The Beginning — first days on the computer line

by Grant Tate

The conflict between personal life and the job began in the first month of my career. Would it ever be resolved?

We’ve been in a class eight hours a day for several weeks learning to test one of IBM’s early computers.

The most interesting thing about the class was its last day. Just after lunch, Tom Jenkins, looking very much the confident, arrogant IBM manager, steps into the classroom with a white crisply starched shirt, sleeves open and turned up one cuff length. It is the uniform we all wear — a white dress shirt, preferably button down, and a necktie — striped is standard. Most guys wear dress pants, but I refuse to take a chance on messing up my good clothes. Besides, I have a big supply of khakis left over from my days at the University of Virginia.

Applying the IBM dress code to manufacturing workers is pretty stupid because factory safety rules require us to tuck the tie between the second and third button of our shirts when we were working on the computers, and the long sleeves are a pain in the neck. No rings or jewelry are allowed, and all of us have to wear safety glasses, which look like the kind my dad wore when pink plastic frames were first introduced. To top it off, we’re required to wear steel-toed shoes — as if I might drop a box of IBM cards on a toe.

Tom looks around the room and seems to be eying me suspiciously. He is especially friendly with the non-college graduates in our group, ten of the twelve of us in this class, which consists of electronic technicians, electricians and even musicians, leaving Walt Minnich and me as the only two graduate engineers. Walt and I may be an experiment, so Tom is probably wondering if we’ll be able to cut the mustard as computer test engineers. His expression says, “Show me, Tate” and something inside tells me my first conflict in the corporation has begun.

‘Are you guys ready to go to work?’ Tom says with a wry smile. ‘Twelve systems are out there waiting for you.’ He’s assigned each of us to work with a more experienced employee until we get the hang of testing a computer.

We twelve fresh hires step into a manufacturing floor as long as a football field, holding two rows of 650 MDDPM’s that stretch to infinity. An MDDPM is a “Magnetic Disk Data Processing Machine.” It looks like a computer to me, but maybe IBM hasn’t figured that one out yet.

At infinity, lays the office of Lanny Ellis, the Project Leader of 650 Final Test — the big boss. We’ve seen Lanny a couple of times when Jim Dawson took us into this room for a demonstration. Lanny had walked down the long aisle at top speed, presumably on the way to some important meeting, with his male assistant trailing closely behind. Lanny reminds me of the “Little King” from the old time comic strips. He is a half a head shorter than my height, which is a couple of inches shy of six feet. Like a Marine Colonel, he has a grey crew-cut. And like the rest of us, he wears a white shirt and tie, but he’s always in a suit jacket. Lanny’s tanned, lined face reminds me more of a priest than a corporate manager. I wonder what he’s like inside. He is the big boss, because everyone I know reports to him. At least four departments, each headed by a guy like Jenkins reports to Lanny and each department has about twenty-five people.

I wonder if someday I can be a leader like Lanny. He’s at least twenty years older than I and perhaps that’s how long it takes to climb the ladder around here. Dad was a department head in the American Silk Mills in Orange. Although he advised me to never go into textiles, I always wanted to be a manager like him, a person who could help other people by being a good leader. Once he told me about buying a meal for a young woman, a new employee, who passed out at one of the redrawing and quilling machines in his department because she hadn’t eaten in three days, a consequence of being poor and being displaced from her old home in the land that is now Shenandoah National Park. Dad’s stories were the highlight of our dinner table discussions. He always tried to do right by his people despite constant pressure from the owner to cut costs and raise profits. Those conversations caused me to have a lingering suspicion of the motives of big company executives and I’ve often wondered if my will to do what’s right by the people will be at odds with a company’s goals. IBM has an exceptionally high level of values, one of the primary reasons I chose to work with the company.

Another mentor, Goree Waugh, my employer at the furniture store where I worked in high school and on weekends during my university years, also fueled my ideas about management. A constant stream of customers, friends and strangers from all ages and races came to Goree for life advice and sometimes for loans or to buy a needed stove or table on long term credit. His desk and mine were on a mezzanine overlooking the wide expanse of the furniture displays, also with a good view of the front door where customers entered. Whenever anyone entered, Goree ran me through a series of questions designed to make me more customer sensitive. Who is that? When was she here last? Did she buy anything? Does she have a family? What might she want today? How could we help her? After my meeting with the customer, he helped me analyze how the interaction worked, emphasizing the ability listen carefully and ask the right questions.

Once, when Goree went on a Boy Scout trip for a month, he left me, seventeen at the time, in charge of the store. Then, it was a bit of a surprise, but today I wonder if he was crazy. Did he know the risk in that? Yet, during that month, I felt comfortable with the responsibilities, with making decisions, and with collaborating with the other store employees, who were over twice my age, to get things done.

As we walk into the factory, a cacophony of sounds bombard my ears — the shrill whirr of two hundred high-speed rotating cylinders, the deep hum of exhaust fans, the chi chi chi of IBM machines punching holes in cardboard. A strong odor of ozone and cardboard dust permeates the air. The parquet wood floor is spotlessly clean, Papers and manuals lay neatly on rows of green metal workbenches with butcher-block tops.

The scene takes me back to my first visit to the textile mill where Dad worked. There, the noise was even more deafening as a hundred looms clacked-clacked their shuttles back and forth, emitting an effluvium of oil and ozone, mixed with a whiff of Woolworth’s sewing department. Dad was a supervisor of Redrawing and Quilling there — a job similar to the one Tom Jenkins holds. But, unlike my ambivalence toward Jenkins, Dad’s employees loved him. Maybe in a few years, I will become a manager like Dad. I like the idea of working with people, but my challenge in IBM now involves working with machines, machines that are inhuman but smart in their own way.

I make a quick mental calculation of how much power it takes to run over two hundred of these IBM machines at the same time. Each of these babies contains over two thousand vacuum tubes, each with a tiny internal heating element. Each machine is like running 200 tube radios in one box. IBM must have a hell of an electric bill.

Suddenly, my stomach quivers with a pang of fear. My God, maybe I can’t remember any of those 600 wiring diagrams we went over in class. How will I ever be able to troubleshoot a computer when I’m not even sure what the machines are supposed to do? I’ve fixed amplifiers and a variety of other electronic junk, but these things are big and complicated. This is like sending a car mechanic out to fix a space rocket.

“OK, guys. I have your assignments.” We gather around to hear Jenkin’s pronouncement.

Jenkins’ voice fuels my fears. Maybe he’s right about engineers. All that education doesn’t give me a clue how to do this job. What do “Fourier Transforms” have to do with tracing signals through wires? I can see his face now, gloating about another engineer who bit the dust.

“I’ll give each of you a number. That’s your computer. Your team mate will be there.”

Agitated, I listen on as Tom reads the names in alphabetical order. Finally, he says, “Tate, you’re on ‘56’.” I’m at the end of every list.

When he finishes, each of us walks down the aisle searching for our assigned number. Over each testing stall hangs a large printed card with a number, plus the name of the customer who is going to rent the system. IBM never sells a machine; it rents them to customers for a monthly fee. After passing twenty or thirty workstations, I eventually come to ‘56,’ Boeing Airplane Company. My stomach begins to quiver again. Why did I have to draw one of IBM’s most important customers?

I pause to look over the situation. A blue book of wiring diagrams lays open on the table. I recognize the open page as a familiar diagram of the magnetic drum control system — and my stomach starts to feel calmer.

A dark skinned, slightly balding fellow with questioning eyes appears from behind the computer.

“Hi, I’m Charlie Gehm. Welcome,” he says, grinning through his big teeth.

“I guess we’re going to be room mates,” I say.

This isn’t much of a room, but I’ll be glad to show you around after I finish the test module I’m running.

I stand in front of the computer, contemplating the blinking lights of the machine’s central processing unit. It’s about the size of two refrigerators bolted together. At desk level, on the narrow side facing me, is a ‘console,’ an eighteen-inch square, grey metal panel containing lines of flashing lights, rotatable switches, and push buttons. By rotating the switches, and pushing the “enter” button, we can transmit instructions to the machine’s brain. Just below the console, sits a magnetic drum, the computer’s memory, whirring at about 10,000 rotations per minute and capable of storing about 16,000 snippets of information.

In addition to turning switches and pushing buttons, we can also communicate with the computer using IBM cards. Those little pieces of cardboard look simple, but it takes another mechanism as big as a five-foot kitchen cabinet to read or punch the data holes in them. This device is particularly mysterious to me because it consists of thousands of moving parts and electrical relays that never seem to operate correctly. Chads and dust from the hole-punching process tend to float all over the place choking circuits and clogging mechanical parts.

I look at the winking monster and wonder what is going on inside. I know every circuit and can trace the electrons from point to point, but what the hell can this thing do? How can it help Boeing build better airplanes?

I asked these questions in class, but Jim Dawson only said, “Well, ya kin program it ta do lots of thins en it’ll do em over and over real fast.” Jim knows the trees, but can’t find his way out of the forest.

I’ve read articles in which people compared computers with the human brain; but ‘over and over real fast’ doesn’t sound like any brain I know. Maybe after working with Charlie Gehm for a few months, I will understand this.

Stepping around to the side, I see gray panels that we can lift off to expose electron tubes and circuits on large swinging gates like vertical Beautyrest mattresses, but with electron tubes replacing the springs. Black, snakelike cables connect the central processing unit to a power supply, also the size of two refrigerators. If something is wrong inside these boxes, it’s my job to find out which of the 2,000 tubes or millions of wires is at fault.

All in all, this computer has five large units connected by miles of wire. It fills a space half as big as a racquetball court, emits enough energy to heat a small office building, but can make only limited decisions.

When Charlie returns from behind the computer, I know, even working together, it will take us four or five weeks to run every test, check every operation, exercise every circuit, and prove the system’s reliability. Charlie has been the obstetrician; he connected the power lines that bring energy to the new computer’s brain. Now I’m going to be the pediatrician who will check the health of the new child.

While facing the computer, my mind drifts to Joyce, my fiance,’ wondering how she will like the room I’ve rented for us at Mrs. LaShier’s big house. I’ve been so involved in surviving engineering school and getting a job, there’s been no space to think about life, about the future, about values, about alternatives. I just jumped on the expected path for a Southern boy. Get an education, get a job, get married, have children, go to Church. It’s what one does. So far I’m on track, blindly on or ahead of schedule,

A few days later, I’m waiting outside Jenkins’ module. Jenkins leans over his desk, intently talking into the telephone, his voice drowned out by the din of the IBM machines whirring in the background. The desk is pea green, with a linoleum top, steel legs, single drawer, just like all the other desks I’ve seen on the third floor of IBM’s building 46.

It’s now five after ten, five minutes after our appointment, but Jenkins ignores me shuffling around outside his metal and glass managers module. The collar of my white shirt now feels a size too small, my face feels flushed, hands a bit clammy. Maybe it’s because he’s my first boss at IBM. Maybe it’s because I’m still a shy kid. Maybe it’s because I put off having this conversation. Whatever, it feels bad. Welcome to insecurity, Grant.

Tom smashes down the phone and whirls to see me. “What do you mean that you want to take off two days this soon into your job?” Tom says. “Why didn’t you get married before you started here?” He glares at me as if I’m some sort of disloyal nut for asking. He is now standing in the door of his cubicle, hands on hips. Although he looks traditional IBM, this is probably a guy who scratched his way up from the bottom of the manufacturing rung, the type who worked his way into a little king’s position and wants to flaunt his power — the kind of guy who hates people with college degrees.

“I told Dale Learn, the recruiter, when he hired me, I was going back to Virginia in July to get married. It’s only Thursday and Friday — two days,” I say, humbly.

“Yeah, two days at the most critical part your orientation. You may never catch up.”

“I’ll be back on the following Monday. I’ll catch up.”

Two days, I think. Four in total. On Wednesday night, I’ll drive the four hundred miles back to Virginia, run around like a maniac on Thursday and Friday to get ready, get married on Saturday morning, stay over somewhere with Joyce on Saturday night, drive to Endicott on Sunday, then back to work at 7:30 on Monday morning. Some honeymoon. Joyce will be furious.

Tom stares into my eyes, shuffles around as if contemplating how to punch me in the face without getting in trouble. I watch his pale blue eyes, wondering what he’s thinking.

“I’ll have to think about it,” he says. The right side of his lip is twitching. His forehead furrowed like a newly plowed field. “Check with me in a couple of days.”

On the first few days on the job, I’ve antagonized my manager and found out I might fall behind my fellow workers. Great! Up until now, I’ve been enthusiastic about joining IBM. The recruiter convinced me it was a great company, the benefits are good, and their salary offer was as good as my other fifteen or twenty offers. And besides, this company cares about its people.

But Jenkins’ attitude casts a pall over my spirit. And I’m not sure I’ll fit into manufacturing. I’ve never paid much attention to schedules, hate getting up early, I barely made it by 7:30 this morning and forgot about the half mile walk from the parking lot. It reminds me of my summer job in the peach orchard — keep your head down and don’t ask questions. Just do what the boss tells you. There’s no place for intellectual or sophisticated conversation. Am I back in the orchard?

After arriving here three weeks ago, finding a place to stay and looking around, I began to wonder what is a Southerner like me is doing in Endicott, in New York’s southern tier? Everyone, even the people in stores, makes fun of my southern drawl. I’m getting sick and tired of waitresses mocking, “Where y’all from, honey child?”

Endicott is a mill town on the Susquehanna River. Immigrants from Ellis Island are said to have found the town with their first sentence in English: “Which way E.J.?” referring to the Endicott-Johnson Shoe Factory just down the street from the IBM plant. Every morning, fog laced with the pungent odor of hundreds of cowhides being cured in E-J’s tannery shrouds the town. The Endicott-Johnson factory is the epitome of old style manufacturing, dark and dank with red brick walls and steel window frames, the buildings have probably been there since before the war.

In stark contrast, the IBM buildings gleam with white concrete and glass brick, looking more like a hospital than a manufacturing plant. A smart American flag flies from the towers that accentuate each building module. The adjoining sidewalks and streets show no sign of dirt or paper. IBM’s maintenance workers see to that. IBM’s cleanliness does not stop at the street. Every production line inside is spotlessly clean — no paper, no grease, no metal chips, no bottle caps will ever be seen on the floor.

Endicott is also known as Sinus Valley. This morning, when I came out of Mrs. Lashier’s house, where I’d rented a room, I looked down the hill toward the town, only to see Nanticoke Road fade into a fog bank thick as the fur on a weasel. The whole town had disappeared during the night. When I drove down the hill, I thought someone must have suddenly painted my windshield white. I was passing from the light into the foggy unknown.

On Wednesday, Jenkins offers me a compromise. He suggests I take Friday off and work on Thursday. That way I can still do the wedding and not miss so much of the action. He grins from ear to ear as he tells me, as if he’s discovered the Northwest Passage or something.

I fold. I really don’t want to antagonize this guy and Joyce is already agitated. So I agree.

What a great start, I think, new manager, new wife, both antagonized as I start a new job. I don’t know what this portends for the future, but it sure doesn’t feel good. I want to be successful, but it looks as if there’s a cloud over my head — Jenkins thinks I’m a slacker. When I signed up for this job, the Personnel Department said it would involve lots of overtime. Sounded like a good thing at the time, more pay, but I can see it now, Joyce asking why work is so important. Me, trying to explain, over the phone, why my job and career are important, but she interpreted that as not caring for her or the wedding. This just doesn’t feel good.

Finally, after 4:30 and eating a hamburger and French fries at Tony’is Diner, I drive home and call Joyce.

“Hi. Howya doin? I say.

“OK. I miss you. Can’t wait to see you in two weeks,” she says.

We purr at each other for a while, hinting at what we’ll do when we finally get together again. We compare notes on the wedding plans, flowers, singer, invitation list, her dress. I mostly listen, hands sweating around the phone receiver, heart racing, feels like my eyes are bulging. What is gong on with me? Do I really want to do this? She seems so calm, but I’m a wreck.

She’s still talking, but I’m thinking of one thing: Jenkins. I’ve got to tell her.

“How’s everything up there?” she asks.

“Today didn’t go so well for me,” I interrupt.

“What do you mean?”

“Well…Uh…Tom Jenkins, my new manager doesn’t want me to miss time from work.”

“What?” she says.

Trying to maintain a calm voice, I tell her about the conversation at Jenkin’s office, while she keeps interrupting, insinuating that work is more important than she is, that I don’t care about her or the wedding, that I shouldn’t have let this become an issue, that I should just take the days off no matter what the big IBM company says.

Now, at 7:30 am the next morning, I’m back at stall #56, still half asleep, wondering why I chose to go into manufacturing where macho mornings are the cultural foundation. We can’t eat or drink around the machinery, so, at 6:45 am I gulped down some coffee while sitting on a red-topped stool at Tony’s Diner. To my surprise, when I arrived, Charlie was already at the computer, and its lights are already blinking.

“Good morning, Charlie. What time did you get here? You’re already running the tests?”

“Yeah, I started early. Thought we’d get going with the one-upper test.”

“OK. What should I do?”

Charlie suggests I review the next test and take the lead in running the diagnostics that analyze the circuits. I turn to the work table, bury my face in wiring diagrams, enveloping my body and spirit in the challenge of new technology, new job, new company, new colleagues. I’ll think about marriage and relationships tomorrow. That’s another day.

~

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Author_Grant.Tate

Grant Tate is an author, thought leader, confidential advisor, and idea explorer in Charlottesville, VA. His latest book is “Hand on the Shoulder.”