Best Day-Job Ever, by Deb Emily

Emily Winslow by Jonathan PlayerI was exhausted after college. All I wanted was to get a basic day-job and write on the side. But in the early nineties, the tail end of generation X was moving home en masse, and I was no different. After more than six months with no luck finding a place as a receptionist or salesperson, and sleeping on various friends’ sofas (*thanks*, Brenda, Michelle, Ron and Suzette!!) I gave in and returned, in shame and debt, to my parents’ house.

It took another half-year of job applications and the start of graduate school before I found work. And it was fantastic.

Bellcore (short for Bell Communications Research) in Morristown NJ submitted an opening to my temp agency. The “text-to-speech synthesis” team needed someone to work on their “exceptions dictionary.” I didn’t know what any of that meant, but I was willing and desperate. Since I had only a theater degree, I assumed it would be low-level intern-type work, and I was ready to obey and make copies. The first hints of it being a much more interesting job came right from the start: my interview involved playing games.

See, “text-to-speech synthesis” means “teaching computers to talk.” And “exceptions dictionary” means ferreting out situations where the usual pronunciation rules won’t apply. So the boss, Murray Spiegel, had created a few word games to evaluate applicants’ skills. The one I remember best was a list of gibberish words created by a randomizer. My task was to mark any “words” that had letter combinations that don’t appear in normal English. It was timed.

I have no idea how my time compared to other applicants’. I’m a game-and-puzzle person, so I might have been fastest; I don’t know. I’m pretty sure what got me the job, though, was the stuff that slowed me down. I kept asking questions, like “This combination is used only in foreign words that are in common English usage. Do they count?” and “This letter combination appears in normal English words, but never at the front of a word, as it is here. Does that count?” I worried that I was making myself look high-maintenance and stupid, but it turns out those kind of observations were exactly what he was looking for. Despite my artsy degree and lack of computer skills, I was hired.

I was given my own office, with a UNIX computer and a massive telephone listing database (and, as a guinea pig for the nearby video-conference development team, a cool futuristic videophone!). My job was to create a list of exceptions to override the computer’s general pronunciation guidelines. For example, the computer had been taught that “Lastname Firstname I” should be translated to “Firstname I. Lastname.” That works great most of the time, except for when the “World War I Veteran Association” becomes the “War I World Veteran Association”!

At the end of three months, I’d completed a dictionary that far exceeded the goal percentage of accuracy. I was proud of my work, had had a blast hanging with academics and techies (my usual crowd was artsy), and was going to miss the place. To wrap up the job, I created a plan for maintaining accuracy as the database changed. In it I listed the specific principles that should be used in the future to uncover new exceptions for addition to the current dictionary. And that, I assumed, was that.

To my shock, I was asked if I’d stay on to create a system based on those principles. I reminded them I didn’t know how to program. They ordered me two paperback computer language manuals, one on Shell and one on AWK. They played hardball with my temp agency to radically reduce their percentage of my pay and effectively give me a 50% raise. I worked there until I finished graduate school. It was grand.

And it was only possible because Murray Spiegel created games to test an applicant’s skill at the job itself rather than making assumptions about those skills based on college major and past work. I’m very, very grateful.

So, I’ll now give a plug for that man’s terrific book: “300 Ways to Ask the Four Questions”. (Warning: site has auto-play music.) Murray is a linguist who, with his friend Rickey Stein, has spent decades collecting Passover’s “four questions” (“Why is this night different from all other nights?” etc.) in every language they could find. The result is fascinating (and sometimes funny!). It’s a great coffee-table book, of interest to anyone intrigued by language, and a fun addition to any seder. I hope some Deb readers will consider ordering a copy.

I’m grateful for the chance he gave me for a good job when I really needed one. Has anyone ever taken a chance on you? Or have you done that favor for someone else?

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Emily Winslow

11 thoughts on “Best Day-Job Ever, by Deb Emily

  1. Huh, that is REALLY interesting, Emily! For a summer college gig, the owner of a popular local deli took a chance on hiring me as a counter-person, even though I had zero food service experience. I ended up learning how to make a mean reuben. But working the cash register always gave me anxiety, especially during the lunch rush, when there’d be a line out the door!

  2. Emily, that’s incredible. What a cool job – and how perfect for your analytical yet creative mind!

    A lot of people took chances on me, but I always think of John Limpert, the editor of The Washingtonian magazine, who gave me an internship when I was in college. I loved it.

  3. Loved your blog. Shouldn’t all job interviews be about the skills needed and how to draw them out or reveal them? We wish! I like to think I am getting better at spotting potential and helping develop that potential in yoga teachers.
    Looking forward to reading your book.

  4. Oh, I just loathe the “strengths and weaknesses” question, Jen!

    I love how sandwich making, a journalism internship, and yoga training can all be “dream jobs” in their own way, in their time. And of course, Greg’s marriage 😉 Does your wife know you write such cute things in comment trails?

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