Notes On the “Old” Hewlitt-Packard

When William Hewlitt of Hewlitt-Packard graduated from Stanford in the 1930s with an engineering degree, the only job he could get was with General Electric back East because of the Depression.

GE used huge “vacuum tubes” for primitive power switching in large scale plants, treating Hewlitt’s desire to work with more intelligent devices (electronics) with incomprehension and contempt…something I saw at Motorola in 1979: the “phone guys” wanted to hard wire the mobile phone because they didn’t understand that the mobile phone needed to be a computer.

The vacuum tubes at GE were exploding, killing and injuring workers. Hewlitt discovered that GE engineers were consistently failing to document to the workers how to fabricate the tubes and treating their questions and concerns with contempt, since they were “only” workers.

As I did at Roosevelt University in 1971, where the poorly crafted software was creating nervous breakdowns amongst the staff, Hewlitt documented the fabrication steps by speaking to the engineers and gave the workers careful documents. He didn’t assume that the workers were stupid and unable to read documents, any more than I did.

I did this again, many years later at a company in Menlo Park. A retired Navy officer had invented a machine that could be operated in rural Vietnam to fabricate DNA sequences for pharmas. Rather than just fix the bugs, I also documented the software and instituted “extreme pair programming” as the project lead.

My reward? Well, the retired Navy officer hated me because at my one and only presentation I was exhausted, having worked 24 hours straight to fix the software and create the documents. I seemed like a sort of absent minded professor to him, and this raised for him that old hatred military people have for techies.

So, the company management thanked me sincerely and profusely for my contribution, but since it was “only” documentation (apart from the bugs which I fixed, which were significant but ignored), I was demoted at the Navy guy’s behest to a technical writer with a pay cut. The moral being the same as it was for Hewlitt at GE: if you make a real contribution but in a style different from the corporate culture, you are making people look like idiots. Do NOT expect recognition.

After all, it is “feminine” to be a “tech writer”, and this job has long been separated from the slightly more “masculine” job of programmer despite the fact that the really greatest programmers are also excellent writers.

Hewlitt received no recognition at GE, which was surpassed thirty years on by Hewlitt-Packard and which before Carly Fiorina was a good place to work, since both Hewlitt and Packard (men of my uncle Edward’s “greatest generation”) gave far more than lip service to “management by walking around” and listening to workers. This culture has been completely shredded at American companies today. Even in its time, men who like Hewlitt, Packard and my uncle who were affable and friendly with “mere” workers were considered Bolsheviks by the older generation.

The older generation never got over the Twenties: the subservience of women, workers and blacks, the parties, the apparent prosperity. My uncle was ordered, not asked, to work at Republic steel by his father despite the fact that he wanted to work in retail, and my (unconfirmed) suspicion is that Grandfather thought retail executives and clerks effeminate…anything hinting of homosexuality being completely beyond the pale in their world, of course. In the 1950s the older generation were still complaining about Social Security, unions and blacks.

Their gibbering ghosts seem to be back in control despite the way in which their own children saved their country in the war and built an economy based on some workplace democracy.

In Britain, it’s assumed that National Health needs to be cutback despite the fact that Clement Attlee and the Labour party were able to give it to the British people in a Britain whose economy had regressed in some sectors to the fourteenth century owing to the two world wars.

And world-wide, it is assumed that the unproductive employee is at fault. In my own situation, I was let go with no notice because I’d “disruptively” complained in March about the public posting by a manager of a surreptitious photo of one of her reports last August. I’m now working like Hewlitt and Packard worked in the Thirties, hand to mouth, and I’m much happier, since working full time in cities like Hong Kong and New York is a good way to go broke. I’m going to Italy in the spring to paint…period, because there are no alternatives to following this dream.

I never received any recognition for my contribution at Roosevelt. One literally never does…you have to start your own business, but normally this merely gets you involved with the sharks. A friend told me later that they thanked the person who took over the software and documentation in an article in the university magazine, and that when he asked if they were going to recognize me, he was told to zip up.

But you have the satisfaction of a job well done.

Hewlitt and Packard’s special qualities, and those of my uncle, emerged from an America in which there was no money, so for fun you went camping in the mountains and sat up talking, or you tramped around Italy. Older men such as Fred Terman of Stanford, Hewlitt and Packard’s college professor, were treated with dignity and respect even if they could not hire you, there being no money until the war.

You grew up blowing things up. Hewlitt, Packard, my brother and I could all buy all of the ingredients to make our own gunpowder, firecrackers and simple pipe bombs. Mothers might be dismayed, but my father loved the Fourth of July. As late as 1993, I remember him goin’ nuts with his youngest grandson, watching the fun, whilst Grandma tried to restrain him. My Dad was always safety conscious and a doctor so there were never any accidents.

But by the 1970s, a new spirit of exploitation and anti-innovation was growing. In schools, the high spirits and curiosity of boys was dismissed.

At Motorola in 1979, my supervisor mocked the members of the cellphone software team because of their long hair and desire to show that functionality could be coded as computer instructios rather than being hard wired. To her, business was all about access to powerful men in first and business class, and using buzzwords with them in a sexy voice, then recruiting “bodies”…and making them work in an area where laborers were using .45 calibre blanks to assemble drywall.

I don’t give a flying f**k that she and Fiorina were females. I think the top men of the time appointed the new generation of women to low-level supervisory roles merely to show how “progressive” they were and to remind “mere” computer programmers that they weren’t really men…the generation of women supervisors appointed in the 1970s hit the glass ceiling soon enough, even Carly Fiorina…la Fiorina just made a fool of herself in politics, losing to Barbara Boxer, because there is no future for her in Silicon Valley (she doesn’t even have a proper engineering degree).

This is why American firms are showing mega-profits while people are losing their jobs. The game of cutbacks is almost up and the reckoning is upon us.


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