I'm Not a Spy!
I’ve never known what I wanted to be when I grow up. I went through the typical phases a lot of kids go through. Since my grandfather and uncle were doctors, I wanted to be a doctor too - until I realized I pass out when I see blood. Two of my middle school buddies’ dads were architects, and so was Mr. Brady from the TV show The Brady Bunch, so I thought that might be cool. I even signed up to be an architecture student at Texas Tech and reserved a dorm room for that one. But I ended up at TCU instead and somehow stumbled into a Computer Science degree.
During my senior year, in 1986. Ronald Reagan was still president. I was oblivious to the economic issues of the day. I had no idea it wasn’t easy to find a job and make good money. I was the classic privileged white male living in a bubble. All I knew was that you go to college, you get a job, and that’s that. Lots of organizations came on campus to recruit graduating seniors. There were two that stood out the most. One was Anderson Consulting. I botched that one pretty bad. The recruiter even told me so. I was a nervous sweaty mess. The other was the Central Intelligence Agency.
I assumed the CIA recruiter would be a boring suit type guy since the interview was for computer science related positions. But this guy had stories about being overseas and being shot at and more. Maybe it was just a recruiting tactic. It sure worked. I was enthralled even though I knew I was just applying for computer science jobs. I told them I wanted in and to sign me up.
The application was pretty intense. It took me weeks to fill out. They wanted every address of every place I’d ever lived. I was terrified of leaving off a dorm room and going to jail for supplying false information. On questions about past drug use, I listed each and every time I even came close to taking a hit from a friend’s joint (which I could count on one hand). I just knew they already knew or else they’d connect me to a lie detector test eventually and I’d be busted.
I mailed it in and I waited. And I waited. I waited for months and finally got a letter from “Bob”. That’s it. Just “Bob”. So I called Bob and found that they were interested in me for two positions. He wanted to know if I would take the next step. I had to think about it…Okay, no I didn’t. “Yes! I’m in!” The next step was an eight-hour psychological “battery” administered at the Law School building at SMU in Dallas. They coached me to not talk about it and to answer each question as fast and honestly as I could. Apparently, if you stop and think about the questions and try to answer how they might want you to answer, you’ll get tripped up and they’ll know it. I was officially terrified.
I remember the drive to Dallas. I was looking all around me as I drove East on Interstate 30 thinking I was being watched by Russians. I made it to the Law School building to find only a simple sign, “Testing Here” or something even more vague. It was arranged so that there wasn’t an obvious way to see any of the others who were also taking the test. It was a “fill in the bubble” multiple choice type of test that I was already used to from high school.
I bubbled in answers with my #2 pencil for eight solid hours. I just knew I was being watched. This time it had to be CIA cameras studying my movements to see if I was right for the job. I remember stumbling on several questions, thinking, “There is no way that this is a serious question. This question is just a trick to test me.” But then I remembered the coaching from Bob. So I just did my best and plowed ahead. The one that stood out the most was, “Do you like going for long periods of time without soap or water?” I chuckled, as it seemed to be an obvious fake question meant to catch people too eager to join. Then I feared the cameras that might be watching me chuckle, so I filled in “No” as quick as I could and hoped for the best.
As each day passed, I became more and more paranoid. Who’s watching me? What am I doing wrong? Will I make the cut? Then another letter arrives in the mail from “Bob”. I made it to the next step! This time they wanted to fly me to Langley, Virginia to their headquarters to interview in person. It was about this time that I started reading Hunt for Red October by Tom Clancy. That might have been a mistake. But it sure made things fun. I was about to be the Jack Ryan of software development.
There I was in the headquarters of the CIA. I almost crapped my pants as I drove through the main gate and the guard had me on a guest list. I made it in through the main lobby that you see on TV and then made it to a reception area. From there, they escorted me to a small classroom. It was there that they administered a computer programming test. It was like a final exam from some of my computer science classes. Given certain logic problems, you had to write out how you would programmatically solve them. It was all still on paper since personal computers didn’t quite exist yet. I nailed it. A nice lady took me on a small tour of public places like the cafeteria. And that was it. I flew back home and waited. And I waited. Another letter from Bob came in the mail. He wanted to fly me back to interview for two specific positions. But this time it was to a suburb in DC called Foggy Bottom to a seemingly random 6-story non-descript office building with no signs.
This time, I just knew the Russians were following me. The Cold War was still in full force, so I knew I had to be careful. I made it to the office and I finally met Bob face to face. His name wasn’t Bob. I pretty much knew that all along. He offered me my choice of two positions. One was to use artificial intelligence to track employee use of computer files so you could spot abnormal access even though someone might have permission to access them. For example, if you all of the sudden access 5 files at 3am that you never access other than between 10am and 2pm, then maybe that should throw an alert to someone to see if you are a double agent. The other position was to use advanced database techniques to track known terrorists’ current locations so that the agency’s “clients” could easily report where known terrorists were.
Before I decided, Bob talked me through what it would look like. Since it was still during the Cold War, the position would have a cover. I almost crapped my pants again. I was about to have a cover! I wouldn’t tell anyone I worked for the CIA. His cover was that he was a real estate agent. He said most people use a cover of some sort of boring diplomatic State Department title. But I would have my choice of several. I immediately accepted the database job to track terrorists. But before I left, I just had to ask him, “Hey, can I ask you a question about the psychological battery?” Bob paused with his usually no-emotion straight face and said, “ok”. I asked how I did on it. He said I did fine and that’s all he would tell me. I asked if the question about going for weeks without soap was a trick question. He said, “No, we need to know that if you’re applying for a position that requires that. Every applicant here takes the same test.” Ha. My first experience with government. So I flew back home as excited as any 22 year-old Jack Ryan wannabe could possibly be. Lordy. I just accepted a job to hunt down terrorists! He said to just go home and wait for the next step.
So I waited. And I waited. Instead of just letters, I was now able to call “Bob” directly. It was funny how whoever answered the phone would say they were Bob. So I called a few times after what seemed like waiting for years (which might have just been hours). The next step was that they were going to fly me back to Langley this time for an all day medical exam. So I waited and I waited. And I waited. From the first interview to this point was literally six months. I was eager to take on the world. As I read more and more Tom Clancy spy novels, I became more and more anxious.
Ummm. Well… Then yeah. As far as you know, I just gave up. Some friends still think I actually got the job and was just able to work from Texas as a cover. One of my jobs around that time was managing global satellite networks for a semiconductor manufacturer. But I think its pretty obvious. I can’t keep a secret. You decide.