Hiring the unhireable: Winn can’t get a job

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Part 2 of 16

Back in the day (1969-70), I desperately wanted to get a tremendous education.

I lived in Manhattan and I wanted to go to work at the best company there was at the time and become a researcher. Because my parents were both engineers, circuit design and troubleshooting systems were pretty much second nature. I wanted to work for a company that would pay for an awesome education and let me explore the depths and fringes of engineering.

What was the absolute best company to get me what I wanted? No brainer. Bell Labs. AT&T. The Phone Company. (Yes, THE phone company, pre-Judge Greene 1983.)

So, I headed down to 56th Street and Madison Avenue and met the HR people. I got through the math test and the English test. Easy-peasy. Then the advanced stuff. Pretty basic for a kid who grew up in an engineering ‘take it apart and put it back together’ family.

They smiled. I was the perfect candidate. They asked me, “What do you want out of life?” I replied, “I want to work at Bell Labs and I want you to pay for my college and I want you to pay for my food and housing and let me research all sorts of cool stuff.” And, they respond with, “You bet. We want you, too.”

But, there was one final test.

The kinder-than-kind HR lady pulled out one of old 2048-wire-pair telephone cables they used back then. 4 inches in diameter, this one 2-foot hunk weighed like 20 pounds … and all those damned wires!

Hiring the Unhireable

She picked out one of the pair and asked in the most unassuming way, while confidently holding a pencil over the checkbox on my application. “What colors are these wires?” She smiled broadly.

Hmmm. I looked carefully. I peeked and poked. I shifted my eyeglasses hither and yon. I declared emphatically that the 2700K temperature output in the interior lighting was tilted heavily in favor of greens, so therefore, obviously, I could not possibly answer. Quizzically, she offered for us to ascend to the bright natural sunlight on Madison Ave. Again the cable was foisted in front of my eyes. “What color are these?”

Uh… ah… hmmm… ah…

“Well, there are so many colored stripes on each wire,” I said askance and squinted intently.

Cut to the chase. I’m color blind.

“Sorry, can’t hire you.” She and I wept for a few minutes and my research career at Bell Labs had tanked. <Le Sigh>.

Now, I call this a Binary Discriminator. I grew up analogue, and my book and talks on Analogue Network Security address this issue, led by my banner mantra, “Digital is Not Binary: WTF, Analogue?” In this case the binary discriminator was, no matter how well suited and talented I was (hehehe… you know what I mean; hell I was 18), that I am color blind. “AT&T will not hire color blind people … no matter what …”. (On the downside, however, the U.S. Air Force wanted me to sit in the ass end of a B52 over Vietnam because I am color blind; I was the best technology of the day to see through camouflage. I declined the offer to become cannon fodder. )

In today’s politically correct parlance, I was capriciously discriminated against because of a very minor medical/genetic condition. This would not be tolerated today, would it? Back then it was perfectly legal.

After a brief period of emotional recovery (beer was legal for 18 year olds back then), I decided I was going to go to work for the second best company in the whole world. IBM.

I went across the street (literally across Madison Avenue) and filled out an application, took their math and English tests – and passed. I told them I wanted to go to work for IBM and play with computers, and I wanted to do research up in Yorktown Heights, NY and I wanted IBM to pay for my college. (None of which was unreasonable for bright young men in those days. It’s called a career at one company. Maybe you’ve read about it in the history books…<Snark>)

The male recruiter said, “Son, yes, no problem. We want you, too. Just one more thing. You’ve gotta dress like him.” He pointed at a picture of Ross Perot, the world’s best IBM salesman, wearing a starchy white shirt that made his neck fat explode, a 5mm wide black tie and sporting a stylish brush cut. I choked, saying I would not compromise my personal values (long ponytail and jeans) for anyone.

Hiring the Unhireable

I was discriminated against because I wouldn’t dress and look like Ross Perot, which was the culture of the ‘suits’ of the day. Long hair, color blindness, whatever, I was discriminated against.

I chose to go back to the family business: rock and roll, building recording studies, recording live concerts, TV-shows, and all of the associated mania.

But today, the rules are completely different, and we are screwing ourselves stupid by behaving as though this was still the era of the Mad Men. The real Mad Men are those who have boxed us in to our current dilemma, with politics that are not only self-destructive, but clearly counter to the real world needs for protecting networks and nation.

Part 1: It’s time we get over ourselves
Part 3: Vive la difference!

Winn Schwartau is the CEO of The Security Awareness Company, the author of Information Warfare, Pearl Harbor Dot Com (Die Hard IV), and the upcoming Analogue Network Security.

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About Author

Winn Schwartau is one of the world’s top experts on security, privacy, infowar, cyber-terrorism and related topics. Provocative, informed, challenging, he’s on the leading edge of thinking, writing and speaking. Highly technical security subjects are made understandable, entertaining, engaging and thought-provoking. Audiences find themselves challenged with original ideas which are related through historical analogy and metaphor and made relevant to the present and future world.

  • Tango

    Only one problem, William AKA Winn never got past the 10th grade

    • I am not sure why that’s a “problem” or how it’s relevant.

      • Tango

        Tom, you are not old enough to understand Bell Labs or IBM circa 1967-71. If you did not have a degree, or college that was a problem. Not to have a GED or HS diploma is certainly not even going to get you an interview in the mailroom then. Winn has always been imaginative with the truth and it has always been a moving target. He is entertaining and personable but has no “technical or security background”

        • FWIW, it’s Tony – not Tom.

          You’re right. I am not old enough to have experienced that firsthand. All I can say is that I’ve known Winn for over a decade and he seems to be doing OK for himself. He is often controversial, but generally respected. He is one of the more successful individuals in information security.

          If it’s true he has achieved what he has without even a high school diploma or GED, that seems to support and illustrate the point of his entire series on this site–the idea that a college degree is a requirement to get in the door is silly and counter-productive for some jobs and industries.

          • Tango

            You are right Tony/Tom. William is not worth the bandwidth, do some fact checking about him with Spafford, SAIC, TRW, Schultz(RIP), Klauss, Noonan, Wong, Schmidt and the list could go for pages. He has to stop telling some professionals that he has a PH.D