Chapter 4: A Futile Chore
Footnote: Barriers: Interviewer Ignorance
In the IT jobs market the artisan is assessed by the novice, the old are judged by the young, the specialist is evaluated by the generalist, the wise are managed by the ignorant. Little wonder the captains of the computer industry are forever bleating about their insoluble 'skills shortage'.
Trial By Buzz Words
There is a topical fashion within the Information Technology [IT] industry. It is called outsourcing. Rather than have an internal department provide a particular service, a company will buy in that service from an outside specialist provider. In line with this outsourcing policy, firms now tend more than ever to pass the task of finding staff over to specialised agencies. These are for the most part staffed by young opportunists who have seized on an easy way of 'earning' a lucrative living. They rarely possess technical knowledge in any IT specialism and are too young to have any significant experience. Yet it is through them, almost exclusively, that the IT specialist must pass to get a job.
A fellow sufferer of this phenomenon was once in the same Job Club as I was. He was 50 years old. He was highly qualified. He had vast experience of project management. He had worked for big names in the financial sector. He had applied for a job through an agency. One time when he rang the agent she told him that she would not be able to deal with his application for three weeks because she was going on holiday and she had not yet had the chance to assess his suitability for the position in question.
Making casual conversation, my friend asked her where she was going. She said that she was going to Fiji with her boy friend. As the conversation progressed, it transpired that she would be 22 years old the following week and had no actual IT experience. Yet she was the front line decision-maker on whether or not my friend should even be put forward for the job for which, in his far better judgement, he was ideally suited.
This is not extraordinary, it is typical. So by what process does an agency profess to be able to assess the suitability of a high-tech specialist for a vacancy? The answer is, by buzz words. The employer specifies to the agency the systems and packages they use and with which the applicant will therefore have to work. The agent determines an applicant's suitability simply by scanning his CV for relevant technical buzz words such as Word, Access, Excel, Oracle, Informix, Acrobat, PICK, CICS, VMS, Windows, OS/2, Unix, TCP/IP, Sage, SAP. She invariably hasn't a clue what they mean. She then puts forward the applicant with the most matching buzz words. If she finds none, the applicant is rejected. Normally, the applicant is rejected anyway if he is too old.
This is unfair. It is inefficient. It leaves highly knowledgeable and experienced people permanently unemployed. It deprives the industry of vitally needed skills. It thus puts national companies at a disadvantage in a highly competitive global market compared with those which are indigenous to countries in which age and wisdom are respected.
Most agencies, many corporate personnel people, and the two proprietors of one Job Club I attended seem to share too short an attention span to be able to read and take in the whole of a one page CV. I applied through an agency for a programming job. I sent my CV. On it I listed all my programming skills and the languages and operating systems I have used. Among the bullet points under the heading of Programming Skills was
I got a phone call from the agent. He said, "I've read through your CV... so you've not done any actual 'C' programming, then. That is what we want." This perhaps typically illustrates the instant, superficial and impulsive way decision makers 'read' (if that is the word for it) CVs.
- Long working knowledge of 'C'.
Even the two people running an executive Job Club I attended had the same disease. After having supposedly picked through my CV with a fine toothed comb one of them commented "It's a pity you have no experience in selling software." I told him I had. He passed my CV to his colleague and said "Can you see anything to suggest he had any selling experience there?" "No, I can't see anything to suggest that," came the almost instant reply. Both missed completely an italicised statement at the top of my CV which stated that I had experience in both the selling and marketing of computer software. It was there on my CV staring them in the face. "But it doesn't stand out," they said. But I had been through all that before with them. If I emphasise one aspect of my experience it de-emphasises all the others. Then people will say that there is nothing to say that I have ever done any programming, systems analysis, system design, training, installation or support. If people will not read what is there in front of them, you cannot win.
In the rare event that anybody in my age bracket gets through the agency barrier to an actual interview with their client, the next hurdle is the corporate personnel department. Sorry, this is now usually called the Human Resources department or simply HR. This change of name reflects the increasingly de-humanised attitude with which corporates regard their employees. Human beings are, more than ever, seen as nothing more than cogs within the corporate machine. They are just one more commercial resource along with materials, energy, machinery, storage, transport and finance. In the minds of their captains they are no longer people who form a working community. In fact, they never have been, so perhaps the name 'Human Resources' is a more honest one.
HR staff have no inward frame of reference against which they can assess the technical knowledge and skill of an applicant. They must therefore rely on something else. About two centuries ago people had this same problem. They needed to know the quality of the knowledge and expertise of providers without having that knowledge and expertise themselves. They needed a grading system for each trade and profession. Trade lodges and professional institutes were formed to provide this. They guaranteed that all their members had proven themselves to be of a required minimum standard.
Nowadays, apart from law, accountancy, medical and a few other professions, these instruments of restrictive practice are all but gone. They have been for the most part replaced by the free market in which one's only protection is the admonition "Let the buyer beware." Nevertheless, there is one remaining instrument of universal restrictive practice which has lingered. That is the academic qualification, namely, the university degree and the college diploma, and their prerequisites such as O-levels and A-levels. These have survived as convenient means for capitalists to grade the types and qualities of the human cogs which they need to drive their corporate machines.
There is nothing wrong with grading knowledge, skills and experience. However, there is a lot wrong with the way academic qualifications attempt to do it which means that in reality they are neither a guarantee nor even a good guide to quality.
When I sat for my degree, the whole outcome was based on what I did in a few three hour papers which all took place within the space of a single week. That was the sum total of communication which ever took place between me and those who examined me. What I have done or achieved in the 32 years since then compensates not one jot for my failure on one of those papers in the eyes of human resources managers. Nor are they interested in the entirely non-academic reason for my failing that one paper. My academic qualifications or lack of them convey nothing about my knowledge, skills and experience within IT - particularly after 32 years.
Despite how obvious the above must seem to any thinking person, I am at interviews frequently asked how I feel about my 'GCSE' grades. I think they must mean O-levels. It is over 40 years since I sat my O-levels. What relevance they could have to a job I am applying for today I cannot imagine. How I am expected to remember anything about them now I also cannot imagine. But they seem to think this is relevant. Perhaps it is because the interviewers themselves are so young that 'GCSEs' do not seem very far away. Nevertheless, I would have expected anybody who had been given the authority and responsibility to select people for employment to be able to make the mental leap necessary to see that it is an inane question to ask somebody in their 50s. This is not unusual, it is typical. And not just for me. I have heard many wry comments from my jobless peers on this subject.
This is not the only inane kind of question I frequently get from interviewers - especially young ones. Another recurring example is that I am asked why I have changed jobs such a lot. I have held 5 jobs in 32 years. That is an average of over 6 years per job. I think that for the IT industry that is a very long stay per job. But to the predominantly young interviewers 5 jobs seem a lot. It would be for them. Their careers are probably no more than 8 years old. So to them I am perceived as a butterfly. Again, they do not make the mental leap. Pointing it out to them does not generally go down well.
If, as an applicant of 50+, they have not already rejected you on the grounds of your O-level results, the intrepid Human Resourcers next subject you to the ever-invasive all-decisive aptitude test. I have never been able to perceive any practical connection between the content of these tests and the processes involved in developing computer software, or of managing a software development project.
Aptitude tests are the lazy, technically-ignorant recruiter's convenient cop-out. They insulate him from the retribution precipitated by a bad decision. They protect him, his reputation and his career in the event that he accept an applicant who later proves to be inept. This is because he can always say, "Well [don't blame me], he passed the aptitude test all right." The lazy recruiter thus successfully side-steps the responsibility for his decision to employ a particular applicant.
At the close of the 1960s I was working for a manufacturer of digital flight simulators. I had been programming the software for them for about 2½ years. The systems I had completed worked. They had passed every clause of their comprehensive acceptance schedules. They were also compact, efficient and well documented. They were fast. They were faultless. They had to be. The lives of air crew and passengers depended on their being so. As to the fact that I was a good programmer there was no question.
Suddenly we were all required to take a battery of special aptitude tests. These were purportedly designed to determine who had and who hadn't the aptitude to become a good programmer. We were told that our futures with the company depended on our results. We were all desperate to pass them. Along with roughly half my colleagues, I scored about 5%. The other half scored around 95%. The company's managers were perplexed. Rumours abounded. We heard that they had written to the firm of Chicago psychologists who had devised the tests asking why half their solidly project-proven programmers should fail the tests miserably. The answer said to have come back from the psychologists was that "some people are simply no good at doing aptitude tests".
We all thought that the psychology-based aptitude test had thus been once and for all completely discredited. But it hadn't. Shortly afterwards when I was seeking a new job I was from time to time confronted by these insidious things. Even the biggest of names in the industry used them. They were a complete barrier. Happily there were still those companies who believed in the practical approach of having one or more of their own seasoned programmers talk shop with you for half an hour. You can't bullshit a tekkie, but an aptitude test can mindlessly filter out valuable talent.
Now, 30 years later, these aptitude tests, far from having been discredited, form a total and universal barrier to my employment as a software developer. I think the systems I have written which are right now working successfully and efficiently in the field - plus working examples on my web site - bear a far more powerful witness to my aptitude for programming than does some silly thirty minute battery test. Yet modern employers trust the latter implicitly. No wonder they have a constant skills shortage. The 'right people' they 'cannot find anywhere' are well and truly filtered out by their silly irrelevant tests. The practical face-to-face approach to gauging one's aptitude seems to have totally disappeared. The barrier is impervious.
another critical reason why the results of an aptitude test foisted suddenly upon a person are unlikely to give an accurate picture of that person's aptitude or ability in the skill or subject concerned. This is especially so if they are not currently up to speed in a skill they have previously gained but not used for a while.
The Narrowing Door
Years ago, the barrier to employment imposed by psychometric and aptitude testing could be circumvented. Companies who did not yet bother with such tests were still quite numerous. One simply carried on searching. One would soon come across a job being offered by such a company.
However, this is no longer possible. Personnel (or Human Resources) management has since become a far more formal profession. Its knowledge base has become far more monolithic. Its methodology has become far more structured. The once diverse policies and methods of personnel managers in different companies and industries have become far more alike, if not identical.
Personnel managers in all companies in all industries now more or less play in the same orchestra under a single conductor. That single conductor is the current thinking of the universal college of occupational psychology. Company personnel mangers thus no longer comprise a complex dynamical profession of free independent thinkers, making each his own judgement of the interviewee before him. They are now no more than the mindless molecules of a
quantum fluid - mere invigilators for proprietary battery tests.
A psychometric test may determine to which kind of job an applicant is best suited (although this I doubt). However, this necessarily means that applicants who do not fit any of its pre-defined profiles are deemed unsuitable for any kind of job. They are therefore rejected. Used by one employer in isolation, such a test would not cause too much harm. However, psychometric tests have now gravitated towards a single norm. This norm is now becoming universally adopted by employers to screen applicants.
This means that only applicants with acceptable psychometric profiles will be accepted for employment by any company. An applicant whose psychometric profile is rejected will thus be rejected by all companies. I am such a one. I am thus made universally unemployable, irrespective of the aptitudes, knowledge, experience and skills I have within my field. Psychometric testing thus locks me out of the economy permanently.
I sense from their content that a lot of these so-called psychometric tests, unwittingly or otherwise, simply determine the applicant's personality type. We are thus faced with the spectre that the time is nigh when only those with what is deemed a commercially compatible personality type will ever be employable, locking all the rest of us out of the economy completely and permanently, irrespective of out technical skills.
Generic vs Proprietary
If, in the almost impossible event that you get past the agency and the human resources department of your prospective employer, you finally get to meet someone you can relate to. You are interviewed by a technical peer. At last you think you are home and dry. In the distant past you may have been. But not today.
"You can't bullshit a tekkie," I said above. That is true. You cannot. But the marketing spin machines of those who dominate the software industry can. And they do. It is not by chance that the industry is dominated by the young. It has been engineered this way for sound commercial reasons. With regard to the proprietary commercialisation of generic technology, the minds of the young can be captured: the minds of the old can't.
On one very rare occasion I got as far as an interview with a technical line manager with a software company. He was considerably younger than I was. Everything the company produced ran on a recently heavily marketed operating system called Windows NT. I doubt whether this young line manager had ever dealt with any other kind of operating system.
He saw from my CV that I had not used Windows NT myself. I had used and had experience with many computer operating systems before they first became named as such. They were first known as 'organisers' and 'executives'. I had used mainframe operating systems like OS/360. I later had a long affair with Unix and a passing one with VAX VMS. I also delved - often quite deeply - into the microcomputer and PC operating systems like CP/M, Applesoft, PC DOS and OS/2. I had even built into an accounting suite I wrote, a complete disk operating system which handled everything down to track-sector address level. The little machine it ran on did not have an operating system. I had even developed applications for Windows 3.x and had become an extensive user and configurer of Windows 95. But I had never used Windows NT!
The product line, on which this young line manger was working, used a communications network. It involved 'client' software in satellite PCs accessing databases which were centralised on 'database servers'. These servers had to 'listen' on various network 'sockets' for service requests from 'clients'. At the lowest level, these servers were implemented as what are termed software daemons. The 'daemon' has been a well known concept in Unix systems for longer than I can remember. The concept itself has existed under many other names within project groups for even longer.
This young line manager gingerly introduced me to the notion of a daemon with the words, "it's implemented as a daemon - that's an NT thing - ...". He thought that because I had not used Windows NT, or been on a Windows NT course, I could not possibly get my head round the notion of what a daemon was and how it worked. Not having Windows NT on my CV he even wondered why I had been sent to him for interview. I tried to explain to him that a daemon was a generic concept which applied to systems in general. Unfortunately somebody else had done a much better job of indoctrinating him with the idea - either directly or by overwhelming implication - that it was a concept unique to the proprietary Windows NT operating system.
Another instance springs to mind when I applied for a job of setting up Internet web servers. I was asked by the young director of the company what software I would use to set up a web server. I said that on a Unix machine I would probably use the Apache server and on a Windows PC I would probably use one I liked called "Web Site" by O'Reilly Associates. "Wrong answer," he said, "Never heard of them." Then he began to rubbish Unix and talk as if nothing other than Windows NT existed. "The right answer was of course the..." He mentioned some new proprietary product I had not heard of. I would like to keep abreast with Windows NT, but to do that I would have to pay rather a lot of money to buy the software and then attend expensive proprietary courses to become accredited as somebody who knew something about it. And the price would be far beyond what my state welfare budget would allow.
Younger people are now in the positions of power. They are now the employment decision makers. But unlike mine, their technical up bringing has been dominated by proprietary market forces. As a result they are unable to discern the demarcations between what is generic and what is proprietary in computer software. This renders them unable to see common principles which inhabit all systems of a kind irrespective of which corporate interest is reproducing, repackaging, renaming and marketing them. Consequently, they cannot recognise generic knowledge when it is not encapsulated within some familiar proprietary wrapping. Hence those of us with deep solid life-long foundations in real software principles and practicalities cannot get jobs.
The principle of what is happening here is perhaps best illustrated by a parable. I call it the parable of the van drivers. A certain goods delivery company in East Kent had two vacancies for van drivers. They wanted drivers with a good knowledge of the highways and byways of East Kent to drive two of their Ford Transits. They advertised the jobs in the local press.
The first responder to the advertisement was a local. He had lived in East Kent all his life. He knew it like the back of his hand. He had an exemplary driving record. He had worked for a long-standing delivery company which had ceased trading because its proprietor had retired. He was invited for interview. Unfortunately at the interview it transpired that his former employer had always used Volkswagen LT35 vans. "We are very sorry," said the interviewer, "but we are looking for somebody with experience of driving Ford Transits." He was rejected.
Another person applied. He had been a delivery van driver too. But he had spent all his career so far driving Ford Transits. He was invited to an interview. "You are just what we need," said the interviewer. However, he then discovered that the applicant had been doing all this delivery work in South Essex. His brother-in-law had cut the advertisement out of his local paper and sent it to him. "But I am very quick at learning new routes," said the applicant. "I was sent to do deliveries in East Herts for a while and I picked up the routes very quickly. I should have no trouble. I have a knack for it." "I am sorry," said the interviewer," but we really need somebody with a knowledge of East Kent." He was rejected.
The interviewer then throws his arms in the air exclaiming, "One simply cannot find the right people nowadays!"
The first applicant would have been perfectly at home in a Ford Transit after two miles. The second would have known exactly where to go without even looking at his map after a week. There would have been no measurable shortcoming in either applicant's performance compared with that of the employer's more seasoned delivery drivers.
Of course, in the real world, both drivers would have been hired. Nevertheless, their counterparts in the computer software industry would not. The software industry's reasons for rejecting applicants really are that stupid. It is because those judging the abilities and skills of others are simply not qualified to do so. It is also because large and powerful interests want to commandeer the entire market for their own profit.
There has always been a problem with terminology in the computer industry. Each sector of the industry has tended to become very cloistered in its outlook. This has invariably led it to evolve its own private sub-language or jargon. Such a jargon can be understood fully only within a very restricted domain. This may include a particular technical area such as 'finance' or 'aeronautical engineering'. Frequently however, a jargon cannot be understood properly outside the company within which it originated. Some jargons are privy only to members of a single department or project team.
This has resulted in applicants, who are familiar with the general software concepts and principles used in a prospective employer's domain, not understanding the cloistered terminology the interviewer is using to question him about them. The upshot is that the interviewer becomes convinced that the applicant is not only ignorant and unsuitable, but that he is in fact an impostor - not a genuine software person at all.
Cloistered terminology still survives. Nevertheless, it is far less of a barrier to obtaining employment than are the proprietary wrappings which now encapsulate the timeless generic concepts of computer software.
Manual vs Automatic
During the 1980s I clocked up well over 15,000 hours of programming in Microsoft QuickBASIC. But the character string "QuickBASIC" does not equal the character string "Visual BASIC". Therefore an agency operative sees them as different. The result is that I cannot get a job now that requires experience in Microsoft Visual BASIC. I have never acquired the Visual BASIC developer's kit, firstly because I cannot afford it and secondly because I found Java - whose development kit is free - fulfilled most of my ancient wish list for an ideal programming language.
Visual BASIC, as I understand it, is still 'basically' BASIC. But it has quite a lot of built-in features to ease my task of presenting my output in a Windows environment and interfacing to certain proprietary databases and other helper applications, which in QuickBASIC I had to provide myself as part of the application. It would thus make my task easier.
I liken it to changing from driving a manual stick-shift hatch-back car to an up-market automatic car. I get out of my old manual 1989 VW Golf CL and get into a new state of the art Mercedes automatic. The Mercedes changes gear for me. All I need to do is concentrate on the traffic. I delete my old QuickBASIC compiler kit and open up my new Visual BASIC development environment. It does all my screen and database interfacing for me, leaving me to concentrate on the application logic. I feel like a cross country rally driver, adept at his lightening heel-and-toe down-shifts round rising muddy hairpins, settling down to a comfortable new job as a limousine driver.
Unfortunately the character string "stick shift" does not equal the character string "automatic". Therefore an agency operative sees them as different, and consequently deduces that the rally driver cannot possibly master the controls of a limousine without going on an unaffordable course run exclusively by the manufacturer of the particular limousine concerned. Besides, at 35 the rally driver is too old to be worth retraining. At least, this is the way IT recruiters see it as they continue to bleat about the industry's insurmountable skills shortage.
Right from the beginning of my career, my employability was curtailed by my lack of an academic qualification resulting from my failure of a single 3-hour maths paper on one day in June 1966. Notwithstanding that I have since gained knowledge in that subject far beyond the level of that paper, this has manifested itself as an eternal difficulty regarding employment ever since. But as if this barrier imposed by the powers of academia were not enough, the powers of corporate self-interest have now taken it upon themselves to erect an even greater barrier to employment. It seems that to be able to get a job today, doing what I once did very well for the first 25 years of my career, I now must have an additional proprietary qualification.
In the not too distant past I could present myself as a computer software person and be accepted by default as such by my market. But this is no longer the case. By sheer length of experience and depth of reading I am confident within myself to install and configure any system or application on a personal computer. But employers no longer share my confidence. This is because somebody has told them that nobody is capable in such things unless he is what is called a 'Microsoft Certified Engineer'. Unfortunately I am not a member of that species. It is therefore as if the sum total of all my years of acquired knowledge and experience has suddenly evaporated and become as nothing.
So why don't I become one? Firstly it costs too much. Certainly for anybody existing on state welfare its cost is prohibitive. Secondly, I am not eligible to become one and I have no way of becoming eligible. As far as I am able to find out, to be eligible I have to be already working for a company who has some kind of relationship with Microsoft. So I would have to get such a company to employ me first. They will not employ me unless I am one to begin with. It is a vicious cycle.
The ignorant interviewer does not have the background to be able assess my technical competence himself. Neither does he possess the discernment to be able to judge my integrity. And he knows it. He is therefore reluctant to take personal responsibility for his decision regarding whether or not to hire me. Consequently he looks to others to tell him that I am technically competent and of good character. Then, should I later prove to be the contrary, he escapes blame by passing it on to those others who recommended me to him. He thereby saves face and protects his position and his future career prospects. Those others - his scapegoats - are what we call referees.
My problem is that I do not have any. I exist on state welfare. It provides for food, clothing and shelter: nothing else. It certainly does not provide for maintaining social contact. It is therefore not possible for me to maintain contact with friends and former colleagues. Not, that is, if I do not wish to starve. Once I could no longer afford to hop on a train to meet such people from time to time, contact with them soon evaporated. They moved on. I quickly lost touch.
I left my last employer over 20 years ago. That company has since disbanded. The customers of my former business did not know of my personal technical expertise. They saw only delivered products. For all they knew I could have hired others to design and develop what I sold. Besides, prospective employers simply will not accept the customers of my former business as referees in place of a former employer.
Anyone interviewing me therefore has nobody else on whom to pass the responsibility for verifying my technical expertise and good character. So because no interviewer I have ever encountered has had the personal self-confidence and knowledge to judge what he sees before him, the absence of references is yet another barrier which it is beyond my control to circumvent.
This reveals the applied principles by which, in this society, one is granted the privilege of being permitted access to means of turning one's labour into one's needs of life.
You are presumed inept unless or until you can present an acceptable referee who will witness to your technical competence.
You are presumed untrustworthy unless or until you can present an acceptable referee who will substantiate your moral integrity.
In other words, what you say at your interview is assumed to be a pack of lies unless or until you can present referees who are able and willing to confirm what you say. Truly, you are presumed guilty until proven innocent.
The true necessary and sufficient skill sets for most jobs do not include the skills of the salesman. Yet increasingly, the person who gets the job nowadays is the one who is the best at selling himself rather than the one who would actually be best for the job. It is appropriate to note here that being a good salesman is not necessarily the same thing as being a good communicator. I was considered an excellent technical communicator but I have never been a very persuasive salesman.
The value of an employee to an employer is entirely determined by his ability to do the job for which he is hired. It is nothing to do with his ability to sell himself. (That is, of course, unless he is hired as a salesman.) Consequently, I would expect the one vital quality for a professional interviewer to be the ability to discern the true suitability and skill level of a candidate irrespective of that candidate's ability to sell himself. Especially when, as in most cases, such an ability is wholly irrelevant to the functionality of the job on offer. I was well aware of this in the days when I sat in the interviewer's chair.
Nevertheless, in my experience as an interviewee I have rarely witnessed this quality. Interviewers are as susceptible to salesmanship as the impulsive domestic consumer. The result is that the best person for the job is rejected and remains unemployed while a vital position which demands top technical expertise is filled by a salesman. Hence it is of little surprise that every elemental activity in the entire economy is now managed as if it were a sales situation, no matter how laughably unfitting and inappropriate the sales model may appear to the rational observer.
The absence of natural sales ability, and the inability of most interviewers to discern relevant skills from interviewee salesmanship, poses yet another barrier to my being considered for jobs for which I am technically well suited.
Interviewer ignorance has been one of the most potent barriers to my acquisition of jobs for which technically I would have been ideally suited. It has relentlessly filtered me out at every stage for such utterly silly reasons as:
- not having the right technical buzz words on my CV
- illiterate agency staff not reading my CVs properly
- not having qualifications even though they are irrelevant to the job in question
- my inability to give 'psychologically correct' answers to inane questions
- being good at my job but bad at aptitude tests which 'prove' that I am
- interviewers assuming that their cloistered terminology is universal
- being excluded from the market by expensive proprietary qualifications
- having no referees onto whom interviewers can readily pass the buck
Thus it is not the best product which wins, but the best-marketed. So too with a job, the winner is he who best sells himself: not he who is best for the job.
The IT industry suffers skills shortages not because the necessary skilled people are not there but because there is a chronic bottleneck between those with the skills and those who need their services. The IT industry is in serious need of bypass surgery to make a way round the arterial constrictions imposed by recruitment agencies and modern HR department practices.
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©May 1998 Robert John Morton