My chaotic journey toward employment was finally coming to an end in 1977. I was two trimesters into a one-year MBA program at The University of Pittsburgh. I had survived the required courses in Accounting and Finance and I was back in my element – Statistics, Operations Research and Programming. Over 70 companies were scheduling interviews. I had bought my first three-piece suit, I had perfected the art of tying a tie, and I had a resume and some pretty good grades. I was ready.
The first company to hold interviews was IBM. Oh my, how amazing it would be to work for IBM, I thought as I put my name on that list. I was selected for an interview and I drew the third slot. Perfect.
I was a commuter student, so timing was always an issue for me and I always dealt with it the same way. I had a 9:30 interview. I was sitting outside the room at 8:15.
At 8:30, one of my similarly well-dressed classmates entered the room with the very sharp looking man from IBM. Less than five minutes later, he exited the room, angry. Mr. IBM came out and asked if one of us was Mr. Name-of-the-other-guy, the 9:00 candidate. He went in and in less than five minutes, he exited, also angry. The IBM guy came back out and asked if I was me and then invited me in.
We shook hands, I nailed that. My father had taught his boys how to shake hands like men from the time we could bend our fingers: “don’t let your hand feel like a dead fish” – no dead fish with Mr. IBM. He introduced himself and asked me how to pronounce my name. I explained and I approached the chair he had motioned to, but before I could sit down, he said:
“I have to tell you that I won’t be making you an offer.”
After replaying the non-dead-fish handshake in my mind and doing a quick sniff test, I think I said something remarkable like “huh?”
“I’m here for a minority candidate.”
That explained the first two candidates.
We, the white males in this class, had been told that we might get passed over for women and minority candidates. Those were the early days of Affirmative Action in the workplace, and for once in my life, the color of my skin wasn’t helping me. I was disappointed but I knew the man who would eventually get that job. I knew his story and I knew that there was nothing to be angry about.
Mr. IBM let the news sink in before continuing:
“I’m sure you’re disappointed. I can’t offer you a job, but I may be able to help you get a job. I’m willing to interview you and then critique your response.”
I was still trying to understand my situation, but I managed to agree to the interview.
We went through the standard questions. What where my career objectives, my favorite courses, what did I think I could bring to IBM. I answered all of them as I had practiced. I subtly worked in that I had worked part-time while in school. I mentioned my love of computers and my fan-boy status with all things IBM (professionally, of course).
Then he looked down at my resume, then up at me and said:
“I see that your undergraduate degree was in Chemistry. How do you think that will help you at IBM?”
Dumb look on face. Followed by inept rambling about quantitative programs, computer science and I think I threw in how Dr. Humphrey suggested that I get an MBA.
“You didn’t anticipate this question, did you?”
“Actually, I did. They coached us. I was supposed to talk about how businesses are becoming more quantitative, and how a background in science is a good fit.”
“Why didn’t you say that?”
“It seemed risky. What if IBM isn’t becoming more quantitative? I kept thinking that I’d think of something better to say when the time came.”
“Yeah, but, um, you didn’t”
Then he asked me what I liked about Chemistry.
I told him that I enjoyed knowing how things work and I enjoyed problem solving. I talked about learning methodical ways of solving problems, sometimes problems with multiple unknowns. I told him how we learned to question apparent answers and look for errors in our logic. I was pretty sure those skills were valuable.
“You have a great answer tangled up in what you just told me. Let’s see if we can find it.”
I practiced that answer with him as he asked the question a variety of ways. I got comfortable with that answer. I ended that “interview” with a thank you and another firm handshake. A week later when the man from Burroughs interviewed me for a similar job, I crushed that question and I got the job.