Opinion

Who you are Online.

The first five minutes you spend meeting someone make an impression that is hard to change once they’ve made up their mind about who you are. Show up to a professional interview these days in anything less than a suit and tie you’ll probably find yourself walking out of there with not a whole lot to show for it, no matter how well you fit the job. If you start with a solid first impression it is much easier to convince people of your way of thinking, whether that be giving you a job or inviting you up to their boudoir.

The same can be said for your online profile. In essence this is the parts of yourself that you have either purposefully put up there, social networking or otherwise, or have been put up there for you. Whilst it is still a new practice many employers now screen employees through a quick Google search, a hunt around Facebook or other social networking sites and then do the traditional call up to your referees. It’s that first look up of you online that could sway an employer one way or the other, and whether you think that’s fair or not is really beside the point.

I’ll be honest and say when I first thought of this blog I thought it would be a great platform to launch myself from professionally. There’s nothing better then handing a new potential employer or client a business card with your website address on it because, guaranteed, they’ll look it up to see what kinds of things you get up to online. Unfortunately for me, employers who overlook the card and go for a straight Google will probably find my Facebook page long before they find this, since it seems to come up at the top of the results all the time (Yes, yes Googling yourself is sad. But you knew I was a geek before you got here, right?).

Just like the real world though it’s not like this isn’t a manageable part of your professional and personal life. Really it’s all about putting on that suit for your online personality. The general sentiment I get from other people is that they feel Facebook is some kind of secret safe haven away from all the dangers of the Internet where they can bare all and not face repercussions because of this. When in reality, you should really treat it as you would in real life, if you wouldn’t want to share something would you really give them access to it?

I guess I’m fairly lucky when it comes to my online personality. The first two links are for Facebook and LinkedIn, which is probably what I want most of my employers to see first. My friends and I have an unspoken agreement where we don’t put up potentially damaging or criminal content (not that I’d have any of that anyway! ;)) and LinkedIn doesn’t really give you any avenues to make a complete fool of yourself. Going through the rest of it there’s a couple things from back in my programming days on google groups, and some references to other Klemkes around the world.

So treat your online self as you would your real self. Buy it a suit, let it go and party but make sure those two things don’t cross unless you want them to 🙂

Tell ’em They’re Dreaming.

The Global Financial Crisis is hitting everyone, and with each passing day it would appear that it is hitting more and more people directly. With the unemployment rate hitting 5.2% back in March the figures do support that idea, with many economic forecasters saying that it could hit as high as 10% next year. Primarily this will hit the Blue Collar workers first as companies seek to reduce output in order to keep themselves afloat. Whilst it is a valid business strategy in time like these I often wonder what would happen if we simply forgot that this was happening.

Australia as a whole is in a strong position in terms of weathering the storm. Our economy is based strongly on resources (rather than services) and with our main export being coal for power generation and heating, which people will still want during a recession, we are well placed to continue on as per normal. However, economic growth was down 0.5% for the December quarter with the great decline shown in non farm GDP (whilst Farm GDP grew a whopping 10%!). Could it be that companies and consumers are cutting back just because of the threat of the economic downturn, and not because they are actually feeling the hardship?

Up until around September last year interest rates had been steadily rising in order to combat the extrodinarily high inflation that Australia was experiencing. It seemed that no amount of interest rate hikes could reel in consumers, even with fuel and transportation costs soaring at the same time. However, once people were told of dark economic times ahead suddenly that all changes, and the Reserve Bank is forced to try and spur the economy on by cutting interest rates in quick succession for months on end. Did everyone really lose all their spending power in under a month?

All the stimulus packages are based around the same thing, trying to inject cash into the consumers and corporations so that they’ll spend it, hopefully spurring the markets on so they’ll recover through normal means. How is this so different from having the media say to everyone “The economic crisis is over, we’ve done X and changed our policies Y… etc etc” and then have everyone return to their normal ways of spending? The average Joe has already been manipulated by the media to believe that the world is coming to an end, what’s stopping the media from telling them that everything is ok?

There is of course, a happy middle ground between what the government is doing now and blatantly lying to everyone about the current economic situation. Large government owned and funded projects like say, a light rail system for Canberra (We’ll have it one day folks!!!!) will create jobs and provide that first step into repairing the market, tempting private companies back in. I say government owned and funded mostly because of the recent catastrophe that occurred with BrisConnections, a privately owned but government subsidised project.

So I’d recommend a two pronged approach. Cease the constant reporting on the GFC and have the government start up a large number of projects in order to create some sustainable jobs for the battlers out there. It’s not the easy route and if a change of government happens next election Kevin Rudd will be hard pressed to take credit for his work. However, should he do it and ge re-elected he will be remembered as the herald of the new economic good times, something that people like me will find hard to forget.

The University Experience (or The Bitter Engineer’s Creation)

Many moons ago I graduated from the University of Canberra as a Bachelor in Engineering in Computer Engineering. If you’re brave enough to click that link you’ll will notice that it’s dated 2003 and that you should check the university’s site for more information. Attempting that will lead you down a long and convoluted path which eventually leads to this page, saying that this course is no longer open to enrolments.

Like many young people who are destined to leave college I looked towards university to further my education in the hopes of improving my career prospects whilst doing something that I enjoyed. At the time I was fascinated with consumer IT hardware and after attending the open day I was convinced that the computer engineering degree was the way to go. It felt like there was quite a bit of freedom to specialise after the first year and they even offered programs with languages, which really intrigued me.

The first year of my degree went like any other. I spent the first month trying to figure out the university way of life and settling in with the people who would form my university friends for the next 4 years. After that it was a bit of a roller-coaster with my first semester seeing me barely pass all my subjects, which seemed to be the norm for all of us. The second semester went quite a bit more smoothly, with me finally figuring out how to fit into the university mould. I was an energetic little go getter ready for second year.

I do count the second year of my stay in university as the best out of the 4. With a full year of experience under my belt I didn’t feel bewildered walking into a classroom and I’d worked out all the basics (note taking, tutorials, etc) so I didn’t have to spend time on that as well as the subject material. Everything was looking up, I even managed to dux a test and get myself inducted into the Golden Key Society, who recognises the top 15% of students (of which I’ve made little use). Things were definitely looking up then, but the problem with being up so high is that there’s only one way to go afterwards.

Towards the end of second year one of my lecturers walked into the class with a sad and dejected look on his face. We’d seen this before, when he had announced earlier in the year that the Computer Engineering, Software Engineering and Electronics and Communication Engineering courses would all be merged into one degree; with the third year onwards determining a “specialisation” into the respective merged areas.  To be honest, the writing was on the wall from first year for this to happen. The total influx for engineering students in my year was only 15, with the makeup being 2 computer, 7 electronics and 6 software. Although these degrees share a common basis there are specialty subjects that only apply to the specific areas, and you can’t run a subject with only 2 students willing to take it.

The news he brought on this occasion was far more grim. The university was closing the entire engineering branch, and whilst our degrees would be taught out to their fullest extent most electives would not be available. As it turned out, none of them outside the general IT and programming electives were and we were relegated to the ranks of glorified software engineers with separate titles. Whilst our initial education had given us skills in other areas the last 2 years were filled with software courses, useless mathematics courses (3rd year Engineers doing Introduction to Statistics and Introduction to accounting which are both first year subjects? Surely you jest!). Although I did enjoy some of the management and economics education I received some of these courses were clearly a complete joke and felt like a personal insult to someone like me who had to take a beginners class next to something along the lines of say, multi-variate calculus.

This was then coupled with what I call the “Third Year Blues” which was introduced to us by the engineers who preceeded us. At the start of the third year most university students will end up questioning why the hell they’re in their degree. This is amplified in IT related degrees since from beginning to end technology will have rapidly changed and you could find yourself working from a basis that is no longer relevant. It was strange to see the once highly energetic engineers questioning their very foundation, we even lost a couple since they couldn’t bring themselves to finish the degree off.

Feeling thoroughly dejected I started looking for answers. After questioning many of my lecturer’s the story became very clear, but it only worked to deepen my bitterness towards the situation.

Approximately 10 years before the close the Australian National University opened up its doors to Engineering students for the first time. Whilst they have a superb reputation in all the fields they foray into they do have a distinct taste for the more academic side of subjects. Engineering was no exception to this rule, and many discussions with ANU branded engineers showed that whilst they had a great theoretical understanding, they lacked a lot of real world implementation. Many of the subjects they were learning used out-dated tools and languages, and the practicals were very lacklustre. However, the opening of a competing engineering university in Canberra more then halved the numbers that the university of Canberra saw, especially those with post-graduate aspirations.

Looking into the ANU’s books brought up some astonishing figures. They were in as much trouble as UC, with numbers dwindling at a similar rate. However their post-graduate programs showed no decline, whereas UC’s were declining. My lecturer’s confirmed that ANU pushed for people to go to the post-graduate level, where they focused closely on employment. This is why ANU continued to run whilst UC died ever so slowly.

Maybe it was a misplaced sense of patriotism towards UC but I’ve never really let go of that fact. The true essence of engineering is solving a problem and then iterating to improve it. ANU’s lack of practical focus went against what I feel is the true sense of engineering, and their continued existence just adds salt to the wounds.

All of these factors made the day when I was given my degree bitter-sweet. I was elated that could now call myself a true Engineer, a thing that my father had scoled me for calling myself before I had finished. However, looking over the sea of graduates that day I knew only a handful were engineers, and all were the last of their breed to exit those halls with a UC degree under their arm.

Whilst I may be bitter about the experience that university gave me I’m still thankful for it. Although the content of the degree might not be what I wanted the meta-skills (problem solving, time management, critical thinking, etc) have proven themselves to be far more valuable.

And thus, the bitter engineer was created. Sometimes I wonder if all university students turn out this way, but even that’s too cynical for someone like me.

Financial Minimums and the Global Financial Crisis.

With the Global Financial Crisis savaging our world’s trade and capital markets people are looking for more ways to scrimp and save in order to whether these tough times. This got me thinking; what are the financial minimums that are required for a person or family to maintain a reasonable level of living whilst still being able to save for times such as these? Of course the government has figures on this since that is what many of the welfare payments of this country are based on, but they don’t really provide any insight into what the makeup of that payment is.

For this blog post I will attempt to explore the minimum costs involved in living as a single person, and then as a typical 2 parent 2 child Australian family. I will draw the majority of my figures from online sources of public information so that there’s as little guesswork as possible.

So let’s tackle the easy one first, the single bachelor/bachelorette, what do they need? I will for the moment assume that they have most things like furniture and appliances, but I will show what would be needed if they don’t:

  • Shelter: Since they’re single we can assume that a 1 bedroom 1 bathroom apartment will do. A quick search on Allhomes reveals this property for $150 a week. We can assume this is about average, as many people can share accommodation for around this much (3 bedroom for $450 a week would net them something quite a bit better, if they’re willing to share).
  • Food: Estimates of average daily intake for an adult peg it somewhere between 1940 (for women) and 2550 (for men). Let’s make it easy and put it at 2200 so we get an average. Breaking this down into 3 average meals a day could be done with: Breakfast: 2 weet bix or similar, milk coffee (300 calories)Lunch: 2 Sandwiches, salad or left overs (950 calories) Dinner: Meat, pasta and vegetables with premade sauce (950 calories). Plugging this all into an online shopping website gives a weekly cost of about $91, but I’d probably bump that up to $110 just to be on the safe side.
  • Clothing: I could take the easy route here and say that they could go to the local op-shop and clothe themselves for $20 per year but that’s just not typical. For myself I’ll usually end up buying 1 set of work clothes (2 pairs of pants, 5 shirts, 1 set of shoes) and various casual clothes (5+ shirts, 2 pairs of pants, 1 set of shoes). If we go cheap then that comes to about $830 a year, or $16 a week.
  • Transport: I’m going to assume they have a job of some sort and will have to travel to get there. If they grab a monthly bus ticket their travel costs come to about $21 a week for unlimited travel on the buses.
  • Entertainment: As much as all the financial experts will like you to cut out things like this I know that most people won’t, and so it doesn’t get left out of the calculations. Whilst I can’t speak for everyone on this (since it is so subjective) I’ll put in a rough $50 a week on this. That could be movies, a night out with friends or just a couple drinks at home.
  • Utilities: My house, with 3 people in it, averages around $42 a week in electricity, $5 in phone and $25 in internet. Cut this down to single person size and you have a grand total of $24 a week.
  • Necessities: Just to make things interesting let’s also assume this single person is just starting out and doesn’t have all the required furniture to live. If we budget around $5,000 for this and say they get one of those interest free deals (which are fine if repaid before the interest free period is up) and repay it over 3 years we’re looking at another $33 a week or so.

Putting this all together gives us a total of $371 or $404 if they are just starting out. If we want to save about $50 a week this means their yearly income will have to come to somewhere between $25,000 and $30,000 a year. This does not take into consideration unexpected things like medical bills, which would put that further up the scale to $35,000.

Looking towards the family we can take that yearly income and double it just for starters (2 adults). A child costs about AUD$800,000 to raise from 0 to 17. Putting a weekly figure on a weekly basis is a whopping $980 a week, or almost $2000 for the 2 kids. I’m going to scale that figure back to about $700 since there are savings to be made on housing, clothing and food in a family situation. It is still a phenomenal cost, which brings the family income up to a required $150,000 per year, or $75,000 per parent. It’s no wonder that Australians on the average wage with a family will be doing it tough.

I’ll be honest and say that I wasn’t too surprised by the single people figures, but the family ones really blew me away. I’m fairly well off, but if my fiance wasn’t working because she had a child we’d be below my required income threshold, putting us in an awkward position. It’s really quite telling about the current economic situation as the ones who are losing their jobs are the least likely to have savings, due to the costs they incur just to survive.

Taking this into consideration I believe that a portion of the economic stimulus package should be used in either increasing the minimum wage or cutting tax for just the lower to middle income brackets (of which I’m not a part of, so there’s no vested interest there). Whilst I don’t need to explain what tax cuts would do for the lower income brackets I should mention what I mean by raising the minimum wage.

The government could provide subsidiaries or incentives for minimum wage earners. This could come as a payment to both the employer and employee, along the lines of Newstart allowance. This could even be done with a reform to the current welfare system, changing the income thresholds for wage earners who are on Newstart allowance or similar.

Whilst I don’t believe that all of the stimulus package is going in the wrong places I do believe that its target is a little fuzzy. Sure some of it is well placed (aligning with my objectives pretty closely) however there’s a lot of places where money is going and no tangible benefit is being projected. Whilst I can understand that such legislation has probably be done a little hastily you’re still talking a good $42 billion of Australia’s dollars, which requires a little more then 2 months thought into spending.

Why you shouldn’t hire me.

In today’s rough and unforgiving economic climate many companies are seeking to reduce costs and improve their return on all previous investments that they’ve made. This, combined with several reports from market experts (Gershwin being a good example), has lead to an overall decrease in the amount of temporary workers hired and a push to bring a lot of talent in house. It would seem that the best option would be to secure employment now and skill up during these hard times and cash it all in when times come good again. You’d be crazy not to do it.

That is, unless you’re like me. I’m an IT contractor, and businesses will look at me first for the chop.

But what does trimming the contractors actually net for my employer? In my current position I’m doing what a contractor is supposed to be doing, filling a skill gap for either a temporary vacancy whilst they find a full time employee or bringing in additional skills required to implement various projects. Reducing your numbers of people like myself isn’t a bad thing, but it will reduce your capability to deliver on required projects. It would seem however that there are some places that are content to use contractors as full-time replacements. Using contractors in such a way is going to cost you much more than it would to properly fund the rightly skilled full time employee. However short term budgeting will show a cost saving with the contractor, since you’re not going to have to pay things like superannuation and insurance.

So what should employers be doing in order to whether these tough times? The answer isn’t what most employers want to hear, since they’ll be looking to reduce costs in the short term in the hopes that everything will come good. However, these are the factors that I have seen grab and retain exceptionally skilled people:

  • Attractive salary packages: The old saying “Pay peanuts, get monkeys” is appropriate here. Too many times I’ve seen employees with great skill and corporate knowledge walk out the door for something as small as $5,000 a year more at another company. On average it will cost your employer 1.5x your yearly salary to let you go. Grabbing someone early with a higher wage will keep them interested for longer, save any workplace issues.
  • Clear career paths: This was the reason I left most of my previous jobs. I always made it clear where I wanted to be heading with my superiors. However when it came time to make good on a described career path I always hit a dead end. It was at that point I would start looking for another job, since it was obvious that they made promises that they couldn’t keep.
  • Flexible working arrangements: Nothing says you trust your employees more than allowing them to work from home a day or two a week. We place an extremely large value on face-time with each other and that’s not a bad thing. However options such as working remotely can be a huge benefit to your employees, and will more then likely have them staying on for longer. As long as you establish clear deliverables for your employees does it really matter whether they complete them whilst at work or at home?

All these things will cost the employer something but in return they will get an employee who is loyal and willing to go that extra step for the company. I’ve seen many places with just one of the 3 above and they think that will keep their employees going. It will for a time but eventually they will start to desire more of these options, and if they’re determined they’ll find it.

I think this is why the Australian Public Service has a track record for keeping people for large periods of time. Whilst the salaries might not be the greatest (although they are pretty amazing for entry level workers) the flexible working arrangements and very clear career paths tend to keep people on for many years. I was a public servant for almost 3 years before I turned to private industry, and I couldn’t of done uni and full time work without the arrangements they had available.

After all this, if you still want to hire me remember this: I’m not a permanent replacement and I work for the highest bidder. It’s capitalism in its purest form, but I’ll be sure that you get your moneys worth.

I can’t guarntee that from all contractors though 🙂