It was Friday morning in the beginning of July in 1992. I was staying in a borrowed vacation home on a small Danish island called Bornholm together with my Danish partner and my two small children. In fact I was in between homes and jobs, meaning I was homeless, unemployed and felt miserable.
However, the sun was shining and somebody – probably my partner – got a brilliant idea: why not formulate a job-seeking ad and have it published in the biggest Danish newspaper. As a recent immigrant from Finland, I didn’t have any professional or other networks in Denmark, and introducing myself through a newspaper ad would be as good as any other way.
There were some practical obstacles with the ad publication, such as my lack of an address; the one-man newspaper agency on the island was closing in a couple of hours, so did the only photographer shop. At that time we did not have computers, smartphones, digital cameras or online payment systems. Therefore, everything had to be done in-person.
Luckily we managed to get all pieces together and the ad was published in the Sunday paper. I was ashamed to see the photo in the ad showing a woman with an awful hairdo, stiffened by saltwater and sun. Certainly nobody would react positively to the announcement.
The following weekday, a Monday, the telephone rang in the summer house at 8 o’clock in the morning. It had to be a wrong number since hardly anybody knew that we were staying in the house. I picked up the receiver and said my name.
On the other end I heard a woman’s voice asking in English with a strong East-European accent whether I was the one who had put the announcement about seeking a job in the Sunday paper. “Yes, that is me”, I responded.
“I think I have a job for you” the voice said, and she added something I did not understand. The connection was bad, and because of the accent I thought that the woman had to be some kind of brothel madam recruiting new innocent immigrant women to participate in illegal prostitution type activities.
To end the call as soon as possible, I told her that I would be on summer vacation the following four weeks on a remote island, but I might contact her once I came back to the mainland. Then I asked for her telephone number and name. The woman sounded a bit annoyed. This was not the kind of reaction she had expected.
However, she gave me a telephone number and spelled her long name, something like Alexandra Kowalevsky.
A month later I and my family found ourselves in a small apartment-hotel in Lyngby, 10 km from Copenhagen. We had picked up our mail from my partners’ parents on the way. There were 10 letters addressed to me. All were referring to the newspaper announcement.
“Wow, what a country”, I thought. “Here comes an immigrant woman, publishes a horrible photo of herself in the newspaper with a text that does not say much of her skills, and 10 potential employers react!”
Closer inspection revealed that none of the 10 letters contained any job offer that was suitable for me. Suddenly I remembered the mysterious East-European caller and dialed the number she had given me.
I heard on the other end, “IBM Denmark” and my first reaction was to say “Sorry, wrong number”. The only thing I knew about IBM was that it was the biggest IT-company in the world. I was sure they would not hire people this way. However, I asked whether they had somebody called Ms. Kowalewsky or something similar.
“Just a moment, I put you through”, answered the operator. After some clicking on the line, I heard the somehow familiar accent and found out that I had her name wrong. To protect her name, I will anyhow continue calling her Ms. Kowalevski in this posting.
I managed to introduce myself and ask whether she was still interested in meeting me; she was! We made an appointment for the following Monday morning at 9.
That Monday morning I arrived at the huge IBM headquarters in Lyngby 10 minutes to 9, but I found out that Ms. Kowalewsky’s office was on another location, about 15 miles from the headquarters. What a bummer! Finding the right location took me an hour…
Ms. Kowalewsky did not look too happy when I arrived late. Neither was I because after having taken some job seeking courses, I knew very well how not to make a good first impression.
Once in her office, she tried to smile reassuringly and started telling me about her department. She could as well have spoken Chinese, because she spoke very fast, with a thick accent and using many words that I did not recognize. My brain was flooded with stress hormones probably, because I don’t remember much of that encounter in her office. I just wanted to sink under the floor or run out of the office. Finally after a terribly long time she stopped talking and asked: “Do you want to have this job?”
I was too ashamed to say that I had not understood much of what she had said, or what the job was about. To buy some time I asked: “Could I possibly talk with some of the people working for you.” Ms. Kowalewsky looked surprised and after an awkward silence suggested: “Sure. I will introduce you to some of my colleagues.”
She took me to the next office and introduced me to four persons – two men and two women – sitting in front of big screens typing something. Then she left me there. I started asking open questions and the kind professionals each told me about what they were working on. My observation was however that what I saw didn’t match anything I knew about. They used too many strange words and ways of dealing with “packages” that “travelled” around in real-time in some kind of cables.
However, when I returned to Ms. Kowalewsky’s office, she asked: “Now, do you take the job?” I mumbled in desperation that possibly sounded arrogant: “I don’t know yet; may I think about this and call you in a couple of weeks?” I was thinking that maybe I could somehow figure out what I had heard, maybe read a book about Information technology.
Again, she looked a bit annoyed, but agreed to give me a week.
Back in the hotel room, where my partner had been taking care of the kids, I told him what I had experienced. He jumped up from the sofa, shook me like a rag doll, and shouted: “Are you crazy, if the world’s biggest computer company offers you a job, you should immediately say “yes, yes, and thank you. Call back now, and say that you can start as soon as they want.”
“But I did not understand what they want me to do. It was like visiting some science fiction place with a lot of computers and hardly any papers.“
“That doesn’t matter”, he said, “Just call back”.
I didn’t immediately call back, but called the next morning and started working at IBM a couple of days later.
A year passed by, I learned to function in English, I learned to use a computer and spend my days in all kinds of systems. I communicated with people around the world in real time with help of a computer. And I realized that I had not had the right qualifications for the job when I was hired a year earlier. The main quality that made me survive that first year was my desire and ability to learn whatever I needed to learn. And of course I can thank my wonderful colleagues who helped me a lot.
At an office party a year later, when I felt safe in my job, I asked Ms. Kowalewsky, why she had hired me. She responded: “Hmm, I can’t quite remember. It was something on the last line in the announcement you had in the Sunday paper.”
Back home, I checked the old newspaper announcement. The last line said that I had worked with Communications. Then I realized that she had believed it was communications in the sense the word is used in the Information Technology context, while I had meant something much more traditional…