Tuesday, February 8, 2011


There are a lot of things I should be doing right now but after a brief hubbub of activity this morning I'm finding myself staring out the window. An honestly, who could blame me? Its a pretty good view from our condo. The last two months have been a blur. I went from Christmas with the family in Austin to getting laid off at one of my jobs to Port Aransas with friends to getting hired back again only in a different position.

The brief respite from working two jobs gave me enough time to get on top of my FSOT studies. I'm taking the test this weekend and am only nervous for the two essays(last time I took it there was only one). I've committed myself to writing more over this week, hence my blog post and not feeling so guilty because I am "writing".

Red has been dashing around Texas and has only spent one weekend home in 2011. Even then we were playing host to some old friends from Dallas. I was hoping that we would be able to celebrate a bit after I finish my test this weekend but it looks like Big Red, Red's older sister and Roark, her husband the architect will be having their baby this weekend. I'm excited to meet the little fellow and curious to see what color his hair will be, the sonogram showed he will enter this world with a full head of it.

I've been keeping myself busy in my free time by playing trivial pursuit with some new friends from work and going to a few concerts. One concert of note was Robert Randolph and The Family Band. While I've seen them open for some larger band, which seems to be how everyone who has heard of them remembers listening to them, watching them headline was an awesome change. They rocked, they grooved, they got a little funky and put on a great show. They even brought Billy Gibbons from ZZ Top up on stage. I left the venue with my ears ringing and a smile on my face. Music is unique in its ability to touch some hidden reservoir of happiness within me.

More to come with a post-test/post-natal follow (while adhering to the NDA of course).

Friday, December 3, 2010

How I got five jobs in a crap economy and dealt with unemployment

I want to preface this post by saying that this is by no means a laudatory story. To the contrary, I spent roughly 4 months unemployed and another month underemployed. This was an immensely stressful time for me and if it weren't for my closets friends and family I wouldn't have stayed afloat. Thank you!

After Red took an opportunity down here in Austin to work for an advertising agency, I was still in Dallas rocking out home loan modifications on a contract for a large bank (it rhymes with face). We still had a few months left on the lease and no prospects for a new place to live. In fact we were hesitant to sign anything because the late summer/fall rates were inflated due to the influx of college students to UT. We rented a room from Red's best friend Cake Baker and I quit my job and moved to Austin.

I seem to have perpetually been in application mode since returning from the Peace Corps in August 2009. I've held up to this point a total of 5 jobs. Two were complete failures on my part, one was out of my career path and the other didn't pay enough. The third paid right but the work was dismal at best. Finally, after moving to Austin, being picky and actually turning down an offer, I found two amazing positions that are challenging, fun and will add depth to my Foreign Service application.

What did I learn from this process? Applying for jobs sucks, being unemployed was embarrassing and shameful to me. What excuse did I have? I was a returned Peace Corps Volunteer and college grad. I felt like I was treading water with no boat or land in sight. You can see from my posting history that there is a significant block of time where I didn't write anything. I couldn't write because I couldn't think of anything to say. Thankfully, I had a wonderful girlfriend and an incredibly supportive family. They pushed me to keep at it and not give up. Trust me, when your unemployed everyday is a battle. It is really easy to throw up your hands because of a set back or speed bump. Thank you again to all of you that gave me support and help, I won't ever forget it.

I would hazard a guess that I applied for over 70 jobs in the Austin area. Of those 70 jobs I received 30 responses and 15 interviews. Of those 15 interviews I had 7 second interviews. Of those 7 second interviews I was offered 3 jobs. I took 2. My interview/application rate steadily increased over time. I equate this to writing better and more concise cover letters. It all comes down to having a well written cover letter and a pithy and clean resume.


I was working without a network of people, which of course can be a huge asset. I'm sure that we've all heard the saying "It's not what you know, it's who you know." Which is very true, nepotism and cronyism is how the world works.


I experimented with different cover letter lengths and found that I tended toward the longer rather than shorter. This was a mistake because many recruiters and potential employers will look at 7-8 paragraphs and simply skip to the resume, not good. Keep the cover letter to 4-5 paragraphs. Write clean, and reread them. I can't count the times where I would write what I thought was a killer CL only to find a glaring grammatical error after I had sent it. Avoid a template mentality when writing CLs. Include the job description points and how you fulfill them. Locate the HR person and use their name in the heading. Make it personal.

The experience aspect can be stretched, we all do it. Include anything that might apply to the position even if you think it was insignificant. Strike an even balance between professional and personal, just harping on your experience and not why you want the position sounds robotic and inhuman.

Your resume should be 1 page unless you have lots of experience in one field. Find older and more experienced people to look at it. Send it out in .pdf format, this keeps the spacing locked and looks really clean when employers open it.

Interviews are another beast all together. This part was more nebulous to me because several times I walked out feeling that I had it, only to receive a letter politely telling me "Thanks but not thanks".  Other times, I felt I bombed completely only to be offered the job the next week.

Attire was another mixed bag. I initially went in dressed to the T, clean shaven and the whole nine yards. After several attempts I changed it up, wore more relaxed clothes (business casual) and let my facial hair get a bit scruffy. I felt I had more success dressing how I normally dress, though this could be psychological perhaps making me feel more relaxed.

Finally, this is a terrible job market. I asked most of the people I interviewed with how many applications they had received. Every job I applied for had over 100 applicants and most had over 300. One in particular had over 650. Remember, this is in Austin, with one of the best job markets in the country. Making it to an interview says a lot, that you were one of ten they selected out of hundreds, so take heart in that.

To anyone out there that is unemployed, keep your chin up. It's okay to feel pissed off, upset and dejected. I tried to put on a happy and optimistic face all the time but the reality is, it sucks, you are allowed to let it show occasionally. A strong determination to make things better doesn't mean it's going to be easy or that you have to like it.

Dutch Man

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

FSOT Redux

Another move? But of course, by now you know that 6 months is about the maximum amount of time Red and I can stay in one place. We are finally settling into our new condo which had a beautiful view of Lady Bird Lake and as anyone who has been to Austin knows is nothing more than a river. How long of a lease did we sign you might be asking yourself? Why, 6 months of course! The advantage of signing a 6 month lease on a condo is that our landlord is more than willing to go month to month after that, at the same rate. How could we pass that up?

Red has been a flurry of activity the last month and has carved out a nice niche for herself at the marketing agency. She's been putting in some major hours leading up to last week but finally crested the wave and is now enjoying back-to-back three day work weeks. Her Mom is coming this week to spend several nights with us and will be our first overnight guest. I'm looking forward to spending some quality time with her being that she lives in Amarillo and we rarely get to see each other.

A quick update on Downtown, she is loving the Ukraine and integrating just as quickly as I knew she would.  Here's a message she sent me a few weeks ago:

"today at lunch we had plain noodles with cutlit, and there was some mayo on the table and I thought that I would spice things up and I put some mayo on the plain noodles and I liked it.... mmm mayo noodles!! It made me think of when you told me that within 3 months I would be putting mayo on everyting and I told you that you were so wrong!! haha"

That made me smile and also miss my days in the old bloc. On a related note, I am flying to Denver after New Years to visit my PC buddies Peanut, Earth Baby, Z and Kare Bear. Maybe even Z's little dog Ursalica. We are having our first reunion and silliness, laughter and merriment are sure to be had in excess. I'm very happy that we are making this happen especially since its been over a year, barely but still...

It is closing in on that time and my preparations for FSOT Redux has officially begun. I've pulled out the books and completed but not sent in the application. I'm waiting until mid-January to submit it because I want as many eyes to edit it as possible.

This, upon further review of my last attempt, was my Wounded Knee. I reviewed my last application and had to turn off the computer in disgust.

A list of why my application stank

  • I did not include my entire job history
  • My job descriptions were vague and short
  • My qualifications section was vague and short
  • I came in woefully under the allotted character count
  • I did not sell myself well enough as a viable candidate

 My failure was due to hubris. I felt I would shellack the test, which I did, but failed to realize the QEP was as stringent as it was. I moved from FSOT preparation to FSOA preparation and cockily assumed my safe passage through QEP was a given. If I had a beard at the time I should have eaten it. Ok enough self-pity, yes I am a middle child so this a forte of mine.

How am I approaching the FSOT differently my second time around? I am not worrying much about the Job Knowledge and English Expression aspects, I will do some review of the Constitution, Econ and Management theory along with keeping up-to-date from my news sources. I am spending the majority of my time practicing the essay portion and Bio section. Although my Bio section score was strong, it felt the weakest. I am practicing by highlighting relevant events from my past that are applicable to this section. I would suggest coming up with ten events and experiences that would answer typical interview questions such as how have you managed a project or people in the past, etc... Having "sound bites" in your quiver is a great way to keep plodding through the Bio section.

The essay section is like a running a race. Training will allow you to finish faster and therefore correct the unavoidable mistakes and grammatical errors. I've found that one or two a week is good and upping to three the week before can't hurt. Time yourself of course and disable spellcheck. Try and finish with at least 5 minutes remaining, this is doable, but again, with practice. Don't second guess yourself, if something reads awkwardly, like many of these blog posts, delete it and rewrite it. Keep it punchy and vary sentence length. Follow the tried and true format:

  1. Intro/Thesis
  2. Transition/Point 1
  3. Transition/Point 2
  4. Transition/Point 3
  5. Conclusion/Restate thesis and summarize points

I wouldn't recommend trying for more than three points/ideas unless your typing skills are superb. I can consistently hit the high 50's and rarely get a 4th and 5th point into my practice essays. I know plenty of people that can type faster than me but at some point you're going to have to reread and edit what you wrote.

All for now. I wanted to talk about the Wikileaks cablegate but will save that for a latter post.


Wednesday, October 20, 2010

It's all about relocation, relocation, relocation

I will avoid the requisite apologies for the vast time gap between posts, I know alright, and get right into it. Red and I moved to beautiful Austin, an amazing city, after she was offered a job working for a marketing company. One exhausting weekend of furious packing, 200 miles in a Uhaul and we were on to another adventure. Saying goodbye to Dallas was harder than I thought, given my general malaise about the city. Living in Deep Ellum, especially in the last few months before the move, was overall, a plus. We met some great people and felt a sense of community. It's nice when you know your local watering hole, bartenders, baristas, neighbors and business owners by name. But then again, there is a that old feeling of change and adventure I get from packing for a new place which tickles my feet and makes my heart beat just a tick faster.

We've been staying with Cake Baker, Down Town's older sister, for a couple of months in her and her husband's new house. Living with a professional baker is just how it sounds, AWESOME! There is always cookies and cake to be had and she is constantly experimenting with new flavors and recipes.

Down Town is now officially a Peace Corps Trainee in Ukraine and I will gladly take some credit for helping her make the decision. She seems to have a great attitude about the whole experience and is surviving Pre Service Training like a champ. Pre Service Training or PST is an all out 3 month marathon learning session. High stress and high intensity. PC intentionally makes it difficult to weed out anyone still on the fence. The attrition rate is about 40% and a good share of that comes from PST early terminations.

I am gearing back up for the February FSOT exam. I feel as though I learned from my mistakes last year and know what my weak points were (my application). I have a higher target this year, making it through the orals. I do worry a bit about my experience level and that I am still a few years under the average successful applicant's age (30). Regardless, if I have learned anything in my 26 years (yes, yesterday was my birthday) it's that the truly important things in life cannot be easily attained or purchased. They require planning, consistent and diligent effort and luck (Malcolm Gladwell would probably add a few things).

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Thought for food

I am finding a certain sick schadenfreude(check it out, it's a sweet word) watching the markets tumble and surge. As of 10:27 a.m. central time the Dow is down 256 points. While oil, the Euro and most other commodities continue to tumble, the dollar is surging. It's nice to see that investors have so much confidence in the U.S. economy, but they are driving up the price of exports in doing so. While I know that trade deficits are not a competition, I would feel better seeing the gap shrink a bit.

I also can't wait to see the price of gold fall. It is obviously far to inflated and has been increasing in value due to speculation and market volatility. I never understood why it became so popular? If people wanted safer waters during the great recession, why not purchase bonds or t-bills with a guaranteed rate of return instead of a commodity highly susceptible to speculative price inflation.
I suppose what it comes down to is my view that markets, while rational in times of relative stability, are susceptible massive irrationality or behavior in times of economic uncertainty. Just as a herd of water buffalo will trample each other at the first sign of a lion, markets will over speculate prices causing massive bubbles and busts. Take for instance the Mandelbrot study of cotton prices over a period of time, he came up with fat tails. According to rationalists, markets should fall neatly into rational models.

On average, the market will move a little up, a little down, or stay about the same. Of course there will be days where the markets surges or plunges, but thats ok because this is a rarity and according to the law of large numbers, should only occur once in a blue moon. But to have consecutive days, weeks, months of massive drops is somewhere in the neighborhood of 27 standard deviations out of the bell curve. Imagine flipping a coin 5,000 times and getting heads every time. Now look at the model below, the top represents the fat tails that Mandelbrot warned us about and the bottom represents a rational market, which one looks more like the Dow?

If anything can be learned it's that prices will never continue to rise without speculation fueling a boom and bust. When the boom comes, people will trample each other to ride the surging prices for ever increasing profits and when prices began to come down the selling will rocket prices to artificially low levels.

Just some musing about the economy... thanks for sticking with me on this one.

Dutch Man

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Really? I mean REALLY?

I usually don't get to fired up by what I hear on the punditry faux news hours, especially about domestic issues, but once in awhile they can get under my skin. Recently, Glenn Beck compared the Peace Corps, Americorps and the Foreign Service to..... drum roll please.... The Nazi SS.

Can we please stop comparing everything to Nazi Germany? The new AZ immigration law is not like Nazi Germany, Health Care Reform is not like Nazi Germany and the freaking PEACE CORPS is not like the SS.

While I can fall subject to hyperbole once in awhile, I mostly maintain an even keel (I leave the rants and raves to Red, she's much more adept at haranguing the pundits then I am). The problem here is using such unhinged comparisons. By juxtaposing every major new change to the Nazis, it is immediately impossible to make any kind of compromise. Simply put, it is divisive. As both parties paint themselves into corners, I find it harder to straddle the middle as I have done for so many years. When will cooler heads prevail?

Red recently spent Mother's Day and her Mother's Birthday up in North West Texas. Left to my own devices, I spent most of my time tidying up, researching OA online material and treating myself to a steak dinner. Apart from that I have been a bit of a gym rat, choosing to divide my time between cranking out the miles on a stationary bike or throwing around some weights. Finally, all the lactic acid has worked its way out of my muscles and I am slowly but surely adding minutes and pounds to each new work out.

Red's brother in law Roark (He's an architect and likes Ayn Rand, I'm sure you get the reference) is graduating this weekend so we are headed back out to east Texas for some R&R. I'm looking forward to getting out of the city for a few days.

In some other sad news, Downtown just learned that she won't be leaving for Peace Corps until at least September. While it will be nice to have her around for awhile longer, I feel bad that she has to reorganize her life again. The upside is that her new host country will be one of the following: Azerbaijani, Macedonia, Morocco and Mongolia. Awesome possibilities and she even has the coveted holy grail of PC countries, Morocco.

All for now.

Dutch Man

Sunday, April 18, 2010

On your mark, get set, WAIT!

Red has been putting me to shame lately on posts (we are competitive... really competitive) so it is time to fill in the gaps. I passed the FSOT, hurray, and submitted my PNQs (5 essays about myself in relation to the 13 dimensions from which State evaluates candidates) and now I wait for the mercurial QEP (Qualification Evaluation Panel) to divine my fate. How long do I have to bide my time? A maddening 3-7 weeks, yet another nebulous amount of indeterminate time put forth by my future employer.

Passing the FSOT was a massive relief. I no longer feel as though I am dangling off the edge of a cliff. At least I have the confidence boost and validation that comes with realizing the first goal in a string of ever increasingly more difficult goals. If I had failed I would have had to retake the exam 11 months from now.

Next up is the OA (Oral Assessment) which is an all day interview, structured in three parts, GE (Group Exercise), SI (Structured Interview) and CM (Case Management). I will go more in-depth about each of these parts in later posts. The bottom line of the OA is the magic score of 5.25. This is the minimum score needed to pass along to the next ring of fire. Of course, all potential FSOs aim for a higher score in order to be quickly pulled of the register of qualified applicants and placed in the highly coveted a-100 class. A-100 is the goal of all of this, the name of original room as the FSI (Foreign Service Institute) where all future FSOs trained.

Now comes a level of strategy. There are ways to get bonus points added to your overall score. I can add .17 to my score by testing out of a foreign language (Romanian for me of course) but that comes with the caveat that I must serve in a country thats speaks said language (Romanian) in one of my first two tours. Because Romanian is only spoken in two countries (Romania and Moldova) I am some what limited in my choices. Luckily I can register for a foreign language test "after" my OA. So, if my score comes to an anemic 5.25-5.3, you can bet an additional .17 becomes a lot more attractive.

In other exciting news, I am no longer a banking shill. Saturday was my last day at the bank and I am off to the soul fulfilling work of grassroots community organizing. I've joined up with an environmental lobby working to pass new clean water legislation through government mandated take back laws of electronics. Old laptop? Don't know what to do with it? Soon you will be able to chuck it in with the rest of the glass bottles, old newspapers and empty milk jugs. That is if we don't get vetoed.

Red and I rocked out a massive top to bottom cleaning of the apartment today. The concrete is shinning, the ducts are dusted and the bed is made. Z watched us whiz around the apartment happily perched on her favorite couch cushion. The pure enjoyment I get from a clean apartment cannot be measured.