Friday, July 6, 2012

Twenty years at SNL - and an uncertain path forward

Bldg. 802 - my "ivory tower" office indicated by red arrow
Today, July 6, 2012, marks my 20-year service anniversary at Sandia National Laboratories. It's sort of a bittersweet milestone in my life: on one hand, SNL has been a great place to work in terms of lifestyle and benefits; on the other, my career hasn't been precisely as rewarding in a larger personal or professional sense as it might have been. And now that I have disabling health issues that impede my holding down a job -- never mind jump-starting a career that stalled out about twelve years ago -- I think only about managing to put in another five years so that I can retire plausibly and at least somewhat gracefully.

What's my opinion of SNL? Well, that depends whether you're asking about the technical (i.e., scientific/engineering) side of the company, which generally does great work and consists of extremely intelligent and capable individuals, or the administrative side of the company, which has gradually become a "laboratory" of a more sociological sort, the "experimental results" from which have been, shall we say, somewhat mixed. I have mentioned previously that I ended up at SNL out of some desperation, as I absolutely hated the three-plus years I spent practicing law in 1989-92. Given that I, like a lot of my peers in those days, fell into a career at SNL -- whereas most business professionals hiring on now are recruited and often aspire to work at SNL -- I was never completely able to take seriously the administrative milieu at SNL, even in the early days.  And, to the extent I've been forced by circumstances to take it seriously, I could never take myself seriously as a part of the picture.  All of that, together with my innate laziness and preternatural aversion to sucking up to upper management, perhaps made it inevitable that I would never make the jump into management or "distinguished" status.  Luckily, I'm a sufficiently bright individual to provide value down in the trenches, despite my not being overly versant with the increasingly complex electronic applications we use for financial reporting.

However, it's difficult to do 100% of any real job when one is 40-50% disabled from persistent mal de debarquement, and that's by far the biggest issue I face moving forward.  Perhaps Cha, et al., summed it up best in this excerpt from their article "Clinical features and associated syndromes of mal de debarquement" (Journal of Neurology (2008) 255:1038-1044):

I'm fond of saying that if the people close to me could experience life for one day as I have to live it every day, they'd be clamoring to facilitate my retiring on a disability.  However, given the non-obvious origin, nature, and extent of my symptoms, I'd be viewed as a slacker and a hypochondriac if I pushed for it, so all I can do is try (a) to find the least-stressful job available, (b) to sleep and exercise to the extent I'm able, and (c) simply to ride out the storm.

(It's notable that my starting at SNL in 1992 coincided with the last year in which AT&T operated the company, when all employees were still being given 192 hours of vacation time per year from day one on the job.  After Martin Marietta [now Lockheed Martin] took over management in 1993, all new hires were given significantly less annual leave -- I'm not sure anyone else ever gets up to 192 hours -- which still sticks in the craw of many people who have otherwise passed me by on the career ladder.  Those are the breaks, I guess.)