Sunday, September 24, 2017

Mid-Level Bidding Game

The first two tours in the Foreign Service are directed. My first tour was a competition of 23 people for 23 positions (just my class) and second tour was 42 people and positions (all first tour people moving that summer). We ranked the full list from 1 to n and provide a little narrative explaining why we needed or wanted the posts we picked. A Career Development Officer (CDO) reviewed it all together and considered personal constraints like family and medical needs. The CDO put people in positions in one big step. It seemed like a fair system for balancing service needs with individual needs and desires. I miss that system.

This blog post is about the completely different game of mid-level bidding. It's not unlike Sheldon's Friendship Algorithm. However, imagine a huge diagram that has a bunch of people engaging in this diagram with a bunch of posts in order to narrow down about 50 options into 5 to 10 bids for each person.

Entry-Level Bidding

For my first tour it seemed best to order the list how I wanted it. The only risk seemed to be with rating a post in the middle while everyone else put it really low. We feared the CDO might pick the person who didn't rank it low enough since they hated it the least. Most of our new hire class got together and shared our draft lists to avoid that situation and put it back on the CDO to make the hard choices at the bottom of the list.

The second tour selection was the same process but took into account equity for first tour hardships. I had a nice first post which pushed me to a hardship post in the second move. Others experienced the reverse. This twist in the game still seemed fair and would be useful now as I leave a hardship tour. A single judge or small central panel could balance everyone's needs and desires with roughly equal and objective importance.

Mid-Level Bidding

Now I'm a mid-level bidder for my third tour in a completely different game. Bidding is like applying for a job except everyone has to leave their current job and go somewhere else, so it's more desperate. I already have the job but I have to compete for a new position as if I don't have the job. I can understand it for special positions but why do we do this for standard positions?!?

It's global musical chairs. The picking is decentralized to the posts and regional bureaus. Fairness isn't built into a system if it has a large number of independent judges and competing subjective interests at play. Objectivity in picking isn't formally required if it doesn't have to be documented.

The bid list came out Sep 18 and bids can be put in and changed for a month. Bids are locked on Oct 20 and offers (handshakes) can't be made until Oct 30. There's "winks" or "air kisses" while people and posts negotiate towards handshakes on Oct 30 or afterwards. It's a complicated dance of figuring out who likes whom from both sides of the equation to setup a dance card that gets you at least one dance.

You ask your 360 references (360 degrees of bosses, peers, and subordinates) to put nice words in a system. The posts you bid on see the same info and don't have to bug your references about your claims of greatness. However, the system doesn't let you know what they write about you or even if a particular person put in something. That's frustrating if a reference doesn't put it in because you don't know to follow-up with them.

Then you start Sheldon's Friendship Algorithm to contact and lobby decision-makers at the posts. It's not enough to make friends. You want to be the best of buddies so they give you their first offer when it's handshake time. You do this through email or phone and hope the post responds and gives you one or more phone interviews. Time zones makes this fun. Interviews aren't required but they're certainly not prohibited. Some posts give out handshakes based on resumes and references. Posts also move at different speeds of vetting and picking their short list which makes it harder to gauge overall interest. The matching game is kind of like this infographic showing a pairing of many wines with many foods, except this is bigger and needs much more wine and food.

Ideal Gameplay

You're already personally known and regarded as the best for the job by key people before this whole thing starts. Everyone else will have to work hard to convince the post that they're better. Heck, you're so well known and liked that your whole bid list of 10 is filled with posts that have you at the top of their short list. You get 10 handshake offers on Oct 30 in response to your bids! You confidently pick the one you want and everything is awesome! (I haven't met a person like this, but I have a feeling they'd be annoying.)

Terrible Gameplay

Nobody knows you and they're not impressed with your resume compared to everyone else. You have a bad "corridor reputation" when they ask around. Decisions are made based on unsubstantiated rumors instead of what's documented in your personnel record since it isn't reviewed for bidding. Handshakes go out and you get none. Posts start falling off the bid list as handshakes are registered. Eventually the undesirable posts need to take somebody so you get a handshake offer. (It sounds awful but it probably happens based on how this is setup. It's the ugly side of a system where posts can pick their team without requirements to follow objective criteria and document it.)

Typical Gameplay

Realistically, everyone is somewhere in the middle. Some people know you or knows and trusts someone you know. You don't have everyone pulling for you but you have some allies involved. The bureau tries to balance who's going where if their posts want the same people so they may tip the scales. That's why short lists are worked by posts ahead of bids being due so they can see the conflicts. I have mixed feelings about having unofficial deadlines before the deadlines.

Complicating matters are posts not playing the game the same way. You can reach out early to the projected list and get very different responses. Posts can start reviewing and interviewing to try to lock in a good candidate before the bid list is out. People aren't really locked in until handshakes, but if both sides want it to happen then that desire can carry through to a handshake.

Posts already focusing on a few people can scare off people contacting them later. They may indicate they already have some good candidates in mind with interviews and reference checks done. This changes the dynamics of matching people to posts as some people come off the market early and late inquiries aren't as seriously considered. They already went through their vetting so it's not too surprising they don't look too deeply at someone new unless you really catch their eye.

Other posts wait until initial bids are registered to start looking at who's put in bids as their "serious candidates" for consideration. Those posts don't want to deal with people shopping around and think it's best to wait for the cards to be on the table to start vetting their choices. Early posts may have taken the attention of some preferred candidates, but it's still an open field for these later posts until they make their short list.


I wrote all of this to think through what's going on and my strategy in this complicated game while I'm in the middle of playing it. I was told it's better to start early so I did. It hasn't had a definite pay off but I can see how it might. It's a valid tactic even if it doesn't work this time.

I have 49 posts to choose from and need to pick 5 to 10 for my bid list. No more and no less. My competition for a post are the people bidding on it. It could be everyone available or nobody. I could bid 10 posts and end up as #2 on everyone's short list. As long as each of their #1's are unique and accept then I won't get a handshake. I'll need to fill up my bid list again with whatever's left. Oct 30 could be just the beginning if I don't get a handshake on the first day. The lobbying and bidding continues until everyone goes somewhere.

I'm still struggling with my bid list. First, I think it should be 10 posts no matter how it's going with lobbying. I'd go to more than 10 places so why shouldn't I put in 10 bids? I can only see having less if I wouldn't take a handshake from all 10 posts. This presents another problem because I can see myself bidding on 15 posts to make sure I get at least one decent handshake. I only get 10 bids so I have to cut my list.

What do I pick? It isn't smart to only pick posts I want without regarding what posts are doing. If some posts are unlikely to pick me then it'd be a wasted bid. However, they don't know what they really get until there's an accepted handshake. Someone they want could prefer somewhere else and their whole short list could be taken just like it could be for us. There's no guarantee on either side since anybody in the game can change their mind at the last minute. That's a bit disconcerting. How can we be 100% certain a bid is good or wasted? We can't.

This is where the lobbying and getting info from posts becomes important but frustrating. I want to optimize my chances of going somewhere I want. I need to flesh out my viable options and pick the top 10 from that list. If I'm already on or in the running for a post's short list and I'm willing to serve there then it should definitely be on my bid list.

It's a lot of work to contact everyone and posts are as coy as we are about it. If you tell a post that you're considering them then they don't think you're as serious as someone saying they're #1 and you'd accept a handshake without a doubt. You can't say everyone's #1 just so they take you seriously. It'd be a lie and it'd come back to bite you when the bureaus review their region. Posts should eventually say if you're on their short list or not, but you have to check back until they make a decision.

A week is gone and right now many posts say they're still looking and may conduct interviews next week. A few posts still haven't responded at all to my initial outreach! Is their complete silence a message? It's too early to tell. My fear is that most of my list falls apart right before bids are due because I didn't make their short lists and I didn't lobby enough posts to optimize my chances of getting what I'd want or at least accept.

I can either keep going with potentially wasted bids or look around and add more places I'd be willing to serve so I don't miss out on a decent offer. I could reach out to 5 to 10 more posts to increase my odds. I might waste my time and everyone else's on places that I might not put on my list. It's hard to gauge where I really stand with my current list and what I should do to make the best list possible. I really need more info to know if I'm good or I need to expand my search.

After all this, I think I've determined my grand strategy for the coming weeks...


  1. I compare it to the Bachelor/ & a post are "in love" when you are talking but as soon as they go "on a date" with another candidate/you talk to another start second guessing yourself and you don't know who you going to give the final rose to any more.....then they want to set up an interview and you start looking at wedding dresses!

  2. Keep your heard up Richard. You'll do fine.