History & biography

A Life in Telecom...

Ian Hawker

A Life in Telecom...

Confessions of an Engineer

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LEICESTER
1973

In July 1973, John was completing a PhD in Physics at Leicester University and decided he needed to find a job. The PhD offered the option of an academic life but the pay of a research worker was poor for at least the first ten years. In any case, the subject matter of the PhD had proven to be not that interesting and he needed a change of direction! For John, this meant gaining useful employment in industry (with no previous experience) and its associated rewards and uncertainties.
So, he visited the old Fielding Johnson Building at the University now used for administration and spent an hour or so searching out job application forms. John did not have a particular career in mind except that it had to be in science and engineering. He definitely did not want a career in teaching which he considered to be very hard work and with low pay! John quickly found three possible roles in Meteorology, Mining and Telecoms and completed and posted off the application forms (there were no internet job applications in those days). With no overall job strategy in mind, he submitted the forms without expanding or thinking too much about why he might be suitable for the work. In the same room where Social Science graduates with long hair and army camouflage jackets discussing and applying for work in Social Services. He felt fortunate that he had a hard science degree! But this approach of not planning for change until the pressure grew sufficiently high was typical of John. His university grant would run out in three months!
Luckily, he was invited to an interview for each of the three roles he had applied for with mixed results. For the first interview, he drove to a mining research establishment near Burton on Trent. The location in the North Midlands suited him, being not too far by road from his roots near Liverpool and also relatively near the university at Leicester where he had spent the last seven years. The interview was with three managers, the Chairman, Technical Expert and someone from Human Resources. All were formally dressed in suits and ties and sat behind a long table in the interview room. The chairman, Mr Rogers, introduced the session and after a few preliminaries began with a key question.
“John, what made you apply for a role in mining?” he said.
John had considered this question whilst driving up from Leicester and still did not yet have an answer he felt comfortable with.
“Well, sir, I have decided not to pursue an academic career and I am looking for a new challenge,” he said, without elaborating on why this was mining. The chairman seemed to accept this, not expecting him to know too much about mining since John had done physics rather than engineering in his undergraduate degree. The questioning then followed roughly the STAR (Situation, Task, Action and Result) method to explore his key competences.
“John, describe a challenging situation in which you have found yourself and what action you took.” he said.
Fuck me, thought John. My entire life has been a struggle! Except for academia he felt he had underperformed in key life areas such as relationships, foreign languages and sport. Except for his interest in science, he had not been especially motivated to learn new skills and some would view this as laziness. But he generally responded to a challenge when it was presented or when he was not expected to achieve something and had a point to prove!
“Well, sir, after my first year as a student I decided to change my subject to physics only and managed to convince my local authority to provide me with a further year’s grant,” said John.
“How did you try and persuade them and what was the outcome?” asked the chairman predictably.
As this was to do with money, the interview panel all looked interested in his reply.
“Well,” John explained. “I wrote to the County Council Education Department in Chester and followed this up with a personal face-to-face meeting with one of the officials to explain the proposed change. Then a few days later, I received official confirmation of the additional grant.”
“Thank you, John,” said the chairman “Please summarize your PhD research and how it can be applied in our industry.”
After a brief discussion, they all agreed that his PhD had no direct use in the mining industry! In fact, John thought it had been a complete waste of time and energy and wished he had either chosen a more interesting PhD topic or began work three years earlier, after his first degree!
The HR person then asked how John had managed his finances whilst at university (in truth, he had received a full grant so this had never been an issue) and why had he decided to stay in halls rather than share a flat? John replied that although halls were a bit institutionalized they did provide a balanced diet and a good work environment.
The third interviewer was more technical and wore a strange ‘are you going to be able to deliver?’ expression. John was not sure he could in the new area of mining where he knew very little and needed more information.
John asked him, “What will be my role be and what will I be working on when I join?”
The interviewers explained the importance of mining coal economically to meet the demand for power and extract various useful products for the textile industry. Also, that various new techniques were being explored to mine and process coal which John would be working on. But what were the opportunities going forward? Surely the coal industry was contracting due to increasing use of oil and nuclear power which, anyway, was probably a good thing from the perspective of air pollution and climate change!
Maybe a look around the site would provide some answers so after the interview John was shown around and spoke to several staff members working in the laboratories. He had the impression from the interview they would offer him a job, which was encouraging. But then driving back to Leicester, he decided he did not intend to work in a laboratory in a subject of little interest to himself which was bound to show in his work sooner or later. So, when the offer of employment in mining research arrived two weeks later, John stalled to see what the other interviews would bring. At least he had gained some interview experience for a job in industry.
The Meteorology research job at Bracknell looked much more interesting. Simplistically he thought he would like to generate computer models of the weather, relate these to the real world and use them somehow in weather predictions. The interview took place in what looked like a government office in central London where he was introduced into a large room and placed on a chair at the focal point of a circular desk occupied by three interviewers, all formally dressed.
“Well, John, what can you tell us about how weather works?” asked the chairman. “For example, how are storms generated?”
John replied with what he knew about the sun’s energy, the rotation of the earth and the Coriolis force but it soon became clear that he had little idea how weather worked in any detail. He had not covered it in any of the undergraduate course modules and, stupidly, had not bothered to read up on the topic prior to the interview! Some serious background reading, combined with his natural enthusiasm might have been enough to get the job.
The second interviewer launched a follow-on question. “Given that weather is complex, how could it be forecasted?”John had seen on a TV programme that weather forecasting was largely statistical and that the prediction generated most frequently with slightly different starting conditions was the most likely, so he replied accordingly. The interviewer looked satisfied with this answer and there was a brief discussion about uncertainty and how statistics could be applied to weather.
The third interviewer then unexpectedly asked John, had he been involved in any student activities? A few years earlier, Leicester students had rioted over student rights and the interviewer asked if John had been a student representative (which he had not) and, by implication, a trouble maker (which he was not) or even a communist (he was not interested in politics)? Finally, they asked him would he be prepared to work on raindrop formation to which he answered ‘yes’. Driving back to Leicester in the pouring rain that evening, he wondered why they needed to know more about raindrop formation unless it was to prevent it! Needless to say, John was not offered a job in meteorology! He later regretted not taking a planned approach and preparing properly for the interview to give himself a half chance of success! Some work experience or an MSc in meteorology would have helped given the high standard of competition for this type of role.
Then a month later, John received a response to his third application – an invitation to attend an interview for a job with
Telecom. This time he did some background reading and found telecommunications to be a vast subject and felt there should be an opportunity to fit in somewhere! He arrived in the London Borough of Camden by car the night before the interview and asked a pair of local female traffic wardens for some change for the parking meter! They found this request amusing but nevertheless helped on this occasion! Had it been Kensington, they would likely have given him an immediate fine for non-possession of a parking ticket! The hotel was a Victorian building backed off from the main road behind one of the many London squares. After his two previous interviews, John felt like an old hand! He knew he could think on his feet (bullshit as necessary) and had some idea what questions to ask from his preparation work! But nevertheless, the day was important since he had no other interviews in the pipeline.
At Telecom, he was corralled with about a dozen other candidates into a room with two glass walls at the top of a tall building and given an outline of what to expect during the day. The interview would consist of various tests and face-to-face sessions, presumably to assess his general capabilities rather than any specific knowledge of telecommunications. During one of the tests in a small room high up overlooking the busy road, a contract window cleaner walked in and began cleaning the large window behind John . This seemed odd. Was it some sort of initiative test?
“Hello,” said John. “I am doing an exam here,” he said to the cleaner questioningly, thinking the outcome would affect his entire future (which it did).
“Sorry, I was not told anything about it,” replied the cleaner who left and moved onto the next room.
John did well enough at the tests and somehow got through the interviews with the limited knowledge of telecommunications which he had read in the past week! At one point, the technical assessor asked him a mysterious question about component reliability testing. This was followed by a long silence where a career affecting answer was needed! Somehow John dredged from his mind that biological systems worked faster when heated and maybe this principle could be applied? This answer was considered satisfactory and it turned out that Telecom did indeed sometimes assess component reliability by stressing them to destruction in ovens!
Next, the human resources assessor mentioned that John had not ‘sold himself ’ in his application to Telecom (either partially filling the boxes or leaving them completely blank) and asked why he had applied? Since John actually had no idea why he had applied except for needing a job, he focussed on his keenness to learn new things and gave the example of a laser course he had attended recently in Swansea to extend his technical knowledge into a new area. On reflection, the highlight of the course had been John’s advice to an Irish Protestant student from Queen’s University that the Catholic girl he had met at a local fairground in Swansea a few days before would likely be waiting for him in the fairground the next day, despite the disapproval of her parents. It turned out she was waiting as predicted and the student thanked John for his incite (he knew about fairgrounds from his upbringing in New Brighton). His ability to think outside of the box could often disguise his lack of detailed knowledge of a subject which he realized could only come through total immersion and hard work! After another night in the hotel, John returned the following morning for the final few tests and interview wrap up. He picked up a subliminal message from the HR team that he had done well enough and would likely be offered a role.
This ‘outside the box’ thinking had helped pull him through his viva assessment for his first degree a few years earlier. After his Physics degree final exams in 1970, he knew he was borderline between an upper-second and first-class honours degree and the outcome depended on the viva interview with the senior lecturers and the department head. So, he had used the three weeks after finals to prepare for this interview which took place in the Professor’s office. Entering the room, John was confronted with five senior lecturers and the Professor sitting in a semi-circle and he was asked to take a seat facing them for what he expected to be an interrogation. He was able to answer technical questions in turn from each lecturer on their specialist subject. But the innovation which won the day and resulted in a Ist Class Degree was his response to a tricky question on thermodynamics from a less popular lecturer (who was always trying to score points with colleagues on his subject) to which John gave an unexpected response which f lawed the questioner to the delight of the other interviewers! Years later, John had no recollection of the question or the answer he had generated ‘on the fly’.
Back at the hotel that evening after the Telecom interview, John reviewed the day in his mind. It looked likely that Telecom would offer him a job in the testing role discussed with the technical interviewer based in London. But was he interested in the testing role and did he want to work in London permanently? He decided he had limited interest in the role but saw it as a way into a well-paid area of industry where he could contribute and move around inside the company as it was clear that telecommunications was a vast subject! Also, he was happy to work in London short term where he could watch the Everton football team play about six times a year at away games!
After a few weeks, John was offered an engineering job with Telecom based in Ipswich to begin work in October 1973. The location was a surprise as he had assumed the job would be in London! This change of location to Ipswich immediately needed further investigation so he looked up Ipswich on a map and found it was eighty miles north east of London, a long way from his roots in the north. But at least the town had a first division football team (there was no Premier League at the time), well known after their success under Sir Alf Ramsay in the early ’60s.
So, John and his girlfriend, Susan, and their friend, Russell, drove down from Leicester for the day to take a look at Ipswich. It took a long time to get there as the route took them through the centres of both Cambridge and Newmarket (both bypassed years later) accompanied by lorries heading for the growing container port of Felixstowe, already the largest container port in the UK. In Ipswich, they found a quiet and pleasant town centre very different from the conurbations in Liverpool and Leicester which John was used to! There seemed to be medieval churches everywhere including St Mary le Tower, an ancient church rebuilt by the Victorians. Also, Holy Trinity Church by Ipswich Waterfront is one of the few churches in the country which was built during the reign of William IV. Interestingly, the world’s oldest circle of church bells was housed in St Lawrence Church, Ipswich. John had tried bell ringing once in Thurnby village near Leicester with some fellow students but they only managed to get the base bell ringing on time so the overall effect was of either a funeral dirge or a warning of a smallpox outbreak!
In Ipswich, there was a grand old-fashioned library and some well-preserved buildings including Ancient House and White Horse Hotel, both made famous by Charles Dickens. References to Thomas Wolsey abounded near the dock area, giving the impression his spirit is still around somewhere in the town! There was no university and it was rumoured that Ipswich Council had previously rejected the idea, not sympathetic to the thought of troublesome students roaming the old country town. But years later the University of Suffolk was at last established, aligned with development of the Orwell waterfront. However, the nightlife of the town always remained a complete mystery! Where was it?
John accepted the engineering role with Telecom and was given a start date of October 6 1973. He travelled down to Ipswich from Leicester the day before, having arranged bed and breakfast accommodation in Kesgrave. The landlady showed him to a small ground f loor bedroom in the bungalow and took great delight in telling John about the family butcher’s business and how they collected fresh carcasses daily from the local slaughter house which were butchered on the premises. From this, John deduced that the evening meals provided would be strictly non-vegetarian! He liked the friendly Suffolk accent and overall there was a country feel to the place which was new to John, being a city person.
John reported to work on the Monday morning and a very tall man in a suit and tie from human resources greeted him.
“Good morning,” said John reporting for duty and handing over the documentation with the starting date and location sent to him by Telecom. The HR man looked doubtful. “Let me check,” he said, disappearing into an office.
After ten minutes, he reappeared looking apologetic. “Sorry, John, there has been a mistake. The team you are joining is still based in London and will not move to Ipswich until 1976!”
However, he would alert HR accommodation to find him a room for that night in the London area!
John thought to himself, ‘What the fuck is going on and why did they tell me to report Ipswich?’ Maybe a smaller company would have worked in a more joined up fashion? On the other hand, he could see himself disappearing for forty years inside this company and emerging with a reasonable pension whatever he ended up doing. On reflection, maybe he should have contacted his new manager immediately upon receiving the job offer to confirm the location! Later, he found out that a single digit in the job code separated the London team from the two teams which had already moved to Ipswich so it was simply an administrative or even a typing error!
Nevertheless, John still had the satisfaction of having found himself a good job in industry much to his surprise! He had also broken away from an academic career in what was clearly the wrong subject for him and ended it with a PhD. All good so far! But the main question in his mind was how successful would he become in industry knowing as little as he did about telecommunications and about paid employment in general. Most engineers had some idea about what they were getting into through an industrial placement or vacation work but John knew nothing about what was expected. It all looked quite daunting and he would need help and self-endurance to make it succeed!

Format: 13.5 x 21.5 cm
Number of Pages: 208
ISBN: 978-3-99064-166-8
Release Date: 03.04.2018
USD 21,99
USD 13,99