“Essentially all learning was done on the job.”
Via Lila Rajiva
Column by Paul Bonneau, “How I Got a Job.”
Exclusive to STR
A while back, I wrote a little article with some tips on how to get a job. I thought I would write a follow-up, giving a concrete example, and perhaps showing somewhat how I came to that opinion about it.
As an idiot 18-year old, I joined the Marine Corps, in 1968. They tested me along with all the other new recruits, and as a result put me into an MOS of repairman for the Marine Tactical Data System, which was essentially a truck-based AWACS used by the Marine Air Wing. This system was based on technology obsolete even when first delivered to the Marine Corps by Litton Industries, yet I still learned to troubleshoot digital logic with my trusty oscilloscope.
When I got out of “the Crotch,” I went to school for four years on the GI Bill and got a bachelor’s degree in physics, which turned out to be utterly useless for my life as a working stiff. This mirrors what most people get out of a college education. Well, at least it was entertaining.
At the time, in 1977, the economy was hot, with everyone looking for computer expertise. Companies in the “Silicon Forest” in Oregon were searching all over the country for it. Having a healthy economy, the thing governments inevitably destroy, is one’s greatest aid in a job search. I feel sorry for kids these days; to be “helped” by government is a great disaster to almost everyone, except for the people in the government.
Anyway, I got hired as a technician, after my first and only interview by Floating Point Systems (FPS) in Oregon, embroidering the truth only a bit in the interview. The company manufactured machines called “array processors,” devices for heavy computation in that age of absurdly slow and expensive computers. The first thing I did at FPS was to take home the schematics, specs and timing diagrams on the machine I was to work on. Every evening, on my own time, I would go through that material until I had a pretty good idea how it worked. In a couple of months, I was one of the top technicians on the test floor.
Bringing up machines, one has to understand the code running in the machine–at least to be any good at the job. I started reading diagnostic listings. In about a year, a job came up in the diagnostic software department and I moved over to that, learning to write in assembly language. I modeled my code on the existing software, at least the better examples of it. Monkey see, monkey do.
A year or two later I was in customer service, an interesting job because it allowed me to interact directly with the engineers who were developing applications for our machines. At one point I moved to Paris for a year to do the same thing in Europe and in the Middle East; they had liked my work in installing and bringing up the machines we sold to Avions Marcel Dassault, so they hired me.
One of the engineers at FPS had gone off to start his own company, Aptec Computer Systems, which was to make devices (“I/O computers”) facilitating data transfers to array processors. Familiar with my work at FPS, he hired me on (at a substantial cut in pay, but I didn’t care) as a hardware designer. Note that I had no degree in engineering, and had taken only a single course in college in FORTRAN, the extent of my engineering credentials. I suppose it didn’t matter to him much because, as chief engineer at Aptec, his credentials were that he was a high school drop-out! By the way, Aptec’s chief software engineer did have a degree–in History.
Just to give an example of the high-flying applications we were working in, Lockheed bought some machines for collecting data from the stress-testing of satellites that were slated to go up on the space shuttle. I installed their machine and wrote their initial application, collecting data from numerous sensors and storing it on the slow disk drives we had available back then (3 megabytes per second for each drive, not much!). What I delivered besides the code was a short description along with a drawing (“chicken scratches”) showing what the application was doing. Not much and not pretty–calling it a “specification” would be a gross exaggeration–but it was enough for the Lockheed engineers to take it and run with it.
After going through all this, what is the point of this article? The point is how little the vast apparatus of employment, of government, of “education” had to do with it. Essentially all learning was done on the job. What I brought to the table was curiosity, a willingness to dig in and figure things out, an ability to keep on pushing until I delivered a product, a reasonable (though not manic) work ethic, and a lack of concern about my salary. What these small companies brought to the table was indifference about credentials, an interest in my performance, a willingness to take a risk (back when the government-imposed risk was small), and managers who knew enough to stay out of the way of productive employees.
I don’t know if these things exist in America any more. Any successful small company must have at least some measure of them, I’m guessing. Stay away from the big firms if you want an interesting working life. Yeah, your paycheck may be a bit shaky from month to month, but there are other compensations, and you will hit the ground running if your little company ever does go belly-up.