Thursday, January 30, 2014

Orientation Dress Code

The official dress code for orientation is business formal (which translates to suits and ties for me). Although I have a couple of suits, to cover the occasional wedding, I'm not really in a position to comfortably wear one every day for three weeks. It's kind of an odd situation, since I know my actual position will rarely, if ever require me to wear a suit. In theory, I wouldn't mind picking up one or two to bridge the gap (I mean, it's not like they go bad very quickly), but it seems silly to do so before Flag Day. Who wants to be the guy that spends hundreds of dollars on suits, only to find out he's moving to Bangkok in a few months and can buy them for a tenth the price? I guess I better figure it out soon, February 10th is approaching fast.

This desire to temporarily put off purchases doesn't just apply to suits. It has become a recurring theme around our house. It's a weird feeling to know you're moving in the next few months, but not where. For example, every time I put on my jacket I notice the broken Velcro strap and think, "I should replace this....oh right... not yet." (enter superglue) This has happened with a handful of other things, such as dishes (perhaps spurred by my breaking yet-another-one), or my computer's keyboard which seems to be ending it's lifespan. It's surprisingly hard to ignore a lifetime of being told to proactively replace things (oh, consumerism). In the end, it's just a couple months of waiting and we can obviously make due with the purchasing freeze, but it comes up more often than I ever would have imagined.

Monday, January 27, 2014

An Offer You Can't Refine

I received my official offer letter for the Foreign Service Information Management Specialist position today. I accepted my orientation invitation 11 days ago and was really starting to wonder when I'd receive my final offer. In the end, I called up HR this morning and asked for a status update. Apparently my invitation acceptance e-mail was misplaced, so they rushed to get me my official letter. I hadn't been too concerned, since receiving an offer letter after an invitation is not a competitive process, but I have had a little anxiety to see what pay step I would receive. Unlike the private sector, many (if not all) federal government positions use strict metrics to determine starting pay. As a strong believer in always negotiating (or attempting to) starting salary, it was weird to get an offer that I knew I had no influence to change. The IMS position is guaranteed a grade 5 on the FS payscale, but after accidentally reading the FSO salary determination details, I'd spent a short time believing that FSS positions were salary matched (in grade). When I found out my mistake I was understandably bummed.

However, there are more important things in life than money, so I fully intended to take this position regardless of my starting pay. This concept was reinforced when my HR representative called to make sure I was aware of the system they used to determine starting salary, and that it would be a not-insignificant pay cut for me. I told her I was aware and believe the experience and opportunity this job represented was worth the difference in pay. She then pleasantly surprised me with an offer 4 steps above what I'd previously expected. Having already been maxed out on excitement, I can't claim to be more excited than I was before, but I'm certainly happy to accept a 12% increase in my starting pay. Due to the frequent moves, the Foreign Service seems to compensate with an expectation of single career families, so even their lowest starting pay is quite reasonable. Now it's time for the inevitable struggle between wanting to be helpful until I leave my current job and "short timer" syndrome. Wish me luck!

Two Weeks Notice

Today, I gave my job two weeks notice that I am going to work for the Foreign Service. Although I wouldn't call myself a "pro," it's safe to say I'm no stranger to quitting - I've worked for four companies in the last five years. Unlike most job markets, seeing a person that's changed jobs every year or two is not really a red flag. In fact, it's not unusual for contractors in my field and job sector to change companies frequently.

In the past, I had always worked in overhead (non-billable) positions, supporting the facility and other (billable) people. For the past two years, I have been working as a billable subcontractor on multiple projects, as well as spending some time on overhead supporting our corporate systems. It's not unreasonable to equate my current situation to the Office Space quote: "And here's something else, Bob: I have eight different bosses right now." Each project has a boss, the contract I work under has a boss, and I have a couple bosses at my company. My immediate superior, one of my close friends, had known about the possibility and imminence of my departure for awhile, but the others had no idea. So, I had the dubious pleasure of giving my notice half a dozen times today.

It wasn't actually that bad; people around here are used to staffing changes, but most were quite surprised as to where I was headed next. My departure is in some ways well timed, as my primary project recently moved from development to production. That seems like a good milestone with which to take my leave.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Library Liquidating

I've always been surrounded by books. Growing up, my house was filled with them, most rooms had at least one bookcase, many were stacked two deep. You might be wondering why I'm bringing this up. Well... a couple years ago, in what I can now claim was a stunning amount of planning for the future, I decided to get rid of most of the books that I'd spent much of my life (to that point) collecting. I'd reached a point where I no longer saw the need to have hard copies of books that I could much more easily store digitally. So... I started giving away and selling my books, in an effort to downsize (eeeh, see the connection now?).

The Foreign Service will pay to store any household goods, up to 18,000 lbs, that I won't need during each assignment, but it seems silly to have them pay to store books that I'll likely never use again. To that end, I'm going through wave two of book clearing. Last time I gave a bunch to my old roommate and charity (my local library, and sending them to our deployed troops), but my wife also had the brilliant idea of selling our used textbooks on Amazon. She took the initiative of checking the Amazon market price for each textbook and listing our copy for sale if it was going for more than $5 (our minimum to be willing to drive to the post office). It has been slow going, and we've had to adjust prices from time to time, but I can happily say we've received over $800 after expenses, in about two years. Of course we undoubtedly spent more on those books when we bought them in college, but I'll take what I can get, since otherwise they'd be rotting on the shelf.

I haven't and don't plan to ditch all of my books; I've kept a loaner copy of a handful of books that I regularly recommend to people (e.g. World War Z and Ready Player One). The only downside to all this is the apparent relationship to number of books and the educational success of children. I'd always thought it was just some silly cultural idea that the more books you owned, the more educated you were. Though, I'm not convinced that that relationship still applies 25 years later, after the rise of the internet.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Pack-out Pregame

Pack-out Pregame
Oh wait, that's a PACKERS Pregame...
You know, I've always been excited at the prospect of getting 'moved' by my work; more specifically I was excited to experience having someone else pack up and move all my junk. So when the time came, what did I do? I decided to pack up all my stuff before the official movers come on pack-out day. Sigh. As silly as that sounds, it makes way more sense for me to attempt to sell my house sooner, rather than later, and selling the house will be much easier if it isn't cluttered. If it sells quickly, I can pick up a short term apartment near the Foreign Service Institute and kiss commuting goodbye! Short term leases aren't cheap, but they're cheaper than a(t least my) mortgage.

Despite frequently being asked, I have no desire to attempt to rent my house out. Between vacant periods, manager fees, low rental rates and repairs... it just doesn't make short term financial sense. If I had any desire to move back to the DC-Baltimore corridor in the future, I might have considered going down that road. However, I hope to be done with this area for good, so it doesn't make sense to attempt to own a mediocre rental property... especially from a distance. That being said, maybe I'll be nostalgic for this place in the future, but for now, I can't wait to be done with it. Here's hoping that the real estate market throws me a bone!

Friday, January 17, 2014

The $12,000 Question

Do you live in this circle?
This is a well documented and heated debate, so I'll be brief, but I thought I should weigh in on the local hire per diem disparity. The GSA (General Services Association) outlines the requirements to receive per diem for temporary assignments (such as Foreign Service orientation and training). Those rules state that if you're traveling more than 50 miles, you will be paid per diem for the duration of the trip to cover meals, housing, and travel incidentals. The idea is, any shorter distance and you'll commute from home. This relates to people like me, as we are considered local to the Foreign Service Institute (actually, I believe the distance is measured from the Washington Monument), and therefore do not receive government provided housing and per diem during training. The rates, at time of writing, end up being about $12,000 over my estimated orientation and training period (give or take).

This system generally makes sense. I mean, my wife gets to keep her job (at least in the short term), my son doesn't need a new daycare provider, I get to see my friends and such (on weekends, since I'll have around 3 hours of commuting per day). However, with Foreign Service training, this system breaks down. Since I can't guarantee the speed at which my house will sell, I have to choose between selling early and then renting in Arlington on my own dime, or waiting until training is complete, and hoping the house sells quickly while I'm overseas. Of course this isn't that much different than out of area hires who presumably have to hurry up to sell their houses also. The big difference is, if I do sell my house, I also have to pack my own stuff, put it in storage, and then get it re-packed-out on pack-out day by the official people. Bummer. In the grand scheme of things it's not really a big deal. I'm probably just bitter to be facing a 90 minute each way commute... and having to pay for my own food! (Oh the injustice!) On the plus side, all that time on the trains and buses will give me lots of time to practice a foreign language, if only I knew which one to work on.

What's the take away? Apparently I should have moved last week! Oh, and even if it IS probably fair, nobody likes to miss out on the per diem gravy train! I guess this means no daily crab feast lunches for me.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Invitation Only

Best news! I received my offer letter yesterday. Oddly, they apparently don't want me to tell them that I plan to accept the position for another two days, but who cares! This time next month, I'll be in orientation... This time...Next.....Month... Oh man is there a ton to do. After months of waiting, who would have thought I'd feel so pressed for time now.

Anyway, my immediate next move is to update my resume and send it with some assorted other information to the Registrar. She'll then work on fitting me into their metric for years of related experience to determine my starting pay. (Herein lies the major bummer to being a Foreign Service Specialist, compared to a Generalist - Pay Matching. My position guarantees me an FS Grade 5, but being a specialist means I'll come in at step 5, 6, or 7, instead of step 14. To be fair, I knew that going in, and I'm honestly ok with it. I'm more interested in quality of life, than quantity of money.) Once the Registrar has worked her magic, they will overnight my offer letter to me, and it'll be (completely) official. That being said, there is no more "competition" at this point, I'm in for the Feb 10th class, as long as I want it. More to come!

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Good News, Better News

This morning I performed the sacred rite of all Foreign Service applicants added to the register; I called the Registrar to ask what rank I was. Remember when I said my Oral Assessment score was meaningless to me, since I had no frame of reference? Well, it mostly still is, BUT I now know that it was good enough to land me the number one spot on the IMS register as of 10am on January 8th, 2013! Huzzah! But wait, the good news fairy (Registrar) didn't stop there. She told me that invitations to the February 10th orientation are going out, and... as first on the list, I should be receiving one later today!

Unfortunately as it's now well past work hours, it appears she may have been mistaken as to when I'd receive the offer, but I'm used to being at the end of people's alphabetically organized lists, so hopefully I'll have the 'best' news some time tomorrow. All in all this is a little sooner than I was expecting (I'd been hoping for a March or April start date at the earliest), but there's no time like the present to get this show on the road!

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Happy News Year!

As I left work on January 2nd, I was pleasantly surprised to have an email in my inbox from the Foreign Service. I have to admit, I hadn't been expecting to hear anything from them so soon, but there it was, a letter informing me that I'd been added to the IMS register! I am aware, and the register letter clearly reminded me, that being on the register is no guarantee of getting the job... BUT not being on the register is a guarantee of not getting the job. So needless to say, I'll take all the good news I can get.

I have read on other blogs that, once on the register, you can request your 'ranking' and whether there is a start date currently planned for the next cohort. So I promptly emailed my point of contact asking for the details. Unfortunately (though not really surprisingly) I didn't get a response of the Friday after New Years. Here's hoping for a reply next week. Despite the uncertainty, the excitement at my house is boiling over. We obviously don't know the future, but we're already daydreaming about the possibility of being at my first post by August or September of this year. That sounds like such a long time, but I imagine things will move quite quickly once they (hopefully!) start.

Side note, I guess it's time to stop procrastinating and get my son's medical exam turned in... and... you know... apply for his passport.