Sunday, January 30, 2022

Not Even Not Zen 240: Biomythography - Note 17, Getting the Job

A Biomythography - Note 17
by Secret Hippie

Getting the Job

"So you’re pretty good with computers now," Adam announced as he walked back into my room.

"Not really." It was a strange way to re-open the conversation. I knew he was up to something.

"Good enough to build a computer," he said.

“Maybe.” My hardware skills were okay. But I was working on my programming. Except for an assortment of scripts and batch files, every program I’d written had been for school. My skills hadn't been put to the test except literally.

Even as he brought it up, Adam had to know he was being modest about his contribution to the hardware side. He had helped me put together my first 286 computer. I had rebuilt it several times since then and I'd worked on others. But it didn’t amount to much compared to his collection. He owned a 286 machine that he'd updated with a graphics card and sound card, an Amiga that he had upgraded at least twice, and a brand new 386 into which he'd installed SoundBlaster. That SoundBlaster sounded pretty cool.

“Grad school hasn’t hooked you up with a job." He remained on his feet even though I was sitting in front of my computer. "And I know you can draw. Really draw.”

Now he was buttering up my marginal art skills. I couldn’t think of where this could possibly lead.

"You've upgraded Windows," he continued. "I think you could run real graphics."

Maybe this was it. Adam had cajoled me about my graphics before. Because to me, my command line programs were fine.

A single megabyte of memory, a modem, WordPerfect, a Borland compiler, and some BBS software seemed like plenty, or rather, it felt like too much for me. But Adam loved graphics. He sneered at my cheap paperwhite monitor until it ran Windows 3.0 and looked good doing it. A year later, he wanted me to install more main memory and a better graphics card so I could run Windows 3.1. I'd done it partly to keep up to date with him but also because it was an excuse to tinker with the hardware. I enjoyed seating the DRAM and swapping cards in and out of the motherboard.

I just didn't see what he liked about graphics so much. The games with better graphics weren't more fun than the text-based games but they seemed more addictive. They felt different on an intuitive level. I worried about increasing the heroin-power of my distractions.

"Have you ever done computer art?" he asked.

This could be it - he might have an art project in mind. We had talked about going into animation. Adam kept a bank of hobbyist copies of art generation programs. He had tried to give me some and I had politely put the pile of 1.44 MB disks in a case next to my computer. I hadn't installed any. Instead, I had gone with Norton Utilities and Stacker to make sure I had plenty of space on my hard drive for writing and that all of the bad drive sectors had been marked and tracked.

I loved sitting and watching Norton Disk Doctor. When it ran, it popped up an ASCII chart of sectors and colorized its progress around the disk.

"Computer art. Do you mean, like, in Paint?" That was the standard bitmap-based art program included with Windows. Otherwise, the only computer illustration I knew firsthand came through freeware (or adware, or nag-ware, or shareware, or whatever you want to call it) and none of those packages were any good. I understood there was more advanced stuff because I had a friend from undergraduate school, Alan, who had gone to Hollywood to do computer graphics. Personal computer hobbyists didn’t have access to that rendering level, though.

"Uh, no." Adam snorted. "Have you got something more sophisticated? Did you install the CorelDraw or Adobe Photoshop I gave you?"


"Well, you should." Finally, he sat down. Without quite looking at me, he said, "I think I can get you a job if you install the programs and train on them."

“Really? Shit.” This was it. His business proposal wasn’t what I’d expected. “What kind of money?”

“Decent. I mean, newspapers need ads. It’s art, so it’s fun. And it’s on computers. Lots of computers.”

“Okay." I took a deep breath. "I’ll install the stuff.”

That night, I began the process of training myself for the Express Newspapers art test. Apparently, the other job applicants had majored in art. They didn’t know software. My computer knowledge looked like my only advantage. I loaded every program even mildly related to the job. By the next day, I was working in CorelDraw and Adobe Photoshop and a few freeware packages of clip art.

At first, it was frustrating. The tools didn't operate like ink and paper. They required different thinking.

The best program at the time was Corel Draw 3.1. Photoshop 2.5 didn’t have layers. Corel did. It was vector-based, too. I could distort shapes, especially letters, to create attention-grabbing effects. Graphics that had previously taken artists half a day by conventional methods became five-minute jobs for me. The vectors could be resized in a few seconds, too.

That week, I taught myself to draw in vectors and layers. As Adam kept reminding me, it was a matter of creating backgrounds first and putting contrasting shapes into the foreground to build up a finished composition.

Have you got a special savings and loan offer to handle? Take the outline of a bank building, fill it with black, and add in clipart of people shown in silhouette. Suddenly the bank looks full. Smash the ad copy in white letters through it all. Ta da!

Got a mattress sale? Import a few dramatic 'Only This Week!' word balloons. Float the mattress over a party background with streamers, cake, and ribbons. Throw some confetti in there. Give the mattress a dramatic spotlight. It’s a star!

By the time the Express gave me my appointment, I was a day past ready.

“We’ve got four interviews,” Adam announced. “We’re running the mattress sale art test. I think you’re ready. And you’re contestant number four.”

Even though I studied, even though I did the best on the Express interview, I knew the reason I succeeded was that Adam prompted me. So what's the moral here? Do friends look out for one another? Well, yes. But there's more. Adam and I had met on the job as lifeguards. He had already worked with me for a couple months. We had hung out for years. He was pretty sure he could stand to work with me again.

That's not a small thing. Adam was doing a good deed, or trying, and I was living up to it, or trying. But it wouldn't have been as easy a decision for Adam if he knew me as 'that ass who never does any work.' No one likes to hire a friend who goes on to become the boat anchor of the office. That's difficult for everyone.

My approach to getting jobs had always been: be better than anyone else and get lots of certifications and degrees. That didn't cut it all by itself, though. Going through a side door as a computer artist was smart. Seven months later, I landed a paid gig doing VAX programming in exchange for course credit at Hood College. (So the school did hook me up after all.) Three months after that, I landed a full-time gig at Hood, also doing VAX/VMS programming.

For the full-time job interview, I sat down with the head of the department, who had rejected my application for a hardware position a year earlier.

"You have Novell experience?" she said as she read my resume. She shook her arm dramatically with the paper in hand. "Did you have that last year?"


"You would have come out on top if you had. How did you get experience with that?"

I didn't quite tell her that it was through a friend and computer art.


Over the years in technical positions,

At Terrex - I got the job through someone I knew in college
At University Publications - got in based on my resume and interview
At LLC Custom Cables - got in based on the recommendation of a fellow graduate student
At Montgomery Express newspapers - aced the process on the recommendation of a friend
At Hood College – got the programming job based on the recommendation of a fellow grad student
As a contractor with the NIH (CC) – based on my resume and interview
As federal staff with the NIH (NMRF) – based on recommendations of people who knew my work
As a contractor with the NIH (NIAAA) – based on recommendations of people who knew my work
As federal staff at the NIH (NCCAM) – based on recommendations of people who knew my work

In each case, I increased my list of bragging points from my jobs and also my certifications. Those certifications and advanced degrees often get you in the door. They might not be enough if the list of candidates is large, as it often is. It helps if, a) people know your work and, b) they want to work with you.

It’s an obvious point but I’ve had to rephrase it many times. Even computer science professors will say things like, “It’s all a matter of who you know.” That’s wrong. You can know the president but if she thinks you suck and hates you, it’s only going to hurt your chances.

It’s who knows you - and wants to work with you.

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