Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Taking The Test

On Saturday I sat a promotional exam set by the Government Body I work for1 for the post of Computer Departmental Manager.

I had been warned that it could include almost anything, and would be different than any past paper due to some sort of weird Exam Calculus the examination board uses to dream up the questions to avoid cheating.

The first irritating thing they did was to hold the exam, at least my part of it, in a high school in the backstreets of downtown Manhattan. This required that I get up at seven, forego breakfast and ride into Penn Station, then get a cab.

Cabs being what they are, it still took me best part of half an hour to get from Penn Station to the High School, so my original plan of coffee and a bagel went to the four winds in favour of actually being on time for the bloody test.

The next annoying thing was that they crowded us into an auditorium and made us sit in tiny kid-sized seats with no missed seats between us. This actually caused one moment of high comedy when two extremely large (300+ pounders or I'm a Dutchman) gentlemen were instructed to sit side by side. One refused, so they took an extremely tall, thin woman and sat her next to big guy #1, then sat big guy #2 next to her. As BG2 sat down he swelled up and the poor woman became a disembodied head floating above two very wide shoulders jostling for space where her neck should have been. I thought I would wet myself.

The merriment was soon stopped as the seven hundred or so of us were then instructed to go to various rooms for the actual test. By now almost an hour had passed without one question being answered.

I was directed to a small, windowless room with about forty of those kiddie-seats with a table attached you see in films like The Breakfast Club. Mine was at the front of the fourth column, against a wall. We were then harangued about not using cell phones, calculators that could "store text" and so forth for more time than I would have thought possible even for a very pedantic person. Two taciturn monitors were assigned to the room, and the examination booklets waved about but not distributed. We were told we'd have six hours to answer 80 questions with no lunch break. We could snack in the exam room if we had candy bars an so forth. I thought about how the others would view my eating the apple I had packed as my snack while they tried to concentrate and decided it would probably be best to save to for afterwards.

We sat in these uncomfortable quarters for another thirty minutes before a siren was sounded, which was the signal to distribute the books and for the monitors to yell "Don't open the books" every forty five seconds. We were told that a second bell would sound telling us when it was okay to look at the exam. What actually happened was that five minutes after the bloody test was supposed to start, a panicked voiced echoed through the corridors yelling "Start the test! Start the test!"

Now a third monitor had poked his head round the door and been very specific about checking that we each had all the pages in our books. He said this more than once, which would have cued us that he was doing the "nod-nod, wink-wink" thing but by then we were all mentally exhausted from the hour and three-quarters of being under the monitors control. Never was the creed "Hurry up and wait" embodied so successfully than on that day.

I opened my books (one question booklet, one "in basket" booklet of materials) and did a quick count of the pages, by no means an exhaustive check of each and every page. I had six hours, minus monitor dicking about time, to answer 80 multiple choice questions and the last time I did a test like this (about thrity five years ago) I had run out of time rather badly. I raced into question 1.

Which turned out to be a ridiculously easy grammar question. Ditto questions 2 through 10. I did 'em all in about four minutes. Yazoo! I was making up the time lost by the administration!

The next three questions made my spirits drop. They concerned a bunch of leave requests filed by fictitious people and the legality/propriety of them. I couldn't for the life of me remember the leave policies of the agency I work for, so I did my best and guestimated. Then came question 15, which asked if I should refer another leave request to a Mr Dithers.

This gave me pause. How on earth was I supposed to figure that out? I flipped back in the booklet to see if there were any clues as to who Mr Dithers was. This turned out to be a Good Move, because it was during this time I found page 1 with the instructions on it.

These instructions told me that I worked for a fictitious company, let's call it the Gotham Widget Company, and that I was at such-and-such a level in the hierarchy. I did some checking. The next 37 pages contained not only the memos I had spent the last four minutes correcting, but about a gazillion Policy Statements governing the administration of the personnel of the Gotham Widget Company, including the granting or refusing of leave requests. The vexing question of whether Dotty Smith's leave request would be kicked upstairs to Mr Dithers was clear once I had cross referenced her leave request with her date of employment records, the calendar and the policy on granting leave to people when taken in the summer period. It required only about three minutes of furious paging back and forth in the "in-basket" book and the making of copious notes. The rustling from my desk became continuous and noticeable above the silence in the room, heretofore only broken by the woman behind me who was apparently eating Kibble brand dry dog food.

I dashed back to my other answers on leave requests and modified them according to the policies in the book. As I was finishing this "answer realignment" phase of the test I noticed an audible pick up in the amount of booklet page flipping going on in the rest of the room. I obviously had not been the only one to fall into the cunning "find and read the instructions" trap. I was cheered that Mr Brain was only able to manage average levels of perfidy, as I had expected epic levels of intellectual failure from him.

The day wore on with more of these bafflingly irrelevant personnel questions to solve. They got increasingly more annoying too. People who refused to go to drug treatment despite being drunk on the job. People who whined about their leave. People who took weeks off sick without telling anyone. All this was made palatable only by my discovery of an amended policy allowing me to summarily dismiss without consultation anyone caught with drugs on the premises (Ha! one less whiny loser to deal with. Fired!), another that forced me to deny any leave requested after march 14th that was to be taken during the summer period irrespective of seniority (Ha! another fifteen whiners put in their place) and another requiring me to fire the poor biddy in hospital who waited precisely two days too long to tell me she was ill. No matter that she had the longest service with Gotham Widget Company, I could fire her sorry ass and I could deny her payment in lieu of the huge number of vacation days she had into the bargain! There's one idiot who regretted not taking a vacation in the eight years she'd been with GWC! AHAHAHAHA!

I began to suspect that my mental balance was being eroded when question 62 asked me to adjudicate a grievance and my first response was to search maniacally through the policies to see if I couldn't bury everyone involved up to their necks in an anthill for whining without a permission slip.

About an hour into the session, the third man returned and began fingerprinting us. When he got to me he found a problem with my fingerprint card. I had filled it in in ink. He explained that he couldn't take it, and that I would have to leave the exam unless I redid the card in pencil.

I was astounded, and said so. "You want me to put my name and social security number on a card which will have my fingerprints on it in pencil? Are you mad? Have you never hear of ID theft or the Department of Homeland Security?"

"Those are the rules. Comply or leave."

The Madness continued in the imaginary world of the Gotham Widget Company too, where half the people were in rehab, just under half were either being fired or were in the process of resigning and the rest were on vacation. I alone was at my post, madly working out whether vacations was being applied for in the appropriate timescale, whether I should fire people outright or refer them to my manager with a recommendation (that they be fired) and assessing how many more people had either quit or been fired than last month. I found myself wondering what we did with the imaginary coke stash we found in Johnson's locker just before I fired him, and whether we actually took inventory of it yet.

The only remotely relevant question was a budgeting thing in which I was asked about the percentage of a budget that underfunded the expenses for last year at GWC. I leaped into action with my vintage Casio fx-451. Total the underfunded amounts in the calculator's rather basic memory. Divide that amount into the total budget. Invert the answer and multiply by 100 for a grand total of 1.9%! Now match that to the four answers in the book: 2.1, 2.5, 2.8 and 2.9.


Okay, I probably got caught in some error in the arithmetic. Do it again! Insumscribeummscreeb...1.9%. Blast! Okay, this must be one of those UK/US English things where the wording means the opposite of what I thought it did. Work the figures the other way. Fleedlefardleflumdibbledee-1.9%.


Right then, the person next to me got involved in a heated whispered conversation with a monitor. I wated until they were done, but at that point the person behind me started another conversation, then the person kitty-corner did.

I can recognise when fate is sending a message. I would come back to this question after I'd finished the others.

Which I did.

And I managed to calculate 1.9% from every other combination of the figures I could dream up. I checked for calculator malfunction and redid the problem. 1.9%.

I got smart. I took the four answers and reverse engineered the dollar amounts they represented, then munged the budget amounts to see how one of them might be arrived at. Never found one. I ended up just answering "A" and called it a day. By then I had been running for some ten hours with just one cup of coffee and some sips of water for fuel. I was not only done, I was done in. I made my way to the foyer of the school and then devoured the apple, core and all.


Not one question on computers, not even "How do you boot into Windows XP?"

  1. Unnamed, because I don't want to risk getting fired over anyone's imaginary hurt feelings

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