Joining Big Blue

IBM is one of the biggest companies in the world, and has also been around for the best part of a century.  Processes for selecting and employing new candidate staff members are, of course, formal, efficient and professional.  With a company that sets such high standards, they have to be.

So my experience might have been just a wee bit atypical….

A little bit of background is necessary: my academic background is in pure Mathematics, and I taught and tutored Maths for a few years before making the move into IT.  My first IT job, starting in 1990, was at a company called Sanlam, a very big South African life insurance company who were also IBM's biggest Cape Town client.

I spent three very happy years at Sanlam as a DB2 systems programmer, which is a very technically demanding role.  I gained invaluable experience, and began to develop a good reputation.  But at some point, we all have to move on, although I still think of my years at Sanlam with great affection.

While at Sanlam, a friend and colleague from the same department, a girl called Erna Schmidt, asked me if I would be interested in sharing a rented house with her. It made sense as we were both young(ish) and single(ish), and it helped us keep our living costs down, so we duly found a house to rent and moved in.

Our department head was a senior manager called Nico Nel –  a name which still strikes terror into the hearts of most IT vendors in Cape Town.  During this period, he and Erna fell wildly in love and began an affair.

Nico was still married to his first wife at the time; after much soul-searching he eventually divorced her, and many years later, he and Erna are still together, happily married with a daughter of their own; but at the time, the affair had to be kept secret.

Because we all worked together, they started out by trying to shield me from the evidence.  This led to a variety of scenarios which could have been straight out of an episode of Fawlty Towers; I would get home unexpectedly and find myself being shepherded around the house by a snickering Erna or kept talking in the driveway, while various odd scuffling noises went on in the background.  These would, of course, be caused by Nico, my manager's manager, hiding in wardrobes, climbing out of windows or crawling under shrubs.  I knew, Erna knew that I knew, and Nico supposedly believed that I didn't know, and that I was willing to put the noises down to the neighbour's cats.  How we all kept a straight face during these episodes, I really don't know, but eventually I popped my head into Nico's office one evening when we were both working late and said that I really didn't think it was necessary for him to keep hiding in cupboards.  We had a good laugh and after that things were out in the open.

This had its own disadvantages; like a lot of IT people, I'm a night owl and don't do mornings (the peculiar military habit of leaping out of bed at 5:00 am and pretending to enjoy rushing around outside is incomprehensible to me).  Weekend batch runs on the mainframe often meant problems and callouts.  If I had had to go in to work three or four times during a Friday night, I would sleep late on Saturday morning, surface eventually and stumble into the living room with my pyjamas round my knees and my eyelids not much higher –  only to find my manager's manager sitting there in full courting plumage!

But we all managed the situation fairly well.

Until IBM, in the person of Sandra van Wyk, a great friend of both mine and Dad's, started making overtures to me about joining them.

I was ready to make a move, and they were an obvious choice for someone with a passion for IBM technology, so I told Sandra that I would be very interested, and the ball was set rolling.  Because IBM were poaching me from one of their customers, the whole thing had to be handled very carefully.  In particular, IBM insisted that it had to be kept completely confidential from Sanlam until they had decided how to broach the subject and were ready to do so.  (And obviously, I couldn't tell IBM that I had their most difficult client over a barrel because of our peculiar domestic arrangements, and that there would be no problem!)

The first step was a preliminary conversation with the manager of the Data Services team, a powerhouse of a lady called Geraldine McBride.  I had never met her, so Sandra arranged for Geraldine to phone me at home one evening.

For some reason I thought I would have the house to myself that evening –  I think Nico and Erna had planned to go out –  but to my utter horror they changed their plans, and were sitting at the dining room table when the phone, which was on the dining room sideboard, rang.

I was completely and utterly stuck.  I couldn't let on to Nico and Erna that I was planning to resign, and I certainly couldn't let on to Geraldine, whom I didn't know from a bar of soap, that one of her major clients was sitting in my living room when he was supposed to be at home with his wife!

I was being poached because of my supposed status as something of a DB2 whizzkid, and there I stood, mumbling and stuttering like the village idiot.  Geraldine was clearly baffled, and I must have looked even more discombobulated than I felt, because Nico and Erna stopped whatever they were talking about and stared at me as though I'd suddenly grown horns or turned purple.

Fortunately Geraldine realised something was up and asked if I would like to phone her back in a few minutes.

“Yes!” I gasped gratefully, and slammed the phone down.

“I'm going out to get some milk,” I said to Erna, grabbed my car keys and raced for the door.

“But we've got milk…” I heard her say as I shot out of the house.

I hurtled round to the home of some friends who lived nearby, burst in while they were having supper, and said, “I have to use your phone!”

They were used to me, gestured vaguely in the direction of the phone, and carried on eating, completely unperturbed.

I managed to have a fruitful conversation with Geraldine, and we set up an interview.  Much relieved, I headed home again.

I forgot the milk.

The interview was a success, and IBM made me an offer which I accepted.  The next step was to decide how to tackle it with Sanlam.

The IBM account at Sanlam was run by Steve Fenton-Wells and Ian Illingworth, both of whom I knew already because they were good friends of Dad's.  Dad was retired by then, but was still in contact with his IT friends.  Apart from me, he was the only other person who knew the whole story; needless to say, he found the entire situation excruciatingly funny. (Well, it was.)

Because Nico had a reputation for being extremely hard on vendors, Steve and Ian were quite anxious about how best to break the news.  Eventually they decided that on the last day of the calendar month, Ian would phone Nico and tell him, and that he would then phone me so that I could go and see Nico to resign.  They also felt that if Sanlam objected too strongly, they would have to revoke the offer as Sanlam was such a big client.

On Resignation Day, I sat around until about half past six in the evening, but heard nothing from Ian.  Eventually I decided that we must have missed each other and that I had better go and resign, because if I didn't, I would have to stay for another calendar month.

Nico was still in his office, so I popped my head in and asked if Ian had phoned him yet. No, he said, so I realised that things were actually running very late and that I had let the cat out of the bag.

There wasn't much else I could do, so I sat down and resigned.  Nico was a bit concerned that I might be going because of his relationship with Erna and the strain of having to keep the secret, but I said that while that might have contributed, it wasn't enough on its own, and told him what my other reasons were.  We were sitting chatting quite amicably when Nico's phone rang. 

It was Ian, phoning to break the news.

Poor Ian.  Nico winked at me, listened to Ian as though what he had to say was absolute news, and then proceeded to lambast him from here to next week for poaching his staff, while I sat across from Nico, reduced to helpless giggles which I was frantically trying to stifle.

“And you know, Ian,” Nico finished his tirade, “you know what really makes me angry?  You're taking Caroline Barnard, you're taking Derek Hughes (another colleague) and you WON'T TAKE ME!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”

He put the phone down, and we howled and shrieked for the next ten minutes or so.

I phoned Dad to let him know what had happened, and he roared when he heard.

Ian, of course, took it seriously (it really was very mean of Nico) and phoned Dad the next day in quite a state.

“Barney, what am I going to do?' he said. “Nico's furious and I think we're going to lose business over it.  We'll have to revoke the offer.”

Dad, trying desperately not to laugh, said he was sure Nico would get used to the idea, and managed to pacify Ian, and Nico did indeed permit himself to be mollified –  just a little.

Because I was now officially an IBMer, I was invited to the next IBM pub night for a welcome aboard drink, and Dad was invited too.

I told Nico about the invitation, and he got a malicious gleam in his eye.

“Do you think I ought to gatecrash it?” he asked. (Big clients had an open invitation, but seldom arrived unless they had been invited to a specific function).

And he did.

We all rolled up to the pub the next Friday, including Dad.  Everyone at IBM was hugely relieved that the deed was done and the fuss seemed to have died down.  We were standing around chatting happily and the noise levels were starting to climb, when the door opened and in walked Nico.

There was an instant, deathly hush (apart, that is, from a few stifled snorts from Dad).

Then Nico grinned and said hello, and the party got going again.

And that's how I became an IBMer.