I Put a Note in the Suggestion Box and it Changed My Life

From factory production line to engineer

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While in college in the early 80’s I worked two full-time jobs one summer. The first was at McDonald’s for $2.95 per hour just like most kids my age. But the second was at Raytheon soldering computer cables for the SLQ-32 shipboard defense system — the same one that was inexplicably inoperable when the USS Stark was attacked in 1987, killing thirty-seven sailors. That sweet job paid $4.30 per hour. It was pretty much my first real job outside of fast food. My many hours of building Radio Shack kits as a kid were finally paying off.

My many hours of building Radio Shack kits as a kid were finally paying off.

But I wasn’t satisfied making cables. People all around me on the production floor were having much more fun playing with all kinds of cool electronics. I desperately wanted in on that action, but I didn’t have the educational background to even qualify for an interview.

Each day as I punched in and out I walked by a suggestion box. I never really paid much attention to it until one time I happened to stop and read the sign that said they’d pay 10% of the savings to anyone submitting an idea to cut costs on the production line. Good to know. I’ll keep that in mind.

I kept on building cables. It was somewhat boring, but I was good at it. Then one day I showed up for work and suddenly lots of rooms were filled with empty radar enclosures destined for the production line — way more than I had ever seen before. But there was something else different as well, they were all painted with a sandy camouflage color instead of the usual battleship grey. Something was going on in the Gulf and the company had apparently just landed a huge contract bump. And that meant — more cables.

Passing Inspection

Some of the cables we built had up to 100 individual color-coded wires inside; each needing to be soldered to the right terminal of the connectors on either end. Since it was easy to make a mistake even when being extra careful, the quality control inspectors used fancy cable test equipment to help verify that all of the tiny wires went to the right places. Each tester was $2,500.

The contract for more cables meant that they needed more people, and more cable testers — 20 new testers, to be exact. And that got me thinking. I bet I could make those testers for less than half of what they were paying now, and 10% of that would net me a big fat $2,500 bonus through the suggestion program.

Rolm Rugged Nova 1602, circa 1980

May I Suggest

Now this was exciting. I did some research and spent the entire weekend drafting up blueprints for a budget-priced cable tester which had all the features we needed and none of the features we didn’t. After all, by now I was an expert on making cables. I felt like the Karate Kid — wax on, wax off.

All I could do was wait, wondering how often they checked the box.

On Monday morning before I clocked in I nervously folded up my poster-size blueprint into the tiniest size possible in order to stuff it through the narrow slot of the suggestion box. Still, I managed to tear the delicate paper on the final push. And then all I could do was wait, wondering how often they checked the box, or if they even bothered to check it at all.

About two weeks went by and an engineer I’d never met came up to my workstation and said he’d been assigned to evaluate my suggestion. Boom! His name was Jim and it turned out he was the one who had designed the cables we were building — so he was the perfect guy to check out my invention.

Jim had me walk him through the design and some of my decisions. He suggested some minor changes and told the big bosses the idea looked promising and that we should give it a shot. I was already counting my bonus.

A technician named Jerry from the electronics lab was tasked to build the prototype. I was hoping to build it myself, but Jerry was “their guy” for this kind of thing. Jerry and I were casually acquainted from waiting in line at the lunch truck that showed up every day like clockwork when the break buzzer sounded off on the factory floor. I didn’t have any doubt he’d do a good job. So I put my ego aside and kept making cables as I impatiently waited for Jerry to bring my baby to life.

It wasn’t long before Jerry summoned us to the lab with instructions to bring one of each kind of cable off the production line. My heart was thumping with excitement as I caught my first glimpse of the crudely-packaged prototype. I knew it would work, because it wouldn’t have made sense for Jerry to call us over just to watch it fail.

Testing, Testing

Jerry hit the power and the box lit up as we all watched in awe. The switches and controls weren’t yet labeled, so he gave us a quick tour as he grabbed a random cable to test and plugged both ends into the embedded connectors.

Now, the moment of truth. He pressed the Test button and the green light came on. Boom! A good cable. Let’s try another, and another. And now a bad one to see if it correctly identified the terminal number of the first mistake.

This is where my design purposely took a shortcut to save costs — it could only show one mistake on the budget three-digit display. But as a self-anointed expert in cable production, I knew this was all we needed.

The display would count up through the numbered wire terminals and stop if it found an error. If the test made it through to the end without stopping, the cable was good. Otherwise, the cable was bad and the display indicated the number of the bad wire terminal to note on the inspection ticket. At that point it didn’t matter if the cable had more problems — they’d get picked up on the next round.

I’ll take my bonus in cash, please.

It worked perfectly! Big smiles. I’ll take my bonus in cash, please.

Jim the engineer agreed that it was everything it needed to be. I was walking on air. My line supervisor was beyond amazed that some kid on his production line figured out how to build a $2,500 machine for under $200 in parts. Then they added in the cost of Jerry’s time plus something called burden (general overhead) I had never heard of for a grand total of $1,500 — what? Maybe Jerry should have worked a little faster.

In the end, management decided that saving $20,000 just wasn’t enough of a motivator and the project was scrapped along with my bonus.

Pick Any Job, Really

Bonus or not, I was still the hero of the cable production line. And just like Tom Cruise in Top Gun, I got to choose my next assignment — computer technician fixing microprocessor boards.

Not so fast. After all, I was still just the cable guy. But after having just robbed me of my bonus, the bosses skeptically agreed to let me try out for an opening on the night shift starting the following week.

This was the job:

Printed circuit boards about the size of an iPad were assembled and soldered on the production line. Each had about 75 to 100 components including a Zilog Z80 microprocessor, RAM, ROM and other supporting logic. Fresh boards almost never worked right off the line; there were always imperfections and faulty components. My job would be to run the boards through a battery of tests to ensure they worked, and to fix whatever was needed along the way.

These boards plugged directly into the Rolm 1602 Rugged Nova computer (shown in the photos); the brains of the SQL-32 defense system. They served as the digital interface between the core computer and the cables I was so fond of building, which in turn connected to the various sensors and controls for the rest of the system.

Now to be clear — I had never touched any of this kind of stuff in my life, nor had I had any experience with an HP oscilloscope or logic analyzer. I could never afford anything remotely close to that kind of expensive equipment.

Fake it Until You Make it

There’s a commercial on TV that perfectly summed up my situation. I’m not a real technician, but I stayed at a Holiday Inn Express last night; or I played one on TV, or something like that. The bottom line, it was a total bluff and there was every chance it could have ended badly for me. But this was my shot.

It was a total bluff and there was every chance it could have ended badly for me.

Fortunately, I had a few things going for me. First, these were Z80 boards. I had spent countless hours at home over the previous year learning about this microprocessor and most of the components that traditionally go with it. As far as I was concerned, this was a simple Brer Rabbit play and I was ready to be thrown into the briar patch.

As for the HP equipment, I told my new boss that I had used older less-expensive models (total lie) in the past and that I just needed to take the manuals home for the weekend to bone up on the differences.

And finally, they didn’t have anyone else on the night shift who knew anything about microprocessors. Everyone else around me was into analog and microwave — which I knew absolutely nothing about. So sure, I stumbled a little bit at first, but as it turned out, I was fixing just as many boards as the guy on the day shift so nobody ever knew I was actually learning on the fly.

I never did fully understand why I was able to keep up with the day-shift guy right from the start. The only logical explanation was that he was slacking off.

What I would have given for a keyboard!

It didn’t take long for me to become a pro at fixing boards and start writing my own test software. We didn’t have floppy diskette drives back then; they were still pretty new to the world. Instead, we used toggle switches and paper tape readers to load up our code. What I would have given for a keyboard!

My New Path

In the end, my life path totally changed simply by making a suggestion to save a few dollars on some factory production line. Up until then, although I was certainly fascinated by electronics and microprocessors, it never crossed my mind to become an engineer. I was going to be a photographer.

I credit this experience with my falling in love with computers and programming. In the course of about six months I went from being just the cable guy to being a full-fledged technician — all self taught. And not long thereafter, I landed a job at small startup named ComDesign and earned a spot on the engineering team designing boards with Intel 8088 processors; the successor to the Z80.

Go figure, this college dropout was now designing microprocessor boards, and I’d go on to start my first company about 18 months later.

Rolm 1602 Rugged Nova

Just for kicks, as I was putting this article together and tripping down memory lane, I decided to see if I could find any information about my old pal, the Rolm 1602 Rugged Nova. And much to my surprise, I found this crazy video on YouTube which shows exactly what it was like at my workstation.

Found this on YouTube:


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