Thursday, April 17, 2014

promotional items

I've collected a vast array of promotional items from conferences, subcontractors, and "technical lunches" where a vendor is trying to sell something and we're trying to score free food. So here's the Short Geologist's guide to common promotional gear, from least to most useful.

1. baseball cap: If I'm outside, I'm wearing either a hard hat or a wide-brimmed sunhat. A baseball cap is useless to me. And even if I were a baseball cap-wearer, how many caps could I possibly need? Or if a baseball cap is an intrinsic part of my personal style, would I really wear a cheap one with "bob's tanks" or whatever printed on it?

2. CD of promotional material: Not reusable and if I really needed that info, I could look it up on your website in 12 seconds, rather than rummaging around for a CD on my desk. If you hand me a sheaf of papers, I can at least use the back to scribble notes on.

3. Cheap windbreaker: I need raingear that actually works because there's a good chance I'll be out for hours and hours in inclement weather. If it doesn't keep me dry after 3 uses, it's just going to take up closet space.

3. Polo t-shirt: This is a sensitive topic because when you receive a polo shirt from your employer it's supposed to be a Nice Thing. I have a couple problems with company polo shirts: they're impossible to layer under anything; they're never quite the right size; and at least where I've worked, they were really only appropriate for casual Fridays at the office. In the summer. When you were sure that the air conditioning wouldn't kick on. They were nice for my instructing gig if the room was super hot, but that was about it.

4. Miscellaneous tchochkes: I don't need more magnets, CD openers, luggage tags, or corkscrews, but they're small and inoffensive.

Ok, on to the stuff I actually appreciate:

5. good ballpoint pen: not fancy pens, but working pens. Pens that have retractable points (clicky pens) are best, but I'm just looking for something that won't ooze globs of ink when writing or disintegrate at the bottom of a backpack. For some reason, every place I've worked has cheaped out on pens and it drives me bonkers.

6. Food: I'll eat anything, really. For my personal use, reasonably healthy snacks (granola bars, nuts) are best because they work with both travel and fieldwork. But field crews love when vendors send a big box of chocolates to the trailer.

7. Bag: I've gotten reusable grocery bags, canvas tote bags, insulated bags for picnics/bringing over stuff for potlucks, and duffel bags. All are appreciated, and they pack away to essentially nothing when not in use.

8. regular t-shirt: the stuff I get from vendors is usually sized mens' large or bigger, but I can always use t-shirts to sleep in. Bonus if it's actually sized for me (for an undershirt, if nothing else).

9. Thumb drive: you can never have too many of these. Especially if you're working with contractors who are producing draft data in the field, so you can send out the early results and get buy-in for field adjustments. Or you need a copy of an entire sub-directory so you can work remotely. Or your field printer breaks and you need to make a run to kinkos to print forms.

10. business card: I am a big believer in business cards and go through my own (I always have at least 10 with me) at an astounding rate. They're small, handy to write notes on, and they have the person's name on them so I can actually contact the right person later/spell their name correctly in the logbook. If I am trying to get information/access from someone, pre-emptively handing over a card prompts them to respond more readily than just firing questions.

Any major category I forgot?

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

managing in tears

This is the story of my introduction to project management...

I'd just been made project manager (PM) for a site that I was the field manager for. I'd been keeping a bunch of balls in the air, and apparently I was a little too good at that particular skill, because I was asked to take it over entirely. I'm not a believer in doing the fieldwork for projects I manage (that's a topic for another post), but we were short-staffed and so I went.

While that particular phase of fieldwork was happening, we were also deep in the weeds with another phase of the project that was totally outside my field of expertise. The previous PM had a couple of different proposals for how the work should be done, but things on the ground had changed significantly.

As the field manager, I had enough on my hands already. We had a regular field crew plus multiple contractors, plus tricky site access I was trying to work around, plus an inflexible schedule. And things weren't going all that well. The stress had built up with one of my coworkers (Bob) throughout the week. Then, Bob discovered that he'd made a vast and long-term sample label mistake (this is why we need consistent nomenclature!) that was partially because of my unclear directions (I was distracted!), and he totally blew up. Had an epic meltdown, complete with yelling, swearing, and drop-kicking of hard hat a fair distance. Then the phone rang.

I saw it was the client calling, so I hustled over to my truck, which was parked, like, 15 feet from the action. I hopped in, and he said, "I'm going to need you to change your proposal to do this radically different thing that you have zero knowledge of. Also, because of this logistical issue that's been a problem for the whole project, I'm going to need a revised budget estimate by, oh, close of business today."... and I burst into tears.

Not knowing what else to do, I hung up on him.

Then I cried for a while because the project was going all wrong and Bob had just yelled at me and I had no clue what I was doing and I had just hung up on the client. I pulled it together and called him back ("sorry, bad cell phone reception!") and wrangled an extension without getting hysterical again, rubbed my eyes, and stepped out from my truck (still parked 15 feet from the subcontractors) and carried on with the fieldwork.

The subs were very quiet for the rest of the day.

Anywhoo, everything worked out ok in the end. The budget wasn't irreparably busted, nobody got hurt, and I learned that the world wouldn't end if I said "no" to clients occasionally. But "trial by fire" is not a management training experience I'd recommend.

Friday, April 11, 2014

office casual

The issue of "dressing more formally to advance in one's career" got a ton of comments on ask a manager recently. A vocal minority believed that "dressing for success" was outrageously superficial, sexist, and/or not the business of manager to give advice on. But most commenters thought that being overly shlubby/at the absolute minimum required by the dress code could be a hindrance to being taken seriously.

The environmental biz is interesting in this respect because we have some folks who go outside and get grubby, and other folks who may be entirely client-facing and may dress quite formally. So if you're wandering around the office, you're likely to see a wide range of formality, and the grubby people are entirely justified in what they're wearing. Tracking giant clods of dirt everywhere/having small critters crawling in your hair is still frowned upon, though.

So if I'm working in the office all day, I would not look out of place wearing field gear. However, I am not just a field tech. I am a scientist and writer and manager and occasional lecturer. By being somewhat formally dressed when not planning on going into the field, I am projecting the idea that I belong in the office, that I understand the social norms of the business and can be relied upon to be appropriate at high-level meetings.

The same idea holds true in the field. It is not a great idea to show up at a field site with a shiny hard hat, unscuffed boots, a brand-new field bag/clipboard, and pristine field clothes, because everyone will assume that you've never been outside before and it will be that much harder to be taken seriously.

You can overcome being underdressed in the office and overdressed in the field by demonstrating your competence at whatever you're doing. But the fact is that we live in a world of appearances, and it's far easier to start out ahead than to work to prove that you belong there.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

what to expense

Last week on ask a manager, someone asked about expensing asprin while on a business trip. They were insulted that the firm wanted to be repaid the $4 for the asprin.

All the organizations I've submitted expenses for (college and grad school research, work, travel under a grant) required a strict accounting for those expenses. And they all had a definite and short list of qualifying expenses. Over the counter medicine was out, unless you were stocking up for a large field job and you could justify a giant container of asprin as a health and safety item for the project.

It was interesting to read the comments on that post. Several people suggested that the mere fact that they were traveling meant that various items should be covered by the firm (dry cleaning, random inessentials like gum) since they were away from home. I had an oddly visceral reaction against this, and I think it's because I work so hard to be perceived as professional.

I travel for work. Because travel is an expected and necessary part of my job, I am prepared for it. Just like I had to buy whole separate outfits for office and fieldwork, at great aggravation and expense, I also bought a complete and separate set of toiletries, sunscreen, migraine meds, and other stuff that I know I'll need. Those things are dedicated to my travel bag so that I can just grab and go as needed.

If you travel for work, how much do you get away with (or try) for your expense reports? Am I just sucker for sticking only to the essentials?

Friday, April 4, 2014

on tracked-changes

Whoever thought that yellow was an appropriate color for tracked-changes text in MS Word should be forced to read hundreds of pages, clockwork orange style, in which the text is randomly highlighted yellow-green-purple and more than four people have edited over each others' text.

I have not found any way to change the default text-edit colors. Anybody have luck changing that awful yellow color to dark orange or something?

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

the new camera

A while back, I mentioned that I needed a replacement camera.

My dad did arrange for an awesome camera, after discussion with a few other photographers. It's a Panasonic LUMIX with an 60X optical zoom. I had asked for something reasonably light, with good optics and a big zoom. So I decided to test it out on objects close and far. This is a penny, with no zoom:
And here's a scarf, no zoom:
Once I secured the scarf, I treked back across a snowy field (unfortunately, the snow was much deeper than I'd expected) and took this picture:
The scarf is attached to the low tree just to the left of the post, pretty much dead center in the front of the treeline. Can't see it? Here's the zoomed in photo from the same spot:
I believe in using a dedicated camera, not a smartphone, for taking pictures for a couple reasons. First, a digital camera is ergonomically designed for taking pictures, so you don't have to worry about poking a screen to take a picture. Second, you generally have more options for taking good pictures (like a super optical zoom!). Third, there's no possibility of getting embedded location or other info, so I can put my pictures on the web without revealing anything other than the time the picture was taken.

I admit that my photography skills are not as developed as they could be. These pictures were all taken on "automatic" settings. I'll have to fiddle around with semi-automatic settings to see how things turn out with different shutter speeds etc. I can't wait until it warms up enough that I can take outdoor pictures without standing knee deep in snow...

Friday, March 28, 2014

it keeps going

Sometimes people have a preconception about what the soil profile is. In my part of the world, you generally have turf/roots above a sandy soil. At some unspecified distance which is likely less than 20 feet, you'll run into rock and that's the end of the soil profile. This is true for lots of areas in my region, but not all. I occasionally run into a situation where a layperson continues to go deeper and deeper, looking for that elusive turf-sandy soil-rock mixture that they have in their head. And it doesn't work out well.

Like my dad. His front yard has a sad, thin layer of soil above boulders. He is convinced that the best way to get dirt (and therefore have enough soil that his sad, thin layer of grass will thrive) is to simply excavate the boulders. If you don't have rocks, then therefore, you must have soil, right? So when it's warm and he's feeling like he wants to take on A Project, he rips out the rocks he finds buried right below the grass. The big ones he has to roll down the hill next to the house, into the back yard, and down a slope to the woods below. The picture below is a cross-section of the house and the street. Take a look and guess what his problem is:
That yard? All fill, front and back. So he can pick out all the boulders he wants, and all he does is lower the yard some more. If he wants to have sandy soil, he'll have to import it.

Another example: I once had a contractor help drag a drill rig into a big mud bog with an excavator. The contractor had cleared a path for the drill rig, but by the time the rig and support truck was in place, we had a giant muddy mess. The contractor had said he would "clean things up" and I got distracted by other things. Well, what he did was try and remove all that sticky, wet mud we'd made. Unfortunately, there was nothing below the muck except more muck, and he'd excavated about 3 feet closer to the water table. From there, we had no chance of letting things "dry out" because everything was saturated, and you couldn't exactly schmear the mud back to let it dry because the acts of driving through and then scooping it up had utterly destroyed any structure that could have held it up, and frankly, I didn't want the contractor making it worse by increasing the area of unstable muck. See the sidebar picture for the sort of conditions we were dealing with.

As a geologist, I have a pretty good understanding of all the interesting stuff that can be right underfoot. That knowledge can come in handy when you least expect it.