Be audacious, take that blind leap – my interview story
“At the very moment when people underestimate you is when you can make a breakthrough.”― Germany Kent
“At the very moment when people underestimate you is when you can make a breakthrough.”― Germany Kent
In search of the Golden Fleece.
My first job was at an engineering consulting firm in Oshodi Lagos. I was fresh out of school and had just completed the compulsory National Youth Service Program NYSC. I was looking forward to an exciting future in the engineering industry and nothing could kill my enthusiasm.
I stayed home for a few weeks stubbornly refusing to buy the weekly Guardian newspaper on tuesday to glean off open jobs and vacancies. My impression of job hunting was pretty much very different.
I had penciled down a good number of engineering companies, mostly international oil and gas firms I thought were worth my while and the grand plan was to find someone who knew anyone in any of these shortlisted firms to refer me to the contact.
I had absolute confidence in my appearance and believed all I had to do was show up physically for the meeting and let my “million dollar” personality shine through.
Of course I was bitterly disappointed after several phone calls, unscheduled visits to head offices of my shortlisted companies in Victoria Island, with futile efforts to sweet talk the stern faced gate orderlies and drawing blanks the few times I managed to gain access to speak with “the” contact.
I remember one of the visits to the office of my dad’s very close friend. He was a top shot at a multinational firm on the island. To get through the myriads of security access points in the high-rise building I had to literally impersonate my father. When I filled the visitors form, I brandished my father’s full name.
The attention I received all the way up to the topmost floor was a marvel. I basked in the underserved kindness and politeness I was freely offered every step to his door.
He couldn’t hide the disappointment on his face when I walked into his expansive office. There I was skinny, neatly dressed (my mother raised no fool) masking my nervousness and carrying gingerly my signature A4 brown envelope where my one-paged Curriculum vitae was nestled. It was desperation at its very peak!.
The trophy face bearing a striking resemblance to my dad was all I had to prove I was no imposter. Just the younger version of his bosom friend.
Nonetheless he asked about my dad and he gave me undivided audience. His initial surprise, bewilderment and perhaps tinge of irritation gave way easily to inquisitiveness and genuine interest. He listened to my well prepared speech and made the conversation much easier with subtle stare and an offer of a cup of coffee.
It was probably the best 15mins of my entire job hunt which lasted just 3 weeks. It didn’t end at his office though. There wasn’t an opening yet!
So, I was tossed back into the wild, competing with thousands of fresh graduates and millions of eagle-eyed “stale” graduates trolling the streets of Lagos.
But the best part of this story is yet to come!
Sometimes it’s not just by our effort
I resigned to the comfort of my bed. I was fast running out of cash. I had saved up a modest amount to support my post-NYSC surjourn and there wasn’t enough to get me through the transport fare in the rickety yellow danfos and barely enough to get a haircut every week.
Then news of my old school colleagues started filtering in. They were landing good jobs in great organizations and companies I could only dream of working for. I then began to consider my options.
Perhaps I should buy this Guardian newspaper. What use is a job hunt without the full complement of tuesday and thursday weekly openings. The mere thought of it was heartbreaking. It reeked of my failure at securing a job!
It took one phone call in the fourth week since I arrived from Cross river state where I had completed my passing out parade to end the seemingly long wait.
The time was 7am. It was an old school buddie who was yet to get a placement himself that had referred me to a neighbour of his. His neighbour had requested for a graduate whose profile fits mine perfectly, to fill a recent opening at an engineering consulting firm in Oshodi where he worked.
They wanted a fresh post-NYSC civil engineering graduate, who could speak Yoruba fluently and hailed from Abeokuta!
What a massive coincidence!
There I was toiling the streets of Lagos for weeks drawing blanks and all it took was a fully-charged phone with a whacked polyphonic ringtone to offer a fresh start.
That morning I hurriedly made a photocopy of my curriculum vitae and was seated in front of a receptionist at the office hours later waiting for my cue.
I remember the receptionist asking if i had my application letter with me, and I politely asked him what role I was applying for. LOL
Why do we always think that receptionist must be a lady?
Well, in engineering companies (this one in particular) it was a brash looking middle-aged no nonsense man that I had to grapple with.
There wasn’t anything audacious about getting my first job. It wasn’t as dramatic as I had imagined and hoped for.
But I was thankful to have a good reason to head out of the house every morning. I had sworn that I would consider doing something illegal (internet scam had just started out then) not with all the skills I had so much confidence in laying to waste.
I was the only one scheduled for the chat and it was barely an interview.
The conversation was mostly about the enigma that Dr. Tai Solanrin was. The Deputy managing director whose office hosted our parley showed keen interest in my experience in Mayflower school as a teenager and the interesting stories awash in the media of the founding family.
I spoke in impeccable english, wore a smile throughout the conversation and offered even more queer gossip about Dr. Tai than he’d hoped to hear. I had to feed his curiosity. Anything to get this job!
I worked three years at this engineering consulting firm. It was an interesting experience at being frugal. Professionally it was perhaps the best start for a green-eyed graduate like me.
For two years I earned a little over thirty thousand naira a month. No pension contribution, not even a health insurance and certainly no other perks. Just that one payment at the start of the next month.
To put this in context, it cost me seven hundred naira to fuel my mother’s Nissan car everyday to Oshodi. I couldn’t even buy sliced bread for breakfast at my parents.
I got lucky when I was moved to Abeokuta within the first month of resumption. At least I could hide my shame at barely surviving.
I quickly got frustrated at the job. There wasn’t anything to look forward to. I looked around at everyone else working at this firm and they had been there for more than a decade. There was no way I was joining the wu-tang Clan!
I started crawling the internet for jobs. Specifically the Oil and gas openings. It was time to get back to my first love. And the search was intense. It had to be intense if i had to get out of this entrapment. I loathe work and got bored easily. I wore my irritation on my face like a prize. I was barely 27 and I was ready to get away with anything.
It was worsened when I had to take a pay cut just to complete my masters degree program at the University of Lagos. It was the price I had to pay for running the full time postgraduate degree.
It then occurred to me that I had to be audacious to change the status quo. Unless I broke my self-imposed rules and unlearned the niceties and comfort of a paying job, I was going to spend years working my knuckles out like the other senior colleagues. That would be a travesty!
The big break came. It was yet another phone call.
Opportunity meets preparation
This time the call came from my mother. It was a monday morning.
A colleague of hers at work had gotten information that a certain downstream oil and gas company was recruiting engineers at an unprecedented number. All cadre of engineers with varying experience levels was welcomed.
One big condition was dangled though
– You must hold a first class degree from any university in Nigeria or at least a second class upper from only a couple of recognized universities in Nigeria- University of Lagos, University of Ibadan, Obafemi Awolowo University, University of Nigeria Nsukka and couple of others.
Now, I was no second class upper class degree holder and I wasn’t prepared to let this go.
The call had been accompanied by an sms with the phone contact of her colleague. So pronto I dialed his number.
He asked the first big question – “Do you hold a second class upper degree”, I answered in the affirmative.
Then he also gave me another phone number to call. The lady who put the word out there. I never got the chance to tell her thank you!
You guessed it, she asked the same question and my answer was an unflinching YES I do. With no further questions asked, she gave me specific instructions.
“Wear a black suit and white shirt, print a copy of your Curriculum vitae and head to the address in Apapa.”
The next week I throng the office of Conoil in Apapa with scores of young and middle aged men all in search of the big break into the oil and gas industry.
I sauntered into the Apapa office and sought directions to the Recruitment office. I certainly wasn’t the best dressed applicant. We all waited in the lobby. All shades of confidence reeking through the hallway. I didn’t care, afterall who knew I wasn’t a first class graduate.
I got the application form from the assistant to the HR manager and I filled it honestly. I only did not specify if I had a second class upper or lower.
I had no clue where this road was going to lead me but I wasn’t about to give up now.
Was I nervous? My heart was giving out crazy hip hop beats!
One section of the form gave me cause for concern, they had asked what I earned currently and how much I was hoping to earn when I joined them.
I undervalued myself, in my modest opinion, “moving from thirty-five thousand to one hundred thousand naira monthly isn’t such a bad leap, I thought.”
That money would do a lot for my burgeoning bills and commitment. I had just acquired a second-hand car from cotonou and I had already started buying appliances to fill up the empty floor spaces at my uncles apartment where I was living in Abeokuta. I sure needed a breather.
Forms filled, the entire applicants were briefed and asked to return at a later date for the interview.
First hurdle scaled.
When we returned a fortnight later for the interview proper, I arrived much earlier than almost everyone.
The offices were still firmly locked with no official in sight. I sat on the staircase and watched the sun rise amidst the tank farm and long line of tanker trucks heading to the depot to load petroleum products.
Then the moment came. Hours later.
First it was yet another brief by the HR manager. He sounded a stern warning.
“If you do not hold a first class degree or second upper degree in engineering please leave now. If we find out that you have fraudulently set yourself up to be a part of the interview session with false claims or credentials, we will know and we will hand you over to the law enforcement agencies”
Guys, you need to see the way the Cameroonian HR manager spoke these words in a measured and ominous tone. With a sense of foreboding, I weighed my options.
“I just can’t give up now, gone too far from where I started from. Nobody told me the road won’t be easy and I don’t believe he brought me this far to leave me” That there, was the lyrics that held me down despite my fearful apprehension.
I defied the odds, I ain’t going nowhere. The guys I see here are not any better.
The response to this trepidation was a deafening silence. No one moved. No one dared. You could as well be arrested that instant, well unless of course it was an empty threat.
He ushered all forty of us into his very spacious office. It was far too big for just a desk and a couple of visitors chair. We didn’t have to squeeze into every space as we basically encircled his desk. We covered every inch of the office space as much as we could. Each one having a clear view of the imposing HR manager.
He gave some introduction and then proceeded into the session.
First question he asked was;
“What are you here for”
Those were his exact words.
Many years later I used this same line of questioning at interview sessions for engineers to relieve that very moment.
Pronto, a couple of hands competed for space seeking the HR manager’s attention.
I thought the question was ludicrous.
Why would you ask the most obvious question. I wasn’t going to hustle for audience on this one i thought. I would save my breath for more intriguing and challenging questions.
How wrong I was!
The first guy he beckoned to was left in tatters after his answer was considered lame and stupid.
When the second guy confidently responded that “he was here to be interviewed for an engineering position”, the unforgiving Mr HR Manager had had enough and practially lost his cool.
“ Is this the quality of graduates from Nigerian universities? How is it that you answer such a simple question un-intelligently? What sort of answer is this? I cant believe….blabla bla”
His rhetorical vituperations went on for minutes. No one dared raise a filthy hand. Not one person. Everyone of those nicely dressed engineers tucked in oversized and tailor made suits stood in rapt silence.
That was my moment.
My right hand raised itself. Almost against my will. He saw it and his eyes flashed wide opened in excitement while his initial disgust and disappointment appeared to fizzle away for a moment.
When he spoke, he asked me to make sure I had something reasonable to say!
This was a make or mar moment.
The graduates in suits (all first class and second class of ’em) watched me like a stupid moth about to be consumed by the fiery flame.
I took my moment.
“ I am here to sell myself and everything I am about” I barely finished that sentence when he cried out in ecstatic approval.
“Yes, You are here to compete, that is what I have wanted to hear. What is your name?”
He rummaged through the bundle of neatly arranged Curriculum vitae and fetched my now 2-paged CV.
He laboured as he pronounced my name “Akingbogun Akinkunmi…right?”
A smile had sneaked up on my face involuntarily. The dam of sweat broke and despite the air conditioner, I was suddenly feeling pretty hot!
The spotlight was on me. He scrawled his signature on my CV and used me as an example of a brilliant engineer. “Which school? ” he asked.
Proudly I responded, OAU, the acronym for Obafemi Awolowo University. Great Ife!!
Not done yet, he fetched the CV of a first class dude from University of Ibadan and ordered him to take the hot seat.
Another question he threw at the hapless chap was
The poor dude must have almost been shitting in his pants. He looked frightened and barely even spoke. The HR manager urged him on like a horse in a tight race.
By the time the dude was stopped in his tracks, he had managed to mention something about being a class captain in primary school and being the best in his class, and other achievements barely worthy of mention.
That was where Mr HR lost his temper again. He couldn’t stomach his disgust.
“What utter waste of time and rubbish”
He asked the dude to stand up and return to his standing “sentence”.
I could have sworn i noticed a wet patch on his pants…lol
That was certainly a traumatic experience for this paper champion.
Perplexed, the HR manager held an uncomfortable silence in his office for what appeared like forever. Perhaps pondering what next he should do.
My CV beckoned to him, he picked it up and mouthed my name. He asked that I take the seat just vacated and answer the same question.
That instant, it felt like I was the last hope, the shinning bright spot, the savior, the last chance.
All my teenage years, I had revelled in public speaking, it was my biggest and strongest point. Mr HR Manager just made the biggest mistake yet.
Considering that I had what I considered an impairment (my qualification) I was going to take every chance. And this here was the biggest.
“My name is perhaps one of the longest you have ever heard, Akinkunmi, Babarinde, Agboola,Oluwatimilehin……bla bla bla”
Without being modest,my dexterity shone through. I spoke with the softness of young engineer, but the firmness and maturity of a gentleman.
The HR manager literally lapped every word I uttered. He gave thumb ups and listened with a grin splashed across his face. It was indeed a moment.
Need I say more.
Everyone started justling for the seat when I was done. I turned out to be the benchmark everyone was determined to beat.
Need i say more. I got the job that very day. I didn’t have to resume until months later though. But that very moment, nothing else mattered. Not my grades, not my school, not my background, not my well-tailored suit.
When my application form was reviewed days later, I was asked to review my salary expectation. It was considered too low for the performance I had put up.
Oh my!I was rebranded in one full moment of glory.
I resumed into a role far above my grade several months later in Abuja.
I defied the odds and took my chances. But I had to be at the right place despite the barriers and limitations.
I am glad I did and it remains one defining moment in my career. And it was the first of many audacious moves years later.