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work in the time of coronavirus: a summary

So for once, the state made either a wise decision or got an amazing deal from Dell when supplying us for work at home; my work laptop is fucking incredible. It's a Dell Precision 5540, for Dell is generally our supplier of choice when it comes to tech. I do not argue they have some weaknesses in their home lines (I love mine, but that's local loyalty, I know how to fix most of the basic stuff that goes wrong, and I have Parts People, who are all former Dell employees who specialize in repair of Dell computers and are the only people I let touch mine) but their business class are among the best.

I've only occasionally worked on Latitudes, and I wasn't particularly impressed but generally, we order mid-range latitudes for basic work, not tech work, and for just doing business functions, they're great. Compared to my Alienware or XPS--yeah.

I was not ready for a Precision workstation; frankly, I'm not sure anyone is.

The processor is only an i7, though no complaints, but this sweet baby comes with 64G RAM, a 1T drive, and 4K display, touchscreen, but those aren't hugely impressive in themselves. Except for the 64G RAM--which outside desktops you generally only find on laptops on the high of the high end standard--when I did a comparison, and the Precision uses the same model as my XPS, actually, just way more G (if I could have gotten that much RAM in my laptop, hell yes I would have paid for it, RAM is more valuable than processor speed--at a certain minimum standard of processor--in ninety-nine percent of what I do and can compensate for a poor processor in fifty percent of cases).

However, even taking into account all that beautiful RAM, they don't act the same. A lot of what I do the first month after I get a laptop is slowly working out the memory leaks, the unnecessary processes, updating to current or getting rid of programs and drivers I don't need, making registry changes, and the thing is, only maybe fifty percent of what applies to one laptop works with another even if they have the same operating system.

I never really thought about it--computers gonna computer--and honestly, the guys who build the computers and install the software are not exactly well-paid so solidarity, they're not paid nearly enough to act like each computer is a masterpiece. So now I'm thinking that during the software installations of the standard Windows system, programs and program configurations, and drivers, are basically 'whatever guy created the standard installation for this line' and the poor guy is probably paid minimum wage and has five seconds to put together that standard installation. Sometimes, they do literally nothing at all, and sometimes, they do too much and much of it wrong. (Again, I don't blame them for that;

Precision--not so much. From the sheer lack of much in the way of tweaking I've had to do so far (no installation is perfect), the Windows and basic driver installation that Dell did is several orders of magnitude more precise and thorough than any computer I've ever gotten. Now granted, that's kind of all they do for state machines, which is pretty bare bones: Windows and required drivers, the drivers and config programs for the wifi/display/hard drive/etc.



In general, the IT department does the rest after delivery and has a specific standard image for IT as a whole. As IT changes, that image may change as more tools are added, and to that basic standard, specific programs may be added for a specific department. for sensitive or specialized programs for certain departments that literally no one else in IT would ever need or even want to use. (I mean, the shared software drive has them if suddenly someone needed them, but the ones on the standard image are ones everyone will either definitely use or could definitely have a use for, not programs that maybe five people in Texas will ever use or even understand what they do).

When it comes to hardware, however, the state generally assume everyone is a java android iOS dev web designer software tester oracle database administrator who may or may not need to work with machine code and the PCs/laptops they order follow. Sometimes, sadly, it may be higher latitudes, but this time...this time, Precisions.

(Which frankly, when doing massive bulk purchases, is an order of magnitude cheaper than trying to decide what IT department needs what model of computer/type of installation and ordering to the minimum--and it would be minimum--of each of those standards. Plus, you never run into the problem of not having an appropriate computer available for new employees/transfers no matter the department and having to order one (1) new computer or the required minimum required by Dell for a discount (that may be way more than you need ever), and yes, there would still a government discount, but nothing like the one you get for ordering five hundred or a thousand or fuck knows how many of all the exact same type. )

Now, this machine is clean, and now I think I know exactly what the standard installation for IT is before bells and whistles; it's actually fairly minimal with only things everyone in IT (or anyone working for the state, actually) would definitely need (again, we can get the rest off the shared drive ourselves along with licenses, with a very few exceptions or use Remote Desktop to get into our work PCs), which is actually interesting and I think I know why my installation is so clean but also so basic.

Let me tell you a story.

HHSC probably started pulling up contingency plans when the coronavirus was acknowledged as problem, but that would have been, at best in very late February (I'd be shocked, though, this is a Republican state and HHSC is run by Republican appointees) or very, very early March. I'll put it at March 1st, actually, and under any other circumstances, I wouldn't give them thsi much benefit of the doubt.

The IT contractors--employees of companies who have contracts with the state aka not state employees--were ordered to WFH by their companies starting on the 18th, so our building was already a ghost town (almost all the second floor, a quarter or so of the first floor; that is also when the IT Director gave us the WFH option: if your job could be worked from home and if you were high risk/had kids/etc, fill out this form, do this training, ask your manager. Now, everyone was approved, sure, but we did note other HHSC departments did not have to dance and sing at all, but I digress.

On March 24th, the mayor of Austin announced the stay at home order, effective March 25 at midnight. Throughout the day, most of IT didn't have any indication from the IT Director or executives on whether it applied to us, as we were categorized as essential. On my team, the only people that were working from home were those that were at risk/kids/etc; the rest of us were pretty much okay with coming in and keeping the six foot/cover mouth/wash hands thing. Also, our building was half-empty and we work alone in cubicles (all meetings were already phone/skype/zoom), so it really wasn't super risky. Add to that, most of us had at some point worked from home and VPN/Remote Desktop did not appeal at all (it was hellish and some programs simply don't work due to the incredible lag) and a couple of people were literally testing for JAWS compliance (JAWS hates everything but especially anything resembling a lag).

Now, for the week since the contractors WFH'ed out, there'd been some prep for the vague possibility of something like enforced work from home happening: everyone turned in a new request for VPN if we hadn't used it for the last six months, just in case; the vague indication that those working from home would get state laptops increased, but we'd been tempted with talk of work laptops for years, not just for remote work but to take to meetings instead of having to borrow the one (1) unit laptop if we needed one and had to return it by end of day (or earlier if someone else needed it). By the end of the 24th, the only directive we got from IT was 1.) there would soon be laptops for people working remote (sure, buddy), and b.) "you can come in if you want we guess" which--okay? I have a ten minute walk every day and figured, eh, I'll go in.

I got a text message the next morning (early when my boss usually arrives so like at seven): we were ordered to work from home unless it's impossible to do most of the work. As I could technically do my work from home--and hate it--I stayed home and sulked over my laptop anticipating a long and terrible hell, for I cannot adequately express the horror of extended work from home because of the sloth-like hell of VPN--which is already slow as fuck--combined with RDP'ing into your work PC, where everything becomes molasses and even basic typing a single word h a s a n o t i c e a b l e d e l a y. Which is where it got interesting: there was an email. An email stating the certainty of work laptops and an actual timeframe, which would be announced. I was skeptical until one week to the hour--April 1st--where I got my email giving me time and place to pick it.

(Note: there were also strict instructions on where exactly to park (HHSC #3) and to wait in our vehicle until someone came out to take us inside the building individually, where we would be given our laptop, login to verify our profile was loaded on it, check our VPN connected, and sign some shit. It definitely conveyed a sense of gravid reflection on the state of our world.)

Now, where was I going with this?

When I got there to get my laptop, I was led to where IT tech support was set up and in the cubicle farm (actually, that room was where UAT was located before we moved buildings), I didn't just see a lot of laptop boxes. I saw vast towers of laptop boxes and tiny towers and rolling carts of mid level towers, and that was just in the area near the door where the Get and Check Your Laptop cubicle was located. I have no idea how many were crouched in cubicle halls and stuffed into cubicle spaces and this is when I found out this wasn't The Get Your Laptop Center, but just one Get Your Laptop Center of several Get Your Laptop centers in Austin (and possibly the county or three county area). Laptop distribution started one week before.

See, I forgot something; the stay at home for Austin applied to everyone living/working in Austin, including all state employees. Austin is the capital of Texas. A veritable hub of state employees in general, and HHSC in specific. Every HHSC employee in Austin who now had to work from home was getting a laptop. Local office clerks to caseworkers and up: everyone.

HHSC's tech guys had been doing twelve to eighteen hour days for over a week--that's greater seven days, people--receiving, unboxing, verifying all the parts were there, installing the standard image, and validating everything worked, while calling in individuals one at a time to get said laptop, check that the individual's credentials and VPN worked on it, give them a bag and needed laptop accessories, and sending them on their way.

Or so my laptop-giver told me tiredly, looking surprised and horribly, horribly relieved that once it was in my hands, all he had to do was tell me what to check and I ran my own validations and checks and his job was to sit down and watch the screen. From what he said, apparently some of those who came for their laptop were not exactly helpful with the difficult validation tasks like 'hitting alt-control-delete so the login screen displays' and 'entering your credentials in VPN' or something. I didn't ask for specifics; frankly, I was embarrassed enough by my entire department so I tried to make up by encouraging some healthy venting (12 hour days so many laptops still got a week or weeks to go my God the humanity).

The only reason I think HHSC might have started prep as of March 1st (maybe earlier?) is the sheer number of laptops coming out this fast. While Dell probably has a big inventory of Latitudes and business class XPS, Inspiron, and Vostros on hand--they'd be fairly common for bulk business purchases--Precision is Dell's highest end business machines, a workstation that does shit like database administration and end to end program development at minimum. Mine has non-standard RAM (twice that of the max dell's business site shows as an option), and I cannot imagine they would have enough for every HHSC employee in Austin on hand, or even enough for every HHSC IT employee in Austin if they picked a different model for non-IT (I'm still trying to find out but at least in Austin, everyone was given the same model so far that I have been told). Sure, Dell can make them fast, but they'd need to get the order for something this large to assure they had the material--and this specific model isn't even the basic Precision model, but well within the middle range of Dell's highest end business laptop. And if Austin went to work from home, HHSC would guess the state would eventually follow, and that would be every HHSC employee working in Texas

So no, I was not surprised they were working 12 to 18 hour days to get this shit done; I was surprised the tech guys were still sane since the statewide order was announced on 3/31 and effective 4/1, and if they weren't sure before, when I went in on 4/1, they had to know that they'd probably be at least doing all the pre-laptop-distribution work in Austin for all of Region 7 (Austin and quite a bit of surrounding area) before sending them out to the local offices for distribution.



In other news, we had to make an exception to strict Stay at Home/Social Distancing Rules in family; my middle sister and her husband are both essential but can't work from home. My sister has four kids, but the eldest is eighteen and while usually she splits time between my sister and ex-BIL, she's been with him only since this started; of the other three, one is twelve and the other two are six and five respectively. They were in daycare, but after talking to Child (and Mom and me, but wisely Child first) she took them out of daycare (it did close soon after) and now they're at my mom's during the day while Child babysits/homeschools them, her 12 year old, and my youngest sister's 12 year old. He's also announced he is never, ever having kids ever and any future husband is gonna have to deal. I can understand.

(Of course, even that went to hell when I threw out my back so badly last week but it was still all limited to the same family members Child was interacting with regularly as well as me so not exactly a big escalation.)

Granted, this is not ideal, but it's about fifty times safer than any daycare for the kids--if there was one with openings that she could afford and that's doubtful--and that goes double when Mom's at risk and working from home. She can't watch them all day while working--and don't repeat this but she's also over sixty and maybe needs to take it easy just during the crisis?--so everyone is being careful.

So work starts in like thirty minutes, and while I am still not in love with work from home, I am partially reconciled by the fact that 'going to work' now consists of 'walking a few feet and logging into my work laptop while still brushing my teeth'. I think the arrival of the rolling, variable height laptop desk will complete my more cheerful resignation to my fate. Partially because I like to get things I can customize with cords and clamps and all manner of things, but also because I will not have to do all my work from a good-posture-inducing but extremely hard even with a memory foam seat cushion and memory foam pillow beneath me chair. I already configured one side of the sofa for ideal back position for work, but without that desk, the laptop has nowhere to sit close enough to work on it.

These are the times I deeply regret that when Mom bought her new dining room table and asked me when I wanted her to return mine, I said "oh, no rush, whenever!"

That's gonna haunt me.

Posted at Dreamwidth: https://seperis.dreamwidth.org/1076056.html. | You can reply here or there. | comment count unavailable comments
Tags: jenn's life, work
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