Erm… Hum, that’s a lie. I tell you, joining Oxfam was one of the most stressful times in my life. No, let me rephrase that. Trying to get a job at Oxfam was the most stressful time of my life. Bloody hell, it was difficult. And took forever. Well, it all started back in 1999.
We started looking at Oxfam as a serious option shortly after I got back from the WTO Battle of Seattle. They were (and remains) pretty much the Exxon of non-profits – the biggest amongst giants, and polluting everything and everyone along the way. (Sorry, more detailed Oxfam bashing will come in future blogs).
All I had to do was send off my artificially enhanced resume and they’ll throw jobs at me. It was going to be easy. Hey, who wouldn’t want to hire me? We were so sure that by 2000 we would be sipping Gin and Tonic on our estate in Oxfordshire. I just had to find the right job to match my experience and skills.
Step 1: Find the job… somewhere… anywhere… just find the bloody thing.
But finding the job wasn’t as easy as what we thought. Where the hell do we start? Hey, their website of course. Uh, no. It was still early days on the Internet. Oxfam tend to forget that for most people in Africa the Internet doesn’t exist. And those few who had it was (is) still using bog standard landlines to connect. Trying to access the Oxfam website was like trying to read War and Peace – you knew it was possible, but it wasn’t going to happen in a day. Nope. Just click on the Oxfam website and go out to play a game of footie outside. Follow this up with dinner and a trip to the bar and you might be fortunate enough to have opened the front page. Never mind the job search section. And we would have had a blackout by this stage in any case. Or the line would have been disconnected. Meaning that we have to start the process all over again. If you haven’t been to the bar yet – start going, because you will need the drink to stay calm.
Oxfam, and almost every other bloody website in the world, forgets that the more complex and colourful your site, the more likely it would mean more time needed to upload. Not a problem if you have broadband (or DSL in those days), but a huge problem if you still used landlines. The site might look pretty, but my reactions weren’t.
So off to the papers and magazines, right? That should be easy. But where do you start? Oxfam hardly published their jobs in our local paper Eikestadnuus. The Economist? Hardly – only the really senior positions that no African will be asked to fill. I needed something a little lower down the ranks. But I was in luck, The Guardian (Oxfam’s favourite daily) had a deal with my weekly newspaper – The Mail & Guardian. And some of those Oxfam jobs actually slipped through cracks and made it into the newspaper. And then I hit another snag. Most of the jobs was already closed off for applications by the time it was advertised in the M&G. Back to square one – the damned web.
We eventually narrowed our searches down to about ten different places – a handful of newspapers (local and global) and a few (African) user friendly websites that posted the Oxfam jobs on their sites. Now we were ready to rock and roll. Oxfam here I come.
Step 2: Apply… and apply… and apply… don’t stop for anything.
Which job should we apply for? There are so many. Do I want to be a researcher or a campaigner or a field worker or a policy adviser? And do I want to research or advise on debt or coffee or disasters or multilateral trade or what? And do I want to work for Oxfam International or Oxfam Great Britain or Novib (Oxfam Netherlands) or Oxfam Canada 1 or 2 (typical of the Canadians, they had to have two – a French one and an English one). I can’t even decide which socks to wear or whether the socks should be matching or whether to wear socks at all, how am I going to pick one from this smörgåsbord of options? (Like the spelling? I checked it up on Wikipedia). This needed some serious thinking and consultations.
Well, after careful consideration by the Get-The-Damn-Job Committee, weeks of meticulous planning and re-planning by the Just-Make-A-Bloody-Decision Task Team, and independent advice by a group of even more independent consultants headed up by McKinsey & Company, we came up with a plan. We decided to take the shotgun approach.
This carefully worked out strategy is based on the principle of beggars can’t be choosers. Instead of aiming at a specific target, this Einsteinish theory argues that either you are good enough for all the available jobs or that you might find one sucker at Oxfam that will be dazzled by your amazingly crafted resume. And who wouldn’t see the stretched truths and value added pieces of fiction that litters your resume. The shotgun approach reasons that at least one of the pellets will hit a target. No one said that it needed to be the right target. Remember, Oxfam is the target and it doesn’t matter which targeted Oxfam it hits. It just needs to hit something.
So we carefully crafted applications ranging from CEO of Oxfam to shop assistant in Mable Hall. Something had to give. Sorry Jack, a target will be hit.
Step 3: Aim low… remember where you come from.
It did became very apparent that I wasn’t going to be employed as CEO. Or in any senior position that matched my South African position in any way. I am not trying to brag, but I got to a very senior position in South Africa in a very, very short period of time. So I initially expected the job at Oxfam to be on more or less the same level. But no. They weren’t going to employ someone from Africa into a senior position. I mean really. What do we know of the world? The fact that we work and live in the places that they are meant to work for didn’t matter to them. No. The colonialist blood ran thick. They employ their own people at the top and might throw a few of us in there to show their diversity. But they were pretty English and white at the top. And remains so.
But it didn’t bug me too much. I was a Director in South Africa and I wouldn’t employ any of them at a senior position in South Africa. So I guess it was just more than fair that they play the same game in their backyard. I just swallowed hard and went for a few positions below what I wanted. But this was about getting the opportunity to prove myself. Getting that break. And once I get it I will work my butt off to prove my worth to them. The revolution will start once I get in. The job I get was going to be a Trojan horse.
But, of course, I had a family to feed. It took some hard decisions and harder words from my wife, but she decided that it was something she wanted all of us to do. So tighten the belts a bit and stop thinking of the estate in Oxfordshire. Maybe the counsel estate will have to do.
So we focused a bit more on the lower end of the scale. And got cracking on those applications again. And enjoyed it while we could. Once we accepted the lower end job we wouldn’t be able to enjoy the luxury of licking stamps. And we prepared for the move. I was sure that it was going to happen any day soon.
Step 4: Hang in there… this might take a while… just don’t stop.
What is taking them so long? This is like watching a kettle boil or asking an Englishman for directions. It takes for bloody ever. Now remember, I started applying for Oxfam jobs back in 1999. I expected it to be all done and dusted within a few weeks. A few months at most if we include the visa applications. But really. Months went by without as much as a word from Oxfam.
I was sure that it had something to do with the telephone system. So we checked and double checked our connections. Checked if our emails are being delivered and Oxfam wasn’t on a overly sensitive anti-spam system of our service provider. But not a peep from them. Nothing. Nada. Zilch. Zero. Fuck all.
That’s when I read the fine print. Apparently they don’t send you a note to either confirm that they got your application or if you were unsuccessful. Obviously the last one couldn’t be relevant to me. Why would they not want to hire me? It must be the postal system. I am sure our government got a sniff that I might be leaving and would do all in their power to stop the brain drain. That was the only logical explanation. And the few rejection letter that came my way was delicately planted by government agents working on keeping me in South Africa.
So I just kept on applying for more jobs at Oxfam. Sometimes ten at a time. Week in and week out. And I smiled every single time I got a rejection or no reply. I knew that every time they rejected me or ignored me I was getting closer and closer to that one job. This was just the law of averages. You have to go through so many disappointments before you could get to that one job that was just right. So I knew I was getting closer to the one. I forgot that I learnt in science that no matter how many times you test the law of gravity – the result will remain the same. (okay, just in case the geeks are trawling this blog – the law of gravity doesn’t work 100% in quantum physics). But you get what I mean – repeated failure doesn’t always get you closer to success. But I had to believe.
Step 5: Get the interview… not the job.
And then I got the call. All the way from Phil Twyford, Advocacy Director for Oxfam International. He wanted me to come up to Brussels for an interview for a position as lobbyist at the European Commission. Man was I exited. I prepared like hell. read everything that I could. Studied like I’ve never studied before. Flew over to Brussels and completely froze at my first interview. I was way over prepared and when they stuffed up my schedule I didn’t react the way I should have – I panicked and just plainly had a bad interview. Okay, it wasn’t that bad. But I did feel that I wasn’t on top of my game. I was not focused enough. I wanted the job a little too much. But it was a lesson learnt. Don’t go for the job. Go for the interview. That’s why they invited you in the first place. So we were back at square on after almost 2 years of failed applications and one interview. Man did I feel shit and almost gave up. But we started sending off those new applications the next day.
This time we didn’t have to wait too long though. Nope. The next one came a few months later. This time by another Phil. Phil Bloomer who was then the Head of Advocacy at Oxfam Great Britain. He wanted me to come and speak to them about the position at the WTO. This time it went like a dream. I nailed everything and then some. They loved me. I knew more about the WTO than all of them put together. And, as a previous WTO negotiator, I had a trunk full of contacts. But I still didn’t get the job. They loved me but they needed someone to start immediately and although I knew more than anyone else, they just couldn’t wait the few months that it was going to require to get me my visa. For some or other reason the WTO wasn’t willing to postpone their Ministerial meeting for a few months either.
My last words to Phil was to say thanks for the opportunity, but, make no mistake, I will be working for you guys very soon. And it was just a few months later that I got another call from Phil. He wanted me to come over and talk to them about a job as Policy Adviser, Private Sector. And that was the one we were waiting for.
The law of averages worked. It’s a numbers game. I had to apply for about 500 jobs to get 3 interviews to land one job. Did it get me down? Yes. Did I felt like giving up at times? Yes! Did I feel shit when I didn’t get the job? Absolutely. Would I do it all over again? Without a doubt. It was as easy as pie.