I've had various interests in my life; things that I do well and things that I don't. Things that I've dabbled in at one time or another and things I've reached a comfortable groove doing. Out of all of these things, though, I had never had much success pinning down the one thing or few things I wanted my life to be about.
Further education had been programmed into my autopilot from GCSEs onwards. I went and picked out some interesting-sounding A-Levels without really thinking how they would affect what degree I could do afterwards, or even considering that possibility at all.
I suppose the assumption was that I would do one. This may have been my parents' assumption too but it wasn't an overbearing one; certainly my generation in the extended family had a patchy record in finishing degree courses. Somehow I was able to squash the square peg of my A-Level subjects into the round hole of the degree course I wanted to do, though my venues were limited to the extent I couldn't even fill the six slots on my UCAS form with universities I could apply to.
Fair enough so far. I ended up with a university place and a degree course in Software Engineering, possible misnomer notwithstanding. This went along reasonably to begin with and occasionally clicked with my interest (fiddling around with computers being one of my aforementioned grooves), but didn't exactly fire me out of the bed in my halls of residence 10' x 12' in the morning.
Having had the "no-one is going to make you work now" revelation back during my A-Levels I made it through the "okay, you can actually work on your degree now" trial of the First Year, albeit after two attempts. About halfway through the second year the course began to get much more difficult. This was not entirely unexpected but it was being magnified by my growing apathy towards the course.
Anyway, it was, I believe, around this time that I was home with my parents during a holiday and saw a TV documentary about air traffic controllers. Now, I don't know about anyone else here but this was one of those professions I may have been vaguely aware of but only on a near-subconscious level. I certainly never tried to learn anything about it, in the nineteen-or-so years I had lived by that point. Although I had been interested by aviation most of my life, it had ebbed somewhat and had never really covered that aspect, just the aspect of cool planes that blow stuff up.
I was absolutely fascinated by this documentary. It followed several air traffic controllers at some US airport, showing them working and describing the working environment. I was rapt for an hour. This job looked so cool. I got a similar feeling as I did watching Phil Collins do a drum duet with some tour drummer: that is amazing. I want to do that too. I actually learned to play drums off the back of a similar sentiment, although it came much earlier. So anyway, there was the spark.
I went back to uni, where the course continued to get worse as my apathy festered. Not long after I returned, I considered leaving the course during a particularly difficult period, unsure whether I was up it both in a literal and a psychological sense. I was fed up with all of this theoretical stuff; I wanted to work. The first thing I considered doing instead was being an air traffic controller. My uni's fat Internet pipe was employed for some research, which prodded my slow-burning fire of interest some more.
I shortly decided to finish my course after some chats with a few tutors, and I did. I graduated respectably in 2001, and... now what? I had a dream now, I wanted that much more than being filed away in a cubicle at some software giant. I had some vague ideas about doing software development (I was in a proper videogaming phase at the time and had Rare in my sights as they were just down the road) or second line tech support, but none of this made my heart bounce in that fairly naive way some of us believe our jobs should do.
So I went to work for a freight company I had spent a few months with during a holiday, while I decided what to do. A few months after graduation I sent off an application to National Air Traffic Services, which runs the vast majority of the UK's air traffic control system.
The application process for this job is not straightforward, as one might expect. After passing through the cursory checking that the application form allows, I had to attend a full day of selection tests. This was something of a surprise at the time, as I had not researched the application process at all. I somewhat stupidly expected people would get in or not on the strength of their application form and perhaps an interview.
The tests were a total of about five hundred multiple choice questions spread over several papers; a couple of hundred "state whether you agree or disagree with this statement" questions and others testing calculation, spatial reasoning, checking and instruction-following skills. Some of these are actually quite interesting, but I didn't have much time to appreciate that while working within the strict time limits.
Fair enough though, I got through that stage too. I later found out that about 70% of applicants are eliminated at this stage. Expecting to get a "we are pleased to inform you" or a "we regret to inform you that" letter on the strength of that I was somewhat dismayed when the letter informing me I had passed the tests also informed me that there was a further stage: two interviews and a further computer-based test. It was strongly recommended I visit an operational air traffic control unit before I did this, so I went to Birmingham International Airport and sat with an ATCO in the tower for a couple of hours. It was extremely cool. I tried to remember as much of the day as I could as I went, a couple of months after my tests, to NATS' headquarters in London for my interviews.
The first interview was a technical interview, where I was interviewed by an operational ATCO (Air Traffic Control Officer) and asked various questions about the job to gauge my interest - i.e. what I'd learnt from researching it myself. I was also given a few scenarios and asked what I'd do in those situations (a plane has just had a bird strike on takeoff - one of its two engines are out so it has to land immediately, there's debris all over the runway, no other airports are nearby, you can't clear the runway in time, you've got a dozen aircraft on final and you can't land an aircraft on a runway that has debris on it: what do you do? That sort of thing).
The other interview was a personality interview and was a more detailed, spoken version of the personality test I had done in the earlier selection tests. Finally there was a computer-based test in which I had to do things like stop rows of numbers flying across a screen from hitting each other by removing as few as possible, sort coloured shapes according to certain instructions that changed every few seconds (sort blue squares as red triangles, sort squares as circles, that sort of thing), state which side of an arrow a dot was on (not as easy as it sounds - the arrow was pointing a different direction every time, the dot was varying distances from it at varying angles, and sometimes the whole scene was upside down).
Now, I don't mind admitting I was absolutely roasted alive in this final round of tests. I stumbled over answers to questions, I got many things wrong and my interview manner was crap. In retrospect it is no surprise to me at all that I was turned down. I did no preparation beyond reading the limited information I was given as part of the application, that amusingly enough was prepared by some kid on work experience (the booklet said so on the cover). I did not investigate what the day involved at all, knew little about the job and did not even rough out some answers to the questions I thought I might get because I hadn't considered it. I was outed as the ill-prepared simp that I was, and did not deserve to get the job.
Ah well. I continued with my shit data input work for a while, thinking things over. I didn't think much about why I didn't get the job; instead I started looking for IT jobs that suited me more conventionally. I got rather frustrated with the IT industry, vacancies frequently asked for experience with software packages for longer than they had existed, or asked for gobs of qualifications for a job that didn't seem from the description to require them (and I of course didn't have these qualifications). I spent a lot of time generally bitching to myself and anyone that would listen how hard it was to get a 'real' job while I did very little to try to get one.
I considered applying to NATS again. I'd been knocked back once but I really wanted this job. Now, bear in mind that any one person is only allowed to apply for the job of Student ATCO three times ever. Furthermore, you have to leave a minimum of a year between applications. I don't know why this is but it is probably because the selection tests are identical every time. I waited this year but evidently got distracted somewhere along the way because I didn't apply again until early 2004.
The process was the same as I'd remembered it but I did more preparation; I bought almost every book I could find on the subject and dusted the cobwebs off my mental arithmetic skills, which had had very little employment since high school. This was one of the things that tripped me up in my previous interview so I wrote a few programs to test myself and to test my knowledge of air traffic control. Hey, the degree wasn't a total loss after all.
I passed the first two stages again as expected and certainly surpassed my previous interview performance... but I failed again. I was disappointed to be rejected, as I was quite pleased with how I'd done. I felt I had interviewed much better; I had been reasonably confident and genial but had been tripped up by a few horrible questions like "what do you think about when you're alone?" (seriously), and a few questions that were repeated after I had 'answered' them, as if I had not actually done so.
I never found out to my satisfaction why I was rejected; you don't get any feedback better than "you failed one of the interviews." The two interviews are so different that knowing you failed one of them but not knowing which is not helpful information at all. However, when I got the 'feedback' I was told I had come pretty close to getting through.
With that in mind, and after a bit of umming and aahing in the minimum one-year inter-application waiting period I decided it was worth trying to push it the last few yards. I put in my final application in early 2005. I would probably have slept through the selection tests had I not met a very agreeable young woman who unusually, seemed to want to talk to me as much as I did her. Emails were exchanged afterwards, but I digress. I passed the selection tests again and started to get ready for my interviews, which were not until about nine months after I had taken the tests. This gave me plenty of time to prepare. Schhyeah.
During this time of studying, practicing my arithmetic and trying not to watch the water boil, I realised that, as much as we all like the Hollywood notion of winning an all-or-nothing bet, this final application could still go either way. If it went the wrong way, I didn't want to be left working the same night job I had started when I finished university four years earlier. I could fill another node writing about the wisdom of this course of action, but that's neither here nor there. I decided to try again to get an IT job so I'd be working somewhere reasonable if I didn't get 'my' job in air traffic control.
I got one, and it's from the house that I moved to as a result that I write this node. I got a job on an IT helpdesk with a fairly decent consulting company, which I consider to be my first 'real' job. Of course, I said nothing in my interview about my true aspirations: "Where do I see myself in five years? Oooh, probably running my own support team or something..." Ahem.
On February 28, 2006 I had my final set of interviews. There was a further team exercise with my fellow applicants, which consisted of a boardgame representation of sequencing aircraft for landing. What was previously two interviews was now one 90-minute interview. Interviews have never been my strong point but I felt well prepared and was happy with the majority of my answers, and managed to recover from the few parts made me squirm a bit. There was something of a 'last stand' sentiment threading through my mind for much of the day but being able to talk other applicants inbetween segments eased my nerves. Chatting to our interviewers before everything started, we found out that only about three per cent of every three to four thousand applicants pass this stage. *Gulp*
After I finished my interview I was talking with the other applicants about how we thought we'd done. At one point I was replaying a particular segment of my interview, during which one of my interviewers had been standing behind me, which was nervously amusing. This was the first time I spoken to interviewers outside the interview room and the difference is remarkable; being able to toggle sections of your personality on or off to conduct an interview is quite an impressive ability.
My computer test was delayed, which meant I would miss the question and answer session after everyone had done their interviews. When my test was ready I bade everyone goodbye, wished them good luck and went off to do it. The test was exactly the same as before and afterwards everyone had gone. I shrugged and went home, red-eyed and sore-shouldered:
Mum: How do you think you did, then?
Me: Good I think, definitely better than last time.
Mum: In what way?
Me: Oh god, don't you start with the questions as well.
...but I thought I'd given it as good a shot as I could, and said so. By this point I was so exhausted I would've been fine whether I got the job or not - I knew if I didn't get it, it wasn't because I didn't try hard enough.
The worst thing about this whole process is that you of course have to address the question of why you want to do this. I had a great deal of difficulty quantifying my desire for this job and I still don't find it easy to explain to people, or even get straight in my own head. Some of the other applicants I spoke to seemed to have similar difficulties. For some reason it is much harder than for (this is not meant to be derogatory) more conventional jobs.
When I interviewed for my current helpdesk job, I could say (paraphrased of course) "I like working with computers, I'm good at working with computers, and I like this company" and that would be fine. If you're applying to be an ATCO you really have no idea if you're suitable for the job unless you've done something similar before (doing the job in the military, say), and since you're working for what is at least partially a public company with no competitors, there's little point trying to parrot some company line bullshit. Even saying "I have always been interested in aviation" would probably only form a small part of a 'good' answer as to why you want to work as an ATCO. Why would you want to work in a job that public perception says is one of the most stressful around? That has such responsibility? That involves you sitting in front of a screen in a darkened room, or in a control tower for your whole working life?
The trouble I still have answering this makes me think it's some kind of gut thing, rather than making me worry that perhaps it's a surface thing and that I don't really want to do it at all. After learning about the profession I quickly developed what I felt was a deep desire to do it. I think that the challenge of it means I would be proud to do it, and I like the idea of working in public service and an important part of the aviation industry. This is all rather naive, idealistic and perhaps a bit arrogant, which is probably part of the reason I got turned down the second time as I said a few of those things in the interview then.
Yesterday, the day after my interviews, I came back to my house in Cambridge and to my IT job, trying to bury my hopes as I didn't expect to hear anything for a while. I kept thinking of a question asked in my final interview that began "ok, so you first applied in 2001 and this is your last application attempt. So basically the last five years of your life have been building towards this point..." I can't actually remember the rest of the question but do remember wondering with rising apprehension what he could possibly want to ask me after that. It sums up the immense feeling of build-up I had; all the hopes and expectations I perceived that my family had (they all knew about this ongoing saga), weighing on me. This was either the end of a five-year road, or the beginning of an enormous turn in my life's direction. I felt like I would be letting everyone down if I didn't get the job and didn't know how I'd tell them if I didn't.
In the middle of this afternoon I was sat at my desk on a call, trying to explain to some management prick that it's not our fault that his client is filtering his external emails, when my GMail notifier popped up in the corner of the screen: "Your application; TRAINEE AIR TRAFFIC CONTROLLER RECRUITMENT" from a nats.co.uk address. Oh god, I thought. Do I open this now or wait until I get home? I'm not going to be able to react if I open it now; no-one here even knows I applied for the job. When I booked the time off I told them I was helping a friend move house.
Of course I opened the email.
With reference to your recent interview, I am pleased to inform you that
you were successful.
Cool, I thought, cracking the tiniest of smiles as I went back to work.
Of course my mind was doing cartwheels of joy for the remainder of the afternoon as my demeanour remained dour, then I called or texted the entire world after work. To actually succeed in something like this is a feeling to which I am wholly unaccustomed.
However, let's be clear. This was just the start. All of this has got me a job as a trainee air traffic controller. I have a training course lasting six to twelve months that begins at the end of June. I must pass every part of this course (on a seriously anaemic wage) before I even start being trained at the actual unit I will work at (and I don't know where that will be). That training (validation, it's called) will take a further 18-24 months that again, I must pass every aspect of. To put it another way, the job is mine to lose.
I can't wait to get started.
- September 26, 2006: so I failed my summatives - practical assessments on ATC simulations. Not disastrously, but an 'unsatisfactory' grade in any of the thirteen graded categories means failure. I have to do a training review after taking a couple of weeks' holiday, and 'present a case' to be allowed to have another try. This is not a good way to start some time off.
- October 12, 2006: I passed my training review, having come to the same conclusion as my reviewers about the reason I didn't pass my practical assessment (and there really was only one main reason), and with the argument that I have shown I can perform well in all of the categories but need to work on consistently applying those abilities. It looks like I will be joining another course in January, but I will have to do the whole thing again, theory and all. This is a huge drag, but it's great to be allowed back and it beats a swift kick in the face.
- November 15, 2006: I started today at the company's English area control centre in Swanwick, nestled next to the M27. I'm doing 'feed' controlling, which is working a simulated sector adjacent to another simulated sector being run by a student doing their validation training. I feed the traffic into their sector and take the stuff coming out of it. It's of limited use to my own development because of how different the real environment is to the training environment at college, but it's at least interesting. I'm back at college in January 2007.
- I don't have dates to hand right now, but I took the 'Basic' course a second time, and passed. I chose and was selected for Area training.
- I failed the oral assessment for the Area Foundation course. As I type this I am awaiting a review which will decide whether I will get to retake the course or get fired. *gulp*
- I got fired. See here.