Job hunting and proprietary formats

Sean DALY sean.daly at
Wed May 10 08:23:28 UTC 2006

Ottavio -

This is a difficult and important question you are asking, and I have to agree that it's necessary to deal with these situations on a case-by-case basis. I think some flexibility is required, as long as you keep your "eyes on the prize" of promoting Free software. Often, such a situation is an opportunity to educate; most people who attach Word files aren't even aware there are alternatives, or are not computer-savvy enough to go further. As for recruiters, often they have long days full of work (or recruit as a 7th function of their job) and they try to find the easiest solution, which these past few years usually means Word on a Windows PC.

In the past when I have recruited staff, beyond technical expertise the personal qualities I look for are resourcefulness, initiative, energy, creativity - will the recruit work hard here, or will I have to get after them to get anything done? Can I trust them with data and deadlines, or will they be off having a smoke 9 times a day? The key step for any jobseeker is to get an interview, and to get there you need to differentiate yourself. In your case I think I would have said: Find a solution to open up the Word file - the Web is full of them. Fill out and return it, broken tables and all; just make sure it is human-readable if it's printed out. If you really want the job and it's not too much work, make a cleaner version of their form which opens correctly in both Word and OOo (HTML could do), outlining the efficient advantages of standards-based file formats and Free software over secret, proprietary systems and formats such as Word. Mention in passing that you would be willing to help them develop a better system which would work smoothly with Windows, Mac, and GNU/Linux machines. Say that office automation is better done on the GNU/Linux platform compared to MS Windows, and that you would be pleased to explain why during your interview. I feel sure that this approach would impress any recruiter; and at the very least, a recruiter would become aware of a larger world beyond MS Word on MS Windows.

I'll add an anecdote, from the customer rather than jobseeker point of view:

My wife and I recently applied for new bank accounts and the bank e-mailed Microsoft Word forms which broke in OOo. We e-mailed them to inform them that their Word files were not opening correctly on any of our home computers, and asked them to send printable or electronic-form PDF instead, or to snailmail paper forms. They replied that the files were perfect, that all we had to do was use Microsoft Word, that the returned forms had to be imported directly into their backoffice systems and that no other method was possible. In addition, they were proposing that we return the edited Word files by unencrypted e-mail. And finally, the legal notices on the forms were editable; we could have written "Mickey Mouse, mascot of the Bank, agrees to give new clients a billion zillion euros as a present" and the form would have gone off like that.

We replied the following:

* We asked for the name and address of the bank's senior security officer, since this "system" was full of holes in this age of phishing and spoofing and we felt the responsible thing to do was to alert the bank in writing.

* We also indicated that as long as the bank was using this nonsecure, buggy "system", we would hold them fully responsible for any fraudulent activity whatsoever related to our accounts.

* We invited the bank to buy or lend us a copy of Microsoft Word in order to fill out their form. Alternatively, we asked them to do a minimum of testing on systems other than Microsoft Word over Microsoft Windows.

* We proposed a basic encryption method for our e-mail correspondance.

* We returned the unedited form after load & save in OOo, showing the broken page layout due to the Word file's very complicated tables and graphics.

It turned out that this great system had been "developed" by a junior bank employee at our branch trying to help out overworked account managers; it was not part of the bank's official IT structure. They thanked us for bringing these problems to their attention.

I hope this is useful for you. Good luck in your job search.

Sean DALY.

> Message du 09/05/06 21:02
> De : "Ottavio Caruso" <pr0f3ss0r1492 at>
> A : discussion at
> Copie à : 
> Objet : Job hunting and proprietary formats
> I'm pretty sure that most of you would refuse an email correspondence
> based on proprietary formats, e.g. MS-Word attachments.
> Some would even go to the point of deleting or bouncing such messages or
> reply in tune with RMS's 'We Can Put an End to Word Attachments'
> campaign :
> <>.
> But what if your professional career, and eventually your life, should
> depend on it?
> What if you are going to apply for a wonderful job, a job dealing with
> installing and maintaining Linux boxes, and the potential employer
> demand
> that the whole correspondence be managed in stupid word files?
> What if you are desperate and willing to compromise, you fire
> your shiny FOSS word processor and the file won't even load properly?
> So? What to do? Borrowing somebody's PC? Dual boot? Give up?
> I have started asking questions.
> On Mon, 08 May 2006 20:23:50 +0200, "Ottavio Caruso"  said:
> > Dears Sirs,
> > 
> > I am interested in applying for your vacancy COMPUTER
> > TECHNICIAN/REF.[blah...]. You require that I download a document in
> > ms-word format, then manipulate it and send it back to you by email.
> > Unfortunately I have problems opening this document on my computer that
> > runs a version of Linux.
> > 
> > In Abiword, it looks all messed up and garbled. I'm sure I can find some
> > trick to reformat it but then most likely it won't display properly on
> > your computers.
> > 
> > The only solution would be for me to borrow somebody else's PC, however
> > I feel this is a diminution of my Linux skills, which are one of the
> > requisites you ask for this job.
> > 
> > A better solution would have been rich text format or html, which are
> > more portable than MS-Word.
> > 
> > I'd be glad if I had your opinion about it, so that I know if there is
> > a work around or if I had better give up.
> > 
> > Yours sincerely
> > 
> > Ottavio Caruso
> No answers expected, none received
> Ottavio Caruso
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