Wednesday, May 30, 2012

continuing from yesterday

Things ended rather abruptly yesterday. It was partly due to time and partly due to a stomach that is ailing yet again. Twenty-four hour illness no more. We're rounding 72 hours now!

Yesterday, I rather casually (and parenthetically) mentioned that trust was the most essential element of any relationship. Other elements of the relationship, whether it is personal or business, are important, but they all ultimately spring from a foundation of trust. I should also throw in the caveat that this only refers to healthy relationships, again, both personal and professional. In the work context, which is what I want to focus on, this generally means doing what you say you're going to do. This could be for a colleague, manager, or client. People expect certain work product and output and you need to deliver.

The problem that stems from the cost recovery discussed yesterday is that it leads to state agency involvement which then leads to a tender process that treats all bids that pass the technical proposal as being technically equal and then it comes down to price and price alone. Price is not about trust. Price is about making your bid as low as possible in order to win and then immediately turning around and going back to what you actually wanted to do in order to make as much money as possible. It's called "up-selling" around here though I am sure it goes by many other names. You could view this as being somewhat dishonest if you are proposing something you never planned to do. The catch though is that the client knows you won't do it either. They know exactly what the "game" is and they play along with the whole process. Now, some savvy clients who are heavily involved and not just doing some copy and paste job from the last tender know how to be ultra-specific in the technical requirements. This essentially shunts you into a single offering that would actually be what is used. That process always feels more honest as it is clear what is going to be done. But the loosely-worded tenders with the bait-and-switch proposals are the norm. And that process, driven by this desire to appear as cheap as possible has no trust involved at all. There's no real dialogue to be able to offer the best possible solution. Instead, it becomes this twisted process of offering something that you will never, ever do, and it's not even for the sake of the client. It is for the sake of the usually clueless state agency that has no idea what their trying to review. The good news is that once contracts are awarded, the client and us as the vendor can go back to the dialogue we wanted to have and get back to solving problems and offering solutions. Every once in a while, that doesn't get to happen.

If a state agency is overly meddlesome, they will lock an operator (our client) into the offering in the tender and keep that as the targeted cost of the well for the purposes of cost recovery. This leads to the saying I was once told in my first location. We had been trying to remediate a well but the client kept going for the cheap option even though we recommended something else. After two failed attempts at remediation, the client finally agreed with our suggestion and it worked. The saying goes, "There's always enough money to do it wrong three times before spending the money to do it right." Basically, this is a cost versus value argument. You can cheap-out and have a bad or useless fix and then have to try again. Alternatively, you can spend more money the first time but only spend that money once. Cost versus value. It's the classic argument for any luxury brand maker. (Any good luxury brand maker as opposed to one that slaps an ugly logo an a handbag and then has people clambering to buy it for a thousand dollars.) Anyway, back to the state agency and our handcuffed operator. If the operator is compelled to use rock-bottom pricing from vendors of dubious quality and track record, they can easily find themselves in a position where they end up having to spend more money in order to redo work or fix mistakes from the first go-around.

Despite these drawbacks, it makes plenty of sense to have a tender and award work in this manner. In theory, if run well, a tender can help lower costs. It ostensibly makes the process transparent and prevents collusion and price fixing and under-the-table deals. Hahahahaha. This is Turkmenistan. There's a reason some competitors and clients say they can customs clear their goods in less then a week while ours take the standard 30 days to clear. And I assure you it is not a problem with our paperwork, unless it is due to inadequate amounts of paperwork that say "This note is legal tender for all debts, public and private" on them. The catch with a tender is that it has to be run well, which means tight and specific technical requirements. But as I said earlier, that is not the norm in this business. Instead, I will churn through this wonderful exercise called a tender because, well, because it is my job and I'm a professional.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

tuesdays in turkmenistan: wherein it's 23:15 and still tuesday

There's still time! Time for some sort of Tuesday in Turkmenistan-themed entry before the day runs out. I have time, I do indeed have time. There's simply the matter of proper motivation. As I mentioned last week, I've come into a major tender and proposal cycle with multiple clients, both current and prospective. And I really dislike doing tenders. More than anything, it's the process associated with them and how they strip out the most essential element of any relationship (which is trust) and instead boil the work down to technical qualifications followed by commercial qualifications. And low price wins (assuming technical qualifications have been met). Now, I understand why it works like this. In fact, one could argue it is necessary. Part of the reason it goes through this tender process is because the government is involved, which means there must be oversight. Why is the government involved? Pull up a chair.

Cost recovery. Those two magical words drive the tendering process to the lowest possible bidder. It is relatively standard for governments not called the United States of America to collect royalties on oil and gas revenue that oil and gas companies generate. This is a pretty standard model that allows governments to have a stake in their natural resources without doing the development themselves. Now, Turkmenistan has a few "state concerns" in the O&G industry, but there are also non-state companies doing business as well as semi-state controlled entities from other countries (specifically China and Malaysia). Another part of the standard model is that these non-state, non-Turkmen companies do not have to pay royalties until the "cost recovery" to drill the well is complete. That is basically the cost it took to drill the well. Thus the companies do not pay royalties to the government on oil and gas they sell until they are first able to recoup their own costs from the initial production. Thus, the government, with their interest in collecting as much royalty revenue as possible, wants the cost of drilling the well to be as low as possible. Of course the O&G company also wants that cost to be as low as possible, but they are usually more cognizant of the difference in cost and price. The tender process is not one where that distinction is always so clear. This is where my disdain for the process comes from. It ends up being a bizarre farce instead as everyone manipulates their offering to win the work. It's not necessarily bad or sinister that this occurs, but it is frustrating as things that are seemingly more expensive on the surface can end up saving money in the long run.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

tuesdays in turkmensitan: the indecision

I left California seven weeks ago to the day. I expect to be here for three more weeks. It's part scheduling and part work. Wait, it's all work, which is what is driving the scheduling and the need to stay the extra time. Part of it is client coverage and part of it is tenders. I really, really, really, really dislike working on tenders. Bids are great. Tenders are not so great. We turned bids around all the time when I was in Texas. The nature of the clients and the work environment demanded relatively high-frequency bidding. You won some, you lost some and that's how things worked. Tenders are for with much bigger stakes like multi-year contracts. You win, good. You lose, mini-disaster. The uncertainty of the whole process is what I dislike so much. Maybe we win, maybe not. Damn you Schrodinger's tender! We won't know the result until the envelopes are opened, the bids reviewed, and then some decision is rendered, hopefully without too much State Agency meddling and money under the table.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

yet another holiday

Yesterday was yet another in the long list of holidays here. Today is also a holiday, but since it's also the weekend, that's somewhat immaterial. I'm not even sure what Constitution Day is and how it is fundamentally different than Independence Day. I've conjured up a non-researched hypothesis that countries with lots of public holidays are trying to give their people something artificial to celebrate in order to distract the citizenry from the shenanigans of the leadership. With some grant money, this could really go places.

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

victory day?

When I was first told today was yet another holiday here and that is was called Victory Day, my initial reaction was to wonder who they beat. Then I realized it wasn't specifically a Turkmen victory, but actually a Soviet victory. This is V-E Day, but a day later because of the time zone difference and what time it was in Moscow when the surrender occurred.

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This is a test post. Please ignore. Checking spacing and alignment. This could easily be deleted, but shall stand as a testament to the permanence of all things on the internet.

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

tuesdays in turkmenistan: not a sham

My entry from last week was strange and rambling and did not end well. It simply ran out of steam and I had no further energy to invest in the increasingly nonsensical train wreck. Today (or the night before), I finish it off. I mentioned two ideas right near the end of last week's entry. First, the Dunning-Kruger effect. In short, it is the general tendency for unskilled individuals to overestimate their actual abilities. In very brusque terms, they are too stupid to realize that they are stupid. Conversely, there is also the opposite tendency whereby skilled individuals tend to underestimate their abilities and accomplishments. That phenomenon goes by the name of Impostor Syndrome. This feeling often plagues me at work (and in general) despite my awareness of this phenomenon. However, I am not a sham and I do in fact know what I'm doing (most of the time).

Last week, I held a review and training session with the other engineers I am responsible for. It was just an hour, but I wanted to cover some recent things that had either come up in other locations or general information it was important for them to possess. It went really well. It felt productive and useful and that I was imparting useful knowledge on them. I will be doing a follow-up later this week to address some of the points they raised that we did not have time for, but the asked good questions that led me to believe they were both paying attention and understood why the material was important. And while this did not dawn on me then and there as I have been aware of this for a while, it was a reassurance that I am some sort of expert on what I do. Now, what I do is perhaps a bit ambiguous as well, but that's not really the point. Also, perhaps I am not an "expert-expert" (especially not at using quotations correctly), but I do know what I'm talking about and I am able to help train and develop younger engineers. It's an almost strange thing for me to admit that experience counts for something. Not actually strange, but almost. I have long recognized the value of experience and the expertise to be gained from a lifetime in a specific field. However, I also believe that enough intellect and passion and verve and a little charm can also allow someone to carry the day. Perhaps on the edge of ideas that is more often true. The edge where new ideas and created and explored and tested and where experience can even hinder one's ability to try something that many might regard as impossible or never-been-done. In those areas, where no one was direct experience, it is the verve and risk-taking and intellect that need to lead the way. However, most of the world is not in that place. That place is the frontier and it is an exciting place and where new ideas come from. Most of the world is fixed in the interior and looking to grind out tried and true solutions to problems that are just as tried and true. Keep in mind that this is not anything against new ideas and risk taking. It is only an observation that the newest of the new is but a small (albeit very important) part of the world.

In this way, I am most certainly not a sham. Getting back to that review session, it was a reminder that while I will never have all the answers, I know a good portion of them in the field I am currently in. I know what I'm doing. This guy, not so much.

Monday, May 07, 2012

family day!

Two Saturdays ago (the one nine days ago), we had a Family Day at the base. I mentioned its existence about a week ago in another entry. This past Saturday (as in the one two days ago) was the Family Day for the people in the Ashgabat office. As luck would have it, I was in Ashgabat (and I am still there). I have been here since Thursday for various secret CIA meetings and go back to the main camp/base/office tomorrow. However, the prospect of spending a forced day of socializing with people I don't really know after being bussed 40 km outside of town did not seem enjoyable. Thus, I stayed in the office and enjoyed the peace and quiet of getting stuff done. Now, what brought me to the big city were meetings and an exhibition. For the meetings, it's been a solid success. This includes a night of unusually heavy drinking on Friday with some potential clients. I never knew Chinese business people drank so much. It is quite at odds with many Asian friends who are "cheap dates" in the sense that only a couple drinks will do them in. Many toasts were made. Most of them were not understood, but that did not seem to matter. It is evenings like that where I am glad I do not suffer from "cheap date" syndrome and that I'm a big enough person to hold it all together rather well. Also, my capacity for extreme introspection becomes quite active after a few drinks as I constantly try to examine my behavior to ensure I have not made any treasonous statements or committed any seditious acts. Best I can tell, I just talk a lot during such moments but manage to say nothing at all. It is a skill I have been carefully cultivating throughout my many mealtime ramblings that I mentioned last week. That entry was quite the whopper. I wonder if I will ever finish it. Perhaps tomorrow? Probably not.

The exhibition side of my visit sort of fell through owing to some rather pathetic miscommunication internally. That's really too bad, because it looked like it would be interesting since it was an exhibition of businesses organized by the U.S. embassy. We did have a booth on Thursday and Friday and I was supposed to be the booth babe on Saturday. Well, by booth babe, I mean congenial fellow who would chat up the company and the services we offer to anyone passing by our booth. However, due to the aforementioned Family Day, the decision was made to rig it all down on Friday evening and not attend Saturday. Now, this decision was made but not communicated to myself nor my manager so I arrived into town thinking my suit would do more than hang in the closet. It seems I have been wrong. At least it still looks like a sharp suit.

It is at this point that I have realized I have picked a strange title for this post. While I can change it to something more relevant like "ramblings: part 2" I think the mismatched title is more fitting.

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

tuesdays in turkmenistan: a sham?

This isn't going to come out well. I know because I've tried to write this entry several times, but today I'm just saying screw it and we'll go for it and see what happens. Even the post from two weeks ago was an attempt at this, but it ended up going a different direction. Related to all that is this concept of who you are. Who you are is in theory a pretty specific thing. You occupy a set physical space and are a particular being. Your concept of self should be well grounded, but I have this idea about people as symbols. I've held this idea for a long time. Not held in the sense that I firmly believe it and base significant portions of my worldview around it as a central tenet of my existence. More like I have had this idea for many years and use it to help understand how people perceive their relationships with one another. The core of the "people as symbols" idea is that we never really know each other. We don't know the very core and essence of another person. Instead, we only know them for what they represent to us, what they symbolize about the world for ourselves. Think of the person you are closest to in the entire world. Do you know them as them and understand how they see themselves and what they perceive? Or, instead, do you see them for what they mean to you in your life and even when you support them, it's because of the reciprocal feedback and enjoyment you may get from that? This isn't meant to be a cynical idea though it can come across as such. Perhaps the real point is that true empathy is impossible since you can never know exactly what another person is feeling or thinking. It is entirely possible that my interest in this idea says a significant amount about the relationships I have with those around me, even with people to whom I am relatively close.

Why does this matter and why is it "all a sham" in my post title? It's complicated and I'm desperately trying to steer this entry into a direction that will eventually sort of tie into that title. Maybe. Amongst the thought about this people are symbols idea has come some thoughts about what I represent to other people. It is the natural reflection of what other people represent to me. And it makes me wonder about who I am for everyone. See, this also ties into another idea which is that we all act differently around different people. Again, I tried to write about this three weeks ago and did a dismal job then. The point is that we're a bit different in front of our parents compared to our siblings compared to our friends compared to our co-workers. And even within these groups, we have specific behavioral patterns and roles which we fill and how we complement (not in the 'hey you're cute' way, but the 'hey, this piece fits nicely way') others in different ways depending on the relationship we have with that person or group. I've been mulling this over. Yesterday, I was not literally on fire at lunch and dinner. It's my free-zone here in the canteen to say anything and everything that comes to mind. For all the childhood shyness and general dislike of public speaking, I really enjoy talking during mealtime here. Perhaps it's partly out of a not-so-secret love of the sound of my own oration or a dislike of the awkward silence of a bunch of semi-strangers eating together or one of the few precious times where we're not "at work" in the sense that we're not metaphorically (nor literally, I hope) chained to our desks or maybe I just have a lot on my mind and like to make people laugh. If I may humbly submit, I am very funny at mealtime. I'm not entirely sure how or why this is possible. It's a mix of filling an otherwise silent void with my inane ramblings about the absurd peculiarities of both this work and this place, my willingness to say anything (perhaps too often for shock value), the sarcasm that never ever ends to the point where people have told me it's hard to tell if I'm actually being serious at meals even during those times I am trying to be serious. Evidently, along with having this seemingly odd rep for talking a lot during mealtime, I also have a rep for pulling all manner of statistics and citing research on whatever the topic of the day might be. If you're talking about it, apparently, I've read about it. Well, why not. I consume a lot of news. All sorts of crazy news too. People believe something more if it rhymes? Sure, why not?

That was a long-ish tangent but the point is that I am a certain person in a certain context with the people here. For the most part, these are not people I work directly with in my own segment, which helps me further compartmentalize. Is that person any more or less the "real" me? I further joke in a somewhat meta-sense that "my whole life is a sham" which is a line I am shamelessly stealing from Seinfeld. In that show, George is responding to someone who has just said that he (not George) is living a lie. In response, George says "I lie every second of the day. My whole life is a sham." I use that line frequently here because, well, because there's a bit of truth to it. Not that my existence is somehow not true, but that the projection of me that people see here is not entirely accurate. It's difficult to say if it is more accurate than other facets of my personality though because that again touches on this concept of self and who you are and if there is somehow a core you that is always there, never-changing. This is coming out so badly, but I need to soldier on. I even carry on this joke a bit further by pointing out the suspicious lack of photos and how I've never shown any real evidence that I am who I say I am. It is all part of my ruse as a Chinese guy from Kazakhstan pretending to be American but secretly working for the Russians. Perhaps I am Burn Notice. Referring to a person (in this case, myself) as a TV show reminds me of a Simpsons quote. Humor me here:

Homer: I think the government has better things to do than to read my mail.
(cut to agents reading letters from a bag called 'Simpson Mail')
FBI Agent: Most people write letters to movie stars. This Simpson guy writes to movies. "Dear Die Hard. You rock. Especially when that guy was on the roof. P.S: Do you know Mad Max?"

Comedy gold.

Back on point. I keep answering the same basic questions to people. I try to be patient because while I have been here surprisingly close to a year, I have not told everyone everything about every facet of my life. The basic questions usually cover these four topics:
1. Questions about past: Where are you from? What's it like there? School? Degree in?
2. Questions about family and friends: Parents? Married? Why not? Brothers/sisters?
3. Questions about interests: Hobbies? Days off plans? Play sports?
4. Questions about work: Previous work locations? What was it like?
Yes, it is all polite conversation. And yes, all the answers should stay the same, but every time I answer a question, it's not that I give conflicting information, but sometimes I give a little more or a little less. Do I go into the particulars of who I lived with in college? What level of detail do I share about my plans for days off? I share different things with different people. Is that because it is what I think they want to hear out of polite conversation? Or do I share more or less depending on what I want from that person and how well I want them to know me and thus in turn how well I want to know them? In the end, everyone knows me, but a slightly different version of me which makes perfect sense. This isn't a phenomena that is somehow unique to my existence. Everyone you know has a largely similar but still different set of information about you based on their unique experiences with you. Combined with their own experiences of everyone else they know, they have formed and shaped some perception of you that fits with the rest of their worldview.

Thus far, I have managed to expend a great number of words to basically say that everyone is unique and we can never know exactly what someone else is thinking/feeling. So what? The what is that while I am unique in the sense that everyone is unique, I suspect my uniqueness has the quirk of being more different to more people. My compartmentalization of my life has led people to fill-in aspects of my life that I do not otherwise share. Perhaps their attempt at filling in the blanks is incomplete and even largely sub-conscious, but people see what they want to see. I think this is why people here will often say I look Turkmen or Kazakh. Sure, I might look local, but contextually, that is what people here would expect to see so they fill in whatever they need to in order to complete the context of my existence. This is starting to not make sense (or perhaps never made any sense) so before this entry ends, again in relative failure compared to its ultimate objective, I want to get across this idea that if I'm different enough to different people, do I actually change? Is my awareness of others' perceptions also shaping my own actions and ideas and becoming "self-fulfilling"? It's not like there will be some problem of inherent inconsistency between different perceptions people have of me that will lead to some incompleteness-induced implosion. (That sentence has too many words that start with the letter "i".) The problem is about being able to hold and shape one's own vision of himself or herself, specially my vision of me. No, scratch that. That's not the problem. That is merely an attempt to make the problem sound more important than it really is. The problem is why do I even think about this in the first place. What does my interest with this subject say about what I think of my own life and my own choices? This goes into ideas about the Dunning-Kruger effect and Impostor syndrome. It is a deep interest in self-awareness and what that means and implies. So close, but so far from where I wanted to go with this post.