The Best Advice Ever

CoL Commons
That’s the Commons of the Cathedral of Learning, home to the Graduate School of Business in 1977. This picture was taken from one of the study carrels on the 2nd and 3rd floor.

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.

83 thoughts on “The Best Advice Ever

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  1. That is such a great story Dan. So smart of you to do the interview. You are obviously a “half full glass” kind of guy, an optimist, a let’s look on the bright side and I am sure that served you well in life so far.
    Have a great day.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks! I am a total optimist. Throughout that day, I think most of the students walked out of the interview without participating. I could understand their being upset, but it was such a great opportunity to test those answers.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. what an interesting experience this was- and the early days of AA – my mom was going into the workforce at the time and I am sure this impacted her too (in a good way). and how cool that you know the guy who got the job….


    1. I also just read what marina wrote – and really love this nugget…

      “Your best advice was to keep your temper and be aware of what’s happening instead of rejecting the moment.” have a nice day Dan!

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Thanks. AA impacted a lot of people in a positive way, and I think it was the right thing to do at the time. I had been in several classes with the guy who got that job and he certainly was a deserving candidate.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. :) – that’s cool – and I think we (or at least I do) forget about IBM sometimes – and how that name was ubiquitous in the 70’s/80’s – kind of like Apple now.. oh I dunno

        Liked by 1 person

  3. “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 can understand why the first two interviewees walked out angry. It is disrespectful to ask someone to come to a meeting just to see their color and gender. It wastes their time and costs them an opportunity with another employer. However, offering to help with interviewing skills shows character.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. In fairness to the recruiter, IBM made the arrangements to send him to the school, and the people in the Placement Office filled out his interview slate.

      We knew this was a possible scenario. I knew why my classmates were angry, but he did give us a chance to make something of a bad situation. I think it did show character and I’m surprised he continued after the first two guys walked out. I knew them, and they expressed their anger to the recruiter before leaving the room. Very few people took him up on his offer.

      The broader lesson I took from this was that, regardless of which side of the desk you’re on, you can work to make a bad situation better. Honesty in business is not always the best policy according to the lawyers and HR types. I’m not sure IBM would have approved of his approach.


    2. “Burroughs” Now there is a blast from the past. DMS II, Alogol, Cobol, DCAlgol, NDL and heaven forbid LINC. :) I worked on the B1000 as well as the B6000 and Unisys A series. I remember flipping on the light in a dark computer room and finding a cold machine with the software tapes in boxes. This was in the late 70’s and 80’s, and those were heady times.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. We were converting systems from a 5500 to a 6700 and converting payroll and HR to database from flat file. The 5500 systems were still on cards! We read them is as card-image files so we could edit them easily on our “intelligent” monitors. Algol and COBOL. I don’t miss COBOL


        1. There are a number of things I miss and don’t miss about Burroughs systems. The thing I miss the most was the job flow language WFL. It was beautiful. The thing I do not miss the most was the white on black glare of the TD 700 CRT. A colleague once exclaimed, “Finally, a crt for the blind, or those who want to be.”

          Liked by 1 person

  4. The “Door” closed but he opened a Window and you climbed through it. I always think of things that happen that way as “meant to be”. Gosh I wish I had the sound advise your father gave over and over again about holding your temper and being aware of what’s happening before rejecting the moment. I am guilty of doing that. I’m writing this down and adding it to my mantra list! Perhaps it’s not too late. My temper has mellowed with age. :)

    Liked by 2 people

    1. You’re right Deborah, and I think you’re right about those things being meant to be. The funny thing is that my father had a strong temper and wasn’t afraid to erupt in the moment. As I am writing about him in a post for Father’s Day, he was a;so able to control that when necessary. Thanks, as always for your support.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Great post, Dan. It’s clear (even if you weren’t aware) that you were capable of quickly adjusting to an opportunity others missed. How generous of your interviewer to help you hone your oral presentation. Those instances are few and far between these days.

    What a majestic place to study in your photo.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Sammy. I remember thinking that I should take him up on his offer, but I also remember the two guys walking out and wondering if I should too. Peer pressure is always at work. I am so glad that I stayed. He was generous, and he turned a negative into a positive and that’s not easy to do.

      I loved studying in the Cathedral. It is such an impressive building and regardless of the number of people running around, it’s always curiously quiet.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Hey I just forwarded an email to you under my real name with ‘Pittsburgh” in the title. Don’t know if you’ll participate but thought you’d like to follow the literary project. I love the CNF org – just haven’t had a chance to post about it yet!


  6. That’s a great story!
    I loathe interviews. They’re (or I’m) so awkward. I guess I faked it well enough to be employed, but I was always thinking, seriously, “This is so lame!” Aren’t I terrible? I most preferred the guy who was all, “You oughta come work for me…” and that was that!
    We frequently discuss the handshake thing around here. All these young men who come to call on our daughters, not too many good handshakes there…It bothers us.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks! My father would have turned those boys away at the door. Limp handshake, you’re outta here. It took a long time before I was comfortable in an interview. Working as a consultant, I had to do sales and that helped me handle those situation.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yeah, the handshake thing is noticeable, but these boys are 10-13, so they have time to improve before courtin ;)
        My husband swears that once he has secured an interview he’s got the job. I wish I had that kinda confidence! lol I’ve not gotten two jobs after interview, and he’s gotten every one. I wonder what his handshake is like…lol

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Crushing, I bet :) I have gotten most jobs that I’ve interviewed for. The big thing is being passionate and conveying that passion in the interview. If you’re not passionate, you probably don’t want the job.

          Liked by 1 person

  7. That IBM guy was a real human being. Great story Dan. Having been on both sides of the table your story pointed out the sad truth about those candidates who came into an interview looking for a job usually didn’t get it. Those that came in looking for learning usually were keepers. You were wise to take the learning opportunity.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks John. I’ve also ended up on the other side of the table and I have a similar view of candidates as you describe. I am reasonably sure that the IBM guy knew how much I appreciated what he had done for me. I still would have preferred #1 IBM over #2 Burroughs, but I got my first job and that set a different series of events in motion.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Loved this story, Dan! Interviews are tough, and sometimes what you want to say just doesn’t come out right, and afterwards you end up kicking yourself in the butt. I’m glad you got hired at a company you really wanted to work for. Or at least, that is what I believe happened. Is it? <3

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Amy. As I mentioned above, I would have preferred IBM but the job at Burroughs was essentially the same for the #2 company. Kinda like working for Avis instead of Hertz. The best part was that the experience I got there expanded my options as opposed to narrowing them which was a real problem in technology jobs. It’s easy to get typecast, as it were and locked into a specific kind of job for your career.

      I left Burroughs (in NJ) after little more than a year for a job across the country in Seattle. I had to answer that same question for that interview as well. The guy who became my boss at Airborne Freight had a degree in Biochemistry and commented that he always hated that question but that I had been well coached.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Sometimes, Dan, experience speaks more for itself then your actual education. There is nothing that can replace hands on learning to expand your horizons. You really have moved about quite a lot, going from NJ to Seattle. Whoa! And here I thought I had moved quite a lot. You beat me! :)

        Liked by 1 person

    1. When all you have is lemons…

      It was bizarre but it was the time for it. I took the Civil Service Exam to work in the Post Office during college. You got 10 pt for each of: minority, female, veteran and handicapped. A black Vietnam vet rolled in in a wheelchair. It was hard to look at him and think that he didn’t deserve an extra 30, but he was a smart guy whose score ended up well over the 100 points I could get. I eventually got called for a job, so it didn’t hurt me that badly and, truth be told, he needed a job more than I did.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Dan, I just loved this entire series. You are honest to a fault, aren’t you? I think you were incredibly smart to not walk out of the IBM interview like the two before you did. Who ever heard of practicing for an interview in an interview?! This was really great.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Lois. I think in order to be grateful, you have to acknowledge the reality. I didn’t have a clue how to answer that question until I spoke to that man. It was a strange experience but very important.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. I like how this interview went. What a gentleman and a ‘teacher’ too. He led you to practice and find the right words to land the ‘real’ and important job you were destined to get. I am so glad the IBM man was so helpful. I am a ‘rambler’ and sometimes need direction to get my ‘spiel’ right, this would have been so nice to run into a kind interviewer. This is sending me out of the library, it is closing at 9 p.m. Home to dinner and television or a book, Dan.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Dan, you took lemons and made lemonade. Pardon the cliché. Although it was disappointing to hear that the job was for someone else, I’m sure you were grateful that he didn’t go through the interview with you thinking that you were a candidate. His offer to help you polish your interviewing skills certainly helped you land a job. Mr. IBM must have been impressed with your maturity.
    Oh, I don’t like dead fish handshakes either! Have a good week.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I almost put that cliche in the post Elaine, it was a popular expression back then and apt for this situation. I think if he had gone through the interview as if I were a candidate, and had asked me that question, I would have always felt that my answer is why I didn’t get the job. I think that would have been devastating. People don’t realize how small acts of kindness can affect people.

      No dead fish, ick.


          1. Several years ago, I interviewed for a position and during the ” any questions” part of the interview, I asked about the person who currently held the position. I was told that the person retired, but they have someone else as a temp. Immediately, my gut told me that the interview was just formality. I later found out that my intuition was correct. Sadly, that practice still goes on present day.

            Liked by 1 person

  12. Wow! This happened in 1977 yet it feels like times have not changed. Took me back to 2012 when I was sitting for the first ever employment interview. I am glad to have been faced with considerate people and clearly your first experience was also positive. An opportunity, or a test run perhaps? A warm up that helped in realizing the things outside the classroom and work around it like a winner!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Interviews are awful, and they aren’t much better from the other side. When you have good candidates, and realize that you can only hire one, it’s very hard. It’s hard to pick one thing that separates people. This was a great trial run for me and I will always be grateful to that man.

      Liked by 1 person

  13. That’s a really great post. I don’t get nervous during my interviews because I always walk in with This-Is-Not-the-Last-Employer-in-the-world attitude. However, I always get stuck at two questions. First: Tell me something more about yourself? In my mind I’m like What the heck you want to know? You want to know about my hobbies, my personality…what? There are a million things. So, I usually answer with a question. What do you want to know? That kind of annoys the employer. They want to hear an answer, not a question in return. Second question: Why are you the best writer? Oh! Did I ever say that ever? Hire me only then I can prove if I’m good or not.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. For the first question, I would always say something about what I like to do in my spare time. Riding a bike, wood working. I’m never sure what they are looking for, and I never ask that question. As for the second questions, (are you the best writer?” I’d be tempted to get snarky and say “as far as you know” or something that would result in my not getting the job. It’s an unfair question designed to let them judge your personality rather than your competence. I wouldn’t ask that either.


      1. I have got the opportunity to interview few candidates and I only ask simple straight forward questions related to the job profile or job requirement. Well, if I reply that I love writing, watching movies, playing games or just traveling they assume I’m just sort of have-fun type of guy. They usually want to hear what I majored in and where I worked previously, but that’s already mentioned in the resume, so why should I repeat that? The second question is more about marketing yourself. Even my marketing manager tells me Sharukh you need to market yourself in front of the seniors. Tell them that you did this today and that you helped that department and so on. I can’t do all that. I work hard, I make sure work is done on time, I walk out of the office when time’s up, I don’t show it off. Its the boss’s duty to see my competency, not my job to shout it aloud. Its a funny world out there.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. On the other hand, if someone asks you “what are you doing?” or “how’s it going?” or an equivalent question, there’s nothing wrong with mentioning your current project, especially if you like it and can show some passion when speaking about it. You never know where the next job opportunity will come from.


          1. Yes, I do that and that brings many recruiters to my doorsteps. One company has already offered me a job, one interview is lined up tomorrow. Hope things go well so I can move forward in my life. Hope my current employer is not listening :)

            Liked by 1 person

  14. Dan, your best-advice series has been wonderful. This last particularly because there is a shade of disappointment in it just before the final thrill.
    I was once kicked out of the interview team because I ask candidates hard questions. I don’t know what goes in my mind when I have to shoot questions at someone. I end up asking very difficult questions. I taught Chemistry and Math in high school in 2004 just before joining university. When I set the exam, the supervising teacher said it was “a difficult paper.” The leading student got 62%. I thought they would score 80s and 90s. During my time in the university, my strongest A’s came from courses almost nobody else in class understood. I scored the worst in courses where the lecturer was lousy and lacked commitment in the course or full knowledge thereof. But those were the ones where nearly everybody scored A’s. One classmate remarked that I was in my own class. “You don’t fit the description of a student,” he said.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed this series Peter. My worst classes in college were chemistry classes taught by people who knew the subject matter very well but couldn’t understand that others weren’t at their level. Ultimately, the message was “if you’re not at this level, you shouldn’t try working in this field.”


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