Land of BOS

I am the LORD your God, ShipOfFools_web_07292016
who brought you out of the land of Egypt,
out of the house of slavery.
You shall have no other gods before me.
(Exod 20:2-3)

Land of BOS

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

In January 1993, I applied for a position in the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC) which was the office in the U.S. Department of Treasury responsible for national bank supervision.[1] This particular office was called the office of Bank Organization and Structure (BOS) and it oversaw national bank applications for organizational changes (licensing), like new bank charters, conversions from state to national charter, mergers, failures, and opening of new automated teller machines (ATMs). I had a rough idea of BOS’ business function from my work in bank examination in the Farm Credit Administration (FCA), but it did not matter to me. They needed a financial economist and I wanted to get back into economics. My work on the McLean Team in FCA in examinations required more travel than was consistent with my family situation—my son had had surgery the previous October and required follow up surgery in January.

The interview process for this position went quickly. I met with my supervisor and, after that, my second level supervisor took me to lunch. They were pleased to have an economist, like myself, with experience both with computers and with working in examinations. My position involved financial reporting based on a customized licensing database—a network database which required queries in the structured query language (SQL) and the ability to read a data schema. Only one other member of the staff was able to request data from the system and she was not an economist able to interpret the data. Missing from my interview was an opportunity to visit with the staff.

The lack of staff input into the hiring process should have been a red flag. In prior interviews in the Economic Research Service, in USDA, for example, an interviewee might be required to visit with the review committee, managers, and each member of the staff, and to make a presentation to the entire department. This sort of intense vetting process was also typical for many firms and academic departments that hire economists, in part, because of the extensive need for team work. However, FCA also did not require this type of extensive interview so I was off my guard in interviewing at OCC. In fact, I was relieved not to have to deal with a lengthy process, in part, because of the stress at home with my son’s medical situation and having two other kids in diapers.

I started work late in January. The office seemed congenial enough because both my supervisor and his boss were both economists. My opinion was frequently asked in staff meetings and all seemed copacetic as I learned my new position. But everything was not as it seemed.

In early February, my supervisor announced that he was leaving. He was quickly replaced with a professional OCC manager who was not an economist and was new to the group. The staff was icy cold in their interactions with me because my departing boss had brow-beat them for years complaining about their lack of analytical skills. When I was hired and brought those skills to the group, their silent resentment was given a concrete focus—me. The new manager picked up immediately on the staff resentment and offered me no shelter from the storm. I was alone in the group and persona non grata. My new station in life became even more conspicuous when the office was invited to a dinner party at the old supervisor’s home and I found myself there with my wife, Maryam, and shunned the entire evening. Maryam picked up on the tension that evening and came away distraught knowing, as a stay-at-home mom, that our entire livelihood was in jeopardy with nowhere to run. The darkness in my life grew darker still when soon thereafter Maryam was diagnosed with breast cancer.

The emotions associated with breast cancer pillage both husband and wife, but the sympathy and care extended focuses on the wife. Most people close to you offer sympathy and assistance for a few weeks, but after that you are on your own. Others close to you shut down emotionally and withdraw having no reserve to draw on to lend to you. Maryam quickly went through a lumpectomy with radiation and was put on a hormonal treatment tamoxifen. I felt shamed and abused by doctors examining and diagnosing my young wife with no outward appearance of disease and by being robbed of the prospect of having more children. While I did not miss a day of work, at one point I had a bad day in the office only to find my boss threatening to fire me—these were cold, hard days.

Still, I had an unexpected ally at OCC from early in my tenure. The Comptroller of the Currency distinguished himself as being a lawyer who was computer literate and brought a laptop to meetings. This created a big stir in an agency that prided itself on teaching bank examination conducted with nothing other than a legal pad. One morning I helped a man with a brief case and a laptop to get on the elevator. Seeing the laptop, I knew immediately who it was, pushed the button to the top floor, and introduced myself to Eugene Ludwig, the Comptroller of the Currency, for the first time.

After the Comptroller of the Currency himself, I was the second one in the building (in an agency of about three thousand) to request and receive a 486 desktop computer. My computer skills became well-enough known in the office that my second level supervisor asked me to upgrade him to Windows 3.1, while the computer support personnel remained in the MS DOS world, even though new computers came with Windows installed (they un-installed it). This embarrassed them enough that they refused to offer me any technical support. When I requested additional computer memory, they simply dropped the memory cards on my desk and walked away. I ended up loading my own copy of MS Office on my office computer, in part, because the computer support simply refused my request.

Nevertheless, my computer skills continued to open doors. At one point, my second-level supervisor was tasked with organizing a fundamental re-organization of the OCC from top to bottom. Being a pariah in the office, I volunteered to assist with this re-organization and quickly found myself assisting teams from across OCC in process-mapping their business functions. Over the next several months, I constructed roughly 150 process maps covering every single business activity deemed important and worked closely with the rising stars in the agency who would soon form the new senior management structure. Because of these insights and connections, I was soon offered a transfer to the economics department to work for a very ambitious female manager with a data management background and a need for programmers who were comfortable building financial models.

According to Shakespeare, all’s well that ends well. Yet, the scars of those days remain. Maryam cannot shake the memory of family members who remained aloof during her breast cancer episode; I buried myself in my work and, when I was not working, I was adding to my programming skills. After learning Windows programming in C, I went on to become expert in C++, FORTRAN, and assembly. My programming skills gave me the prospect of earning more money as a programmer than as an economist, but I stuck to building financial models where I increasingly became known as a financial engineer.

[1] A national bank is a bank with a federal charter and identified by having a name including the term, national bank or national association (NA). Banks are financial institutions that take deposits and make loans.

Continue Reading