Monday, 18 November 2013

Wanted: accountant with feather duster skills

I've had my fair share of strange job interviews over the years. Perhaps the most surreal was when I applied for a summer job while still at school at the passport office in Petty France, London. The job, which was no more than a dog's body position that required me to spend endless days tracking down passport applications, came under the auspices of the Home Office. So I was required to go through a bizarrely official interview somewhere in Whitehall. It was, in short, the most daunting and nerve-wracking interview I've ever had to sit through. The interviewer, a stern woman in her late fifties with horn rimmed glasses over which she peered accusationally would have made a perfect MI5 interrogator. To make one feel even more uneasy, her office was a vast and gloomy affair and her desk enjoyed the proportions of an ample boardroom table. Once my interrogation was over, this Rottweiler of a woman informed me that in the event of taking up the position, I would be expected to handle highly sensitive, confidential material for which I would be required by law to sign the Official Secrets Act. That's right, we're talking poxy passport applications. I'm not entirely sure how the information I might have gleaned from the 'distinguishing marks' section of an application form could be classed as 'highly sensitive' and pose a threat to national security, but there we are.

In a rather different vein, a cousin of mine once recalled a strange interview he had at Cambridge university many years ago. The elderly Don enquired politely what my cousin's father did for a living, and my cousin responded that his father was a rabbi. "Ah splendid," retorted the older man, "he's in rubber." My cousin chose not to say another word.

But far more surreal than either of these two examples was an interview a very good friend of mine recounted to me last week. This friend is an accountant and had gone for an interview for a job in an area closer to where he lives. Everything went perfectly well. My friend answered all the questions perfectly, and then from nowhere came this: "Now Mr Smithers, what are your cleaning skills like?" My friend looked a bit blank. He was under the impression that the position was for a company accountant who could keep the company's books looking clean and tidy - not the company's carpets and skirting boards.

"Let me explain," continued his interviewer. "We have a rota here. Once a week we all muck in and clean the office." My friend, being an honest individual, admitted that his accountancy skills were far more impressive than his ability to don Marigold gloves and wield a feather duster. His interviewer looked somewhat disappointed; and my friend hasn't heard anything back since.

I know we live in an age where multi-tasking is expected of all of us; but this has to be completely and utterly bonkers.

Alex Pearl is author of Sleeping with the Blackbirds 

Friday, 15 November 2013

How a criminal act helped create Apple

In September 1971, a brilliant and socially inept electrical engineer was perusing an article his mother had saved for him in Esquire magazine. The geek in question was a young student named Steve Wozniak, and the article revealed that hackers had now worked out how to make long-distance calls for free by replicating tones that routed signals on the AT&T network. It further revealed that the sound emitted by a toy whistle found in a cereal packet would perfectly replicate the same 2600 Hertz tone used by the phone network's call-routing switches and could fool the system into allowing long-distance calls to go through without extra charges. The article went on to declare that other tones that served to route calls could be found in an issue of the Bell System Technical Journal, and as a direct result, AT&T began a campaign to get the journal removed from library shelves.

In an excited state Wozniak got on the phone and called his best mate and fellow electronics geek, Steve Jobs, and together they set off to find a library that still had the journal on its shelves. They got lucky and immediately set about producing a device that utilised a frequency counter to calibrate the desired tones. Unfortunately for them, their first attempt didn't quite work and was unable to fool the phone company. Undeterred, Wozniak agreed to continue on the project by developing a digital version of the device by using diodes and transistors.

Once it had been completed, the two attempted to call Wozniak's uncle in Los Angeles, but by mistake got a wrong number. It didn't matter - it worked perfectly.

As a result, the two came to realise that the device, which they dubbed a Blue Box could be built in huge numbers and sold. The units would cost them $40 to manufacture, so Jobs decided to price them at $150. They demonstrated them at college and swiftly sold around 100 units. But their endeavour came to a swift end when trying to sell it at a pizza parlour, they were quite literally mugged at gunpoint.

Steve Jobs was to later recount the episode as being the spark that launched Apple. The two friends had an affinity when it came to solving technical problems and together formed an invincible and incredibly focused team. When quizzed on the subject by Walter Isaacson, Jobs later confessed: "If it hadn't been for the Blue Boxes there wouldn't have been an Apple."

Alex Pearl is author of Sleeping with the Blackbirds