Today I’m going to tell you the story of the best job I never got. And it’s entirely true, which is nice.
When I was a Trainee Computer Operator, at around age 19, it was generally expected that the next step in progression was to become a Junior Computer Operator. Trainees were daytime workers doing a lot of basic administration functions that assisted the computer operators (shift workers) with their tasks. Yes, it was really simple stuff; stock checks on stationery supplies, separating multi-part print-outs, exciting stuff like that. It was generally expected that you would be a trainee for about a year, and at some point around then, you would move onto shift work in the ‘Junior’ role.
Now, I guess within that first year of traineeship, I must have figured out, along with several of the other trainees and operators, that mainframe operations was not a fantastic future to be in. I think it was still a bit early for us to be worrying about Unix specifically, but I think the we had a sense that the trend was going to be away from mainframes. So, when a ‘Junior Systems Analyst’ job came up internally, a number of trainees including me applied for it. Of course, we would still be working with mainframes, but at least our core skill set would not be wrapped up in those hunks of junk.
I was a little bit arrogant, I have to admit. I really wanted that job! And not only that, within the trainees who applied for it, most seemed to think that I was most likely to get the job. I have to accept now that I might have played all sorts of psychological tricks trying to get them to agree that I was the best person for the job, but even back then I was aware of the games people play in human relationships, and I tended to avoid them. So, I’m sure that my interview went very well, and I felt confident about the whole thing.
And then, finally, we were told who had won the job. Yes, I used ‘won’ there because that is how we all felt about it. It was a very personal competition. And if you hadn’t figured it out from the title of this essay, IT WASN’T ME!
I was upset, I was angry… no in fact I was furious. Not only had I not got it, but someone (admittedly a couple of years older than me) had got it… but he had only been in the company for a few of months. This was relevant because there was a sense that the trainee role we had all been doing was a kind of penance… before you got on with ‘the rest of our professional lives’. So someone who had avoided the penance was getting an unfair advantage and frankly any other negative emotion that you might like to write in italics.
I must have been a right pain at that time. I asked for an interview with my the ‘interviewing’ boss and his boss to talk about why I didn’t get the role, that sort of thing. I don’t think I was wrong to do that, but I realise they probably would have considered it pointless. Of course, I was desperate for them to tell me why that bastard Doug got the job, and I didn’t. But I guess I was fairly transparent on that issue, and they were not willing to oblige (probably correctly, but if they’d even given a hint of a reason, it might have helped). My suspicions were that they would, had they been allowed, used the excuse that they were looking for maturity, but had they said that, I would simply have been offended that they didn’t just give Doug the job without the pain of the interviews because obviously he was more mature than the rest of us ‘teenagers’.
Anyway, time passed and although I still had something of a grudge, I just got on with things, moved into shift work, and probably about a year passed.
Then the most remarkable thing happened.
I’m not sure it had ever happened within the company before. Two ‘trainee programmer’ roles were announced, to be filled internally. And the only departments who were really likely to be able to supply those staff were the people in operations (as everyone else was either admin, really non-technical, or already more senior programmers). Something like 25 people applied for the roles (to give that a context, I think the company employed about 250 people, so around 10% applied for the posts – and that would be about 30% of the ‘operations’ department). I think I need to take a side-step here and just remind you that, for an average external job role, you tend to have no idea how many hundreds of people are applying, but you also do not know them. We knew each and every person who applied for that job. We knew that this was a very rare opportunity to get out of the operations path. We knew it was important.
And to be honest, I knew that I had always considered becoming a programmer, it was just my ‘year out’ before university had somehow extended into a sort-of career. This was my chance to move into something that tested me more, and would also be of more interest to me.
As I recall, the first part of the application process, other than telling someone we wanted to do the job (and maybe a CV) were logic tests and perhaps also tests that might assess our ability to program (though it was assumed that none of us had programmed before). Some people were knocked out after the tests. Then, there was an interview (that I don’t recall at all). I got one of the jobs. Woo hoo!
Looking back on it now, I hope that I had the integrity to keep a calm outlook whilst I waited to start that job. I’m reasonably confident that I will have done, but strangely, I don’t recall having much empathy for those who didn’t get the job. Perhaps I felt the tests did a good job of ‘proving’ that I was one of the more capable applicants, but I guess that those others who did get through the tests and got to the interview stage might have felt just as I had done the previous year.
Of course, it was only then, and later as the programming role proved that it was indeed more suitable for me, that I could look back at the ‘job I never got’ and be thankful. Had I got that job, I’m sure I would have enjoyed it and been able to apply myself to it, but it would not have been as suitable for me as the programming role… and I am confident that I would have been barred from applying for the programmer role.
In fact, after a year or two programming mainframes, I was the one ‘active’ programmer selected to help start the Unix team, which meant loads of cross-training into – let’s face it – a far far better area to be in. By the way, I said ‘Active’ there because although they did select another programmer to be my boss, he had never even used a PC before, let alone Unix. He had never used an RDBMS before (only hierarchical). And then he went on holiday and caught malaria, which kept him away from work for most of the duration of the key first projects for the new team.
This is my message to anyone looking for a job (including reminding myself, right now). You will never know what would have happened if you got a particular job. If you don’t get a job that you think you really wanted, perhaps take a moment to be sad, but keep on going. One day, hopefully, you will be able to look back and feel happy that things turned out the way did.
Another Possible Benefit to being ‘Mistreated’
And, ok, here’s another, somewhat more speculative benefit that may have helped me to get that elusive job in the Unix team (which fortunately, was just offered to me as far as I recall, there was no interview process).
For much of the first couple of years of programming, I think that the two of us ‘trainees’ performed above and beyond expectations. The thing that bothered us was that cutbacks meant that no-one got grade rises. So we both went through two years or so improving rapidly, and maybe they gave us ‘Junior Programmer’ titles (I forget), but there was a feeling that we should have been higher up the grades.
The result, especially when considering ‘new technology’ like Pro-IV (a mainframe RAD language, I doubt it bears any resemblance to Pro-IV today) was that we were outperforming some of our more senior colleagues. But, and this is the speculative part, the very fact that we were considered to be Trainees / Juniors, and expected to move between teams more than the senior people, meant that no one team could really rely on us to be there long term, and our systems knowledge did not become entrenched in a particular application (Housing, Accounts, whatever). The benefit for me was that when new opportunities came along (“Does anyone know anyone who knows Paradox for Windows?” – Yes, I did) I was able to take those opportunities.
What manager is going to accept “We’re really relying on our Nij” as an answer from a team leader, when Nij is the junior? My job title may have precluded me from being considered vital to any one team. And that meant I was free to be considered for new stuff.
As I implied at the beginning of this section, I have no way of knowing the selection criteria that were used to decide who was offered the chance to be ‘the first programmer in the Unix team’ – but I can be relatively certain that some people were discounted because they were too important in their current team. Additionally, not many people had done anything except mainframe programming in and for the company, but I had. So, I was more available than other possible candidates, and I had proven that I could handle learning new stuff.
I’d never wish some of the things I experienced at that company on anyone, but the things that frustrated me most in my time there may have lead to what I would consider to be the best possible outcome overall.