For the first time in over six months, I dressed in a dark civilian suit with white button-down shirt and stripped blue and orange tie. This was my first workday after active duty with the US Army Signal Corps, and I was eager to get started. What kind of assignment did IBM have in store for me? Probably more computer testing, similar to my job before going to the army. It was up to Phil Evans, a manager in the personnel department, to tell me.
“Good morning, how was your army experience?” Phil said, offering his hand. He must be an administrator, I thought, judging from documents on his desk, neatly aligned in rows and columns. His appearance showed the same care, every detail from perfectly trimmed hair to crisp shirt and recently dry-cleaned suit were perfectly in place. How can this guy work this way?
“Not bad, I spent most of the time designing computer systems,” I replied, thinking that I would let him know that my military experience might be useful to IBM.
He glanced at some papers on his desk, then motioned to the guest’s chair. I could hardly wait to hear about my next job, but we traded small talk and army stories for a good 15 minutes.
Finally, Phil reached for a letter. “Have you ever taught school?”
“Yes, I was a drawing and lab instructor in college and I did some training in the army,” I replied, curiously.
“Well, Union-Endicott High School is looking for a temporary science teacher and we’ve agreed to help them out for a few weeks. Would you like to help them out?” Phil smiled.
I was stunned, never anticipating that IBM would turn me into a teacher. Science! Did I remember enough to teach high school science?
“What subjects do they want me to teach?” I asked.
“They don’t say in the letter. Why not go talk to the principal and let them explain?”
Leaving Phil’s office, it seemed that he was surprised to see me today; even though I sent him a letter two weeks before. My teaching assignment was probably a coincidence. The letter from the school district and I had arrived on the same day. Phil’s problem and its solution fell into place. Maybe IBM didn’t really know what to do with me. What does that mean, I wondered. Would they like to get rid of me? Do they care what I gained from my military experience. Maybe they just don’t give a damn.
Two weeks later I was a schoolteacher, drawing force diagrams and pictures of physics experiments on the blackboard for a group of defiant teenagers who wanted to be somewhere else, or so it seemed. Each sauntered into the classroom just under the time when they might be counted as late, and flopped into their chair like a rag doll.
What a difference from the U.S. Army where we sat rigidly upright waiting for the instructor to teach us a life protecting lesson.
Soon I realized that my position was perfect. I couldn’t be fired by the school system and my career didn’t depend upon coddling students. Having just come out of the army, I was used to discipline and to dishing it out. I wasn’t ready to put up with a bunch of unruly, sloppy students, so I decided to crack down.
One day, one kid started hectoring other students when they were answering my questions. I stopped, asking him to explain his actions.
“I don’t know why I’m in this room, anyhow. All these people are idiots,“ he said, adding some words, I’d prefer not to include in this article..
I calmly told him to leave the room, only to return when he could shape up. Surprisingly, he complied. Turning to the rest of the class, I launched into a lecture on good manners and the importance of education, using my Army experience to explain not everyone has opportunities like this class. After several days of struggle, the message began to take. The class began to ask questions and I began to put more life into my presentations. We had turned the corner and teaching became fun. By the time my three-week assignment was done, the students and I had achieved a good bond. Plus, they, and I, learned a little physics.
When I returned to IBM, they did have a place for me in the computer-testing department where I first began with the company; so, there I was, poking and probing around thousands of electron tubes and wires. After my time in the Army, working in the U.S. Signal Research and Development Lab at Ft Monmouth as part of a team designing the next generation of field-based computers, this routine testing felt pretty dull. Every day, my mind was wondering what I could do to move on from doing the same thing every day.
One day, Jerry, my manager stopped by my workplace to tell me that Clarence McNeil wanted to talk to me.
“Who’s Clarence McNeil?” I asked.
“He’s head of the training department,” Jerry answered. “He needs your help. He wants to see you in 15 minutes.”
Untucking my tie from between my third and fourth shirt button, I walked past the 100 yards of computer test stalls, down the stairs, through the machine shop and eventually to the administrative offices, eventually reaching a sign reading “Manufacturing Education.”
A woman with drawn back black hair and pointed red-framed glasses, greeted me from her desk. “Good morning, you must be Grant. Mr. McNeil is waiting for you.”
“Thanks,” I said, wondering why she used ‘Mr. McNeil’ when the company’s tradition was first names only.
When I stepped into ‘Mr. McNeil’s’ office, I understood why. This guy was dressed like a Brooks Brothers model. His blue suit with subtle black strips was tailored perfectly to fit his trim, but solid physique. His blond hair looked as if it was trimmed yesterday, every hair was in place. Each hand sported a polished gold ring and his nails were probably professionally manicured. A blue and yellow rep tie graced his wrinkle free, button down shirt. A silk handkerchief neatly tucked into the jacket’s pocket completed the picture.His office reflected his attire–neatly lined papers, an expensive desk set with a real ink pen, a few mementoes of awards were placed in strategic spots.
A feeling of complete dowdiness crept over me. I never thought of going to the locker to put on my suit jacket and my clothes must have smelled like ozone from the computer floor. My shoes were unpolished and who knows what my hair looked like. You dummy, this is an INTERVIEW! Someone should have given me a little warning, for goodness sakes. The last real interview I had was when IBM hired me, but now, I had no idea what to expect from this smooth operator.
“Have a seat, call me Mac,” Mac said.
“Thanks. I didn’t come to work this morning expecting something like this,” I fumbled.
“Well, this is a bit unusual. We have a big training job to do and we need some help. I understand that you have some teaching experience.”
Laughing, I said, “Well, if you consider the three weeks in the blackboard jungle, you’re right.”
In IBM’s typical random fashion, they probably figured out that they need to train some people, then asked themselves “Who do we have that has teaching experience?” Then someone said “What about that guy that went down to the high school?” “Sure, he’ll do.”
Mac went on. “You know that we don’t layoff people. We’re coming out with a new computer system that uses transistors and we’ll need lots of people to test the units–many more than are now on the computer floor. We need to convert our machinists and mechanical assemblers to computer test technicians.”
“That’s a big job,” I said, thinking that it was really impossible, not just difficult. I remembered how the Signal Corps had given all of its officers a six week training course in electronics and how one of my fellow officers, who had majored in liberal arts, had asked how someone like me could have spent four years studying electronics when the army could teach it in just a few weeks. “It looks pretty damned simple,” he said, having learned just the tip of the iceberg of electronics and too naive to understand he’d received just an outline.. And there I was wondering if IBM was as naive as my fellow officer.
“I’ve looked at your background, talked to your manager, and the principal at the high school and I believe you’re the best person to develop this course,” Mac said confidently.
Develop the course! That’s a lot different from teaching someone else’s lesson plans for three weeks. Besides, maybe mechanical people simply cannot become test technicians. But I was too young to know what I didn’t know. Pedagogy and instructional design were terms that had never passed my eyes.
Mac continued. “We plan to give everyone in the plant a chance to take some aptitude tests. We’ll use those scores to choose people for interviews. Then we’ll select people who have the highest chance for success. We’re looking for highly motivated people who have the ability to learn.
Incredulous, I asked, “When is this supposed to start?”
Mac went on to explain that the testing was to start in a few weeks and that the first class kicked off in three months. He anticipated that the course would be 12 weeks long, eight hours a day, followed by four weeks of intense training on the new 1401 computer. We would call the program “Computer Electronic Technician Training Program–Compelo Tech for short. In addition to me, he would hire at least one other instructor. That meant that each of us would be teaching at least four hours per day. We would give homework and tests just as in regular schools, but student evaluations would be given in individual face-to-face meetings similar to the company’s employee appraisal program. Mac explained that the employee’s jobs were to be good students while they were in the program.
In spite of my trepidation, I was intrigued with the idea. The computer-testing job was getting dull. Every day seemed like a repetition of the day before. My main entertainment was trying to find new ways to analyze the machines and find problems more quickly. Every day made me feel more like a robot.
“OK,” I said. “I’ll do my best. When do you want me to start?”
Over the next three months, my companion teacher, Ray Slater, and I laid out the curriculum, course outlines, handouts, overheads, tests, and exercises that would take the adult learners from basic electricity and algebra to solid state electronics in 12 weeks. We located other instructors to teach the 4 additional week of specific computer training, but it was up to Ray and me to have them prepared for learning the new computer. In parallel, Mac and his team tested hundreds of employees. Ray and I interviewed about 50 of the top scorers and chose 24 for the first class.
At 8:00 am on the first day of the program, Mac introduced Ray and me to the group and told them that they were in for 16 weeks of hard work. The 24 people stared back in anticipation. Most of them had not been students for 20 years and most were over twice my age. This was going to be quite different from teaching high school students. Ray and I said a few words after which Mac and I returned to our offices while Ray began the first 4 hours of class–introduction to algebra.
I grabbed a cup of coffee and settled in my chair longing for 4 or 5 hours of quiet. My class, introduction to electronics, was to start just after lunch. At 9:45, the phone rang.
“Grant, you’ve got to help me,” Ray panted. “I’m already out of material, and I don’t know what to do.”
Although Ray and I had carefully crafted lesson plans, apparently, he was out of material.
“How can that be. You’ve been practicing for days. Can you give them some in-class exercises?” I asked.
“We’ve already been through the ones that I planned. Can you come and take over? We’re on break now” His voice was shaky.
“See ya in five minutes,” I said, already picking up my materials.
I almost ran across North Street to the education building and found Ray standing outside of room 405.
“What happened?” I asked, putting my hand on his arm.
“Think I just rushed through the material too fast. Nervous, I guess.”
“It’s OK,” I said. “You go to the office to relax and I’ll see you there after class.”
Walking into the class, I was greeted by 24 grownups smiling like the Cheshire cat.
“What’s happening?” I asked, feeling strangely confident. I knew these guys because of our interviews and knew them to be fair and honest. This was a lot easier than trying to teach high schoolers who weren’t really interested.
“Looks like we scared Ray off,” Joe Swift, on the front row, answered, laughing.
“You sure did. What did you do?”
“We just sat here looking stupid while he talked,” Joe said.
“Well, folks, that’s not going to happen again,” I said. Ray’s going to be back in here tomorrow for his whole four hours and I’m going to make your afternoon miserable,” now smiling back at the group.
“We’ll start with an algebra test to see what you learned this morning.”
We had a rough start, which, in retrospect, warmed the environment for the class, Ray and me. These adult students, knowing their jobs and careers depended on their results were eager to learn, highly motivated, respectful and trustworthy.
I’ll never forget one fellow who asked for private conference with me about halfway through his twelve weeks. He explained that his 6 year old son was stricken with cancer and not expected to live very long. After a long talk about the effort required to complete the program and his need to spend time with his family, he decided to stay in the program. And I offered to help him keep up with tutoring or other support. He completed the program, became an excellent computer technician. And his son was still living when I last saw the technician a few years after the program. This fellow was but one example of the kind of learners who went through our program.
Compelo Tech eventually gave over four hundred people a chance to become computer test technicians. The quality of IBM’s early computers attested to their success and talents.
Copyright 2016 R. Grant Tate