Friday, November 17, 2017

Reader Question on Contacting Me

Dear Vigg: "Is there a way to private message you and pick your brain about your experiences on the job and what materials are most relevant for your role? I am an IT consultant from one of the larger consulting firms, but want to switch to public service. Especially in these times, it is important to do what we can to aid our diplomats abroad."

Absolutely. You can e-mail me using the e-mail account 'vigg' at my domain. I'll refrain from pasting the whole thing here to help avoid the spam scripts from picking it up. We can use all the help we can get these days. Sadly, most people's hiring ambitions are on hold due to the hiring freeze... BUT the beginning stages of the hiring process are still functioning normally, they're just not pulling new classes from the register. If I were a betting man, I'd wager there will be a spurt of new hire classes immediately following the end of the hiring freeze. Of course, I'm not a betting man, and I have no influence over - or knowledge of - what will actually happen. Good luck!

Friday, November 10, 2017

Reader Question on the Oral Assessment

Dear Vigg: "I have failed two attempts to get in the DOS as a IMS.  I have made it all they way to OA [the Oral Assessment] but keep falling just short of the cutoff... I wanted to know if you could give me some really detailed pointers on the Memo and face to face interview sessions..."

Honestly, I can't. It's not (just) because we sign a non-disclosure about the content of those tests... but also because they've undoubtedly changed since I took the oral in 2013... Similarly, different people do it every year. They look for what THEY think makes the best FS officer. One of my friends in Chennai spent some time on the interviewing board and he said his big push was to pick people that would handle living overseas well. Someone else may want to focus on people with technical excellence or people who enjoy diplomacy/public outreach. I'll give you some generic pointers for those sections though.

a) The writing exercise in the oral is most likely looking for two things. They know everyone can turn in good writing given unlimited time and resources (you already passed the essay portion of the application), but they want to see how well people write given a time limit and left to their own devices. I can't help you with the content, but you should focus on clear sentences, good grammar, and good paragraph structure. You can always debate how someone prioritizes tasks and/or the solutions they offer, but if there are grammar or spelling errors, it's an indisputable red flag.

b) For the face-to-face interview... I can just tell you what I did. I'm a pretty self confident person, I went in thinking "I am a great candidate, because I can do this job well." In the face-to-face, I focused on telling them why I felt that way and what my motivations were for joining. Normally in interviews you want to talk as little as possible (because the interviewer will fill in the spaces and generally people love to talk about themselves). That's not the case here. You're there selling yourself. Explain to them why you want this job and why you're a good fit. 

Friday, November 3, 2017

Reader Question on Promotion Potential

Well, I guess it's time to answer some reader questions. These answers are so long overdue that they're probably no longer even useful for the askers... but here we are. So... I guess this is my first "Dear Vigg" section. I'll answer a question a week until I'm caught up. These questions all came during my blogging doldrum, so I apologize for the delayed responses.

Dear Vigg: "I was curious if you could speak to promotion opportunities as a FSS/IMS, as compared with generalists... it is my understanding that there is a sort of competitive backlog for [generalists] around the mid-career level. With IMS, especially as there is a private sector corollary that I imagine affects attrition and retention, is it fair to say that people move up the ranks quickly, as compared with generalists? Any insight into this and related topics is of interest to me, and I thank you in advance for your comments."

The "pig in the python" phenomenon following the widespread hiring a decade ago is certainly a problem for many mid-level officers, both Generalists and Specialists. Realistically, IMS get promoted slower than Generalists (and other Specialists) across the board. They publish the numbers yearly in State Magazine, but generally the first (competitive) promotion from grade 4 to grade 3 averages around 9 years time-in-service, compared to Generalists' average of 6.5 years. It would be fair to say that IMS do not move up the ranks quickly. This makes sense, in my experience, because IMS tend to be IT professionals with established careers when they join. Whereas many Generalists join directly out of college. People choosing to leave a lucrative and respectable job to join the Foreign Service may be more likely to 'stick-it-out' than folks taking this as their first job out of college. Honestly, I don't know, but it seems reasonable that the different selection criteria lead to different attrition rates. Similarly, IRM has more lower-ranked jobs, so people tend to stall at grades 3 and 4 for longer. 

Ironically, I don't see this as a bad thing. We hire IMS based on their technical merit. We should not be in a rush to push them to more and more managerial work... if we do... we should logically hire for that instead. You don't hire the world's best setter in volleyball and then ask them to manage the team instead of playing. (Or maybe you do, I'm terrible at sports.)

Monday, October 30, 2017

Bidding Wars: The Last Handshake

Need I say more?
Actually, yes! Yes, I do need to say more. First thing this morning I accepted my automated handshake offer from the EUR bidding software. However, much to my surprise, a few hours later I received another handshake offer! This is not ideal (for post or for me). The offer was from a heavily bid post that hadn't responded to any of my lobbying since my initial e-mail on September 21st. I had assumed I was not in the running.

Given the fact that I didn't receive a BLC last week, I would guess that I was not their first choice. However... it is plausible that no one else took the position and they are now scrambling down their list to find someone. In a related situation, we received an e-mail from a post in a similar situation last Friday. It was a heavily bid on post, but... 10 bidders is meaningless if it's #2 on all of their lists (and they all get their #1 choices.) In my case, it's sad, because the offer is from a post I would have said was my dream post four years ago... but even if I did want to go there over Reykjavik (which I don't, for various reasons), I've already committed to Iceland. I'd rather gently decline a surprise handshake than go back on my word.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Bidding Wars: The Assignments Awaken

Well, call me a Bureau's Leading Candidate (BLC). I received an (automated) e-mail today telling me that I was the number one candidate for the position I bid on in Reykjavik. As it turns out, I knew it was coming, but it's still nice to officially get my "air kiss." How did I know? Well, I'm the only eligible bidder, of course. Besides that, the Regional Information Management Officer (RIMO) contacted me last week to tell me I was the leading bidder...
'Air kisses' are sent out to give the bureaus a chance to react to people's changing (or previously undecided) decisions about posts. If I received two BLC e-mails this week, I would (as a decent person) contact the one I wasn't going to take, to give them the chance to snatch up their second choice, before that person commits elsewhere. In my case, perhaps betraying my faith in myself being the only bidder the system, I sent a note to Ho Chi Minh City (my other top choice) to let them know that I had heard back from Reykjavik and need to withdraw myself from their consideration. This was a simple courtesy to help ensure they get their best candidate that's not me available.
Enough about me, here is the slightly abridged text from the e-mail... about me.
This is an
automated message. Please do not reply to this message.
from EUR and IO/EX! We are pleased to inform you that you are the
bureau’s top candidate for the following position:
Position Title: Information Management Spec

Post: Reykjavik, Iceland
Grade: FP-04
TED: 6/1/2018
Bureaus can
offer handshakes on 10/30/2017 to bidders for at-grade assignments or
one-grade stretches for those serving at a 15% or higher post, bidding on a 30%
or higher post, and/or with bidding privileges (formerly MSI) from the current
year's FS Selection Boards. Bureaus can issue handshakes to fair share
bidders and one-grade stretch (either up- or down-stretch) bidders for domestic
and low differential positions on 2/12/2018.
message is informational and solely intended to assist you in your planning as
the bidding cycle comes to a close. You need not reply. If you have
any comments or questions, please contact the EUR and IO FS Assignments Team.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Bidding Wars: Return of the Jubilation

I keep thinking I should be stressed out about this bidding process... and it is stressful. However, I have to believe that it'll all just work out. Maybe I'm super self confident, maybe I'm overly optimistic, or maybe it's because my fourth choice still has fewer bidders than positions open. Who knows. Either way, I had what will likely be my last interview today. This puts me on the short list for the top (and only) 4 posts I'm bidding on. That's a pretty good feeling.

One of the common interview questions is, of course, "where do we rank on your list." People often debate whether they should lie (tell every post they’re your favorite) or how to obfuscate their answer. I refuse to lie about this and I want to be as transparent as possible. I've told pretty much everyone where I'm bidding and the order. However... my preference order is a bit nebulous. My top two posts (Reykjavik and Ho Chi Min City) are both places I would go in a heartbeat. As I see it, it has less to do with which I'd prefer and more to do with who is willing (or able) to commit to me first. This will put me in for an awkward position if I'm offered both (at the same time) and am forced to choose. Otherwise, I'll take whichever comes up and consider myself lucky; they're both great posts and I'll have successfully navigated my first open bidding cycle!

Regardless, with some good interviews (and lucky intersections between who I know and who the people at the posts I'm bidding know), I am feeling fairly confident that I'm going somewhere I want to go. It's impossible to know until we get that official handshake (or the unofficial air kiss), but I'm not sweating a little more waiting. It seems like waiting is the name of the foreign service game.

Monday, October 2, 2017

Bidding Wars: The Bureau Strikes Back

A quick follow up on my last post. Short lists aren't the final word in bidding. Far from it. Posts make their list of candidates to forward on to the bureaus (around October 13th, this year). The bureaus then take those lists from all their posts and deconflict the candidates. They're looking to make sure that 6 posts don't all have the same person as their first choice. This allows them to make sure more handshakes can go out to legitimate candidates at the same time. A week later (around the 23rd), once bidding is closed, the bureaus will meet each other and do some secret/magic/shadowy 'horse-trading' to attempt to work out multiple bids across bureaus. Again, no one wants to offer a handshake to someone and then get declined, because they've lost valuable time to offer that handshake to their second choice. As with everywhere, some employees are preferred for some positions, and no one wants to get left scraping the bottom of the barrel to fill a vacancy. Of course, some of this resolves itself. In my first tour bidding, 13 of the 23 bidders got their first choice on Flag Day. With bidding priorities being that wildly different... there is a chance for everyone to be happy. In reality, some posts just don't have the mass appeal that others do.

Similarly, everyone hears stories about bureaus essentially ignoring post’s list and pushing their preferred candidate. They can do this because all IMS positions are actually held by the bureaus, rather than by the individual posts. This means that although post has a major stake in who they get, they're a non-voting member in the decision making. Some of my friends are particularly wary of this, but I tend to think it's mostly rumor and hearsay. Maybe it happens, maybe it just happened once, but either way it can’t be common. The people serving in the bureau would be torpedoing their reputation with the post in question. Similarly, the candidate would be walking into a unpleasant workplace having essentially overridden their choice to force the assignment. It's really not ideal for anyone. HOWEVER, it is an excellent scapegoat. "Oh, we wanted you, but the bureau..." or "I was totally their first choice, but the bureau..." It is such a convenient alibi that I could see it becoming a common rumor.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Bidding Wars: A New Hope

Good news, everyone! Today's twist on the roller coaster of bidding is: I made the short list* for one of my top posts. Pretty crazy to go from hearing essentially nothing to having two interviews and being told you've been short listed in... a couple days. As I said before, being #2 on a short list is meaningless if the #1 accepts the position, but it's still encouraging. Even more encouraging is that the post has two openings, effectively doubling my chances of getting a handshake. Either way, I'll continue attempting to contact (politely and not too frequently, of course) the posts I'm interested in and hope for the best. What else can I do?

* The short list is the vetted list of candidates that a post sends to the bureau as their preferences for filling the position.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Bidding Wars: Revenge of the Silence

Well, almost two weeks into the five week bidding cycle, I have to say the silence is deafening. Either the posts I'm talking to are moving slowly... or I'm doing it wrong! Talking to my cohort-mates, who appear to be interviewing left and right (some with the very posts I'm lobbying), I'd guess it must be the latter.

The bidding process is seriously opaque (at best), and shortening the bidding season from 3 months to just 5 weeks this year has thrown all past expectations up in the air. I'll keep waiting, I guess. My consolation is that I'm one of the only bidders for two of my choices. Of course... being #2 means nothing if they take #1. We'll see!

Monday, September 18, 2017

Bidding Wars: Attack of the Choices

The bid list is finally here! The actual list provided some surprises. One of the posts I was most interested in (Harare) disappeared, but new interesting posts have appeared (Hong Kong)! I've already done much of the leg work in researching my desired assignments, but with the new options, there's always more research to do. I guess I'll be spending some time on the Overseas Briefing Center's website (Post Info To Go) and on Tales Mag's Real Post Reports.

Now that the bidding season has 'officially' started, it's time to start lobbying posts in earnest to convince them that I'm their best choice. This awkward task is made slightly easier if you know people at the place you're bidding, but still includes a bunch of bragging (but not too much!) e-mails. It's not what I would describe as an enjoyable process.

Everyone's bidding process is different. Looking at my cohort mates and friends... some of us are bidding on one bureau, some on multiple. Some are lobbying 20 posts, and some just 3 or 4. Some are bidding based on geographical location, others based on the job. I can't speak to which is best and really, a lot of it is just personal preference. However, I can explain my bidding methodology.

I’m planning to actively lobby/bid on 5 posts.

1) We removed all posts requiring malaria medication. We're not opposed to serving in one of those posts in the future, but don't want to deal with having to remember (and fight) to give our one year old meds every day.

2) We crossed off places with (apparently) low morale. Morale is definitely based on the people (which can change before I arrive), but morale tends to be passed down to incoming officers. Low morale posts often appear to stay that way.

3) We looked at places (rumored to be) good for young kids. Our son has had a particularly rough time in Buenos Aires. The Embassy community is scattered, which makes it hard for him to make friends and most of the locals don't speak English. He has some expat friends, but they're also hard to nail down for regular play dates. All-in-all, we're looking for a place that he will enjoy.

4) As always, we're hoping to go to new (and interesting) places. Buenos Aires feels similar to living in the US. It's not exactly what we were aiming for with the Foreign Service. Also, we're hoping to have a tour in every continent by the end of my career.

All in all, this leads me to bid on (in no particular order): Reykjavik, Ho Chi Min City, Hong Kong, Phnom Penh, and Guangzhou. Apparently we also had a requirement that everywhere be hard to spell correctly... Guangzhou (as with most of China) tends to be light on bidders and will act as a fail-safe of sorts for me. I'd be interested in going there - no malaria, good morale, good community for kids - and I really enjoy China, but the others are slightly higher on our list. Those five posts actually represent 9 positions, which seems like enough for me. I'd rather seriously bid on a few realistic positions than take the scattershot approach. Which is better? I guess we'll see!

Monday, July 31, 2017

Bidding Wars: The Phantom Position

As the pre-bidding season continues, I feel like I should give an update on what I've been up to. This summer... has been rough. I spent about a month as the only IMS (normally we have 4) at post. Covering 4 positions would be a challenge, so naturally I prepared for it by getting walking pneumonia. Also, FUN FACT, did you know: you can break a rib from coughing? I didn't either. I am painfully aware of it now though.

But enough about me! Bidding. At this point in previous bidding cycles, I'd have a decent idea of where I stand with my top bidding choices. This year the bidding cycle has been compressed. Instead of starting in August, it starts September 20th. Post and bureaus seem to be taking this to heart and are holding off on much of their normal bidding contact.

Many of my cohort-mates have been reaching out to incumbents for tentative positions and some of the supervisors anyway, because it can't hurt to start early. How can they contact posts, if the bid list isn't out, you may ask? Well, they use the dubiously accurate Projected Vacancy tool in FSBID (our bidding software). This tool tells you which positions will be open this year, based on when the current occupant arrived at post. I have, of course, been eyeballing the projected vacancy list for months (practically a year, don't judge me), but I have absolutely failed at making first contact. Part of this I can blame on being sick and busy, but part of it is the absolute dread I feel toward cold-calling people to tell them how great I am. Especially when the projected list doesn't account for extensions, curtailments, position freezing or removal, ceding to entry level, or the whims of bureaus and posts. It seems silly to spend all this effort schmoozing a post for a position you can't even bid on.

Who knows, I have an R&R coming up, I should probably get some messages sent before I leave for that. At least... that's what I keep telling myself.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Fair Share and Bidding Privileges

Bidding Bidding Bidding. It has begun. Possibly the worst part of the Foreign Service (or the best?) is the process of determining your next Post. It's not unlike my former life, as a contractor, where we continually interviewed for positions for new contracts, as our old ones ended.

This year marks the beginning of the condensed bidding cycle (more on that later), but today is our first 'surprise' for the season. Many factors play in to determining which positions you are eligible to bid on. Two of those factors changed today and I'll break down each of them:

Fair Share Bidding is a requirement that you serve in a hardship positions every 7(ish) years. The general idea is to keep someone from spending 20 years doing 7 tours in London, Paris, Rome, Tokyo, etc. This year the definition of a hardship to fulfill this requirement changed from 15% to 20%. This means that if you are bidding this year and have not served in a 20% hardship position in the last 7 years, you are required to either bid on exclusively domestic assignments or include at least 3 at-grade and in-specialty positions with 20% or higher differential, in at least two geographic regions. Fair share bidders are required to accept any offered handshake (or find another hardship handshake) within two weeks of it being offered. If, by some weird turn of fate, they are continually not offered a handshake for 5 months... then they can accept any position offered. This increase of just 5% therefore drastically changes the 'popularity' of certain posts in the bidding cycle. A 15% post is now substantially less appealing, because it doesn't meet this requirement (and I imagine we'll see a proportional drop in their overall bids.)

Bidding privileges allow a person to bid one grade higher than their current grade if they're bidding on, or currently serving in, a hardship. However, the definition of a hardship for this changed also, but instead of increasing 5%, it went from 15% to 30%! This is a gigantic increase and drastically reduces the viability of stretching into a higher position (which had become quite common among people looking to get promoted early). This change will also effectively hinder bidding at 15% posts, with a possible benefit to 30+% posts. It will be interesting to see how this pans out. Bidding privileges are also granted for employees receiving a Meritorious Step Increase award or if the post has been designated as historically hard to staff.

Keep in mind, much like going to a non-fair-share-post as a fair share bidder, it is possible to go just about anywhere, but only at the tail end of the bidding season. Initial handshakes go out ~early November, but in March the restrictions drastically relax for the poor posts and bidders that have been left out in the cold.

It's going to be an interesting next few months.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Happy 3rd Anniversary, 132nd Specialist Class

Happy 3 year anniversary to the 132nd Foreign Service Specialist Class! I know what you're thinking: what's the big deal? Well, this pay period (for those of us without prior government service) we begin the next phase of our careers. That's right, we now accrue 6 hours of annual leave per pay period. Let the partying begin! (You know, at whatever vacation location you choose!)

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Blog Fading

I have to apologize for the absence of my blog postings... I don't have any particularly great excuse, except to say it's been a busy few months. Between moving to Argentina, having a new baby, and an 'aggressive' leave schedule among my coworkers... I guess I just haven't gotten around to writing. Anyway, I'll try to catch up again... this year. My wife has continually suggested that I just write some shorter posts, to get the juices moving again, but we'll see, I'm never really a fan of too-short-posts.

PS: I guess I'm a real Foreign Service Officer now; I have to constantly fight the urge to capitalize the 'p' in 'post.'

PPS: I found the keyboard at work... It uh... is old..... and funky. F18? No CTRL key? Who knows.