Friday, February 28, 2014

Oath of Office

It's official. I am a Foreign Service Officer. We had our swearing in ceremony today, finishing up our three weeks of orientation. Although we'd already been sworn in on our first day, I guess they like to start AND finish orientation with an oath, to really drive it home. Today's was a much fancier occasion with family invited and speeches from VIPs. Even so, the whole process was pretty quick and we were out in time for lunch. Who cares, I am still officially a Foreign Service Officer!

In case you're playing along at home, here is the oath:
"I __________, do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic, that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same, that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion, and I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God.”

Next week the begins my specialty's three months of intensive training. I guess they're trying to tell us something, namely: how to do our jobs!

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Flag Day

Finally! They day we've all been waiting for has arrived. That's right, it's FLAG DAY! Today we received sweet, sweet resolution to the giant question looming over our head for the last week. Would we get our first choice post? What about our second...? Tenth!? Well, good news; I got my first choice! Chennai, India!!!

Being called relatively early in the ceremony was a mixed blessing, because it was difficult to maintain interest in all of my classmates posting assignments... when I really wanted to be running back to my family to exult in our upcoming move. That being said, I powered through and watched the rest of my classmates learn their fate. The majority I spoke with got their top choice, with a small handful getting their second or third (and one getting their fourth). I didn't memorize everyone's bid list, nor did I speak to everyone, but on a whole I'd say we did pretty well! The last bit of good news I received today is that my estimated departure date is June 26th, which our Career Development Officer (CDO) said was the earliest date for any post!

Time to furiously research my upcoming new home... in the mean time, enjoy these random pictures from the internet.

US Consulate Chennai.
Chennai Panorama.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Distinguished Visitor

Former Secretary of State, General Colin Powell spoke at the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) today. Listening to him speak candidly in a town hall setting was a fantastic experience. He is a quite entertaining person and is somewhat of a legend around the State Department for his time spent as Secretary. I'll be honest, my knowledge of the achievements of the our Secretaries of State is pretty minimal... but I did learn that one of his many successes was to 'bring the internet' to the State Department (so to speak). He pushed for the deployment of tens of thousands of internet-connected desktop computers to our embassies worldwide, often replacing Wang computers.

Anyway, he charmed the audience for around an hour with tails from his childhood, service years, time in office, and from his current charitable work, all told with a touch of humor. As soon as our orientation coordinators heard he was coming, they made absolutely sure to schedule him into our agenda. I'm glad they did! I just wish I'd been able to record it, to play back some of his best one-liners! Since I didn't, you'll have to live with one I found on the internet: "Bad news isn't wine, it doesn't improve with age."

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Ranking Your Bid List

Given a list of 23 cities, how do you decide where to live for the next 2 years? This is obviously not a problem for most people, but it's on the mind of all the IMS hires in my orientation class. I can't speak for them, but I can certainly speak for me!

Our first draft bid list was straight from the gut. We literally just listed our top 10 and called it a day. After that, we used some of my wife's fancy decision analysis ninja skills to determine our priorities and reorder our list into our second draft. We further researched each of our top 10 choices at the Overseas Briefing Center (OBC) and finalized our rankings. Our final list has a couple 'strategic' rankings, but is mostly just an ordered list of places we would like to visit for an extended period.

When making our decision, we considered:
1) Housing distances from work and town.
2) Weather
3) Opportunities for regional travel and sightseeing
4) Post size
5) Differential Pay
6) Strategery.

Fortunately, our son is not in school, so we didn't have to factor in the local schools (yet). My wife and I are pretty tired of living in the suburbs and having to drive literally everywhere, so we're really hoping to spend some time living in a walking friendly area. Weather plays a part in that also, since it doesn't matter how close things are when it's negative 70 outside. As avid travelers, we fully expect to use our new locale as a starting point for quite a few trips (hey, that's what vacation time is for!).

Our only concession to strategic bidding was to group a bunch of the 'hot ticket' posts around the 7-10 spots. This forms a 'wall' of posts we're unlikely to get (since they'll probably top other people's lists), but makes it less likely we'd get pushed to even lower choices on our list. You know, we hope. Of course we might get any one of them, and that'd be fine too; I'm not totally opposed to a cushy first post.

There are three main pay modifiers for posts in the Foreign Service: Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA), Hardship Differential, and Danger Pay. Hardship Differential has double duty for our first post, according to my Career Development Officer (CDO). As extra incentive for more adventuresome first posts, she gives preference during the second post bidding, based on first post Differential. She called this equity (it's actually the sum of the Differential and Danger, but only one of the posts on our list has Danger). So whoever has the highest 'equity' from their first post, will get their first choice from the bid list for their second post. This will continue until everyone has a post. Although I do not want to pick my first post based on equity, it did give me some incentive to slightly lower my bid on the posts with zero Differential. Let's face it, who wants to get last pick next year?

Jeff, over at Ramble On, created a Google doc for our class to plug in our tentative bid lists to 'compare notes.' The trend data from that has been outstanding. At time of writing, 14 of us have plugged in our list, and only one of the posts is not in somebody's top 4 (and it's someone's 8th). Additionally, all but 4 of the posts are in somebody's bottom 4. That's some crazy diversity!

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Three Weeks of Orientation, Week 1

After completing my first week of Foreign Service Specialist Orientation, I can confidently say that I must be the worst orientation 'student' ever. With my sickness on Monday, the snow day on Thursday, and ice stopping me from leaving my house for half of Friday... it's been an abbreviated week. Obviously, I'm hoping to improve my attendance in the coming weeks. The commute hasn't been as bad as I'd expected, averaging an hour and 10 minutes each way. This is way worse than I would ever accept if I got to choose my housing, but I can live with it for a handful of months. (Let's face it, many people have much worse for years on end.)

The sessions so far have mostly been interesting, with a few duller ones peppered in (I guess we do occasionally have to learn actual job related information). As expected, the high level guest speakers we've had (ambassadors and the like) have been excellent. The orientation coordinators have also been a wealth of knowledge. Every speaker so far has had many years with the service and has been very forthcoming with anecdotes.

On Friday, my wife and I met with my Career Development Officer (CDO). We briefly discussed our post preferences with her and then went to the Overseas Briefing Center (OBC) to further research the posts on our bid list. We had already mostly organized our list, but between the boxes of information in the OBC and the post videos we watched, we ended up shuffling our top 7 around. That being said, any of our top 10 (or even 15) would be cool. I feel bad for our CDO; the normal IMS class is 5 to 12 students, ours is 23... and optimization of bid lists gets exponentially harder with more people.

Friday, February 14, 2014

First Snow Day

Snow Day! I've been working in and around government facilities for years, and have built up no small amount of animosity to all the snow days they've gotten when my company was open and expecting me to show up. Of course... now that I'm on the winning side of that arrangement, I have to say: "Snow days are awesome!" Especially because there's no way I would have been able to make it in to work, had I wanted to. My area got 15 to 21 inches (according to the weather channel, looked like less to me, but still!) which really had me wondering if I'd woken up back in Syracuse. 
Keep at it, buddy.
This morning found me shoveling my driveway, with my delighted son running around on the newly exposed concrete and occasionally taking his turn with the shovel. He's more cute than he is helpful, but that's ok. Anyway, snow turned to rain through the day and later into a 20 minute hail storm! This was the largest hail I've ever seen, probably a 3rd of an inch in diameter, and just tons of them. 
More importantly, this impromptu day off provided my wife and I with an ample amount of time to chew our way through the post list that I'd received on Tuesday. After several hours of nit-picking our decisions and preconceptions, with the help of the Overseas Briefing Center's website and my wife's awesome decision analysis, we can confidently say we have the first draft of our bid list! Huzzah! Tomorrow I meet with my Career Development Officer, during which I assume she will gently guide me into realizing that my last pick is actually my first pick... but we'll see!

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Three Weeks of Orientation, Day 1

File:United States Department of State headquarters.jpg
Harry S Truman Building or 'Main State'
It had finally arrived. The day I (and hopefully 72 of my peers) had been waiting for - day one of orientation! If I were most people, I'd probably go into boring detail about how much my hand cramped during the paperwork frenzy... However, I got a unique 'first day' experience.

Sunday evening the 131st FSS class hosted happy hour for our class (the 132nd). I attended that before heading to the hotel I'd picked up for the night (not wanting to be late for the first day... or to drive an hour home just to sleep for 9 hours and drive back). I hadn't eaten at happy hour, so I picked up some antipasto from the olive bar at the supermarket across the street. Hindsight being what it is, this was a TERRIBLE idea.

I woke up around 2 am and spent the rest of the night being sick. I'm not generally one to get sick (and I kind of half believed food poisoning was a myth before this morning), but I was sicker than I've ever been in my life. Despite this, I managed to get up, get dressed, and power my way to the first day of orientation. However... it quickly became apparent to me that there was no way I'd be able to function, or even stay seated, at orientation in the state I was in. The coordinators were incredibly understanding and tried very hard to work with me to get in what I needed. After a fruitless attempt to lie down in the nurses office (apparently they don't have beds since it's just a vaccination clinic), I ended up getting my badge picture taken and heading back to my car for a (cold) three hour nap. That ended up recharging me to feeling 'merely bad,' which is a giant improvement from the previous 'walking corpse.' However, I must have still looked fairly ill. After meeting with HR to get my paperwork in order and sitting through a couple sessions (one of which was vital to receiving my badge), they pulled me out of the cohort again to swear in to my position and pick up my newly minted badge. After that, they sent me home to recover.

Honestly, it was about the best experience I could have hoped for... given the circumstances. Everyone was incredibly friendly and understanding, both my cohort members and the people running things. That being said, it was horrible. Pretty much the worst first day I could have imagined, but on the plus side, now that that's out of the way, I'm free and clear for a wonderful career, right?

Friday, February 7, 2014

Last Day at Work

Well the time has come to wave goodbye to my pre-foreign service job.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Pre-Job Paperwork Blues

So... I received my official 'final' offer later (I think) than most. In fact, the offer came in the mail the same day listed as the "last day" to mail it back. I contacted the HR folks, and they said mailing it the next day wouldn't be an issue, but I still found myself in a bit of a rush to complete all of the 'mandatory' paperwork. I don't want to sound too whiny, but here's my short rant on this process.

First off, if you're going to have mandatory paperwork, it's probably better to include that with your offer package. The package I received came with a plethora of optional background information that I could have easily read online, but required that I print out (if you print the entire pdf for each, which includes the instructions) scores of pages to fill out and mail back. Second, if you provide a checklist of everything that has to be sent back... make sure all of the things listed are available from the website you provide. Third, make sure your forms apply to everyone (or at least have a 'not applicable' space, so I can send back a form that doesn't just appear to be blank/neglected). Finally, don't make a note emphasizing the importance of filling out an account number, if the account doesn't exist yet (I'm looking at you, TSP paperwork).

Anyway, all the paperwork was completed, and sent back last week... though I did forget to include a voided check... so that'll be fun. I guess I'll see if I can scan one and send it that way.

Sunday, February 2, 2014


One of the interesting things about being a system administrator, is that everyone just assumes you live and breathe computers. It often inspires unsolicited conversations describing, in excruciating detail, your clients extravagant home setups (and I'm not talking about people looking for home tech support, that's another story altogether). So I often get incredulous looks and words of disbelief when I tell people that my "home setup" is just a single desktop with an external hard drive for backups. A couple years ago we expanded that to include a laptop for my wife. I guess I never really saw the fun in "taking my work home with me."

Our upcoming move overseas has spurred me to revise that policy somewhat, since the likelihood of hard drive failure skyrockets the more you move them (or leave them in extreme heat). In addition, one of the perks to living in the United States is the access to various online streaming video sources (e.g. Netflix, cable channel websites). Many of these sites are blocked to IP addresses originating geographically outside the United States. Some countries also censor specific websites or content. When I studied abroad in Hong Kong, one of my classmates was unable to check his college's e-mail because sites with the name "George Washington" were censored.

A common solution to this problem is to route your web traffic through a US host. After a bit of consideration and some price comparisons, I decided to go with an out-of-the-box solution. Since I won't be readily available to maintain it, I didn't think setting up a custom server was the best idea... and as is often the case, buying a product specifically suited to my needs was cheaper than building my own solution. To that end, I'm going to pick up a QNAP TS-219P+ with 2x 4TB hard drives, configured in RAID 1. I'm going to set it up as an offsite backup, a VPN, and a proxy server. This is not an original idea, many companies use VPNs to securely host work related files for their employees, and some larger companies even use proxy servers to obfuscate their employees internet traffic's origin. My brother, who lives in Florida, has agreed to provide power, space and cooling (the minimal amount that this product requires) in exchange for space to backup his own files. This way I can securely backup my files and access US only or censored sites while overseas.