Thursday, June 2, 2011

Endeavour Lands. Now what?

I'm sort of at a loss for what to write now that Shuttle mission 134 is over. I left NASA TV on last night for the shuttle landing. They were rolling out Atlantis at the same time so lots of employees were at Kennedy Space Center to see it land at about 1:30am my time.

Today I read a lot about what happens next. Where will all these engineers go that were supporting this mission? Are we about to see another episode like in 2003?

This terrified and infuriated me back in 2003 and then it was even worse in 2009. The problem with just casually laying off thousands of engineers is that they look for jobs in engineering for a while, then they become unemployable. They aren't engineers anymore. They might be high school science teachers, if they live somewhere besides Texas where teachers are out of work now too. They might become entrepreneurs or find some other line of work. The problem with getting an engineering job is that human resources people don't really understand what the hell engineers do. I bet not a single one of the HR people that has read my resume knows that RF means Radio Frequency and even if they did know what it stands for they couldn't pick the RF frequencies out of a list like (a) 2.5 GHz (b) 5 Mbps (c) 20 Hz to 20kHz (d) Microwaves (e) Ku Band (f) Kenneth. It might as well stand for Red Flavor. The only way an HR person knows they're hiring the right person is if that person was doing the exact same job about 10 minutes ago.

Some tech companies are so messed up they will only hire engineers straight out of college because people that worked somewhere else before may have preconceived notions about administrative policies or compensation. If they have an opening for somebody with a BS degree they won't hire a PhD because they are perceived as "too expensive." What the hell? I was helping a friend do some networking and was told to tell him to take his PhD off his resume before he applied for a job to improve his chances. That really seems wrong to me. If they think you're going to not be a good employee because you aren't paid enough wouldn't it be even worse if you went into the job with this giant insult hanging over your head? "We'd love to work with you, but only if you pretend to be a lot less accomplished than you really are." That just sounds untenable to me. I can fake my way through a job I don't know how to do until I learn it. But it is very hard to pretend that I'm not an expert at something I know all about.

I once had a consulting gig testing out a microwave television system in Atlanta and at the beginning they made me go to a class to teach tree climbers how to put F connectors on coaxial cable. The instructor told us once you use the special tool cut off the insulation you should not scrape the extra plastic dielectric residue off the copper center conductor because of skin effect. This is an RF thing that basically says current density isn't evenly distributed through the wire, the high frequencies kind of hug the outside like it was a tube. So the instructor claimed if you scraped the conductor with your knife blade you would "take off all the high frequencies." I laughed so hysterically I had to excuse myself and go in the ladies room to dry my eyes and call my Physics professor and tell him this great new joke. He didn't think it was nearly as funny as me because he was hung up on the fact that if you don't clean that crap off the wire you won't get good contact. Yeah, but! What's in his head?! He thinks the high frequencies LIVE in the cable? Maybe I'm still the only one that thinks that's funny but it's my best example of knowing more than the person telling me what to do.

Prejudice against people perceived as overqualified really annoys me. I used to get that a lot when I went for job interviews and everything on my resume was consulting work. "Wow, you're a consultant? Consultants make so much money. Won't you just leave this job when you get another big fat consulting job?" This infuriated me. "If consulting was that great would I even be talking to you? Don't you realize the reason I get $90 an hour is because I only charge when I'm actually designing a product on a tight deadline and not for those months of down time when you're playing solitaire? Six months of the year I have no billable hours! I want to get paid to play solitaire, too, dammit!"

Alas all that stuff was over a decade ago and there is no way in hell anybody is going to send me out in the field with a $100,000 spectrum analyzer again. I am no longer overqualified, now I'm just unemployable. My worry is that all the NASA talent is going to be just like me pretty soon. There's nothing wrong with us. We still know how to solve problems and make stuff work. But there's no longer any place for people like that in this broken system. I read a complaint today that young engineers didn't grow up taking apart their mother's alarm clock and they are all specialized and not well rounded. Well, that's what jobs are like these days! Well-rounded is unemployable. If you have anything on your resume that's not EXACTLY the same as the job description the automatic key word bot they run resumes through will eliminate it. I guess you're supposed to rewrite your resume to copy the description of the job post and delete your actual experience and education. It just feels wrong. It feels like 2003 again, like  2009 again. Somebody needs to do something about NASA. They need to keep these engineers and hire the rest of the ones that got pushed out of the profession. There is a reason to have some brains behind your government. Just like there's a reason to have a public radio and television system.

People are so damn ignorant of the purpose of PBS. I don't know if this is still true because I got forced out of the business, but back in the day there was a time signal on the public television station that we used to synchronize cable boxes to the correct time. If the power went out and the clock started flashing 12:00 all you had to do was change the channel past PBS and the clock would magically set itself. You can't make a private television station broadcast the time signal, but if it's public you can damn well make them do whatever is useful. If there's a disaster you can take over their bandwidth and broadcast instructions. When the earthquake hit Japan only the public station went immediately to the emergency broadcast. The commercial stations kept showing commercials. Is that what we want? I mean we've got this second amendment saying we should all be armed and ready to form a militia. How are we going to organize all these citizens with guns if we have no communication system with some kind of obligation to respond to demands of the government?

So that's the basis of my angst. I am not an expert in this stuff. I haven't run the numbers on Space X vs. Lockheed Martin and I'm not a proponent of one plan vs. another. I just think something smells funny about this whole screw-NASA-we're-going-commercial deal. It's just an emotional reaction, but I have learned that I am often right. It just feels like a very bad idea to say, "We're going to conserve soap now," and then throw out the baby and the bathwater and the bathtub and fire all the people that know how to make bathtubs, soap and clean water. I'm just not sold on the idea that as a country we aren't going to get rather filthy under this scenario, and there's no way back.

*Update: More people in the space program that are put out on MSNBC

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