work

As a job seeker I’m fed up with the Dutch government

After I was laid off by Neomax last year in April I was unemployed for some months. After some time I got a new job when the IT secondment company Tergos found me on LinkedIn. Through them I could start in July as an application manager with Viterra. I have much appreciation for how Tergos treated me, because they matched the salary that I earned at ID Ware International and offered an education budget of € 1.500 a year. The only thing which I don’t like is a condition in my contract which states that the contract ends if the customer (Viterra) decides to end my placement there. This condition is supposed to be removed if my contract is renewed in July.

In some way it is frustrating, that I applied for jobs so intensively during those three months without success and was then found by recruiters who could easily land me in a new job. It was no different with my last three jobs.

During those three months of unemployment I still thought that I would prefer a job as a policy advisor with an organization of the national government the most. It was my dream job which I wanted since I had graduated for my master’s degree in Public Administration in 2012. I was also looking for a job as an IT Service Manager, which was my second best option.

Since 2012 I have applied so many times for policy advisor jobs. Since that year I used a spreadsheet to keep track of the job applications I submitted. This was crucial to maintain an overview of the progress and response on my job applications. This spreadsheet contains 192 job applications, of which 70 or up to 90 were probably for policy advisor jobs.

A part of them led to job interviews. Sometimes I had the idea that I was doing well in an interview, but I never got past the first round of interviews. The fact that I had an excellent master’s thesis and a scientific publication on my resume didn’t appear to matter much. I don’t consider my skill in dealing with job interviews to be above average, I’d probably score slightly below average. When I asked the HR-departments of the Dutch government for feedback, one of the most important factors appeared to be that the amount of competition on the vacancies for policy advisors was ridiculous. Often several dozens of job applications for one vacancy.

For a long time I thought I would just continue on with applying for these jobs, if you persevere you win, right? By now I’m fed up with it and I think it was a mistake to study public administration. Because I held open the door to a job as a policy advisor for so long I started to lag behind in my IT career in terms of certifications and career development. Even though I currently earn a salary that is comparable to that of experienced university-educated policy advisors without any technical certifications in IT (just ITIL Practitioner, PRINCE2 Foundation and Professional Scrum Master I) I still consider this deficit to be damaging.

The point is that application managers have application specific knowledge which is not easily reused in other jobs and which adds little to a resume. That’s why I consider it so important to acquire more widely usable knowledge through the well-known technical certifications, such as those of Microsoft. If I put serious effort in getting certified I will become suitable for jobs which are substantively more interesting and which offer an even better salary. That’s why I’ve decided to target a job as Cloud Engineer with a specialization in Microsoft Azure, which is in high demand in the market now. By now I have so much experience in the IT sector on my resume that it would be a waste if I wouldn’t develop it further.

I might never be one of the 9% of Dutch employees who feel engaged with their job. For a long time it was my dream to be able to contribute to the common good, whether it was government policy to fight climate change, promoting the use of open standards or creating a budget. Unfortunately it is not to be for me, with a job in IT. I will probably remain part of the largest group of 80% of employees who function adequately, but who don’t have true passion for their job. This is not a bad thing, I would still be a capable Cloud Engineer even without intrinsic motivation for it.

About twenty years ago my father said that those who don’t have luck in the game, do have luck in love. He said this while he played a board game with us and was losing. Though he meant it more as a joke than being serious, it is true in my case. I have Stephanie as my loving wife and two daughters. All of us are healthy, we have sufficient financial resources, live in a nice house, in a good neighborhood, with a fun allotment garden near a beautiful beach.

I might not be able to get the satisfaction out of my work that I had hoped, but it didn’t stop me from finding other life goals. Like executing a ‘tube ride’ on my surfboard. Learning kiteboarding. Writing a ‘featured article’ for the English Wikipedia. Starting a YouTube channel with cooking video’s on Dutch and Indo cuisine. I have accepted that I’ll probably never get that dream job and have moved on.

Why is the UWV so incapable?

In my last message I wrote how my contract with Neomax was anulled before the trial period even started and how I became unemployed. I mention the refusal of unemployment benefits by the UWV (the Dutch governmental organization responsible for unemployment benefits) and how appealing their decision made them approve my benefits after all. Because I’m so dissatisfied with the way the UWV treated my request I will elaborate on what happened.

When Neomax brought me the bad news they asked me to agree with moving the start date to 1 May, a month later. Otherwise they would annul the contract based on the trial period. I doubted whether this was a good idea. Because Neomax called me after 17:00 on the last workday before the start of the contract I didn’t have much time to figure this out. I quickly read the website of the UWV and read something about culpable unemployment. I thought the UWV could interpret my agreement with moving the start date as culpable unemployment and this could mean I would lose my rights to unemployment benefits. That’s why I declined the offer to move the start date. Neomax annulled the contract and then signed a new contract with 1 May as the start date a few days later.

I quickly started applying for jobs elsewhere and requested employment benefits on 7 April. On 8 April the UWV requested more information, such as the employment contracts with Neomax and my last employer, which I submitted to them soon. On 22 April I was informed of their decision: my benefits were refused because I had quit my last job and they considered that unnecessary. They considered it to be my fault, according to case officer P. of the UWV. The letter was signed with the full name of P., but I’m not so full of rancor that I want to publish that here to have her digitally pilloried on this weblog.

The case officer meant that I should not have quit my job at ID Ware International. I questioned whether this was relevant – I had signed a contract for seven months with Neomax after all – and called the UWV over the phone to explain the situation. In the conversation I told them that Neomax offered better working conditions, like more possibilities for education and career development, even though the salary was lower. I also mentioned the fact that I had signed a new contract with Neomax for 1 May and had thus done what was possible to avert unemployment. The employee I spoke with said that the new contract could change the situation and that I would be called back the same day. Directly after that conversation I sent the new contract to the UWV as evidence.

When I had not been called back on Friday 24 April I decided to call them again. I was promised that I would be called back the same day and this time the UWV made true on its promise. The employee who called me back told me that my request could not be granted though, because the salary offered by Neomax was lower than for my last job at ID Ware International. That other employment conditions than the salary were better at Neomax didn’t matter for them. If it were up to the UWV there would effectively be no mobility in the labor market for those who don’t want to loose their rights to unemployment benefits.

During my bachelor’s and master’s programs in Public Administration I learned a few things about law, but not labor law. Knowledge about labor law was not present in my network and I didn’t have insurance for legal assistance. Fortunately, there’s a lot of free legal advice and analysis to be found on the Internet. After a search I found this article (in Dutch) at Intermediair. It states that only the prospect of an employment contract of at least 26 weeks is sufficient to retain ones’ rights to unemployment benefits. Prospect in the sense that it doesn’t matter if the employment contract does not last for 26 weeks, for example if the employee is laid off in the trial period.

Elsewhere on the Internet there are comparable analyses and there are references to jurisprudence from 2009. For those who are not familiar with law, jurisprudence (or case law) is the body of existing rulings of judges which often create a precedent for future rulings. The ruling from 2009 shows many parallels with my case: the UWV blames a tailor for losing her right to unemployment benefits because she accepted a new job with a flexible contract and a salary which was not higher than at her previous job with a permanent contract. This employee was laid off shortly after her contract started. The Administrative High Court (‘Centrale Raad van Beroep’ in Dutch) dismissed the arguments of the UWV and ruled that only the 26 weeks criterium is relevant.

Armed with these legal analyses and jurisprudence I wrote an appeal to the UWV and submitted it on 28 April. On 18 May I was called by an UWV employee from the appeals department who agreed with my appeal. On 25 May I received a confirmation that my unemployment benefits were granted after all. On 11 June I received a letter with the message that my appeal was denied because it was already decided on 25 May to grant me unemployment benefits. Because the decision of 25 May was correct, my appeal was refused. My jaw dropped when I read this display of logic. The reasoning was ridiculous because I had filed an appeal against the decision of 22 April, not the one of 25 May. At first I interpreted this letter as childish mockery from an organization which didn’t want to admit its wrongdoing. Now I think it may have been an attempt to disguise the numbers on granted appeals, because the UWV might be using it as a performance indicator. Maybe those responsible within the UWV might want to avoid the negative consequences for them if it became clear that too many of their decisions would be appealed successfully.

In summary, the UWV knew about the 26 weeks criterium in 2009. Yet I still got three (!) UWV employees who used several different arguments that were not relevant for the question if I was entitled to unemployment benefits. The first employee mentioned my voluntary resignation from ID Ware, the second thought a new contract with Neomax might change things and then the third employee started about the lower salary of my new job. I don’t know about the other two, but I saw on LinkedIn that case officer P. had studied Communication at the University of Tilburg. I question why someone with a university degree would work at the UWV as a case officer for unemployment benefits, but she wouldn’t be lacking in intellectual capabilities.

My conclusion is that something is very wrong with the training and education of the employees of the UWV. Why was it relatively easy for me to find the jurisprudence that meant that I would be entitled to unemployment benefits while the UWV employees were not aware of it? What worries me most is that I’m highly educated, possess legal knowledge and have plenty of savings to weather a temporary lack of income, while many others who have to deal with the UWV don’t have that luxury. How many people would have been denied employment benefits on unfair grounds and didn’t have the knowledge to appeal the decision? My suspicion is that this number is way too high. It’s absolutely unacceptable that the UWV is so dysfunctional.

Why Arthur Muller isn’t a good leader

Hello Arthur. We never met, but your signature was written on the employment contract I signed on 25 February last year with Neomax. You are after all the director of this secondment agency in the IT-sector.

My last job as Support Engineer with ID-ware International in Den Haag offered a very good salary. I was less satisfied with the substance of the job however. Because it was a small organization I had to deal with matters like shipments, the warehouse, facility management and catering next to the main task in IT support. I noticed this job did not have enough focus on IT and these secundary activities didn’t bring added value to my CV. There were no career or training opportunities.

When I changed my LinkedIn profile to show interest in new job opportunities, one of your recruiters found me. After some good conversations I decided to sign the contract. I quit my job with a permanent contract and a very good salary for a contract of seven months and much less salary. I thought it was worth it because your company offered good training opportunities and a job in IT Service Management, which I considered valuable for the advancement of my career.

On 25 February almost no one saw the COVID-19 crisis coming to the Netherlands. As the start date of 1 April drew near, ominous news seeped in slowly. I was reassured by your recruiter and account manager that it would be all right. Until 31 March. It seemed like an early April Fools joke, but at this very short term you decided to annul the contracts with your new employees who would start with your company on 1 April. You couldn’t place these employees at your customers due to lack of work. Legally, the one month trial period in your employment contracts enabled you to annul the contracts before the trial period even started. Fortunately, we could sign a new contract with 1 May as the starting date.

I wasn’t surprised when I heard at the end of April that this contract would be anulled as well. After this there was no new contract, only the promise that one would be signed when I could be placed at one of your customers. This never happened, because after many job applications and arguing with the Dutch UWV over my unemployment benefits (which were only granted after appealing their decision), I found a new job in July. I never had concerns for my financial situation during my unemployment, but I wouldn’t wish it even on you to be unemployed for some months and live with such uncertainty.

Arthur, the impression I’ve gotten of you is that money is all that matters to you. You threw your employees under the bus without blinking because it was to your benefit. You made maximum use of the legal space you had to annul contracts before the trial period even started. In doing so, you broke the moral contract of trust that an employer and an employee should have in each other. I don’t know whether my impression is correct; you’ve never made any effort to contact me directly to explain your decision. You hid behind your employees, who you ordered to bring the bad news.

Watch this video video. And read this for more information on Barry-Wehmiller, the company mentioned in that video. Then reflect on your actions.

Had I been in your position I would have considered the options to prevent annulling contracts. As director I could have cut my own salary. I could have considered not to pay dividends to the shareholders. I could have asked existing employees to take voluntary unpaid leave. I don’t think you gave other options any consideration at all.

Suppose the other options were genuinely impossible. Then I could have helped the employees for who I no longer had work to find a job elsewhere. At the very least I could have called them in person to explain why I had to take this decision. Neomax isn’t a large company, the monthly influx of new employees may have been five or ten people at maximum. You could easily call those in one or two hours. Was it impossible to apply for the COVID-19 support measures for businesses which had been set up by the state? I don’t know because your employees were not informed about this. Even a minimal amount of effort was not worth your time.

In the best case you can get away with this as a company. The employees whose contracts have been annulled move on to other jobs elsewhere and it didn’t cost you one cent in salaries. In the worst case it will sicken your culture because your other employees see how indifferent you are to their fate. The least I could is leaving a review of your company on Glassdoor to warn potential new employees of Neomax about you.

How to talk to a colleague about strained collaboration?

A month ago I wrote that I had found a new job in The Hague and had difficulties in collaborating with a specific colleague there. I planned to have a conversation with him about it to solve the problem, but I kept postponing it because I dreaded the idea. This continued until a workday at the end of July, when the colleague in question was giving serious criticism. His complaints he addressed at me about the timely processing of customer support requests where the straw that broke the camel’s back for me. To my own frustration I didn’t have enough time for customer support due to other tasks.

I was about to explode, but remained calm and asked the colleague if he had time for a private conversation about our collaboration in a few hours. Those extra hours proved useful to me to calm down. Because the conversation could easily degrade the relationship further if I handled it poorly, I considered the conversation tactics I would follow.

First the most important one: don’t assume bad intentions. Even though you might experience the interactions of a colleague as structurally negative and disdainful, it doesn’t mean the collegue intended it so. Many people, myself included, often don’t understand what kind of impression they leave with others. This means it’s better to ask a question like “are you dissatisfied with our collaboration?” instead of more closed questions which make assumptions. Such as for example the question “why can’t you work together with me?”, which presupposes that colleague can’t stand you. I was surprised to hear that my colleague didn’t have an issue with me.

With this knowledge you can continue to talk about the impression the communication of your colleague leaves with you. Do this without making any claims, for example don’t say “you are constantly complaining about me” which comes across as accusative. Focus on the fact that it’s about your impression or interpretation and leave out the intent of your colleague. If you say “I get the impression that you are always dissatisfied with my work” it’s easier for the colleague to say that this isn’t correct. The colleague will likely understand that he should tone down his criticism and convey it better.

Try to give examples of recent interactions with the colleague which you considered uncomfortable. This makes the issues easier to understand. On one issue, my colleague’s tendency to micromanage me and others, I couldn’t mention clear and recent examples. We saved it for later discussion if necessary, but because I mentioned it I did get the idea that the message landed.

Some smaller problems are quickly solved. My colleague promised to use my complete first name instead of “Alex” and to avoid the “what do you think yourself?” question if I discussed a problem with him.

To conclude, it is important to remember that not only the colleague should change, but you as well. I promised that I would bundle my questions more so that I would ask him for help only once or twice during the day. I sometimes have the tendency to ask questions too often, which interrupts my colleagues in their work too frequently.  I would perform a more comprehensive investigation before I presented a problem to him. Though he didn’t ask for it, I said I would write more documentation to explain complex procedures. If the documentation is good, the assistance of the colleague is needed less often.

New job in The Hague

Shortly before quitting FRISS I had started three concurrent job application procedures. I ended up signing with an IT-company in The Hague, which sells smart cards, smart card printers and the software to manage them. I started in my new job in March. I will discuss the job applications first and then my new employer.

The first job application was with the Dutch Ministry of Finance for a job as (junior) policy adviser. I passed the job application letter selection. Because I wanted this job so badly I prepared better than usual for the interview. I even practiced it with a career counselor, something I had never done before. I thought the interview went well, but it seems I always have to deal with extremely choosy interviewers. After I was refused I asked for and received detailed feedback, but I was too upset to memorize it well. Except for a remark about inadequate analytical skills, which shows the unwillingness of interviewers to look past first impressions and consider proven accomplishments. Such as an scientific publication for example, which the vast majority of their candidates wouldn’t have had. If that doesn’t vouch for analytical skills, what does?

The refusal felt devastating to me. Why does fate forbid me to get a job which I was trained to do, through my education in Public Administration? My suspicion is that there is a relatively large amount of applicants for jobs like policy adviser, while IT personnel is relatively scarce. Not long after the refusal the cognitive dissonance arrived. I got fed up with soliciting for government jobs, certainly after the realization that my current salary with my new employer matches the minimum salary of a senior (!) policy adviser. I can anticipate what will happen with that salary if I acquire some more experience and certifications like Scrum Master and Lean Six Sigma.

I had two other job applications, after two recruiters had invited me. Of course it felt good to be invited instead of having to take the initiative. One of these companies was Doculayer, which produces an Enterprise Content Management system. I liked the diversity in their team of employees, was impressed by their product and thought they had an attractive office building. I didn’t like their location right next to a big highway and the long bike ride to their office, which necessitated using public transport. The salary was attractive, but  offered more.

The company of my current employer is much smaller with a rather unassuming office in a large residential house. While I worked with colleagues from every continent at FRISS, almost all my current colleagues are white and male. On the other hand, I can reach the office in half an hour with my bike, it’s located in a nice neighborhood with a beautiful park nearby. The good salary offer came after I had told their recruiter that it was difficult to decide between Doculayer and my current employer. As mentioned in the previous post, I gained € 1.000 in gross salary. For the first time ever I feel respected and valued by my employer instead of a replaceable pawn to reap in profit.

Unlike the job interview with the Ministry of Finance, I didn’t do any special preparation for the job interviews at these two companies. I was just myself and asked as lot of questions, roughly equal to the amount I answered. Maybe I didn’t leave a good impression with them either and they were so desperate for new personnel to choose me anyway? Or maybe I held up fine during the interviews while the ministry was searching for unicorns and had a lot of choice? I have no idea.

My job is challenging. Basically I have to learn about the company’s products and software from the ground up again, because it is totally different from the software made by FRISS. The documentation could use improvement. Many processes suffer from administrative overhead and could be optimized. The ERP software which we use intensively, SAGE, is quite terrible and should be replaced. We use a very old on-premises version of SAGE based on Microsoft Access (!) which is very slow and user unfriendly. On the IT Service Management side there is decent incident management, but there is a lot of potential to improve the problem management. The the amount of incoming incidents could be reduced greatly if their root causes would be fixed. We need better monitoring software so that we are immediately informed when business critical systems go down.

Of course I like to be challenged. However, the reality is that I can barely keep up with my regular work. This consists of solving incidents with our software, placing purchase orders and processing incoming and outgoing deliveries. I don’t have enough time, I feel like I’m so busy evacuating water from my boat that I don’t have an opportunity to patch the hull leak. I hope to get more efficient in my daily work in the coming months so that I can free more time for structural improvements.

There is one thing which has been much more troubling though. The collaboration with one of my direct colleagues is very strained. I feel he treats me with disdain, like an inexperienced intern rather than a colleague. He works much longer for the company, is more experienced and has unrealistic expectations of how fast I can get acquainted with my new job. The vast majority of the interactions he has with me are negative because he always complains about me. Even though he is not my manager he frequently micromanages me and orders me around. When I ask him questions on how I should solve more complex incidents, he frequently answers with the question “What do you think yourself?”, as if it were an exam. I experience this as very condescending.

I consider myself easy to get along with and can get along with everyone else at my current employer. I did have one direct colleague at FRISS with whom I collided occasionally, but over time I developed a professional understanding with him which enabled us to get along. I still didn’t like him on a personal level, but in the end I did develop some respect for him as my colleague. With this guy, I don’t know. I’m not sure if it’s genuine passive-aggressive behavior or just social ineptitude. So far I’ve started to behave slightly more assertive towards him and I ignore his complaints and more counterproductive advice, but that’s not a road I want to go down further.

I thought I’d endure it for some months and wait to see if our collaboration would improve, but after four months it has not. This matter has been detrimental to the enjoyment of my work. If it continues for longer, I definitely should speak to him about it. The fact that I’ve been postponing that conversation tells me that I consider it difficult and want to avoid it.

Comment 17-12-2018: at the request of my employer I anonymized my employer’s name.

Quit my job with FRISS

February 2018 was my last month at FRISS. After two and half years I found a new job with ID Ware. I will write about my new job in the following post and look back on my job at FRISS in this post.

In the coming paragraphs I will primarily discuss what I didn’t like and didn’t go so well at FRISS, but I want to be clear about the good things. I appreciated the interaction with my colleagues very much, especially those from the group who participated in the lunch break walks and who I got to know quite well. I liked the (international) diversity and how I could discuss the intricacies of Indian food for hours with my Indian colleague, as well as other subjects with co-workers from many other cultures. My manager was a nice guy. The management team held monthly meetings with all employees near the end of a workday to discuss the progress and direction of the company. This was combined with a free dinner after the meeting. This was very transparent way to keep employees informed and involved in the company.

But there were several factors which diminished the enjoyment my job gave me. Most importantly, the salary. Since I joined my current employer ID Ware, I make € 1.000 more before taxes. I did benefit from the experience I gained with FRISS and an ITIL Practitioner certification to get to my current salary, as well as some good negotiation moves. However, I’m still mostly doing essentially the same work as with FRISS. If you consider that, the gap is quite large.

Another very significant detractor was the IT Service Management software I had to use for the job. I felt like a chef who was compelled to work with a blunt chef’s knife all day long. This software, called GAIA and made by a Dutch company called AllSolutions, was a downright nasty piece of software from the Stone Age. It could apparently do everything but did nothing well. The difference with modern IT Service Management software was like night and day. It couldn’t even send e-mails to report the closure of an ticket or automatically record the name of the person writing a comment on a ticket. The finance department used it as well for financial administration. Everyone I spoke to hated it, except for the guy who administered the application because that skill had made him irreplaceble.

I addressed the inadequacies of GAIA in the first weeks after I joined FRISS. I didn’t have the time and persuasion skills to get things moving quickly. Eventually a new CFO did have a sense of urgency and took the lead because GAIA was so unsuitable for the finance department. Shortly before I left I participated in the effort to migrate to a modern ERP system, but I felt FRISS should and could have been looking for something else years earlier. I think I have to partially blame myself for not pushing harder and not being able to convince people of the need to change.

Apart from tools the processes were not optimal either. Even though I had a very good understanding with the Product Owner (Scrum terminology) of the development team, it was my experience that our feedback and suggestions almost had no influence on the work of development. I think this is because the Product Owner’s hands were tied and he had to listen to the CTO and the Product Managers. Of course prioritization is needed, but when it takes ages to address issues which harmed the productivity of Support and even the occasional bug which is harmful to customers, another extreme is reached. I felt that the CTO and Product Managers were pushing development too hard for all kinds of new hyped features while the basics weren’t receiving enough attention.

An example of insufficient basics was the implementation of watchlists for adresses of known fraudsters. This functionality was a filthy hack at best. The feature was so user unfriendly that the customer generally couldn’t upload these watchlists, so they would sent them to us. We would then use some SQL queries to insert the watchlists in the database. Because the customers who used these watchlist were using a deprecated (but still supported) version of our software, development didn’t work on improving the functionality. The idea was that the improved functionality would be implemented in the version which did see active development, but it was never prioritized. That’s why this situation could continue for the full two and half years I worked at FRISS. The customers must not have been pleased, because we would charge them a small fee for the time it took us to process those watchlists for them. I was downright frustrated because nothing was undertaken to improve the situation (I did bring this up more than once) and I was essentially doing something which the customer should have been able to do themselves.

Apart from features not working properly, I became pessimistic due to the lack of progress in making our product scalable. With our product it was possible to have the same functionality implemented differently for every customer. This made it more difficult to diagnose issues and increased the workload for the Support team.

Because I wrote and sent the communication about new software releases to our customers I was well informed of the work done by our development team. This gave me the impression that the development of our software in general progressed slowly compared to the fte’s in the development team. Every new release contained a rather small amount of new features, and most of these were rather trivial. I was not alone in this sentiment, but I can’t explain why it happened. I certainly don’t think our developers were lazy, but it might have to do with the process. New releases came every four weeks at the completion of the sprint (Scrum terminology). Obviously the major new features can’t land every release in such a short time span, but even so I felt that they landed exceptionally sporadic.

Talent management was lacking. I didn’t expect to climb up the ladder quickly because I signed up as a Support Engineer and my aid was essential to manage the workload for the Support team. However, half a year after I started two new people were posted from an external company. They had acedemic master’s degrees unrelated to IT just like me, but respectively no and equal experience in IT compared to me. I was surprised when they soon started working in the Consultancy team while I remained in Support. Ironically, one of them asked me for help on several issues after getting promoted. I also noticed that it was possible for management to offer someone else who was not satisfied with her job another position, even though nothing was done to address my dissatisfaction. I considered all three of these people pleasant colleges, but as you can imagine I felt treated unfairly. Shortly before I announced that I would leave FRISS I was told to expect a transfer to Project Management. While I appreciated this very much, the offer was not as attractive as the one ID Ware had made me.

Finally, the grim environment of the Papendorp business park was another motivator to leave. Especially because I liked to take a walk with colleagues during the break. Papendorp is a desolate collection of grass and pavement, with an asphalt factory and a large highway close by. If FRISS needs to consider a new office due to growth in the future, I sincerely hope it is situated in a more attractive environment which stimulates the senses more positively.

I’ll summarize the morale of this story on how to keep employees motivated, management literature style. Pay your employees a competitive salary to make them feel appreciated and prevent other companies from hyjacking them. Give them good tools to execute their daily work. Support them in their search for better tools if they need them. Take care to listen to the wishes of your Support team next to your Product Management team. Support gets different insights from the users of your software, which Product Management won’t have. Balance development of new features with polishing existing features. Employ sound talent management to make sure there is no misalignment between the skills of your employees and their actual work, in a way no one feels left behind. Provide an attractive working environment, both indoors and outdoors.

Assessments: useful but tiresome

During most of my job applications, assessments which test intelligence have given me a hard time. I like to think that I possess above average intelligence when compared to the average university graduate. I have an average grade of 7,8 for my master’s degree, a grade of nine for my master’s thesis and a publication of that master’s thesis in a scientific journal. Not something which the average master’s degree student has, right? The assessment results don’t agree though: some judge me to be a weak candidate and others an average candidate compared to others with a master’s degree. What does that make me? Did simple hard work contribute more to my above-average academic results than intelligence? Why is there such a discrepancy between my assessment scores and my academic results? Are assessments nonsense?

I can only answer the last question for now. It’s tempting to slip into cognitive dissonance mode and consider assessments an unsuitable method to select job applicants. When I discussed this with others, such as my university’s career advisers, they often voiced similar sentiments. However, scientific studies are unambiguous: intelligence is the most accurate predictor of job performance (Schmidt & Hunter 2004). Also, the combination of an intelligence test with either a work sample test, an integrity test or a structured interview is the most valid and useful way to predict job performance (Schmidt & Hunter 1998). These are facts we can’t deny.

But I keep thinking, shouldn’t there be a causal relationship between intelligence and academic results? Yes, intelligence and achievement motivation are the most important predictors of academic success, according to Busato, Prins, Elshout and Hamaker (2000). Then why not just ask candidates for their academic grades instead of having them take an assessment for, say, € 30 for every candidate? Of course, if they would actually look at my grades the odds would be much more in my favor. I’ve asked this in the past to an HR employee, they thought that (standardized) assessments allowed them to compare candidates more fairly. There is a lot to be said for that: lecturers at a university grade open-ended answers to exam questions. When they grade bachelor and master theses, even more variables come into play which can influence their objectivity. On the contrary, assessments contain a huge amount of multiple choice questions for which results are calculated automatically.

I do not think it is good thing however to discount academic results entirely. So far I’ve experienced far too many job application procedures which suffer from assessment tunnel vision. Don’t get a good score on your assessment? Away with you then. They don’t seem to consider academic performance in the equation, which would make their judgement more balanced. These assessments are taken in the space of an hour or two and can yield bad results if the candidate is having a bad day. Academic results are the results of years of work.

Finally, what is really tiring me is that these days, you need to take an assessment for almost every job. If you say to the HR employees you can provide them with results of a previous assessment, they often insist that you take their company’s different assessment. I have a suggestion: design an (inter)national standard intelligence test which is to be taken by every student at their educational institution before they enter the labor market. Forbid the use of non-standard intelligence tests on pain of death. Put a lot of psychologists and assessments bureaus out of work in the process and give those who apply for jobs some peace of mind.

Evaluation of job applications, 2012 to 2015

In my previous post I mentioned I got a job with FRISS on 23 June 2015. After a trial period, I received an annual contract, my first one ever. I’ll be eternally grateful to FRISS for pulling me out of the financial insecurity and uncertainty with my temporary contract at OGD. Before that, I had applied for plenty of other jobs since my graduation in August 2012. Let’s review these job applications.

The kind of jobs I applied for was highly variable. To mention some recurring categories: traineeships (management, IT, financial and other), consultant (often IT), policy advisor, PhD’s in Public Administration, personal assistant to politicians, service desk employee, service manager, service level manager, service delivery manager.

I’ve made an spreadsheet to keep track of all my job applications with application dates, deadlines and response dates. I’ve also listed the results of my efforts. I think I’ve tracked almost all job applications, perhaps not the earliest. So let’s see the statistics.

In approximately three years I applied for 106 jobs. Of these 11 were open applications (not aimed at a specific vacancy). During 8 application procedures I had to take an assessment: for 5 assessments I failed, for 3 I succeeded. The applications resulted in 19 job interviews (a share of 18% of the total).

Some of the job application procedures also included inhouse days. On these days you participate with other applicants in a program which might include visits to customers of the company or an introduction to company by its employees. Even though it didn’t get a job with these companies, I generally have positive memories about these events. EVG Start, a company training employees for posting at IT companies, is a good example. They had an inhouse day at a data center and a useful exercise on presentation skills.

Unfortunately, there are more companies which treat job applicants like trash. TOPdesk for example. The job interview I had with them was my second since I graduated. Due to a combination of inexperience and nerves I botched the interview. As I expected, I was not accepted for the job. Yet, when I applied a year later for a totally different job posting, I was told they would not consider my application because I had not made a good impression a year ago. In my reply I acknowledged that I had not made a good impression then and appealed to the possibility that people can change, especially after a year, but they would not have any of it. TOPdesk was my only experience with an HR department which brands you for life.

The most ridiculous and downright stupid attitude was shown by the HR employees of KPN. When I applied for their management traineeship which required an academic master’s degree, I was told they only accepted candidates who possess a VWO secondary education degree. No consideration was giving to the fact that my academic achievements were above average. In the Netherlands, VWO gives access to university. I took a different route and got a HAVO secondary education degree, then went to a university of applied science, then to a university. Whether you have HAVO or VWO degrees doesn’t matter, a master’s degree from a university is the same end result for everyone. This was too difficult for KPN’s HR department to comprehend. I was infuriated. If I was not good enough for KPN, I decided they were not good enough for me. I quickly canceled my mobile network and internet subscriptions with KPN’s subsidiary companies. They will never receive another cent from me.

New job at FRISS

On 23 June 2015 I signed a contract with FRISS for a job as Support Engineer. I started work at 1 September and still enjoy my work. I like the informal culture and all the nice colleagues. FRISS is still a young company, reminiscent of a start up. This gives more flexibility than an older, more formalised organization. In FRISS taking ownership of issues is welcomed, which I greatly appreciate and take advantage of.

Of course, it’s not all moonlight and roses. While I had grown used to TOPdesk in previous jobs, FRISS uses the software of AllSolutions, a small Dutch company. Its software is an ERP system, a jack of all trades and a master of none. We use it for financial administration, projects and service management (issue tracking system), but except for a few persons the vast majority of employees isn’t satisfied with it. I think it’s wholly inadequate for service management when compared to more refined software from competitors. This software is the equivalent of giving a chef in a restaurant a blunt knife. Due to the lock-in and difficulty of migrating to something better, I’ll have to endure it for the foreseeable future.

Another disadvantage is that the commute to work is quite long, three hours for a return journey. Fortunately the public transport connection is quite good, I spend my time in public transport productively with reading the newspaper. A third issue is that there isn’t a single euro for education budget. This is in stark contrast to my former employer OGD, where I got certifications in ITIL and PRINCE2. And on OGD I was on a temporary contract, with FRISS I have a annual contract.

Even with these downsides, FRISS is a company for which I’m motivated to give my best. I look forward to starting up a few projects in the coming months to improve our processes and efficiency.

Worried about sedentary work

For a longer time I’ve been worried about the risks of sedentary work due to the nature of my job in IT. A study published in June 2015 by Buckley et al. (2015) in the British Journal of Sports Medicine confirmed those fears.

Sitting for prolonged periods of time, like many desk workers do, increases the chance of developing cardiovascular diseases and diabetes significantly. Even if you do perform enough moderate to intensive physical activity outside of working hours, such as sports, you don’t prevent the damage incurred by continuous sitting for long periods during working hours.

I was already slightly aware of this. That’s why I always take a walk outside (while eating at the same time) for 30 minutes during the afternoon break at my current job. I do so with a small dedicated group of colleagues, but the majority of the other colleagues just seat themselves at the restaurant inside the office building for the whole break. Apart from that break, I do notice that I often sit non-stop for two or three hours at my desk while I work. I urgently want to change this now that I’ve realized the gravity of the problem after reading the study. The guidelines given by the study are that you stand or move for at least two hours, preferably four, in the office.

One solution mentioned in the study is using a sit-stand desk. Problem is that my employer has no desire to reserve budget to purchase these. It would also be considered strange if one person is standing in the office while the rest is sitting. I should probably just take a regular break every hour and walk the stairs to the third floor back to the first. But a sit-stand desk would allow me to avoid sitting without having to interrupt my work. I will press my wish for a sit-stand desk more when I might get to work for a different employer.