Sunday, June 13, 2010

I’m back in the land of the employed (part 1)

This is the top of the Ocean Voyager exhibit at the Georgia Aquarium…my new “office”

It’s a job I’ve been wanting for 2 years but my previous full-time position didn’t give me the time off I’d need to pursue it. The position: Dive Master in the Dive Immersion Program (DIP) at the Georgia Aquarium. In it, I’ll be helping lead groups of divers and snorkelers on guided tours of the big Ocean Voyager exhibit.

Most of you know I’ve been a volunteer diver at the aquarium for over 4 years and that diving is a passion of mine. I got my original certification back in 1983 while I was still in college but took a 17 year break from it until 2000 when I had more time and money. Since then, I’ve gotten several specialty certifications such as Underwater Photography, Wreck/Deep diving, NITROX, and a Rescue Diver.

When the aquarium was putting out the call for volunteers in the spring of 2005, I jumped at the chance. I was a non-diving volunteer since the pre-opening day in November 2005. Three months later, I joined the group of volunteer divers.

The Dive Immersion Program started in 2008. As a volunteer, I thought I’d get first shot at being part of the program, but positions in the new group were being filled from the outside. They also required a Dive Master/Instructor certification or higher, something I didn’t have. Besides, I knew the pay wasn’t anywhere near what I was used to and at the time, I wasn’t willing to completely give up software engineering. Then I was given a break from corporate software development last year when I got laid off in July.

In December, Karen and I decided I could didn’t have to go back into software and could retire if I wanted to. I decided to look into getting a job at the aquarium in the DIP but that meant having to get my Dive Master certification. I took the money ADP paid me for my unused vacation and got that certification, completing it in March. All the while I was taking the classes, I would talk to the manager of the DIP to let her know what I was doing and that I was interested in joining the staff.

Once I got my certification, I filled out an application for the position and bided my time. They had just filled 4 positions but told me that there is turnover and that it shouldn’t take too long for new positions to open up. Then, a few weeks later, I was talking to one of the DIP staff members who told me he and another person had just accepted a spot with the new dolphin exhibit and they would be leaving the DIP. I figured that this means they’d have 2 open slots so later that morning, I stopped by the DIP office to say hello and inquire about the news and was told they’d be filling those spots. Fate had stepped in to help me achieve my dreams!

The manager, Susan, wasn’t sure how quickly they’d be able to move on filling the positions but I was on the top of the list to contact when things would get moving. She suggested I fill out another application and submit it along with my resume and they would call with the next step. This was on May 14 during my normal volunteer dive shift. The next day, Karen and I flew to Hawaii to celebrate my birthday.

Continued in part 2….

I’m back in the land of the employed (part 2)

The morning after my birthday, I noticed I had a voicemail message from Susan asking if I’d be available to come in for a swim/dive test on May 31 or June 1. I returned the call and told her yes, I’d definitely be available but I was in Hawaii and wouldn’t return until 5/23. I explained that my next volunteer shift would be on 5/28, and I could talk to her then. The test was rescheduled until June 7 which would give me some time to practice the various skills that I would be required to demonstrate. Although Karen and I go swimming a lot, there are a few skills that I wasn’t sure I’d be able to do without some practice.

The test would consist of the following skills:

Swimming tests:
25 yd. underwater swim
400 yd. swim in 12 minutes or less
10 minutes treading water, the last 2 without using hands
25 yd. tired swimmer tow

Diving tests (all done underwater w/scuba gear on):
Brick retrieval from 15 ft
Mask and regulator clearing
BC removal/replacement
50 yd air sharing 
Unconscious diver rescue and 100 yd tow.

And finally, a 30-second briefing that simulates addressing a group that will be diving in the Ocean Voyager exhibit on a DIP tour.

The big thing I was worried about was the underwater swim. I didn’t think I’d have problems with the rest of them but I hadn’t attempted doing any distances underwater since the original testing I did to become a volunteer diver 5 years ago. The weekend before the tests, Karen and I went to the pool at our gym (Lifetime Fitness) and with a few deep breaths and a good push off the wall, I was able to complete the 25 yards without much difficulty. I was also a little concerned about the tired swimmer tow because it was the most physically demanding of the swimming tests but I didn’t have a good way to practice that so I figured I’d just do the best I could.

For this particular testing session, I would be given points on how well I would do. The swimming elements were pass/fail but the diving elements were graded. Because the DIP divers lead groups and are essentially representing the aquarium to the general public, my skills would have to be good. I had no doubts about those, though because I had to demonstrate similar skills to complete my Dive Con certification just a couple of months ago.

The tests began at 7:30am on Monday, June 7 at the Georgia Tech Aquatic Center, in the diving well used during the 1996 Olympic Games. It was the same place where they tested us 5 years ago. The diving well is a square 25 yd x 25 yd x 15 ft deep. There were going to be a total of 6 people being tested. Two of us were current volunteer divers and the other 4 were outside applicants. I knew the other volunteer because we had both started in the dive program at the same time and one of the others was an employee at the dive shop where I got my Dive Con certification.

First up was the 25 yd underwater swim. I got a weak kick off from the wall so I was really worried I wouldn’t make it but when I started feeling tired, I looked up and saw the opposite wall wasn’t nearly as far away as I thought it was. I made it feeling like I had enough energy to another 10 yds if I wanted. After everyone was done, one candidate was out. He didn’t make it all the way across.

Next up, the 400 yd surface swim. That proved no match for me as I finished it in 8:35. This one took down another candidate so now there were 4 of us left. Next, the 10 minute water tread.

There was a twist in this because they said we had to keep our face out of the water. Using traditional drown proofing techniques, it’s possible to stay afloat for hours by simply bobbing up and down but it means holding your face in the water for a few seconds, lifting it up to breath, then putting it back down again. Not for this test. We had to keep our hands and arms constantly moving and to top that off, the last 2 minutes we had to hold our hands out of the water and just stay afloat by kicking. That turned out to be a bit tougher than I expected but I made it through as did the rest of us.

We got to take a little break then came the 25 yd. tired swimmer tow. This involves wrapping one arm around someone’s chest, supporting them from underneath with your hips, and using your free arm and legs, do a sort-of sidestroke. It’s extremely inefficient and to make matters worse, the person I had to tow was probably 4” taller and 25 lbs heavier than me. Add to that the fatigue I was feeling from the treading earlier and it made me feel like I’d been running a mile. But, I did it. That concluded the swimming test portion, next up was the diving skills.

The diving exercises were simple but one of the requirements was that we couldn’t be touching the bottom of the pool while doing them. In other words, we had to demonstrate that we could maintain neutral buoyancy while performing the skills. I wasn’t too worried about it because I can do that. I did have a bit of difficulty with the BC removal/replacement though because the weight of the tank caused it to slip to one side while I was trying to put it back on. I eventually noticed it but got dinged a point for it in the final evaluation.

I also got dinged a bit during the unconscious diver rescue. Instead of making a very controlled ascent to get the victim to the surface, I added too much air to his BC causing him to go up too rapidly (but, to be fair, he ended up doing the same to me). If he were really unconscious and we were at a reasonable depth, I could have given him the bends. But, I got through all the skills so the last thing was the 30-second presentation.

Each of us was handed a small script that we could read off if needed. It turned out they were all a little different. I didn’t go first so I had a few minutes to read and get familiar with it. When my turn came, I made sure to smile and make eye contact with everyone. I wanted them to know that I was really excited to be talking to them.

Once all of our briefings were done, the evaluators called us over individually to discuss how we did and whether they thought we should come back for a final interview. Susan told me that my water skills were good and that the only things they thought needed some improvement were the things I mentioned above about the BC and diver rescue.

She then said my briefing was excellent, and it far outweighed any issues I had with the skills. In the position they were hiring, presenting a good image to the public is paramount, and my presentation skills showed that I would be good at that. I was asked to come back for the final interview that was to be held at the aquarium in about an hour. Of the 4 of us that finished the skills, 3 were asked back. Surprisingly, the other volunteer was not among them.

I felt good that I hadn’t completely screwed something up but I also knew that of the 3, I felt I was the most qualified just from the standpoint that I had been volunteering for 4.5 years, knew the equipment, could perform maintenance on any of it including regulators, and also knew most of the people on the DIP staff and they knew me. After the interview, Susan said they would be making a decision either later that day or the next day and they would call with their decision. I had gotten to know the other interviewees and felt like we were all good candidates, so there was still a little anxiety since there were 3 people for 2 positions.

By the end of the day, I didn’t get a call. Nor did I get one the next day. On Wednesday, I began thinking that HR was delayed because they were waiting on some paperwork or someone was out of the office. Surely they would call with a yes or no! I figured if I didn’t hear from them by Friday, I’d be seeing them since I’d be there for my regular shift.

On Friday morning around 8:30, I got a call from the HR rep who was in the interview telling me she had good news and that they were offering me the position of part-time Dive Master in the Dive Immersion Program. Naturally, I accepted and thanked her. She said my start date would be 6/28 and that I was to attend a new hire orientation on 7/5. She also wanted me to stop by the HR department to fill out some preliminary paperwork so they could do a small background check on me. Fortunately, I’m current on my diving physical so I don’t have to get one of those or a new drug test done.

When I arrived for my shift, I told the group that I dive with in the Fresh Water gallery that I was going to be working in the DIP and that I’d have to give up my volunteer shift because as an employee, I’m no longer required to do volunteer work and if they need me for any, I’ll be paid. I also saw Susan later that morning and she wanted to know if they’d called me yet. She was excited that I had accepted and said my interview was what really put me over the top because it was obvious that I had a passion for working there and that was the kind of person they wanted.

She took me around to introduce me to the other staff members who where there and they were also glad I would be joining them. I’ll be going in a few days next week to shadow some of the positions so I’ll be able to jump right in when my actual start date arrives. I don’t know if I’ll get paid for that but I said I was willing to do it without pay and consider it part of my volunteer work. My schedule will be 2-4 days/week and running from 1:30pm - 7:30pm on weekdays and 10:00am - 7:30pm on weekends. The hours are a little different, but I think Karen and I can work out any schedule conflicts.

I’m really looking forward to this because it’s been something I’ve wanted for 2 years. For me, it’s a dream job…getting paid to dive in one of the most fascinating environments in the world and help others do the same. In the weeks ahead, I’ll put up more posts detailing the kinds of things I do there and what it’s like working as a Dive Master at the Georgia Aquarium.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

A few days with the iPad

Along with maybe 300,000 other people, Karen and I became owners of the new Apple iPad (64GB WiFi version) on Saturday. We decided to have them shipped to the house instead of reserving them at one of the local Apple stores since I wasn't sure how the lines would be. As it turned out, reserving them at a store would have been a good idea because everyone that I knew who did it was in and out of the store in less than 30 minutes.

When I first heard about the iPad, I thought it would make a great eBook reader and might replace my laptop as my couch websurfer. After playing with it for a few days, I can definitely say it will fulfill the first job but I’m not sure about the 2nd. Of course, it just came out and it has the potential to be a great device but I think it’s going to take some clever developers and some good apps before it can completely replace the laptop as my default web browser.

First impressions are that it’s extremely elegant. If you’ve read any reviews on it and have seen pictures, you know it’s essentially a thin tablet with a black, glass front and a curved aluminum back. Those two materials alone make it feel like a very solid piece of hardware but the internal electronics, namely the battery, make it rather heavy. If you plan to try and hold it with one hand like you might do with a paperback novel or magazine, it won’t take long before your hand gets tired. I didn’t order a case with it so I found the best way to use it for any length of time is either flat on my lap or desk, or resting on my crossed leg. The Apple case can be folded back to be used as a viewing stand to make it easy to watch videos or type on which would be good if you have a flat surface to put it on. The number of cases will grow exponentially in the next few weeks so I’ll probably wait to see what comes out before deciding on one.

The next impression I got is that the screen is gorgeous when you turn it on. The colors are rich and the brightness can be set from dim to wheres-my-sunglasses. When you sync up some photos from iTunes, they’ll look better than they do on just about any other device, almost the way HD TV looks compared to regular TV. Also, it’s blazing fast. Since all I can use is WiFi, I can’t compare the 3G connectivity to anything but the WiFi connection is more than sufficient. We have AT&T U-verse Max Plus at home, which (supposedly) gives up to 18 Mbps of download speed. I don’t think I’ve ever seen it go past about 12 or 13 so if we ever get what they advertise, I suspect web pages will load like I’m taking directly to the particular site. Apps also load extremely quickly, especially Maps, which can sometimes take a while on the iPhone, even using a WiFi connection.

Another thing that I’ve noticed is the attention to detail in the UI elements. It was obvious that the developers wanted to make the apps look as close to their real-life, solid equivalents as possible. Things like subtle shading and colors used on the top of the Notes “notepad” or the way it simulates the look of pages torn out of a real legal pad. If you turn the iPad to view Notes in Landscape mode (horizontally), a stitched leather border surrounds the legal pad and the list of notes looks like it’s tucked in a leather (complete with grain and shading) pocket on the left side. If you tap a note, an animated circle is drawn around the note title, but the circle is drawn with a very free-hand appearance. If you bring up the Maps app, the map has a flipped up lower-right corner that if you tap and drag, it reveals some controls underneath. If you look at the back of the page you’re dragging, you can see a faint, reversed version of the front of the map, just like a real page of paper. The iBooks app is the same way when you tap/drag to turn a page.

Apple said that because the iPad uses a expanded version of the iPhone’s OS, it should be familiar to anyone who has an iPhone and that is, for the most part, true. There are some differences that might catch a few by surprise. The first is that some of the built-in apps on the iPhone aren’t included with the iPad. These include Calculator, Stocks, Weather, Camera (duh, there’s no camera), Messages, and Voice Memos, and Compass (for 3GS). Personally, I use Weather a lot and wish it were included but I did find a nice free version of WeatherBug that works very nicely on the iPad. Also, if you want to read eBooks, you’ll need an app because one doesn’t come built in. The ones I recommend now are iBooks if you want to buy books from the iBook Store (only on the iPad) or the Kindle app that lets you read books you’ve already purchased for your Kindle. The other apps that an iPhone user is already familiar with such as Calendar, Contacts, Safari, Mail, etc… have all been expanded to take advantage of the larger screen and have a lot of eye candy and nice features.

All of this sound really good, right? Well, there are some things that I wish it would do, or do better. First is the ability to upload photos to websites. I do a lot of reading on several forums such as EverythingiCafe, a great site dedicated to the iPhone, iPad, and iPod. I also get on Facebook and Twitter. Every once in a while, I’d like to upload a photo or two to be shared on these sites but the OS doesn’t allow that. Even if a website gives you the ability to upload pictures, the iPad OS doesn’t give you a way to pick a photo from its internal file structure. Although I’m a registered developer for the iPhone and iPad, I haven’t delved deep enough into the API to see if there is a way to pick a photo from within an app. If there isn’t then we may be stuck not being able to upload pictures to the web.

The other thing is the keyboard, at least for me and the way I browse the web. I typically sit on my sofa, legs propped up on the recliner with my laptop open and resting on my lap. The keyboard is easily reached and typing is simple. I can see what I type and not feel all cramped up. With the iPad, if you want to use the on-screen keyboard, it takes a little getting used to because you can’t rest your fingers on the “home” keys, as we were taught in typing class way back in high school. If you rest your fingers on the screen, the keys you touch will be typed so you have to hover over the screen and tap it with one finger at a time. I’m sure that with practice, I’ll get some decent speed up but it’s a bit tricky at first.

Another aspect of typing on the iPad is how cramped it can feel if you don’t have the unit on a surface in front of you. As I mentioned above, I typically sit on the sofa with my legs propped up so unless the iPad is angled up to where I can see it, typing something is problematic because I can’t see what I’m typing and I can’t assume the auto-correct feature will catch all my misspellings.

Despite the few annoyances, I think the iPad is a big hit and I’ll enjoy using it. I’m really looking forward to taking it on an upcoming trip, which involves a rather long plane flight so I’m going to have to stock up on some movies or TV shows. I’m also excited about reading some of the eBooks that I currently have in my Kindle account. I have enough that I won’t need to be purchasing any in the foreseeable future and there are plenty of free books that can be added to the iBooks bookshelf if I don’t feel like buying anything new. The future looks extremely bright for app development so I also look forward to what applications will come out in the coming months.

If you’re on the fence about getting an iPad and your budget allows it, go for it, you won’t be disappointed.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Completed my Dive Con training

When Karen and I made the decision that I wouldn’t go back to work in the corporate world, we talked about some of the things that I might want to consider doing to bring in a little fun money. One of them was something I’d wanted to do since June, 2008 when the Aquarium started their Journey with the Gentle Giants program (otherwise known as the Dive Immersion Program). This is a way for the general public to either swim or SCUBA dive in the Ocean Voyager exhibit along side the Whale Sharks, Manta Rays, Hammerheads, Groupers, and the 1000s of other creatures that live in the exhibit. At the time it was created, I had hoped they would allow volunteers to help out but due to insurance purposes, helping out was limited to staff and to be part of the staff required a Dive Master rating or higher…something I did not have at the time.

So, now that I have a lot more spare time, I contacted Dive Dive Dive, the shop where I’ve been getting most of my specialty training and signed up for classes to get my Dive Control Specialist certification. This is the SSI equivalent to the PADI and NAUI Dive Master required by the Aquarium. Being a Dive Con would actually give me more training than a Dive Master because there is more of a teaching element involved. When I finished the course, I would also be an Assistant Instructor which means I can teach some courses on my own but also help an Instructor teach Open Water classes.

The course is extensive and requires 12-15 hours of classroom study, assisting/observing several Open Water classes and checkout dives, First Aid/CPR/O2 Administration certification, a diving physical, swim and dive test, and a 100 question final exam. I began my training in October and finally finished it last week. A lot of the time delay was due to the lack of opportunities for the required checkout dives but the shop was able to schedule two trips to Ginnie Springs in Florida over the last month so I was able to go along and get those dives out of the way. The last trip was fun because we accompanied a group of high school students from Loganville High School who were part of an Extreme Physics class and were learning to dive for an upcoming trip to Cozumel over Spring break. One of the really nice parts of this trip was our accommodations. A friend of the shop owner and fellow instructor, Randy Terrel was kind enough to drive and us use his luxury bus that he has turned into the land version of a live-aboard diving boat. It sleeps 12 so the 6 of us from the shop stayed on it for the weekend:

Here are a few pictures of the group getting ready for their first Open Water checkout dive:

Lined up, waiting to get their gear

We took about 15 sets BCs and regulators with us

Time to get suited up

Waiting around for everyone else to finish

Making the final checks to see if everything is set up right

This was the class teacher. I’m think he was asking “Ok, now where do these things go?”

Unfortunately, I didn’t have an underwater camera so I couldn’t get any pictures during the dive. The first day, they did 3 dives of about 15 minutes each where they demonstrated some basic skills such as regulator retrieval, mask clearing, and out-of-air drills, which they all did very well. The second day, they did 2 more dives, one was to practice the skills again and the other was to enjoy the Springs and have fun. Some of the students were accompanied by their parents who were going to be chaperones on the trip to Cozumel so they got their certification too. One mother-daughter pair said now that they could dive, they would go do that while the father and brother went fishing whenever they went on vacation. Sounds like a great plan to me.

The day after we got back from the trip, I took the last of my paperwork to the shop where Lee, the owner, took my picture (for my new certification card), signed off on everything, and sent them off to SSI. After I got home, I submitted my application to the aquarium for the position of Dive Immersion Program Instructor (that’s what they call it). I’ll be talking to the head of the DIP on Friday when I’m down there for my next volunteer shift but I think that as long as she has an opening in the group, I have a good chance of filling it.

Monday, March 15, 2010

iPads have been ordered!

When Apple announced their new iPad back on Jan 27, I knew I had to get one. It’ll be a perfect toy for doing what I do with my computer most of the time…surf the web from the couch. It will also be a replacement for my Kindle. Karen likes them because they’ll be a good way to read scripts for her voice-over jobs instead of having to print pages and waste paper.

Last week, they began taking orders for the iPad, which will be in stores on April 3 (WiFi-only at this point, the WiFi/3G model will come about a month later). I didn’t want to get the 3G model because I don’t need to have another monthly internet charge. Yes I know it’s contract-free, but to me, it’s an unnecessary charge nonetheless.

So, last Friday, at 8:35am, 2 of the ~120,000 iPads ordered are mine and will be delivered to the house on April 3. They are the 64GB WiFi models. I opted for delivery because I don’t know if there will be lines to go pick them up or not but it’s just easier this way.

It’s going to be a long 3 weeks.