Thursday, November 27, 2008

How to get to my Dream Job from here?

I was just listening to episode 55 of Spark on Work 2.0. Like many of Nora's shows, they seem to fit into bigger things that I'm thinking about. It turns out that I've already been thinking about my own changing work situation.

(Note: This is being posted to blogger as I haven't yet set up a blog that is truly intended to be 'personal')

First, some background. While I was still in University I kept bumping into people who thought they wanted to hire me. I kept having the same problem: I didn't find I agreed with the choices of my employer, including things that they did and/or that they asked me to do that I felt was unethical. After going through a series of jobs where I quit based on disagreements with my employer (and them trying to give me a raise as a "solution" to the problem), I chose to become self-employed in 1995.

As my own boss I could pick and choose my clients and hopefully have a good match. I ended up working largely NGO's (Non-Governmental Organizations) doing broader work that I agreed with, or small projects for government or the corporate private sector.

While I find that I don't run into ethical problems, I don't find that I'm challenged in the projects that I've been doing. Most of the time I am doing simple system administration work that is something I know how to do, but I'm not really learning new things or doing any of the bigger thinking that I find far more interesting.

Nora ended talking about people wanting to live out their dream job or jobs. For me I believe that would be some job where I would mix both my technical background and my passion for global public policy issues. While I haven't been able to make much money (tiny contract here and there) on policy work, this is something I find far more exciting than system administration. Ideal would be something that would allow me to travel, and to be learning and sharing new ideas with people around the globe. It is one thing to do policy work online and collaborate with people, but there is so much more that can happen when you build deeper relationships in the real-world.


I just started a contract at the beginning of the month that may be a step in the right direction. It was something casually mentioned in the GOSLING mailing list, that someone was looking for someone with system administration experience with Linux and a few other software environments. I didn't have familiarity with them, but I did with some. So I decided to apply for the job, letting everyone know up-front what I did and didn't know.

The project is the National Land and Water Information Service (NLWIS). This group develops geographic information system (GIS) applications to access agricultural and environmental information to help Canadians make responsible land-use decisions.

I was hired as part of the team of people that do configuration management, and take fully developed and tested applications and deploy them on already configured software systems (IE: operating system level work already done). That may have been my job description, but I have very quickly been invited to participate in other troubleshooting within the project. I am now interacting daily with the developers, testers, database and network administrators as well as the person I'm partnered up with and my manager. It has been a great group of people to be working for, and I think I'm going to miss the environment when my contract ends at the end of March.

Working with this team has been going so well so far that it is giving me cause to re-think being self-employed. I think that with the right team of people to be working with, and with a fairly modern management style that allows me to help the larger team outside of the specific area I was hired for.

It is amusing, but the most frustrating aspect of my job relates to some of the traditional silos that sometimes form in large organizations. In this case it is not with any of the folks who are working in the same building, but the restricted access to the servers that the deployment team has been allowed by the system administrators. I'm used to being 'root' on the machines I work on for clients, in some cases the only person with root access for co-located hosted computers other than the ISP that owns the hardware.

This current contract does not, however, integrate both my technical skills and my public policy passion. It has thus far made better use of my technical skills than some of my clients in recent years, but I suspect that in the longer term I will want more.

A few years ago I was asked to become the policy coordinator for CLUE. This organization was previously known as the Canadian Linux Users Exchange, and it was intended to be a Canada-wide organization to facilitate communication between Linux Users Groups (LUGs). The executive decided to change the roll to becoming an Open Source association, expanding beyond the previous focus on "Linux" or on "Users" to including all Open Source (Not just Linux but also BSD, and not just Operating Systems but all Open Source) and businesses as well as users of Open Source.

While it was hoped that this could become a paying job, this didn't turn out as I had hoped. While I did this work as a volunteer (integrating it with my digital-copyright.ca and GOSLING Community volunteer work), I can't realistically be not making much money forever. This is one of the things that I felt needed change recently, and why I took on the NLWIS contract. As much as I believe digital copyright and FLOSS policy work is badly needed (and not being adequately done), I also need to help put food on the table and not be a dependant of my wife. I'm finding that when I come home from a days work a NLWIS that I'm more interested in "quality of life" activities (just hanging out with Rina, visiting 14+ month old Erin and Owen, visiting with other friends/family, etc) than in policy volunteer work.

Some friends have suggested that I set up a Paypal account and ask people to make donations toward allowing me to do more policy work. I'm not sure there would be any interest in that, and people would tend to want to pay for specific outcomes which is far harder to accomplish in policy work (or other social sciences where work is hard and outcomes aren't as easily measurable). I suspect that unless there is an association backing up the work, where that infrastructure offers the accountability and transparency for donors, there won't be much interest.

I am open to ideas to go from where I am today to that "dream job" that Nora spoke about.
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