Job Insecurity

     So you think you are secure in your job, do you? That you are good at what you do, you are appreciated, and there is no way you could ever lose your job. But of course you know that if you ever did lose your job, you might lose your house and your family as well. So you might consider the likelihood that it could happen and what you might do to prepare yourself for that worst case scenario.
     And losing your job is only half the tragedy. The other half is not being able to get another. When I applied for Social Security, I said to the administrator, “My experience is that when you turn 50 you can't get a job.” He replied, “The buzz around this office is that when you turn 40 you can't get a job.” I'm pretty sure that he's right.
     You need to prepare for retirement, of course. But not because retirement is itself a desirable thing—(it’s not; I heard one church leader say, “I know men who retired and nature took them at their word”)—but because retirement will be forced on you when you least want it. You must have enough money to not work for the simple reason that one day, and sooner than you think, you will not be allowed to work. What will you do then? Keep in mind that there is a distinction, often a thin one, between “retired” and “unemployed,” and many seniors who suppose they are heading toward retirement are really just heading to perpetual unemployment and poverty.

My Sad Story

   The point of this story is not to complain about losing my job but to tell you how it happened so that you can maybe protect yourself from this sort of thing.
   I was a software engineer at JPL (Jet Propulsion Laboratory) for 17 years, from 1983 to 2000. Our hardware was IBM mainframes and I produced programs in assembler language and PL/I. I was good at my craft and could deliver a large program without a single bug because I really understood top-down structure, and I was appreciated for that. My job for a decade was, for the most part, to develop programs (and fix other people's buggy programs) that evaluated and translated telemetry data from three space craft: Voyager, Galileo, and Ulysses. And I still take pride that I contributed to the space exploration program — it was the highlight of my career.
   I was happy at my job, loved what I did, and felt secure because I did it so well.
   But then one day in 1993 our division manager (my boss's boss) came to me and my co-worker and said this: “I have a problem. We have a budget cutback and I have to let two people go. Not you two, you two are my best, but two others. Still, I don't want to do that so I have a proposition. Since you two are my best, I'm offering you the chance to transfer to the Systems Programming group. You'll be systems programmers. It's a promotion of sorts, and a raise.”
   We both accepted, grateful for the new opportunities. But if I had known then what I know now, I would have said thanks but no thanks, I'm staying put. You can lay off whoever you need to.
   Here's what happened:
   First of all, I didn't like the work; servicing the operating system wasn't fun like writing programs. But that's not important. I survived, and sort of thrived. But the real issue was that “promotion” ultimately cost me my job and my career. How did that happen? In a word, “Y2K”.

The Great Mistake

   JPL had made a tactical blunder, the kind of thing that only really smart people are dumb enough to do.
   All of our financial systems (payroll, accounting, general ledger) were a proprietory system called Millenium. But when it was installed, JPL wanted Millennium to have lots of extras features, and so they hired a team of programmers to modify Millennium version 2. It took 5 years in all to make the required changes.
   In my view this sort of thing was unbelievable stupity. I had already for decades been an advocate of not tampering with proprietary code because the modifications get lost and vendors become unable to maintenance their own code. Tampering with proprietary code is always bad, and this was by far the worst I had ever seen. And now the fat was about to hit the fan.
   Y2K was on its way and Millennium 2 was not Y2K complient. In other words, On January 1, 2000, a lot of our financial programs would likely fail.
   I started writing letters which basically said, “Ah, folks, you have a problem here. You've painted yourself in a corner.” The problem was not just that Y2K was coming and our financial software would not survive, the real problem was that the problem could not be fixed!
   How so?
   Because it had taken 5 years to make those modificaions, and it would take as long to retofit those modifications to the next release of Millennium, version 3, which was Y2K complient. And why could we not retrofit the changes? Because we had only 3 years left to do whatever we were going to do. With only 3 years remaining, time had already run out.
   So we couldn't move forward and we couldn't stay where we were. What could we do? I wrote letters that we would just have to proceed to Millennium 3 without the precious modifications, and the departments would just have to cope. But nobody was buying that obvious idea. The departments wouldn't budge, they'd rather that JPL sink than to surrender their precious modifications.

The Solution

   So, what happened?
   The only way to force the departments to surrender their modifications was to scrap Millennium and the entire IBM platform, and convert all of it to Sun and Unix and Oracle. Then the departments would have no say in the matter. If everything changed, the problem might just go away, and sure enough, it did. But, good grief, what a circuitous and horribly costly way to have to go about it: change everything just so the departments had to accept whatever they were given. You will accept it, and you will like it.
    So, that's what happened.
   But to do it, JPL brought in another team, Unix and Oracle experts who could slam dunk the new system before 2000. I have to give them credit, they did it.

Collateral Damage

   But what about us systems programmers who worked on the IBM systems? We were out the door. Never mind that I (and all of us) had done so much good work for the company, never mind that I was appreciated and no one wanted me gone, fate had run over me. And the irony is: had I not accepted the “promotion” seven years before, but had stayed put as a science application programmer, I would have flywheeled right through Y2K. But I had accepted a promotion and bad luck destroyed my career.
   Now, I pulled in some favors and managed to survive ten more months, just long enough to take an early retirement, so I left with my full retirement benefits. But still, I was out of a job and out of a career. I sent out hundreds of resumes over the next few years but nobody was hiring old fart IBM programmers. Do I complain? Well, yes, against bad luck. I don't feel abused by anyone involved with the transition, least of all the Unix/Oracle team that stepped in and saved JPL's butt. They (and their manager) diserve credit. I do wish however that I had not been a casuality of that epic. But oh well.
   But here's the thing: Had I not accepted that so-called “promotion” and had not moved to the systems programming group, but instead stayed where I was in the science group, I would have transitioned with everyone else into Unix programming, learned the C language and all its dialicts, HTML, and everything that comprised the “internet”. So I have my own self to blame. Now, to rub my nose in it furhter, I learned that other programmers, those whose jobs I had saved by accepting a transfer, converted my programs from PL/I and assembler to C and whatever, and did so easily because my well written code was so easy to understand. They couldn't know it, but they might as well have driven a knife in my heart.
   So that's my sad story. 
   Of course this twisty tale is only one way to lose your job and career. There are myriad ways you can be blindsided. Disaster doesn't necessairly come from so twisty a route as I have shared with you, it can come at you straight on. Maybe you think you are secure in your company. But what if the company fails? What if a car accident disables you? What if and what if?

Moral Of the Story

   And the moral? First: Be very careful when you move. Yes, I've read “Who Moved My Cheese?” too. But there is danger in moving about, there are mousetraps. The real truth is not that moving is better than staying or that staying is better than moving, but that you need to evaluate with precision if staying is safe or not, and if staying is not safe then move on. But if staying is safe, then you need to think twice about moving on.
   But second (and more importantly): The real moral of the story is that retirement is not necessarily a good thing. It is something that may be forced on you when you can least afford it. So, what should you do about it? Here's my rule: Never be so certain that your Plan A is so secure that you don't need to do anything else. You should also have a Plan B. Ask yourself honestly: What will you do if you lose your job and can't find another? What should you be doing right now to hedge against that possibility? Figure out what your Plan B is and start working it  —  now!