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January, 2014:

The Bid List has been submitted

Today is the deadline for submitting our “bid lists” to the Career Development Officers. The CDOs will review everyone’s preferences and make assignments according to the needs of the service, our qualifications, and our preferred post locations, in that order.

We received the bid list a few weeks ago. It was a list of cities with some information about the number of American officers working there, hardship and danger factors, and language requirements. Every one of the 80+ people in the cohort received the same list. It was our responsibility to research the post and determine which post appealed to us, or maybe had a limiting factor that would make it unappealing. One post, for example, does not allow children (we presume because there is no school for them there).

The list had more cities on it than people in the cohort, so the assignment won’t be a 1:1 match of person to post.

What we submit today is the list with our preference (High, Mid, Low) for each post.

There is no guarantee, promise, assurance, or hint that we will get assigned to a post that we rate “High.” The CDOs were very explicit (repeating themselves many times) that the Needs Of The Service is the deciding factor in making an assignment. If you are the most qualified for a particular post because of language ability, then you will probably be assigned to that post even if you didn’t want to. Or even if you aren’t the most qualified, if other people are less qualified, but won’t fit somewhere else because of timing, then you won’t necessarily get assigned there.

Assignments are not permanent. We change every 2-4 years. We are sort of like migratory animals who stay in one place for a short time, then move on to another place. My first assignment will be for two years. After two years, then I “bid” on another post, somewhere else in the world.

The assignment process is complex. There are 80+ people in our cohort, but there are thousands of other officers who are also changing their posts at the same time. If you picture a high school counsellor making class assignments for 1,000 students, then expand that picture to thousands of officers selecting from thousands of posts, you start to get a picture of how complex this situation is.

Our bid lists are due today. After they are all submitted, the CDOs will go to work making assignments. On February 14, there will be an official announcement of post assignments. It’s a time of high drama. When the assignments are made, some people are excited, some are afraid, some are devestated, some are numb. I’ve heard that officers who are on the compound for other training try to come to the assignment ceremony just to watch the drama. Sort of like people who drive past a car accident on the highway, and slow down to see the wreck.

Career Development Officer

Everyone in the Foreign Service has a Career Development Officer. This person is a fellow Foreign Service Officer whose job is to help other FSOs map out a career path through the Service. The Foreign Service, like the civil service, has scales of seniority, and there are requirements that employees have to meet in order to advance up the scale. In order to be promoted to the most senior levels, for example, you have to serve a certain number of tours in a single world region, have proficiency in a certain number of languages, and have served in certain job categories. There are specific requirements to advancement, and it’s important to plan your career in a way to meet your advancement goals.

What’s interesting to me is that everyone, even the most senior person in the FS, has a Career Development Officer (CDO). After you have been around for a while, your CDO is less like an advisor, and serves more to double-check your qualifications for the jobs that you want to bid on.

If I wanted to become a career ambassador, then I would have to be strategic about planning my job path. Since I probably don’t have time to reach that level before I hit the mandatory retirement age of 65, I don’t have to worry about strategically choosing where I want to work. Instead, I can choose the jobs that are interesting and appealing to me.

My one-on-one meeting with my CDO was this past Friday. Like me, he entered the Foreign Service later in life. In his case, his kids were out on their own when he joined, so he was a little older than I am now when he joined. I like that his experience is similar to mine. I feel that he has an appreciation for my situation, and that his career advice is well-informed.

The purpose of the meeting was to plan for my first “bid.” Foreign Service Officers serve in a country for a fixed period of time (this period is called a “tour”), then we change to another post for another tour. For new officers, the first two tours are each two years long.

We reviewed the bid list, and I told him how I was planning to bid. He gave me some advice on how to rank the different posts, and how to annotate where appropriate. My wife was able to join the conversation via Skype, so she got to participate in the discussion and ask some questions, too.

I think that I know how I’m going to bid. For the initial tour, “bidding” really means ranking the 90+ posts on the bid list as high, mid and low choices. We indicate our preference, but the needs of the Service come before our preference. If you are the only French speaker in the class, for example, and there is a posting in Haiti that needs a French speaker, even if you ranked Haiti low on your preference list, you are probably going to be posted to Haiti.

If you know me, you know where I am expecting to be posted to. But it depends. With 80+ people to place, each of us new FSOs are pieces in a big jigsaw puzzle that the CDOs have to put together. Even though I don’t speak any Spanish, for example, if it works out that the Service needs a person in Argentina, and I’m the left over puzzle piece, then that’s where I will be posted.

These guys are professionals. They aren’t hacks – they know what they’re doing. I’m confident that they will make a good placement for everyone.

Look before you leap, especially after hours

One of the people in my cohort who is a local hire arranged an outing to a jazz club this past Friday night. She said we could all meet up there and listen to some live jazz.

I love any live music, and live jazz is the best kind of jazz, so I went.

The club is well-known in the city, and has a good reputation as being unpretentious and no-frills. It’s all about the music.

The group that was performing was terrific. They were tight, skilled, and their style was both engaging and innovative.

The conversation was good, too. I met another Foreign Service Officer who has been in the service for several years, and she lived in the city that I am hoping to get posted to. As we were talking, I realized that I had actually read her blog over a year ago. They say that the service is small, and you meet the same people over and over again. This experience was evidence of that.

The club is not close to any of the metro lines. I had to take a cab for about a mile from the closest station. So before it got too late, I decided to head home.

I took at cab back to Union Station, and got to the metro stop. After about 10:30 pm, the trains run less frequently. In addition, over the last few weeks, they have been doing maintenance work on the tracks on the weekends, so the trains run about every 20 minutes. If you miss a train, you have to wait that long for the next one.

Well, I got on the first train without any drama, but I had to change from the Red line to the Orange line. Of course, that meant that I had to wait for the next train, and I was unlucky enough to have to wait almost the full 20 minutes for my train.

As soon as I got on my train, I realized that I had gotten on the wrong train, going in a direction perpendicular to the direction that I needed to go. I was on a Blue line train instead of Orange. Yikes! I got off at the next station so that I could go back and get on the Orange line.

A twenty minute wait for the Blue train back to the junction station. Then another twenty minute wait at the junction station for my Orange line train. Did I mention that the temperature was in the low 20s? Although most stations are underground, the cold air still comes in. By this time, it was after 1:00 am. I had left the club at 11:30 pm.

After I finally reached my stop, I faced a 15 minute walk from the station back to my apartment. The shuttle bus service that the apartment runs stops at 10:30 pm. I walked in double-time, and made it back in 11 minutes. I finally got to bed about 2:00 am. Since I had gotten up at 5:00 that morning, that meant that I had a 21-hour day.

I had suspected, but I know this now for sure: I am too old for a 21-hour day.

Lesson learned: after listening to jazz and drinking whiskey, be very careful not to get on the wrong train. If you aren’t careful, you will be punished with a 21-hour day.

Hooray! I’m not the oldest!

I entered the Foreign Service as a second career. That means that I am considerably older than the average age of entrants to this career (31 years old is the average age of new hires to the service). Before I arrived in D.C. for training, I was a little worried that I would be the oldest person in my cohort, a 40-something surrounded by a bunch of “kids” barely older than my own children.

In fact, there are at least two people in my cohort of 87 who are only 23 years old. When I learned that, I had two reactions. Of course I was impressed that someone that young could have made it through the very rigorous selection process. I don’t think that I could have made it in when I was that age. I barely feel qualified at my current age.

The second reaction was a confirmation of my original fear, that I would be the exceptionally old guy in the group.

As I’m getting to know my cohort, though, I see that we represent a pretty even distribution of ages. Plenty of young singles, and many who are married with young children. I suspect that the ages of this cohort would probably fit the average of 30-something.

But I was really pleased to learn that I am not the oldest person in the group. I know for sure that one person is five years older than I am (I know this because he told me, not because I sneaked a look at his paperwork). After talking with some other classmates, I know that two others are older than me as well. Several of us have kids in college, and there is plenty of gray hair (and lack of hair) in the cohort.

Interacting with my classmates has been fun. Whenever we have some down time on training days, there is a lot of talking, a lot of interesting conversations. This is a good group. We’ve only been together for two weeks now, and we haven’t had a lot of opportunity to work together, so it remains to be seen how well we will get along professionally, but socially at least, it’s been good so far. I feel like I’m fitting in.

And I’m really glad that I’m not the oldest guy in the room.

They fundamentally don’t understand snow removal here

The city seems to have recovered from the catastrophic four inches of snow that we got at the beginning of the week.

Although the roads got plowed, and the sidewalks are somewhat cleared of snow, there are some lingering hazards that we have to look out for. Here is an example:

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To someone who is very familiar with winter, this is obviously very dangerous. Someone could easily slip on this and get seriously injured. Maybe the locals just don’t get enough snow and cold weather to realize that stairs need to be cleared of snow?

This picture shows three things:

1. I am, in fact, in Washington, D.C.
2. It’s really cold in Washington, D.C. right now.
3. I am still a Michigander, and am not afraid of a little cold and snow.

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Hmmmmm…

This picture was taken right outside my front door. I’m glad that I know my building allows dogs. Otherwise, I might think that I’m living in a frat house.

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Snow Day?!

The federal government is shut down today because of the big snow storm.

I just went outside and took this piocture. Do you see any snow? Me neither.

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Sunset: Sunday, January 20, 2014

5:27 pm

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I’m doing homework

Today is a federal holiday, which means no class today.

How am I spending the holiday? I’m doing homework.

The training class that I am in reminds me of being in graduate school. When you’re in grad school, especially in the first few years, you are a newby. You’ve entered a new field, and there is a lot of information that you need to know, but don’t yet have. You spend a lot of time learning. When interacting with professors or other grad students who have been in the program longer than you have, you struggle to understand everything that is being discussed. Sometimes you feel like you are trying to catch up with a crowd of people who are walking faster than you can.

That is how I’m feeling now. I’ve entered a new field, and I have to learn a new discipline. Entering the State Department is a little different from entering academia in one import aspect. In academia, you are expected to acquire the common base of knowledge, then contribute to the field, through research, publications, and scholarship. In contrast, the State Department seems to be very uninterested in our personal opinions. At this point, we are not expected to contribute our analyses. Instead, we are being asked to learn, absorb, and conform to the department’s standardized format. We are being indoctrinated into the accepted way of doing everything. It’s sort of like military training.

The common aspect of the two, for me, is that we are being trained by people who have been in the field for a long time, and who know a lot more than I do. Every time that we cover a new subject, I’m reminded that there is a lot that I don’t yet know, but I am expected to learn it as quickly and as thoroughly as possible. Just like when I was in grad school. I’m not complaining, though. This is good. ¬†I am learning, and I love to learn.

So I am reading on the ¬†appropriate way to write official reports, and how to take notes in a meeting. There is an official manual on writing style in the Foreign Service (called, not surprisingly, “The Foreign Service Writing Manual”). Eighty-two pages of instructions. It’s so engaging that I can barely break away from reading it to write a blog entry. That was sarcasm, which is not in the manual.