IBM Hursley assessment centre visit


Yesterday I went along to IBM Hursley, near Winchester, where I had applied for a job as an IT support technician.

After passing an initial CV check, followed by an amazingly tough online IQ test (pattern recognition in shapes and number sequences puzzles, think ‘Myst’: Rain Man edition; I was told I did “very well” afterwards but suspect this is a stock response) and a screening interview by phone, I was invited to an assessment centre session. This was stage 4 of 5 – the fifth and final step being a ‘technical’ phone call.

In preparation I’d crammed as much IBM history as I could, blitzed ‘Java For Dummies’, and fired up my server running the latest technical preview of Windows Server 2016 to brush up on old skills. I didn’t sleep the night before.

A friend of mine who’d previously applied for a job at IBM had failed at the point of the assessment centre. With a bitterness I didn’t recognise in him, he told me the place was filled with “hoop-jumping suits”. I was not deterred.

The campus is set in 100 acres of beautiful, sprawling grounds in a quaint, quintessentially English hamlet. There’s a fantastic write up on The Register about it, including a look at its extensive tech museum, here.

There’s an aura of a Scientology retreat about the place, not that I’ve ever been to one, but, still, it’s what I imagine it’d be like, except instead of besieging you with talk about the evil galactic lord Xenu, the glassy-eyed zealots here espouse the miracles of The Cloud.

After being presented with name badges in an ice-cold lobby, we candidates were led to the centre, which consisted of a presentation room surrounded by glass-walled meeting rooms. There, we were told about IBM’s forward-looking ethos, and how as a company it was now focussed on The Cloud, analytics (its super-capable, ‘Jeopardy’-winning Watson system), mobile, social (media) and security.

So far so interesting. After being divided into three groups, we were sent on the first challenge of the day: a group logic puzzle. An art gallery owner had forgotten which artists produced a set of images and using a few pieces of information, as a group we had to work out in which order they were placed, utilising a whiteboard and post-it notes. I found it difficult, but thought my contribution of producing a ‘master’ layout of the room with only the confirmed information was useful to be able to visualise what was going on. I don’t think I did very well at this.

Then came individual interviews. I explained why I, a former reporter and photographer for a local rag, wanted to work for IBM. I think this was the best of the three, for me, but I still felt like I did badly. Like I said: no sleep the night before.

After this there was a final group discussion, which took on the format of a ‘Dragon’s Den’-style product pitch, and required us as a group to evaluate and then make a business case for one of several deeply flawed products. The idea of promoting a shit product to three laser-focussed judges with almost no preparation time is a nightmare to me. The more sharp-elbowed members of the group took on the easier roles and I came up very short. I hated this, and absolutely bombed.

Finally, the UK nationals in the group (denoted with a black dot on our name tags) were asked to stay behind – and the Lithuanian and Frenchman were unceremoniously asked to leave – for a security briefing. A tall, upright, shaven-headed and tattooed man took over, telling the outgoing department head he didn’t require an introduction from him, and that he was ex-military, and proudly non-PC.

There followed a long, doom-mongering lecture about the company’s role in assisting MI5, MI6 and GCHQ in building its infrastructure, that left me pretty annoyed.

The group was basically told we’d have to give up on the notion of privacy to work on the intelligence stuff.

There would be a deep assessment of candidates’ financial records, a detailed evaluation of internet browsing history, drug tests, and exhaustively long (between four and nine-and-a-half hours for some previous recruits) meetings where entire lives would be picked apart by a government spook, in the candidates’ own homes.

Those who gambled would have to be open and honest about it, and be able to verify that doing so was within their means. Those who looked at porn (he name-dropped Xhamster and Pornhub) would have to be open and honest about whatever they wanked or frigged themselves to. 98% of men look at porn and 2% are probably lying, he said. 65% of women look at porn. Those with predilections for extreme ‘donkey porn’ and BDSM, he said, were at risk of being got at. A previous candidate had confessed to him about his cross-dressing. “It can be quite cathartic, I think – like therapy,” he said.

Over 20 foreign spying agencies are operating in the UK, and the internet dragnet-affiliated companies’ employees were targets for spies, via LinkedIn and Facebook. One previous candidate with 2,000 Facebook friends was turned down. The spooks had apparently said: “Tell him to grow up and lose some friends.”

GCHQ has five football fields’ worth of servers underground, so if we lied about anything during the application process, they’d know.

Army guy asked us not to talk about this “down the pub,” so as I’m posting it up on an online blog I think I’m alright.

Then, one guy said he didn’t know he was going to be vetted, and would refusing this procedure affect his application? Army guy wasn’t sure.

Everyone else sat there quietly, coprophages to the vile authoritarian shit.

I popped my hand up and said: “I understand the logic behind this, to an extent. But Edward Snowden didn’t have 2,000 Facebook friends and nor did he smoke pot.”

A woman in the corner turned and looked at me like I was the devil. “Things have changed since Snowden,” said the army man, before mock-spitting on the floor.

It all showed me that IBM has learned nothing since the 1940s as a company, when they continued helping the Nazis even after Pearl Harbor. And that IBM And The Holocaust by Edwin Black is not on the reading list.

What a horrible turn IT is taking. It was like the beginning of ‘Half-Life’, when the army moves in on the scientists at Black Mesa, except without the guns.

I didn’t get the job, and I’m glad. Hoop-jumping suits indeed.


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