Reaping the rewards of my gig with the government

I chose to work in the government 12 years ago. Looking back, I’m glad I did.

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“What’s that?” There was a split-second pause in our conversation as a friend tried to make sense of my response. “Ah, government… right?” he said. I nodded in confirmation, and wished we’d change the topic of our conversation right away. I could sense his surprise at least, or cynicism at worst, after I told him I was leaving my job, my first one out of college and less than three months into it.

Its less-than-stellar reputation and the meager salary that came with it are common knowledge. I could almost read their thought bubbles, “Why?” or “Are you out of your mind?” Or perhaps the more pitiful “Sorry to hear that.” As friends and classmates got a good head start in their careers in private firms and non-profits, my decision to work for the government seemed like backtracking right after I started.

Anyone who has changed jobs has done it one way or another. It’s like cheating, only in a professional way. You take a day off or show up late for work for that job interview. I must have done the latter, and brought a change of clothes as I was careful not to drop any hints of my transgression. I wore a short-sleeved maroon button-up shirt and khakis, which was already dressy compared with my daily ensemble of jeans and T-shirt in my first job at a non-profit organization.

My first job wasn’t necessarily my first choice. All along, even before graduation, I had set my sight on working in the government. Not just any government office though. I applied to a few others but the development planning agency was at the top of my list. How does one development-plan? I didn’t quite fully comprehend then what the job entailed, but “development planning” sounded too important to pass up. It had the reputation of accepting only the best and the brightest. Of course, I wanted to be a part of it.

I asked for tips from two people who were then connected with the office. I made acquaintance with one via an online forum for cellphone enthusiasts, who eventually switched careers to become a tech writer. The other was an alumnus of my college who went to work there for a couple of years, and later on left to pursue graduate studies on a scholarship in Brussels. Those didn’t seem to be terrible career paths. With limited knowledge of the possible entry-level jobs I could apply to, I thought I could forge something similar for myself.

I sent in my job application in a month after I graduated, in April of 2004, and got a call from HR for a written test a month or two later. The three-hour test consisted of management questions (!), economic concepts, basic algebra, and two essays. And again, like many of job applications then (and until now), there was silence. This was in 2004, an election year, and every time the Commission on Election issues a hiring freeze in the government. This dragged on until November when I finally got called in for an interview.

The panel didn’t bring up the test results during the interview, thankfully. I still doubt I passed the economics part of the test after only taking a basic economics course in my undergrad. I must have winged it on the essay, which asked the role of “sustainable development” in national development, a concept drilled down to us in college. It was the trending development jargon, the “inclusive development” of mid-2000. The panel consisted of four chiefs, each heading the four divisions of the Agriculture Staff, and two hiring committee representatives. I can’t exactly remember their questions. All I remember is that everything went smoothly. It was jovial, almost informal- encouraging if not reassuring signs.

There were three other applicants that day. We were corralled in a waiting lounge with blue walls the size of a big cubicle, which felt like being inside the dead-end of a maze when one looked around while seated down. Like the other interviewees, I was whisked back to the maze after the panel interview and told to wait our turn before the one-on-one interview with the director.

He was portly and in his late forties. I saw him a little earlier walk in with a swagger, and assumed that must be him. We talked about an upland agriculture project, a topic I should have known well, and wished I had, especially because I spent one month doing our practicum with the implementers of that very same project.

He probably caught my bluff. After all, it’s a project he knows too well, because his office reviewed the technical aspects of the project before it got the go signal for funding by a multilateral bank- one of the core tasks of the job. He asked probing questions. But really, what does a barely-out-of-college 21 year-old know about development planning? Until now, and several local and international development organizations later, I’m still looking for that definitive answer.

Albeit late, I still went to work that day, or at least tried to, mostly asking myself: “Will I be sitting on the same chair for a while? What could I have said differently? What now? I remember asking a friend about an interview he had once for an admin job. Only with a little enthusiasm, he told me that he “said all the things they (the interviewers) wanted to hear.” I wish I could have said the same after my interview. I wasn’t new at all to the professional world, already with two months of work experience then under my belt.

A few weeks after the interview, I got an email asking me to submit documents to kickstart the hiring process, before assuming my government post. On the last workday of 2004 I became an “Economic Development Specialist.” I reveled in my job title. I’ll be doing development planning.

The Medium-Term Philippine Development Plan or MTPDP was our bible. Jeffrey Sachs lauded that version of the plan as “one of the best, if not the best, he has ever seen.” Those words would have looked nice in its dust jacket if ever it had one. The Plan was an infallible scripture cited in memos, quoted in government meetings, and subscribed to as our superior belief system during donor meetings. We deferred to its wisdom. At least for the next six years until a new leader is elected. The plan coincides with the term of the president, after which its contents are revised or recycled, or rendered irrelevant.

Some days we argued over the technical merits of Jatropha curcas as a source biofuel, other days we’re building capacity to mainstream sustainable development before we moved on to the mainstream climate change in local development. Yes, I learned its jargons. I met many technocrats, competent and controversial ones.

Those two and a half years must have been my busiest: reviewing projects, attending technical working groups, facilitating workshops. My blog that I started in 2003 was inactive during those years. It’s also the longest I’ve held down a job.

I observed that my senior colleagues, including those who have left, have a predictable career progression: work for a couple of years, go on study leave to study abroad, and return to government. Our office was notorious for its high churn rate. Those who didn’t opt for a study leave resigned from their post because they didn’t want to be bound to a service contract.

I usually went to work at 7:00 in the morning so I can leave at 4:00 in the afternoon. One day I stayed later than usual, making sure many of my colleagues have left for the day. I sent my then chief who concurrently worked as the officer-in-charge a Sametime message, asking her if she had a minute to speak. She said yes so I went to her office, sat down, and talked about my plans, which unfortunately no longer included them. She understood and respected my decision. I was one of those who didn’t want to be tethered to a service contract. After two and a half years, I left my job to study on a scholarship in Freiburg in Germany.

I became good friends with many of my colleagues, and still keep in touch with many of them. It’s a unique professional relationship I haven’t been able to replicate in my other jobs, for better or worse. We have bumped into each other in international conferences in South Africa, or worked together again a few years down the road at the United Nations or Asian Development Bank in Manila.

My stint with the government prepared me well in understanding its machinations. This appreciation comes in handy even up to this day. I’ve established lifelong friendships and a sturdy network. I’ve been shaping an interesting through the years. That second job provided me a mental model of the so-called bureaucracy, including its potential and foibles. After making a decision twelve years hence, when I thought I was making a backtrack, I didn’t know it would propel me forward.

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This is the second of a series of blog posts where I will write about my previous jobs. Read the first post here. If you have other suggestions, let me know in the comments section! Don’t forget to subscribe to my newsletter.

Adulting advice from a book author

Tips on how to get your act together from a writer who has been there and done that

margaux-bergen-book-signing

When I was in grade school, I envied my other classmates who were better off than my family. My brother and I studied in an exclusive school for boys in grade school, where many of my classmates came from well-off families. Our blue and white school uniform did not disguise the Game Boy and Nike Air Max other students brought to school. It was easy to be better off compared to our family. My parents only earned enough to meet our day-to-day needs. But there were even times they had to borrow and pool money to pay for our tuition so the school would allow us to take the quarterly periodic tests. I fantasized of being born into a different, well-off family (which reminds me of this meme). I imagined being chauffeured to and from school (we got our first family car when I was 23). During Christmas breaks, I also wanted to have travel plans, wore thick sweaters, and visit Disneyland. But the closest I got to my dreams was a visit to a local theme park with questionable safety standards and the cold AC of a shopping mall.

You’d think I would outgrow this feeling of envy as I got older, but my wants and wishes turned more elaborate yet more professional. My mom was a public school teacher, and I wished she had the right connections to set me up for any well-paying job. My father had left the country. What if they were doctors and lawyers, so choosing a career would have been as easy as taking over their practice? They let me take up a major in college that no one among us knew of the future career odds and options. I was an early version of a free-range kid out of necessity, because they didn’t have the means to put up that fence that could give me a sheltered life.

I didn’t have anyone to turn to, and neither knew the right questions much less have the gumption to ask. Unlike meals I’ve had with other families, eating on the dining table was an act of nutrition and not discussion.

When I went to grad school in my early 20’s, I realized all these fantasies and what-ifs were just that- unhealthy and irrelevant ruminations that stem from comparing my life with that of others. It’s a waste of time and energy, better harnessed for working with what my parents have been able to provide, and carving my own niche in life. We always had food on the table and a roof over my head. And I’m forever grateful for that. They’re easy for me to say now in hindsight. But who’s supposed to teach us these nuggets of wisdom when we’re young? From whom, and how can we learn them sooner rather than later?

Margaux Bergen in her first book “Navigating Life: Things I Wish My Mother Had Told Me” could be that person. She addresses these thorny life questions, and so much more. I met her in person during her book reading and signing last Tuesday at the Barnes & Noble in Brookland. She read excerpts from her book, which dishes out lessons on school, jobs, and relationships. The book is difficult to categorize given its breadth of topic. It’s self-help, parenting, career advice, and memoir all rolled into one. The book, written over a span of ten years, was originally addressed to her daughter when she went to college, which explains the crossover themes of the book, and the tender prose and intimate voice in which it is written.

I arrived early at the book event and got the chance to chat with the Margaux. We talked a bit about her book, our love for writing, and careers. I felt an affinity for her when I learned that at one point she also worked for the World Bank, where where I work now as a consultant. Showing motherly concern, she gave me unsolicited and simple advice on how to get a staff position.

I bought a copy of Margaux’s book that I picked up right off the display showcase beside her. I asked her to sign and address the book to a friend who has been asking me for career tips, and worrying about not finding a job once she finishes grad school next year. She comes from a humble background, has paved her own career path, and is now studying on a scholarship here in the US. Hopefully she benefits a lot from the book, beyond the advice I’ve been giving her born mainly out of my own experience and decisions, some of which have not necessarily been the best I have made. I plan to give it to her as a Christmas present, although I could use one for myself. I hope she won’t notice the creased spine and the broken-in look of its edges by the time she reads it.