we were pretty screwed up and so I welcomed any shot at bringing MPOE into the late 20th century. I know we were living in the 21st century but I figured that if we could get only one or two decades behind the times we’d be in pretty good shape.

The guy actually did quite a bit of good and brought some fresh vigor into the organization. He clearly had an eye for talent as he asked me what the hell I was doing in a place like MPOE and offered to pass my resume around. This looked like my big break. Finally, someone with “connections” was going to pass my name around and give a personal recommendation to the movers and the shakers in the industry. Dollar signs were floating in my eyes. I was headed to the big time.

So long suckahs!

Once the phone started ringing though I paused. I was getting emails saying:

“We’ve got an immediate need for someone with your skills on a huge contract. Give us your salary requirements right away!”

And that was about it. Nothing about what I’d actually be doing or what skills in particular they thought were so urgently needed. I read over my resume again, looking for some clue as to what could possibly be in such high demand need. Perhaps I had inserted something while in an alcohol induced fantasy life?

  • Can prevent nuclear reactor meltdowns with a box of silly putty, 30 grit sandpaper and some string
  • Proven ability to resolve sectarian conflicts in Middle Eastern countries and organize redeployments of 100,000+ troops over a long weekend
  • Can reverse time by flying in the opposite direction of the Earth’s rotation really, really fast

I couldn’t find anything in the resume so I read the ‘offer’ again. What the hell is my salary requirement? I don’t even know what the fuck I’m supposed to be doing. Aren’t they supposed to talk to me and make sure I’m not just some freak who spends his days watching Univision soap operas and writing kick-ass resumes but has no real skills before talking salary? What kind of salary do I tell them I want? Too high and they’ll laugh in my face (my electronic face, anyway). Too low and I’ll be the sucker when I find out that other people are doing the same job as me for tens of thousands of dollars more.

And then I start thinking.

If they’re willing to offer me a job without knowing squat about me other than my resume, what does that mean? Doesn’t everyone assume that resumes are exercises in seeing how many lies you can cram onto an 8½”x11″ piece of paper? If that’s the case (and I’m not saying my resume is full of lies -it’s not- but it seems everyone assume that resumes are) maybe they’re trying to trick me into taking a crap job. After all, they’re email was suspiciously short. Nothing about the job, nothing about working conditions, nothing about expectations. Something didn’t feel right.

But, on the other hand, maybe this is what having connections gets you. You don’t have to go through that laborious process of interviews, thank you letters and rejection. One guy calls up his drinking buddy and says: “Can you hire this guy?” And presto! You’re on your way to a BMW, McMansion and having to listen to people chatter on about how hard it is to get someone to clean their pool…or their boat…or their pool in their boat.

So, I figured I’d take a couple of days and think about it. Maybe I could try to poke around and see what a reasonable offer might be. Besides, the email they sent me seemed to be a subtle call for help from someone obviously over stressed. I imagined that my time spent carefully doing some research (with plenty of breaks of course) would allow this person to take a breather themselves. If some corporate suit came in gnashing his teeth and wanting to know why things weren’t moving faster, this human resources person (or executive VP…whatever) could just say “I haven’t heard back from everyone yet” and go back to enjoying that nice, hot cup of camomile tea.

Instead, I got an even more frantic email first thing the next morning (the previous one came at 6pm the night before).

“This is a SERIOUS opportunity. We need to know if you’re interested RIGHT AWAY. This is real. I’m looking for a response.”

Whew…talk about pushy.  I felt like I was buying a car (Well, sure you can think about it, but a little old lady was checking this car out just half an hour ago and she’s supposed to be back to give me a deposit in 10 minutes.  What?  Nope there are no more cars for sale…anywhere…in the world.  So, you gonna buy this or what?).  So the lack of information along with the high pressure attitude made me throw out a figure I didn’t think they’d ever meet, especially given they hadn’t even met me by this point.  I took my current salary, added a 67% raise to it and said “I couldn’t take the job for less than X.”  I was confident they’d laugh it off and tell me ‘Thanks but no thanks’.

Their response (which came in a couple of hours):  “That won’t be a problem.  Great to have you on board.  We’ll FedEx you a contract today.”

Now, you might thing this would be good news.  I just scored a hefty raise, right?  Instead, I was feeling even less comfortable with the whole thing for two primary reasons:

  1. They responded so quickly I’m sure they were prepared to pay more and I gave too low of a salary requirement.  Undoubtedly, this company thought it would be getting a bargain by paying me what I asked for.
  2. For that amount of money, I’m sure I’d actually be expected to work my ass off.  I’d have to be one of those guys who takes cell phone calls from work while going to the bathroom or while at a funeral.  Out would be my current cushy 35 hour work week in exchange for only getting to see my home long enough to change my underwear.

At this point my slacker survival instinct kicked in.  I realized I was getting sucked deeper and deeper into committing to a level of work that I just wasn’t prepared to do.  Thus, I discovered I was trapped in the Slacker Paradox:

Slackers desire comfort and freedom from work drudgery that can only be achieved through a job which requires a great deal of work drudgery…or a hefty inheritance.

While the inheritance thing wasn’t looking like a possibility I decided I’d go with that option.  If I took the job I’d have to move, find a place to live, and actually do the work I would be getting paid for.  I’m exhausted just writing about it.