Thursday, May 23, 2013

What exactly do I do?

I found the last post awfully cathartic, getting thoughts organized so i don't have to keep pondering them in random excruciating order, and keep bouncing back and forth. A few more loose ends to tie up, but one thought from that post reminded me of a question people ask often. What do i do for the telescopes?

To answer that for people who are not software engineers or who haven't dealt with large control systems I usually say that I write and maintain software for two telescopes up to taking data, before the pretty pictures.

So what do I do technically? I will explain it in technical terms and will try to make clear what it actually is in more layman's terms, especially for those esoteric software packages that only a few facilities across the world use.

One aspect of my job is to help maintain hardware, such as racks of computers, switches, VxWorks crates, ethernet connections, serial connections, and random sensors/instruments. Sometimes I get to be a part of installing new systems, but there is quite a bit more in maintaining. I replace hard-drives, motherboards, and so on.

I also help write control software. Most recently I worked on making a GUI for one of our instruments, Receiver A, RxA. We recently upgrade its computer from one from the early 90s with a 5.25 floppy drive to a new real-time Linux box. I was assigned to make an engineering interface to talk to the task on another machine and receive its information. The package we use is DRAMA, written and mostly supported by the AAO. It is a distributed computing package that allows us to coordinate between control systems and instruments across the network. I used Perl/Tk for the GUI.

With this GUI I had recently become more aware of testing, specifically unit testing. I don't think I wrote a very good unit test as GUIs are hard to write tests for, but I really need to continue practicing this idea, as I write code that has bugs. What I really need are good specs for other programs so that I can write most of the outline and tests before ever getting started. That is unlikely to happen so I must blunder along and learn how to write my own.

Another project I was part of was controlling the cooling louvers remotely for JCMT. These louvers can be opened near the end of the day to help cool and settle JCMT's structure. I worked with one of my coworkers to get EPICS, the Experimental Physics and Industrial Control System, to talk to a PLC, and then display the controls and information via medm, a software package that works well with EPICS.

One project that I quite enjoyed was UKIRT's WFCAM noise analysis GUI. One of our electronics engineers was tired of importing text files of noise data from the Wide Field CAMera into excel so he asked me to write a GUI that could just take the text files and display graphs for each of the four CCD arrays.

This is the project that I started learning about Perl/Tk, and I have used it in several projects since. I parsed the data, and using the pdl module of Perl I graphed out the noise so that the engineer could analyze it.

In learning Perl/Tk I thought it could help upgrade a personal project of mine, noteTaker. Basically noteTaker was a CLI for taking and referencing notes from projects, a bit of an undertaking, but it has saved me many countless hours of flipping through paper notes. It also helped hone my GUI and GUI layout skills. It isn't much to look at but it is darn useful. I am looking at upgrading it to not just save to a day's text file but possibly into a SQL database, and maybe take it to a web interface. All of this is sort of in the planning stages, but I would like to use Python, which I have been avidly learning, Django (I need a real project and uses SQL so it won't teach me much about SQL), and possibly find a way to integrate pyBrain which is a machine learning module. Yeah, mostly need to focus on work-work, not just things that will make work easier.

So there are many more projects. I might compile them and put them into some permanent link pages so I can reference them for people/possible jobs. And maybe put them into chronological order.

We will see.

P.S. Do blogs have post scripts? Anyway just found a major problem with a limit switch where the shoulder that is the soft-limit would have destroyed the micro-switch housing. Ah days that are exciting are nice.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Jobs, Early Success, Early Failure

I have worked at the Joint Astronomy Centre for nearly 5 and a half years, more than a sixth of my life. Just thought of the sixth part... a bit scary to put into perspective. Anyway, there is a possibility of the JAC closing both telescopes in the next year and a bit. This is slightly depressing, okay, with people leaving in droves it is massively depressing.

We are losing funding from the UK and Canada, and the Netherlands has already pulled out. But someone could buy our telescopes. If you are interested check out the JAC at We do have some potential buyers for UKIRT, and hopefully that will go through before the end of September. The JCMT process is ramping up and we should have some idea if anybody wants to buy a sub-millimeter telescope soon-ish.

So how does this affect me? Well, if both telescopes close I am out of a job. If both are bought by one entity then maybe we could continue as "normal" and just have to fired and rehired to work for the new owner. If they are bought separately, who knows how things would move. And if UKIRT is bought and JCMT is allowed to close I am probably out of a job, or have to work for two companies until the end of JCMT. This is all confusing to say the least, and as I mentioned before, depressing.

A disclaimer: I enjoy my job, though I have many complaints that I won't delve into. Ecclesiastes comes to mind, paraphrasing, enjoy what you have because your existence is just a passing breath.

Over the past 4 years, most of the time I have been here, there have been cutbacks, threatened closing of telescopes by funding agencies, and the lot. So I have been perusing the job market, mostly looking, but also applying to a few here and there. No bites. Then with this news I really got worried. So I applied to a few jobs with Amazon.

I got a phone interview with part of the Kindle team for a Field Test Engineer position. I studied quite a bit of the listed qualifications, wireless, IP, cell networks, stuff that I didn't specifically know. I must have done something right because I got a second interview and then they flew me out for a face-to-face interview. Now let me list for you my measly number of face-to-face interviews before this one and how they turned out:

  • Auto-trol - Internship - Offered job, accepted.
  • JET - Teaching position in Japan - Offered job, declined.
  • JAC - Software Engineer - Offered job, here I am.
So let me tell you how I did with Amazon, I won't tell you questions or anything like that, NDA. First I was not properly qualified, I am sure because I haven't dealt much with network specific stuff. Second, I think I over-dressed. At most I should have worn a button up shirt with a tie, jeans, normal shoes, and maybe worn a jacket that I could lay over the chair back as I was interviewed. Slacks, shiny shoes, and a jacket that never came off wasn't my undoing, but it certainly didn't help in a more casual environment. Third, I mentioned my current job and needing to get things done... and nothing about how my job is going away one way or another in a little over a year. Did this make them think I really didn't want to get a new job? To sum it up:

  • Amazon - FTE - Rejected, dejected.
The worst part is that they have a company policy that won't allow them to tell you why you were passed over, so I only have my ruminations. And those aren't particularly helpful.

However, I have started to take a larger view of interviews, maybe why I wasn't prepared for this one as much as I should have been. Basically my lead up to the other interviews had plenty of presentations, and boards of review that led up to them. Not specifically for the job but rather plenty of practice communicating to a group of people. The only one I had in the last 5 years is the presentation last summer at the SPIE conference and that was terrible, ill-prepared and ill-executed, not my usual self. So I need practice presenting, and thinking under duress, in other words: presenting to people who are my superiors or equals, not a teaching environment as I am much more used to.

One last thing that really struck me, afterwards of course, was to ask questions about what would be my first assignment, priorities and the like. I felt pretty silly thinking back to my previous questions, an employer wants to see if you are interested. So number four, ask more specifics about the job and its projects.

Since then i have applied to some 50 or 60 jobs and pretty much had no bites, unless you count those blanket ones from career sites that tell you Firestone is hiring auto techs... great, thanks. My least favorite company now it seems would be SEAKR in Colorado. I applied for a test engineer position that I was actually well qualified for. The only thing I didn't have was a current security clearance. The job was re-posted 4 times and I applied for it 3 of those times. No response, just a re-posting of the job with slight changes where the security clearance started out as 'preferred,' though you needed to be able to qualify, then to 'required,' then to preferred-required. What does that even mean? Quite frustrating. I am sure that I would gladly work for them, as long as the recruiter, recruiter software was somehow updated to see and respond to well qualified candidates. A 'no' would have been nice.

One sadly surprising thing stands out for me in all of this was the responses I got from people I know in Hawaii. When I found out that I didn't get the job my coworkers were sympathetic, even though they stand to lose quite a bit, as we are already short in many areas. But for some reason the first thing out of my church friends was 'good.' That hit low, and just writing this these few months later still gets me terribly upset. I really need to forgive them and move on, free up some of that focus to do anything else.

What bothers me most, again comes from Ecclesiastes, 3 this time: "There is a time for everything." And being a young couple with our main income being threatened, moving away is part of that. Paraphrasing one part of the chapter, a time to embrace and a time to let go.

If you haven't read Ecclesiastes, it is actually quite introspective, I would encourage you to read it no matter what your beliefs are. It is my favorite book of the Bible by far.

To wrap things up: I will continue to apply for jobs, continue to work on telescope things that might be be completely irrelevant in a year and a bit, and hopefully start in on a master's in AI.

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