Communication, Communication, Communication

When I was 21, and graduating University, I really didn't know what I was doing when it came to finding a job. I went down to the campus job centre, and found some companies had posted there looking for employees. I found four companies that looked interesting, applied to them, and got three job interviews. And two job offers.

Honestly, I must have spent less than 4 hours looking for my first job before finding the place that would be my first employer – Petro-Canada. 

The Petro-Canada interview process was quite easy, if I recall. I met the man that would become my first boss, the questions were quite easy, and I left the interview with a good feeling. I guess he liked me, and that was the main criteria for that job.

But the interview with IBM was completely different. IBM at the time was the “Facebook” of today. They were the main technology leader in the world, and working for IBM would have set me up for life (or so I thought at the time). I thought it was the type of place that you worked at for life.

And the interview for IBM reflected that.

My school at the time was about 200 km (or 120 miles) from Toronto, and so I took the train in from school to go to the interview. I wore a suit that day, and made my way to the IBM headquarters. Met the HR person for a couple of minutes, and she ushered me into a testing center to take a test.

Whoa. No one said there would be a test. I sat down with a booklet of questions (there must have been 8 pages or so), a pencil, and one of those “bubble sheets” where I was to mark the answer.

Every 10 minutes, you had to turn the page. Doesn't matter if you didn't answer all the questions. 10 minutes, beep, turn the page please.

And the questions were really hard. And to me, didn't have much to do with programming.

You have a box of printer paper that contains 2000 pages. One report takes 18 pages to print, and the other takes 4. 75% of prints are of the second report, and 25% of the prints are the first report. How many reports can you print before running out of paper?

Think about having to finish 10 of those questions every 10 minutes, for 90 minutes.

I left the test knowing that I had failed. I absolutely knew that I didn't know the answer to many of the questions, and didn't even get to answer a lot of questions. There was just not enough time, and you were only given 60 seconds to answer each question!

Next, I was ushered into the office to meet the person who might be my boss. I was not in a good mental place after such a brutal test.

How do you think you did on the test?

I think I did awful, was my reply.

Then he asked me the question that still remains with me almost 30 years after the day he asked it.

What is the most important skill for this job?

Um, testing your code to ensure there are no bugs?

No! Communication! The most important skills is communication, communication, communication!

He screamed this, and smacked his hand on the desk to drive home the point.

That really shocked me. I mean, I was already barely holding myself together, but this slamming on the desk really knocked me onto my butt.

How do you think this interview is going?

Not well, I said. 

It wasn't. Certainly one of the worst interviews of my life. Even looking back, and I've had a few bad interviews in my life, that stands out as a disaster.

I left, went home, and licked my wounds. I had this whole idea of working for IBM, how cool it would be to be a programmer working for Big Blue. And it was shattered into a million pieces.

The surprising end to this story is I got positive feedback from IBM. They wanted to hire me.

Perhaps me saying that the test was a disaster, and admitting that the interview was not going well, was what saved me. I don't know. But somehow, IBM said they'd like to hire me.

But Petro-Canada put the offer in front of me first, at a good salary (better than anyone else in my class as far as I knew), and I took the deal. A bird in the hand, as they say.

And looking back, perhaps a job with IBM would not have been the best career move. IBM went through significant downsizing over the years. And I was never comfortable wearing a suit.


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