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  • Laura 2:01 pm on December 12, 2012 Permalink  

    It’s the holiday season! 

    Merry Christmas everybody, or Happy Hannukah!

    I have three more days at Commerce before heading home for break, and have been enjoying a.) the massive, live Christmas tree, complete with large Nativity scene, in the lobby and b.) the fact that offices are now decorating their doors AND hallways, which means the corridor leading up to our office looks like a sparkly, illuminated winter wonderland. Lights are strung across the walls, the ceiling, around doors, and every which-a-way to make things look festive. I am disappointed I will be missing the BIS Christmas party, as I’ve heard things get wacky (Wii, nog), and judging from the exuberant decoration already up, I believe it.

    But what would a government job be without a little red tap? Lately we have been getting emails on the proper guidelines for gifting, which shattered a bit of a dream the girls and I had – in November we spotted a tree ornament of a Santa Claus riding a space shuttle hanging on display in Macy’s and thought it would be perfect for our boss, Brad. But then we got rules telling us under no circumstances may employees buy their boss something over $10, even if each employee’s contribution is less than that. The space-flying Santa is $16. (Sorry, Brad!)

    The decorations are also subject to multiple guidelines: “Holiday lights and extension cords must bear the approval of an independent testing laboratory (UL, FM, CSA); Artificial trees must be labeled as flame-retardant; Live trees are not permitted.  Exceptions must be submitted in writing to the HCHB Building Manager, Room 1323, and approved in advance,” and so on (oh yeah, there’s a list).

    It’s kind of comical to have these very whimsical holiday traditions subjected to official US Government ordinances. Ah, well. It’s also kind of endearing. And it also hasn’t dampened anyone’s spirit, as the hall o’ strung lights can attest.

    Merry Christmas to all! I shall return in the new year, and in the meantime, everybody have a safe and happy holiday!

    p.s. 9 days til the apocalypse! Or, as some people call it, the owlpocalypse.

  • Laura 10:20 pm on December 2, 2012 Permalink  

    One thing I have noticed about working at… 

    One thing I have noticed about working at the Department of Commerce is that there is a strong sense of community. Around the elevators there are often flyers asking employees to donate unused work time to help a fellow employee suffering from prolonged health problems; the CFC culture is in full swing with charity fundraisers and bake sales every couple weeks; and these and other events all lend to a feel of maintaining a positive workplace.

    The other side of this, though, is that within this big Commerce family, as with all families, there is a bit of rivalry. Offices and Bureaus take pride in their work and a friendly feeling of competition takes over occasionally. The “Penny Wars” of the CFC campaign is a good example: every office has an empty water cooler jug to be filled with pennies to donate to the CFC undesignated fund. The office with the most pennies collected wins. However, there is a rule that if someone puts in a larger coin – like a nickel, dime or quarter – the value of that coin is subtracted from the total. On other words, if I walk into the office next door and drop a pile of quarters onto their measley pile of pennies, their whole total becomes void, yet the amount being donated overall rises. Penny wars! Everyone wins.

    Another example is door decorating. Every Christmas time, BIS offices compete to have the most original, relevant decorated door. Our office is pretty competitive about this. Good thing I came up with a good theme for this year: Santa exporting Christmas to outer space! Hey-o!

    I guess that requires a little explanation. First, the main focus of BIS is import/export controls, licensing, and so on. While our office has close to nothing to do with that, as we work on the industrial base surveys, we have indeed been thinking/writing/working on space since June. Exports. Space. Santa Claus. It all make sense.

    Thursday was door decorating day. We used our lunch break to create a pretty excellent masterpiece.

    Santa delivers toys to the Martians! Multi-media: construction paper, styrofoam, tissue paper, sticky stars, wrapping paper and a pre-made Santa.

    Hey now, Santa. Don’t go forgetting your export license.

    That’s the Curiosity rover on top of Mars, and an alien patiently awaiting his delivery in his spaceship. He looks so anguished because he hasn’t received his presents yet!

    This door has been a hit so far, and I really hope we win. I am really proud of this door, ya’ll.

  • Laura 11:52 pm on November 8, 2012 Permalink  

    Throughout the building there are pictures of Obama… 

    Throughout the building there are pictures of Obama, Biden and Acting Commerce Secretary Rebecca Blank hung together in a row.

    I think anywhere you work it’s weird to have pictures of your boss – because he is my boss, isn’t he? – hanging up, but I’ve gotten used to it over time. Last week I wondered if the pictures would change – I almost even got a picture of one set with my phone, just in case – and of course now we know they won’t.

    I’ve never real been in a position where my boss’s job was put on the line so publicly. Kind of surreal, and strange to think about what today and the rest of my time here would have been like with a new president. It was similar to how right when I started, the Seceetary of Commerce got into that bizarre car wreck caused by a seizure, and had to step down. It felt like the whole country was looking at us. Had the outcome of the election been different, would there have been a cultural change? More importantly, would there have been cuts? I would say yes to both. Too bad we will never know!

  • Laura 10:48 pm on November 6, 2012 Permalink  

    A space update! Oo la la! 

    The first waypoint of the data collection process has come and gone, and a website has been launched detailing the first findings. Huzzah!

    These slides were made by all of us in the office who have been answering phones, writing emails, scrutinizing websites, speaking with companies and studying the layout of this whole gigantic supply chain. The data has allowed us to begin to map out the supply chain overall, but also of particular programs like the Mars Rover, starting with the “primes” that built it, and going out several tiers to the machine shops and small companies that finished parts and made components that they didn’t even know would end up in a space application. Very exciting stuff!

    This is a big deal for our office, and if I can say so myself, really pretty spectacular in terms of how quickly and efficiently we were able to collect this data. It’s getting some good press, and may bring attention to the issue of export reforms, as well. All good stuff!

    As more data rolls in and we reach more milestones, I will keep you updated!

  • Laura 11:11 pm on October 31, 2012 Permalink  

    New skills 

    Several months ago I helped a friend work on his CV, which is a much longer and more detailed version of a resume. Part of it entails actually writing out paragraphs of information regarding special skills or times you’ve shown some sort of competency for a particular project, opportunity, etc., and you’re asked to basically explain what you do, rather than just listing it as you would in resume form.

    I thought about that recently as I slogged through some pivot tables in Excel. Data entry and manipulation are not particularly thrilling to me (I don’t think they are to anyone), and what becomes most frustrating to me is that it’s not always intuitive. Writing is intuitive. Talking to people is intuitive. But if you don’t know what button to push, you can’t divine the answer or fluff your way through. You either know it or you don’t, and that shows.

    Rather than getting frustrated, though, I decided to view it as an opportunity to gain a new skill. It was arduous, time-consuming, and not glamorous in the least, but I envisioned my little future CV where I can write about that time I overcame my own frustration with knowing what button to push to acquire a new skill and challenge myself not to give up. Strangely, that helped me get past my frustration and just accepting that it WAS something I was going to learn how to do, no excuses. I felt pretty good about it, too, after the fact.

    Data entry is a skill. Not giving up on yourself is a skill, too.

  • Laura 2:30 am on October 24, 2012 Permalink  

    Two things 

    Two silly things have happened recently. One had good intentions, and that was the nation-wide earthquake drill that almost arrived with much pomp last Thursday, but which ultimately did not materialize. We all knew it was supposed to come and we were expected to particpate – I beleive all federal agencies were – but what does one do in an earthquake drill? You can’t stop, drop and roll. Is the Triangle of Life even real, or do I just read too many forwarded emails? You can’t flee the building. It takes me several minutes just to get inside the building, let alone flee in a panic along with a thousand other people. We waited and waited for the preordained moment, anyway – 10:18am – which came and went, and I continued to tippy-tap away, forgetting all about it. Some time later, we heard a faint honking from some distant hallway. We assumed it was an alarm signaling the end of the drill, which we had missed entirely. Were we supposed to just get under our desks, of our own accord? And wait? Is that what I would actually be doing during an earthquake? These will remain mysteries. But at least it got us discussing safety (I guess).

    The other thing is that various corners of Commerce are gearing up for Halloween and decorating doors and hallways accordingly. There is a mini competition going on in our office, with the downstairs office door covered in pumpkins and sheaths of leaves, and ours with Halloween characters and big, glittery letters spelling, “BOO!” My character is a big, fat Frankenstein face. He’s pretty coolio.

    It’s nice to have moments of silliness that bring the office together – the choosing of the characters was a big to-do for everyone, as was the downstairs office’s pride in their own decor (until they saw ours!). As was debating whether we should put work aside for a few moments and sit under our desks. Maybe we should do a re-run this week, but actually get under our desks this time.

  • Laura 9:31 pm on October 7, 2012 Permalink  

    How to Juggle 

    There is a joke that in undergrad you can choose two of the following: getting enough sleeping, getting good grades and having an active social life. You can’t do all three, but two sounds about right.

    Things get a little more complicated in grad school. We have all three of those things, but also jobs, sometimes a thesis, work for a professor, planning your career, paying back loans (Are you getting married any time soon? When do you want to have kids? Where are you going to live after graduation? Are your parents guilting you in moving back in-state?)…it’s overwhelming.

    I don’t think you can ever get perfect results when you try to balance all this stuff. I had a few days, or maybe even weeks, of feeling down recently with my school and work load (plus future load) and realized I was beginning to shut down a bit. I was pushing myself to be perfect in work, perfect in school, losing sleep and waking up exhausted because I stayed awake trying to figure it all out.

    There are no easy answers, but that’s okay. When I interviewed for my current job I remember mentioning to my boss that I’d need to be out of the country for a week for a class. He was very understanding and simply said, “We know your first job is school.”

    And THAT is the best attitude to have. When I remembered that, I decided to be kind to myself, as my mother sometimes tell me when I get too critical and into perfectionist mode, and remember that work will always be there, but school will not. In my position, there are others filling the same role that I do, and if I do not get to that email I need to get to, chances are, someone else will. Busy times ebb and flow for all of us, and the team supports itself. No one can help me with school work, though. And it is, after all, really my job now.

    I’m sure I will continue to have moments of procrastination or annoyance at class stuff. That’s fine. Everyone does. But that’s no reason to beat yourself up for not acheiving perfection in any part of it. Do what you can and remember your mental health! Juggling is not a precise art, in this case.

  • Laura 12:58 am on October 4, 2012 Permalink  

    The day the exotic birds visited Commerce 

    The Combined Federal Campaign has kicked off, which means the spirit of giving has descended on the Department of Commerce! And, as it turns out, so have some exotic  birds!

    We got an extremely pleasant surprise yesterday when the folks of Wilson Parrot Foundation brought their gang of beautiful, colorful and talkative birdies to the building for a little show and tell and fundraising.

    Apparently they had been upstairs with a topical-looking backdrop, where people could pose with the birds on their arms for $20, which of course went to the rescue. When we saw them they were on their way out, being scootered out the door by their various keepers. It was such a bright spot to the day, and so unexpected! It put a face, so to speak, to what the CFC campaign is all about and reminded me that at my old job, we recieved CFC funds. Giving back is important, and it’s good to be reminded of that.

    Photos courtesy of Justyna!

  • Laura 8:06 pm on September 30, 2012 Permalink  

    JIBWG, everybody! 

    JIBWG! Pronounced jib-wig. What’s that, you ask? The latest dance craze sweeping the Appalachian Mountains? A new wig store opening in Mt. Pleasant? No, indeed. It’s the Joint Industrial Base Working Group and it happened just two weeks ago.

    For the weeks and months leading up to this, the mention of JIBWG would pop up in the office and I thought of jigs, and wigs, and babies who can’t really pronounce words yet, but what it actually is, is a twice-yearly meeting of the big wigs (hmpf) from various sectors meeting to discuss issues of importance related to the defense industrial base. This means a lot of military people (mostly men, duh) and other public sector employees coming together for a sort of update and collaboration session to check in with each other on, you know, how things are going. Each agency or sector takes turns hosting and this time it was our turn.

    Anything outside of the ordinary routine is bound to be fun. I got up extra-early that day to man a check-in table and made sure to wear an extra-professional tweed jacket of sorts. I met a lot of the familiar names that I come across in our work (mostly NASA related) and was pleased to see that all the military folk were bright and early and acting like being at work at 7:30am was no big deal. Such discipline! I admire it.

    The discussions lasted two days and our office got a chance to discuss how the space survey was going and what the data looks like so far. One good thing that always comes out of these sessions is increased visibility for these other groups to see what the Office of Technology Evaluation does and review our past surveys, which in turn undoubtedly leads to future collaborations.

    It was just a couple days of out-of-the-ordinary work. But I always appreciate these sorts of opportunities for opening up the “big picture” of what our work is about, and see the lots of other defense-technology gurus doing their thing.

  • Laura 12:49 am on September 27, 2012 Permalink  

    I’m back! 

    Let me just begin this post by noting that it has been a year since I began writing here: first, last fall, working for the Masons. Then in the spring, working at CEI. And now, as I did in the summer, I work for the Dept. of Commerce. I will continue to chronicle my bureaucratic adventures here, and hopefully there will be lots of juicy and intriguing government affairs to reveal to you. But not too much! Because I gotta keep my job!

    I continue to work on the space survey, gathering info from many a confused and sometimes belligerent company as to the nature of their space-related business. In truth, I encounter just as many nice people as I do angry ones, and after months of receiving both the abuse and the compliments, I think I have become well desensitized. Not in a bad way, just in an efficient way. I’ve been assimilated!

    Truthfully, though, it never gets old to hear from someone that I’ve helped them, and it continues to be a constant bright spot to the work. I’ve even had some pieces of mail addressed to me, now, with thank you notes, and I realize just how much some of the people have placed their trust in me – and sometimes, only me, to the exclusion of others in the office – to take care of their sensitive information. And so I take it seriously, as we all should.

    But it is certainly a new season. The ducks in Pershing Park have fled for the winter, their pond drained, and I must bring a sweater because the office is cold. We just did our first “cut” of the data, examining the first roughly 1,000 survey responses to look for trends and report back to the partner agencies on what’s showing up so far. Let me just say that the scientist/engineer population in this country is aging, and something needs to be done about it. But this is no surprise, and no wonder at all the STEM initiatives out there in the world.

    Next month I get to visit the NASA Greenbelt center for a big conference hullabaloo, and even get a tour of the facility. Yippee! I will let you know how that goes, and of the other scintillating bureaucratic business I get up to. Until then!

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