Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Putting together a bid list

Hands down, the most exciting thing about A-100 is the bid list.  Even though most of us will remain in the DC area for the short-term future (anywhere from a few months to 2 years), we keep narrowing the possibilities of our next post.  First, we get the bid list which narrows down the possibilities to about 70 locations or so.  Then, we start thinking about which post we WANT.  Then, in a few weeks, we will find out where we are actually going.

At this point in my career (just starting out), I actually have very little say in where I get to go.  Like all foreign service officers, I am world-wide available.  I have agreed to go to where ever the State Department sends me.  Sure, they could send me to Rome, London, or Paris.  But, they could also send me to Islamabad, Mogadishu, or Tokyo.  Since I am single, I plan to go alone to my post, but officers are often sent to unaccompanied posts without their family.

That being said, the Foreign Service recognizes that people do better work when they are happy and that people are happier when they are somewhere they want to be.  So how do they figure out where everyone goes?  Through the bidding process.  (Note: the bidding process changes dramatically for mid-level and senior-level officer.  I am only familiar with the entry-level bidding process).

My A-100 class was given the bid list which has all the possible posts.  This list is fluid.  There have already been several changes and there are likely to be a few more changes - even after we turn in the list on Friday.  For every post, they list the Bureau, city, job title, approximate start date, differential pay (extra pay for serving in hardship posts), danger pay (extra pay for serving in dangerous posts), and post size.  For each of these posts, we have to bid high, medium, or low.  We also have to turn in a list of 3 preferences, which help explain WHY I bid what I did.  (My 3 preferences are (1) I can bring my dog; (2) decent social/singles life; and (3) I'd like to learn Portuguese or French).

There is a real debate on how people choose to rank their bids.  Some people have assigned numerical value for their various preferences and are letting a formula help them make their decisions.  Some people have lots of highs, very few mediums and lots of lows.  Some have only a few highs, lots of mediums and lows.  I can guarantee that no two bid lists are the same.  I would venture that no two lists are even substantially the same.

One of the comforting realizations going through this process is that there is someone who loves every post.  I have talked to people who can't believe that I like certain posts and other people who are bidding on posts I hate.  Everyone is different.  So, how did I do this?  After doing a fair amount of research (both State Dept. sources and outside sources), I came up with a system.  

For me to bid 'high' on a post, I have to absolutely LOVE the post.  If I get one of my highs in 2 weeks, you are likely to see me jumping up and down.  In my head, I will be making fun of everyone else in my class that I got that post and they didn't.  Proper decorum does not allow me to get on stage and say, "Nanananananana", but I can guarantee you that is how I will feel.  So, how many places can bring about such euphoria?  I believe I will be bidding 14 posts high.

Mediums are a little bit different.  A medium might not jump right off the page at me, but I find it very intriguing.  Perhaps it is an interesting place, but I don't like the language.  Or perhaps the completely obscure language fascinates me.  (Who wouldn't want to learn Telugu?  Telugu is a real language.  You can look it up).  At the end of the day, I won't be upset if I get a medium.  I may not be shouting off rooftops, but I won't be crying either.  I have about 25 or so mediums.

Lows are places or jobs I just really don't want to go to.  Now, some of these places are perfectly fine.  I would be willing to bet that I have a great time there.  But, if I get a low, I have every right to bitch and moan on flag day.  I get to be pissy about it and people just have to deal with it.

It is hard to fathom that two weeks ago, I had ZERO idea where I would be going.  In a little over two weeks from now, I will KNOW where I am going.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

First Week and Bid List

I've gotten at least three lectures about blogging about the Foreign Service, so I am being careful about what I say.  That being said - I GOT MY BID LIST TODAY.  While I can't divulge the list, I can say there are some pretty cool places on there.  Lots of posts in Latin America and Africa.  I had never heard of a few of the posts.  Only a few in Europe.  No Italian posts. :(  Overall, I am very happy with my options.  I have to turn in the list a week from tomorrow.

It seems to be a cliche, but the group of people I am in class with is very impressive.  Lots of highly educated, highly traveled, multilingual, talented people.  We have journalists, doctors (PHD), lawyers (lots of us), a documentary filmmaker, bankers (lots of them too), a few recent graduates, and a few government employees.  Most of the people are in their late 20s or early 30s, but the ages run from at least 22 to early 50s.  About 50/50 on married/single and about 1/4 seem to have kids.  About 1/3 of the people seem to be local hires, with Seattle and Texas being well represented as well.  Most people have spent significant amounts of time overseas, but we have at least one guy who has never left the country.

For the most part, the classes have been interesting.  My days are going by so much quicker than when I was at the Coast Guard.  I am really enjoying myself at work.  I am making great benefits with the per diem.  And my maid cleaned my apartment today.  Yeah, that's right - my maid.  Awesome.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Almost There

Well, I've moved in to my new apartment in Crystal City.  Most of my worldly possessions are sitting in storage somewhere in Maryland.  In two days, I start my new career in the Foreign Service.  Wow.  Things are really about to change.


After several weather-related delays, I finally had my pack-out yesterday.  It went pretty well.  The entire crew consisted of two middle-aged guys.  When they got there, I showed them what goes where.  First, they packed my 'air' shipment, which is limited to 250 lbs.  They put everything into two huge boxes and then put those in the truck.  Then, they brought in tons of boxes and packing paper and started packing.

The packing was quick, but haphazard.  For example, I had just washed some sheets, towels, and rugs.  Rather than folding these in any manner, they just shoved them into a box.  Not a big deal, but kind of obnoxious.  They did repack the dozen or so boxes that I had never unpacked from my move to Fredericksburg.

Speaking of books, I own way too many.  Every box or piece of furniture was individually numbered.  All told, I had 72 items on my packout list.  9 of these items were boxes full of books.  That is, 1 out of every 8 items I own is a box of books.

When doing the inventory, the packer had to note the condition of all my furniture.  They had codes for conditions such as torn (T), stained (ST), warn (W), and my personal favorite, soiled (SO).  Every single piece of furniture I owned was downgraded by his notes.  The worst was my dresser which required two lines in order to note all of its imperfections.

Last week of work

My last week of work was about as perfect as you could imagine.  In case you didn't hear, we got hit with two huge snow storms from Friday through Wednesday.  The government was closed for four days, so I didn't have to work.  Fredericksburg got hit less than all the other areas, so I was able to get around fairly well by Monday and through the week.  I won an online poker tournament.  On my last day, we got to start 2 hours late (so no more 5 am alarms).  I invited friends and co-workers to a Happy Hour on Friday and got to see friends from the Foreign Service study group, co-workers at the Coast Guard, and a few of my old friends from the US Attorney's Office/

What's next

Tomorrow, I have a Happy Hour where I will get to meet many of my new A-100 classmates.  Tuesday, we start at Main State, where we will be sworn in, get our ID badges, and fill out paperwork.  We start our real training on Wednesday.  Most importantly, one day next week I will get the bid list.  The bid list contains all of the posts that I MAY go to.  My possible destinations will go from unlimited to around 100 possibilities.  While I can't publicly state what all the options are, I may mention a few of my favorites.  And in less than a month from now (a short month at that), I will learn where I will spend the next few years of my life.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Packing Out

One of the great benefits of joining the Foreign Service is that the State Department pays for my move.  In fact, they arrange for everything.  But, that does not make it easy.

The hardest part of the whole moving process may just be figuring out what is going on.  When I move to DC in two weeks (actually, moving to Arlington), I will be staying in a corporate apartment, which is fully furnished.  In that regard, it is like a hotel room with a kitchen.  I am likely going to be there, however, for several months up to a year.  So, in that regard, it is my home and I want to have MY things with me.  So, I have to figure out what to bring with me, what to put in storage and how all this works.

Separating my stuff

Everything that I own will be classified into one of three categories.  First, you have the stuff that I will bring with me.  Since I am driving to DC, this is everything that will fit into my car (I will probably make more than one trip).  If I were flying, this would be what I could fit into my suitcases and would be limited by airline weight restrictions (usually 50 lbs./bag X 2 bags).  Since I take this stuff with me, I will have it as soon as I get to my post (or in this case, training in DC).

The second category is called Unaccompanied Air Baggage (UAB).  These items are shipped, by air, to your post or training (since I live so close to DC, my stuff will not be shipped by air).  Including the weight of the packaging material, this is limited to 250 lbs.  Typically, it arrives a few days to two weeks after you do (I will likely get mine on the day I move into my new apartment).  The UAB will generally include more clothes and other items you want relatively quickly at post, such as DVDs, linens, some cooking utensils, etc.

The third category is called Household Effects (HHE).  These are the big ticket items and the rest of the stuff you couldn't fit into the previous categories.  Items such as TV, furniture, appliances, etc.  Generally, these items are shipped by land or sea and can take several months until they arrive at post.  The maximum weight of HHE is 18,000 lbs (9 tons).  During training, most of these items are stored at a facility in Maryland.  When I go to my first post, I can bring 7,200 lbs of HHE with me if the place is furnished or the whole 18,000 lbs if it is unfurnished.  My total shipped/stored weight can never exceed 18,000 lbs.

So, to start this whole process, I walked around my apartment and inventoried everything.  When printed out, all of my worldly possessions add up to six pages.  Not sure if this makes me happy or sad.  Then, I categorized everything into one of 9 categories (Furniture, electronics, Artwork, Miscellaneous, Kitchen, Bathroom, Linens, Dog Stuff, clothes and storage). 

Then I went through the list and decided what I wanted to store, to bring with me, and to put in UAB.  Most of it was pretty easy.  All the furniture was going to storage, most of the clothes were coming with me or going UAB.  Some things were more difficult.  Should I bring more cereal bowls? (yes)  How many towels should I bring? (Two)  Should I bring my blender? (No.)

Now, I am at the point where I am physically separating these items.  Most of the HHE stuff is going into the den in my apartment.  The UAB stuff is sitting on my dining room table.  The hardest part is how to deal with HHE items that I plan to use until the day of the packout.  For example, my bathroom and kitchen rugs.  I am still using them and they need to be washed before they are packed away, but I don't know how much time I will have to wash stuff on the packout day.

When to move?

From the day that the movers come and take my stuff, I will be living on the government's dime (Thanks, everyone).  But the government has lots of rules and regulations to figure out how and when they will pay for per diem.  It is probably easiest if we work backwards.

I start training on February 16, 2010.  As of that date, they will pay for my housing at the local rates.  This means actual costs up to a maximum for lodging (it varies, but for DC is around $200/day) and a flat rate for meals, incidentals, and expenses (around $70/day).  Once I have been in training for 60 days, they cut these rates in half.  After another 60 days, it is cut in half again.  It remains at this rate until I finish training.  Since I am staying at Oakwood, all of my lodging is paid directly to Oakwood and I only get the MI&E money.

It is not practical for me to move to DC on the day that I start training, so the regulations allow me to arrive in DC two whole days before I start work.  So, I can move to Oakwood on February 14 (Happy Valentine's Day).  They also pay for my drive here, which if I were coming from California would allow me lodging and MI&E for the trip.  Since I am only 52 miles away, I will only get paid for my mileage.

For a variety of reasons, it is not possible to expect all pack-outs (where the movers pack and load up your stuff) to happen on the day you leave for DC.  The pack-out, may occur anywhere from 1 day to 10 days before you actually leave for DC.  Recognizing that you can't really live in your home after it has been packed out, the government will pay for up to ten days of post-packout, pre-departure per diem (including lodging and MI&E).  You can only used this per diem in the place of the pack-out.  Because I work in DC and car pool in from Fredericksburg, I was hoping to stay in a hotel closer to DC to cut down on my commute the last week.  That is not an option.  Right now, my packout is scheduled for February 10, which will have me in a Fredericksburg hotel for only 4 days (I was originially scheduled for 10 days).

The most daunting aspect of all this per diem is that (with the exception of Oakwood) I have to pay for the costs upfront and I will get reimbursed later on.  So, if I miscalculate, I will be screwed.