Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Naturalization step 2

In response to the Fingerprinting blog post, I received some info from friends who went through similar processes, so I’d like to share the story of one of them. He doesn’t have all the info I would have liked to detail, so some of this is not hard facts. I’ll update this when I have my own experience.

About 3-4 weeks after completing my fingerprinting at the USCIS office in Seattle, I received the interview summons, which was scheduled to about 3-4 weeks later (so, about 1.5 months after the fingerprinting). This was in late 2012, and as loads change over time, your experience might differ. The national average for naturalization is 5 months, with the Seattle office claiming to be at 5.1 months (slightly slower than the average, that is). However, with it being 2-3 weeks from filing to fingerprinting, and another 6-8 weeks, this brings the total to about 8-11 weeks, which is a lot shorter. This means that if you filed on time and you’re lucky, with no holidays to slow down your own process, you might actually be a citizen even before your 5 year period has completed!

The interviews start at 8am at the USCIS office in south Seattle, close to the Boeing museum of flight. I believe the interviews are only scheduled for the morning hours and all are done by noon, though I’m not sure about that. On average, they handle about 60 people there every day (based on regional statistics published by the USCIS), and that’s about the number of people I saw on that day. I believe they were using approximately 10 interview offices, but I might be off, and it’s possible that some days have a different number of offices in use.

After you come in and sign-in, you go to the 2nd floor of the building, where you wait for your turn. They call you by name, and send you to the interview, which is held in a private office. The officers are nice and the entire interview, including the questions takes about 20-30 minutes. Even though the interview includes a test, the officers are nice and don’t try to trip or trick you. The questions they ask during the test are from a pool of 100 questions, and the officer had his on a printed sheet, so it’s possible that the selection is daily or weekly, though it’s hard to say for sure. Once this is done, you step outside and wait for the ceremony and oath, which is done at noontime. You can ask to have it deferred to another date, but you’d be expected to have a very good reason for that, like some medical situation.

If you don't have a reason to skip the ceremony, all those who passed the interview that day get sworn-in at noontime, in the master auditorium on the 1st floor, and usually there would be a few people who did their interview before. These “guests” are briefly checked again to see if they committed any crimes since their interview, or spent a significant time outside the US. The ceremony itself takes approximately 1.5 hours, including taking the oath, singing the national anthem, and getting the certificate of citizenship. The USCIS asks participants to dress nicely (no jeans or shorts), so you might as well dress well for the entire day. If you’re the type of person who sweats a lot under pressure, or this happens in the hot days of summer, bringing a change of clothes might be a good idea. Also, if you have any friends or relatives you’d like to have witness the event or take your picture during, make sure they come to the office before noon, so they have time to go through security and find a good spot in the auditorium.

Good luck!

Monday, January 28, 2013

My guide for office productivity

Those who work with me a lot noticed that my response times to mail is very fast, and that I seem to never miss an Email. I do feel that the practices I adopted and developed for handling Email are worth getting to know, so here they are.


1.    Keep the inbox empty

The biggest factor, and also the biggest goal of my system are keeping the inbox as empty as possible. The only items that should be there are mail items you are yet to respond to or deal-with. Anything else should be deleted or moved away. The biggest cause of mail loss is items that get old and forgotten because they are buried in a 100 emails.

2.    Use mail folders

Many people have hundreds of emails a day and no one can read all of it. Letting it accumulate in your inbox and trying to find the relevant pieces between the background noise is a recipe for disaster. My solution is to use mail folders, and not skimp. Create a detailed tree with folders like “projects”, “content”, “pending requests”, “Personal”, “Group Mail”, “Performance” and so on, with the purpose of having enough folders so that NO piece of mail can’t fit one of them perfectly.

3.    Use mail rules

Even with the proper folders, moving stuff around can take a long time, so use mail rules. If you’re new to your role, take a few weeks to get acquainted with the traffic, so you can figure out what’s important and what’s not, and then create a bunch of rules. Learn the mail-rule feature of outlook (or your other mail client) and fine tune your rules so that all the junk gets moved into folders. For example, in outlook, for each rule, you can specify an exception that says “only if sent directly to me”, and that’s an effective way to separate everything that was sent to a distribution list from real correspondence you’ve been a part of. Put aside ½ hour a month to go over the rules and fine tune them too, as your group membership and topics of interest may change (for example, maybe you want less filtering during the annual review process).

4.    Store common replies

For most people, at least half our responses are virtually identical. We send the same links to people over and over, or copies of similar documents and procedures. You can save yourself a lot of time by storing common strings and reusing them (referred to as “canned response”). There are plenty of tools for that, and you can also use Outlook’s NOTES folder for that.

5.    Reply intermediately

Often times, you receive a mail, but cannot answer right away. For example, you need to put in a link that you don’t remember, or need to find more details. In those cases, get in the practice of answering something like “Hi. I got your mail, but I need to find more information to give you a proper answer. I’ll get back to you as soon as I can.” This kind of response doesn’t take more than a few seconds to write (less if you have the text stored as noted in item 4 above), but it shows the sender that you care and are attentive to his needs. Then, even if you later can’t reply at all or forget, they would be less offended than if you never replied.

6.    Direct your employees with your attention “settings”

If you are a manager, then you’re probably constantly bombarded by mail from your subordinates, CCing you on every other thing they want you to know. Naturally, most of that isn’t very relevant (not to mention the people who are just attention whores and CC you on *everything*). Instead of trying to deal, conduct a semi-annual meeting with your people, and direct them on the proper etiquette – what items to include you in, and what to keep to themselves. You might need to spend some time with yourself, trying to determine what you want vs. what you need (facing off efficiency vs. control).

7.    Mark items for follow up

When you send out an item, outlook, and most other mail clients have the option of flagging items. When you send items to people who are bad responders, or on topics that might take a while to get a response on, flag them. Then, set yourself a weekly task of going over the flagged items to see which need to be “pinged” again.

8.    Reply privately when unsure

Sometimes, we are part of a distribution list, where any member can/might reply to a certain message. Often times, we ignore these and let others reply, but that can lead to some DLs getting completely abandoned (if people see no one ever responds, they’ll look elsewhere for answers). The common reason for not answering (aside from time constraints) is being unsure of the info, but try to get used to answering the sender privately in such a case. You could say “I’m not sure about this, but in case no one else responds, I think the answer is ______”. This will be infinitely more helpful and efficient for you too rather than seeing the sender “resending” 3 more times due to no response.

9.    Wash your inbox before washing your teeth

When you wake up in the morning, spend the first 10-15 minutes of the day cleaning out your inbox from your Smartphone (I find it hard to believe anybody doesn’t have one these days). The phone is a good way to sequentially view all the new items, and the work you can get done in those 10 minutes would take you an hour if you were in the office (because office-work is always interrupted by stuff, like phone calls, meetings, people stepping in to “just say hi”…). If your phone is not convenient enough to do this easily…get a better phone!

10.  Use your phone when out

On a similar note, get yourself a phone you can actually type on, whether it be one with a physical keyboard (like a BlackBerry or the Motorola Droid Pro XT610) or one with a big-enough screen to comfortably type on (like the Nokia Lumia 9xx series or the Samsung Galaxy S series). Then, use the phone not only to read email, but also to answer the items that you can with a reasonable amount of time. A 10 minute line at the cafeteria can save you 30 minutes of mail-time when getting back to the office after lunch.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Fingerprinting for naturalization

This morning, my wife and I went to get fingerprinted as part of our naturalization process. We sent the naturalization application on Jan 3rd, and got a confirmation letter about a week later, and a summons for the fingerprinting on Jan 17 (so, two weeks after sending out the paperwork). Surprisingly, my wife got her summons for the 24th, while I got mine for Feb 7th. My date conflicted with a scheduled medical procedure I had, so I decided to come with her to hers, and hope that they take me in as a walk-in (internet forum posts said it was almost always OK to do).

We live in Seattle, so our USCIS center is in 12500 Tukwila International BLVD, which is close to the Boeing museum of flight in south Seattle. We got there on time, on a Thursday in January, at 1pm, and the place was nearly empty. The building has a parking lot that charges $7 flat and appears to have plenty of room, though it’s a bit far from the building. We had the standard security sweep at the building’s entrance, and I showed the guard a Leatherman I had. He said he can’t check it for me, so he could either confiscate it, or I could take it to the car. I’m a lazy mofo, so I went out the building and hid it in the front yard, between a set of large blocks. When I went back in, the guard told me that I have to take it ALL the way to the car (remember that the lot is pretty far, incl. a huge flight of stairs and quite a bit of Seattle rain). “We have tons of security cameras around, so we could see you hide it”, she said. A tad embarrassing, but I went back and put the thing in the car. During this, the guard told my wife that most people try to hide their item 3 times on average before giving up and going to the car, so I’m at least a bit better off...

As part of the security scan, the guard asked to see our invitation paper, but didn’t notice that mine was dated differently than my wife’s, and let us both through. After passing the security scan, we went into the fingerprinting hall, where we were given forms to fill (they give you pencils, but I’d advise bringing good-quality pens with you). The forms are a simple ½ pager with name, address, A#, SSN, application number (the NBC* number given by USCIS as part of the application process) and some more generic stuff. You’re supposed to have your Green-Card with you, so the A# and most of the details were easy, but if like many people you don’t remember your SSN by heart, bring it with you. We actually didn’t remember it, but the clerk accepted the forms without it, so maybe it’s not a big deal.

With the filled forms, you go into the waiting hall, which has plenty of room, but other than the two of us, there were only about 5 people in line, so it went through in about 5 minutes. The clerk, a young woman, was nice, and when we told her I was earlier than my scheduled date because I had a conflicting medical procedure, agreed to let me in. She checked our paperwork (invitation letter, form, green card) and took a look at our hands (presumably to see if we have any skin problems or something else that would be a problem for fingerprinting) and gave us each a number. She asked us to come inside the fingerprinting room and wait.

The fingerprinting room has a row of about 8 seats, where we sat and waited our turn. I can only guess that on busy days, some people wait outside for their turn. In the back of the room, they had 4 computerized fingerprinting machines (yeah…no messy ink these days). We waited about 5 minutes for our turn and they called us in separately, as each machine has one operator that has her own queue.

At the machine, the operator (mine was a young woman, and my wife’s an older woman, who said she’s been doing this work for 11 years) sprayed water on a piece of cloth and wiped the finger scanner, and my hand. She scanned my right hand (4 fingers at once) and then my left. She then scanned my fingers individually in a rolling motion that captures more than just the front of the finger, as the flat scan did earlier. As can be expected, some of the scans were a tad blurry, so she had to redo several of the fingers, but the entire process took less than 10 minutes. After the fingerprinting, the operator took my picture (it will be used on your Naturalization Certificate, so better dress nicely, shave and make a nice face). The operator then gave me a booklet that should help me prepare for the naturalization test that I would be taking in the future (also includes an Audio CD!), as well as an extra page that alerts me to some changes in the info that’s in the booklet, following the 2012 elections. She also gave me a feedback card, which I was all too happy to tick with “excellent” on all counts. The entire adventure, from parking to getting back to the car took 40 minutes. Now we wait for the summons for the interview. The same building is also where the interview will be taking place, and it’s also where we’ll be taking the oath and getting naturalized afterwards. Some internet forum posts and friends say it would be about 2 months until then, though the processing times schedule published by the USCIS says its 5 months total. I guess we’ll have to wait and see!