Smolny in 1995

The last gig I wrote about was the project in Bank Saint-Petersburg, which earned me money for our trip to Poland. 

Later in 1995, my employment situation continued to be the same as I described in the above post. I was a full-time researcher at the university, working in the Operations Research Laboratory, and Boris was my boss, which was wrong on all possible accounts. The university jobs were still paying very little for both of us, but the way we thought about it back then, it was unimaginable to leave a university position. It was academia; we were researches, and even if we aren’t paid anything, we could not drop these badges of honor. 

And still, we needed money. Maybe, some people can be happy being poor together with their loved ones, but it was never our case. We were on a hunting trail all the time. 

The next gig came one more time from Dr. Conrad, and that was my last encounter with him. The gig was huge – working with the city government. Dr. Conrad, as usual, wanted to sell something to somebody. That time, this “something” was a document flow system that would allow all the city government departments to process the letters from the public more efficiently. My job would be to interview the city government employees from all departments, analyze their needs, the existing processes bottleneck, and produce a report explaining why the proposed system was the best possible solution. Then I had to make a presentation to the whole bunch of officials. 

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1995: Gigs and Odd Jobs

Since I was fired from Urbansoft, looking for some side jobs, which would put bread on the table, became a part of my life. Most of the time, these jobs were very loosely related to my skills. However, by 1990’s standards, I had decent written English, which was a way to make money.

After the HighDoc project, there was one more, which I consider an epic fail on my part.

Boris was a part of the group, which was contracted by Nortel to write a reporting system – I want to say, for their first cellular data, but I need to double-check with Boris. (Correction: Nortel thing was later, what we did in 1994 was a project for GTE Labs, and it happened because of Boris’ connections to Micheal Brodie – more shame on me! ) He incorporated me to write a user manual for that system. As usual, the pay was verbally negotiated. And I failed it unimaginably.
Although I was full-time employed by the University, the attendance was optional, and there was no real research work. I would come to the office twice a week and spend time meeting with people and talking about random stuff. On the days at home, I often started my day going to the city center and checking “what’s new” in the stores. I was still not accustomed to the fact that there were consumer goods available, and I could buy things that I liked. Shopping for produce was another adventure, with multiple food stands on every corner, different prices and different quality.

There were always emails to answer and some cooking to be done at home, and then there was time to go and pick up the kids from the daycare. When I would sit to write my technical documentation, I didn’t progress much and was still thinking that I have enough time to finish. After some time, I realized that there is no way I could finish on time. Boris was sending me the parts of the reporting system, which were already done, and I had almost no documentation. I told him that I failed just four days before the stuff was due. He managed to write up something and had us covered, but that’s the shame I had to carry for many years.

I do not remember how we got involved with Bank Saint Petersburg, there were some connections involved, but I do not recall the details. Somebody somehow talked them into trying to use Oracle. It was Oracle 6, and the installation process was a journey with an unpredictable outcome. The group consisted of Boris, Yuri, and myself. I have a vague recollection that there was somebody else, maybe a person from the bank. We were supposed to install and teach others to use Oracle, and that was the first experience for all of us. I do not know how we managed to present it as if we were competent, but the task was completed, and we got some insane money. I used my portion to take the kids to Poland in summer (I will tell this story later).

The Bank gig happened in spring 1995, when I was finalizing my Ph.D. Thesis, which will be a topic of some future post.

My historical posts are being published in random order. Please refer to the page Hettie’s timeline to find where exactly each post belongs, and what was before and after.

How I was Fired from Urbansoft

I always say that I never been unemployed for a single day, which is only partially true. There was a day when John called me to the hallway and fired me on the spot.

I mentioned earlier that it was virtually impossible to fire anybody in the Soviet Union. It continued to be the same in Russia on our “official jobs,” which were holding our “labor booklets.” But our official jobs would pay very little for most of us, including me. Urbansoft was probably the only place of work in the whole city, where you would be paid on time, and that money made most of my budget.

G. was in a sort of leadership position in the company. He was the one to call me to say that I am hired. As it turned out, he lived in a house next to mine, which is why he was a person who installed a modem at my place. He would also bring my code to the office on a diskette when I was not able to come to the office.

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My Ups and Downs at Urbansoft

At the end of December, John went back to the US for Christmas. I was still working at that “it’s great!” project and on my makeshift database. And I came up with something cool. Something I was very proud of. 

I did most of that work at home because it was time around the holidays. Although I did have a modem, that was before the times you could email a bulk attachment, so usually, I would compress my code with tar command and copy a .tar file to the diskette, and take this diskette to the office. 

The next day John should have to be back, and I was anticipating my triumph. At about 9 PM, when kids were already long asleep, I started to make my final .tar file. 

Nowadays, even some of the younger IT people might not know what the tar command does, yet along those of my readers who are not programmers. The fact is that the tar command has positional parameters, the first one is the name of the file, which is the destination of compression, and the rest of the file names are the files which you are compressing. My project consisted of one huge file with the actual code, and two smaller files with some addition. So I am typing this tar command and hit enter. And the next thing I realize is that I’ve omitted the destination filename! You figured out what had happened – the actual file with the code was used as a destination to compress two smaller files, and thus my code was deleted! 

Yea. Its was bare Linux in 1992. No Time Machine. No UNDO. It was gone. And it was 9 PM of the day before I wanted to show my progress. And it was a week’s work. 

I was going to have a sleepless night.

I found a several days old version of that code and started debugging all over again. It was easier the second time because as soon as I saw a bug, I could remember how I fixed it. But still – that was quite a work. By 3 AM, I was done, and I was still able to bring this code to the office the next day and still had my moment of triumph. But since then, I am very diligent in saving my work. And these days, when anybody is embarrassed with a mistake they made, I am always like – that’s fine, you can’t even imagine how many mistakes I’ve made!

Be Careful What You Wish for…

 In the course of the past couple of weeks, several things have happened in my professional life. Although I am trying to separate my professional blogging and my personal one, sometimes they are very deeply intervened. 

First thing: I had a great meetup of the Chicago PostgreSQL User group. It was not easy to organize three speakers, and I am very happy I did. Also, with a tremendous amount of help from my fellow co-organizer, we secured two great speakers for our November PUG. I can’t even believe that I got these speakers:). And now, I need to plan their entertainment in Chicago, manage attendees, etc. Leading a User Group takes a lot of effort and time, although it might look like it is “just finding a speaker once a month.”

Second thing. The last paper I got accepted for the real CS conference was in 2016 (the actual acceptance was at the end of 2015). Since then, I tried to submit my work several times, and each time it got rejected. At the end of August, Boris and I submitted a paper to yet another conference, and finally, it got accepted! For me, it was like breaking the curse:). For those who are interested in my professional updates, I will post more in the World of Data. For this blog, the important thing is that it was accepted as a short paper, so by October 28, we need to make it 1/4 shorter. Considering that we already made it almost half shorter from its original size, that task is virtually impossible to complete. Boris suggests we just remove three random pages or one section out of it:).

Third thing. Back in summer, I emailed the organizers of the 2Q PG Conf conference in Chicago a couple of my suggestions of what I would like to do for the conference. First, my training was accepted, and instead of 4 hours, which I planned, it was announced as a full-day training. Yes, Boris and I wanted to have “a good reason” to consolidate our 30 years of training :), but this is just a little bit more work on top of our regular jobs. Especially counting the fact that my talk with Chad about bitemporality was also accepted, and Boris’ talk on Postgres and Academia was accepted as well.

All that I wanted :). Except now, I am not sure how I can fit it all in my life. Oh, and also, I have an important deadline at work on October 28. And my team was recently assigned extra responsibilities, but we do not have an extra person yet. 

Chick Tech Chicago Meetup. RealTalk: Workplace Harassment

I attended this meetup in September, during this crazy week before I left for Helsinki. And although it has been a while, I still want to write about it. Interestingly, just before that, I completed a mandatory harassment training, so everything was pretty fresh. This was the first time I completed such training for managers, which gave me a new perspective.

The meetup agenda said:

In this discussion, we will be diving into a tough topic. Workplace harassment can be very difficult to handle and highly unexpected. We’ll learn from our speakers on real-life examples in which you can navigate situations and how to maintain your own communication through a very difficult situation.

Speakers:
Cassi Hansen, VP of People Operations at Nerdery
Debbie Pickus, Founder and CEO of Team Fireball Inc.
Laura Khalil, Executive Coach at Force of Badassery

I would describe this more like a panel because as you can see from this description, the speakers were the subject matter experts. Each of them had a lot to offer in terms of how to fight harassment at the workplace. We were going through many real-life examples, many of which sounded very much alike to the ones presented in my training.

One of the topics which came up was the question of how women, who are sexually harassed at work can find their allies, how they can stand for themselves when the source of harassment is somebody in the authoritative position.

My thoughts were going in a little bit different direction since the same training reminded me that there are many kinds of harassment, and one in particular, which bothers me a lot.

Then I decided to tell my story.


Once at one of my previous jobs, a co-worker stopped by and asked whether we could talk in private. When we were behind the closed doors, she procced with saying she is a messenger of other folks. Although I do not like characterizing people by their national origin, it is important for the story. She was a green card holder, and the other folks on behalf of whom she was speaking were from the same country of origin, but they were alien workers, holding the work visas.

She proceeded with the long list of complaints about their manager, who treated them poorly, was mean to them, was presenting their results as his own, and so on. Knowing the situation, I had no reason not to believe. But then my coworker said: they are afraid they will be fired and will have to leave the country. They are afraid to go to HR. And even if you will go and tell HR what’s going on, if HR calls on them, they will deny everything because they are afraid of retaliation. I asked – then what do you want me to do? She said: please go and talk to our director! Maybe he will be able to do something.

I knew that it would be impossible to do something without HR, but I went to my director anyways. His response was as I’ve expected: there is no way around HR.

This happened many years ago, but I still do not know what’s a good way to resolve such a situation. And when I shared this story with the meeup, nobody had a good answer…

Working at UrbanSoft: Winter 1992-93

Now it is time to say a few words about John Roseman, a person who had an enormous impact on my life.

He was from New York and had an MS in Computer Science from Columbia. Now, recalling what he was saying at that time, he must have been from the old money family. He was very democratic and eager to participate in the creation of the new capitalist society in the new Russia. However, this was not a charity, he had some investors, and was looking for ways to make a profit, if not in Russia, then taking some US contracts. Tall and skinny, in his mid-40s, he moved differently, gestured differently, smiled, and was very visibly a creature of a different world.

Sometimes, especially in our Russian eyes he looked naive, and we almost openly laughed at him when he was writing letters to the office of the Mayor of Saint Petersburg, in his broken Russian, suggesting to instill parking fees, parking by the subway stations, development of the city bicycle system and other similar improvements. But the longer I live in the US, and the longer I live in general, the less I find it funny.

Living in Russia in the early 1990s was hard, even for us. The food situation was a little bit better, but as for the rest, we didn’t even know what we were lacking. John was shipping containers of everything from New York. Not just computers and printers, but the printing paper, labels and even the packs of cheap ball pens, and we could not believe he is actually buying them “for the office,” that we can take them when needed and use.

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Winter 1992-1993: a Second Job

You might ask – why I needed a second job? As I’ve mentioned earlier, the pay in the University was close to nothing and often paid months later than it was due. The next question would be – if that was the case, then why I would stay at this job? Why I won’t find another job instead of looking for a second one? Oddly enough, the job in the University was the only one I could consider “a real job,” the others were “ways to make money.”

This presumption goes back to the Soviet Union. At that time you were supposed to have only one job, less some rare exception. Also, since there can’t be unemployment in the socialist state, you should have always been employed. Also, it was extremely undesirable to change jobs; you would always need a solid, respectable reason to leave your job. Our employment history was a physical object. It was called “a Labor Booklet.” When you start a new job, an HR person would ask for your Labor Booklet and would put a record, indicating your place of employment, your position and title, and the date you started. You could not start any new position anywhere without presenting your Labor Booklet, which would have a record of when and for what reason your previous employment was terminated.

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