IBM's "technical writing aptitude exercise"

Come with me back through the mists of Time1 to discover — as I just have — some of the hoops that IBM asked me to jump through during a two hour exercise in pursuit of a job with them. (I actually completed the whole thing with 15 minutes left over for a second cuppa and cheese bun when Elena strolled around on her return trolley circuit.)

Skipping lightly over the spelling, punctuation, fault correction, and flowcharting sections (total time suggested: 75 minutes) let's focus on one of the two "writing" pieces (total time suggested: 45 minutes). Its topic was "A hobby or interest I have" :-)

My "examiner" (who was to become my first IBM 2nd-line manager when I accepted the job offer I received three weeks later) made precisely one change to my little essay. He added the comma that now appears in the second sentence. As it happens, I agree with the change. But perhaps you can see from this scan...

For want of a comma

... of my hand-written draft how I came to overlook it?

Text, exactly as written:

I'm torn between hi-fi and science fiction — but I'll choose the former.

There was a point when I thought my father's Decca radiogram was "hi-fi",
but that was long ago and more than a few pounds away.

It wasn't until I discovered VHF FM broadcasts that I realised that a faint,
background whistle wasn't mandatory to the sound of reproduced music.
Unfortunately, an FM tuner requires an amplifier and that, in turn, makes
loudspeakers necessary. Add to this a parental home that functions most
smoothly when peace and quiet reigns — and a largely negative bank balance
— and there's only one answer: stereo headphones.

Thus, my first hi-fi venture was a portable VHF receiver with a jury-rigged
stereo headphone socket.

My next problems revolved around the BBC's choice and timing of what I regarded
as my kind of music. So I required my own library of material in order to make
myself more nearly a free agent. At this stage I ruled out tape, so I was left
with disc. Ultimately I opted for a mid-range Garrard 86SB with a Shure
cartridge of moderate quality. The Amstrad amplifier that I was conned into,
however, was an unmitigated disaster. It substituted a loud mains frequency
hum, and a tasteful soupçon of hiss, for that original faint, background

In the meantime, of course, the problem I had with loudspeakers was that, put
simply, any that I could afford I couldn't bear to listen to!

Rescue from these terrible problems came from a most unexpected direction. My
erstwhile squash partner, knowing that I plied a pen for a living, invited me
to submit an article on Dolby 'B' for one of the Haymarket hi-fi magazines. I
laced the article with my most astringent wit (all of which was blue-pencilled)
and received £15 for about one hour's work. This, I thought, was it!

As time went by, I proved myself capable of writing short pieces more-or-less
on demand, and my reward often took the form of being allowed to play with
items of hi-fi for periods of several months at a time. Those that I liked, I
was encouraged to buy, with payment from me being offset against articles or
equipment reviews. And thus slowly my system (or perhaps I should say "System")
took form.

It now consists of a very high quality pair of speakers, driven by a massive
Japanese amplifier and fed by both records and tapes. The problem is that my
son clambers all over it. Anyone want a son?

Just over 33 years ago. Good grief! You can read the article I mentioned on Dolby B here, by the way. In its original form.


1  Or, at least, back to March 1981.