A Working Life Chapter 1

Life was easy back then. It wasn’t simple, but it was easy.

I am in  my mid-60’s now, and grateful.  I worked through one of the most interesting and transformational periods in the history of the United States. I think there were two periods, and they ran sequentially, without a break. My father lived through one, and I, through the next.  Now, I think we are on the edge of a third. The first was built on blood and steel, the second on the wave pushed up by the first, sustained by silicone and software. The one to come, I think, will happen as the wave crashes and falls.  I hope as it dissipates, the released energy will power our growth instead of smashing what lies in its path. I am not confident.

I can’t see any historical period where so much happened so fast to those who invent things, and those work in factories making them, and those who fight to preserve, and take them away.  I was lucky, and lived through the best of it. I worked with fascinating people in Asia, the U.S, Europe, South America and the Middle East on interesting projects in plastics, automotive, aerospace, foundries, steel, smelters, electronics and mining. I learned a lot in spite of myself. I Have earned enough to consider myself fortunate, lost it all, then earned enough back; not nearly what I had, but enough.

I thought I was lucky to see the world while helping engineers.  What I really saw was an evolutionary change that few are aware of, but everyone is feeling and fears. My father saw the beginning.

My father was educated in a one-room school house in Colorado, near the New Mexico border.  His family was poor, but it was a good family.  The one room adobe school was at the end of a dirt road at the base of a rock-strewn mountain.  There was no electricity until the mid-30’s, and kids from a long way off walked or rode horses to school, including a girl who was a descendant of Kit Carson, who my dad had a crush on.  Nearby, my father and his brothers took a horse-drawn wagon to a spring to fetch water for the school and their home. After the three of them left for the war, my grandmother, Mollie, and my grandfather, Sam, had a hired man fetch water with a truck. As a boy, Uncle John was charged with chasing the skunks out from under the school.  He got twenty-five cents for each pelt if properly tube-skinned. My dad lit the stove while John shot skunks, as he knew how to drop them with a .22 round before they sprayed.

The twenty or so kids had the same teacher from grades 1-8.  She clearly did a good job. These kids went on to do well in engineering, medicine, and life, but there was a war to fight along the way. Uncle John, joined the Army Air corps, my father went into the Navy, and Uncle David, the Marines.  Between them, they had over 25 battle stars, my father and Uncle David, for Iwo Jima, while David landed on the beach and my dad was on a battleship 1000 yards off shore, his younger brother running up that deadly beach. Uncle John flew over Asia and Europe. They were the first Allen’s outside the United States (unless you count Texas) since the first one set foot in North Carolina in the 1660’s.  My grandfather, Samuel Ross Allen, was born in Belton, Texas, in 1888, and, to the best of my knowledge, never went beyond Texas, New Mexico, or Colorado.  He was a poor dust bowl farmer with a large family, and died at 58.

I was nothing like my father.

I knew little of his life and his culture. I didn’t ask, and he didn’t volunteer. I knew nothing about hard work at an early age, and I knew nothing about working for food in a dusty field.  I knew nothing about thinking that a war was a way to get out of chasing cows on the back of a horse in a snow storm, wearing nothing but a flannel shirt stuffed with paper in a futile attempt to keep warm.  My generation went to war under justifiable protest, and his, because it was the right thing to do. There was a wedge between generations, generations that came to look at the the same things, but never to see them the same way. Mine is arrogant enough to think it is always right, never taking the time to imagine what it was like to walk a mile in their shoes.  We are, frankly, selfish and narrow minded, no matter how much we prattle on about diversity, inclusiveness and more day care centers and money for education, without ever asking how and why a one room school house worked so well.

Compared to him, I was weak. I grew up feeling that I deserved things. Life came easy for me and my generation, but I thought it was BECAUSE of me.  My father and I didn’t get along well.  We fought a few times.  I was hit with an open hand a few times, took it and stared back. Once, he hit me with a fist, and I hit him back. Then I took a beating. I don’t remember what it was about, but I was hard to handle. The time came for me to keep my head down, then get away.  I was 18, and a week after I finished high school, I was in the Navy. It was 1968.

The U.S. Navy had modern submarines and ships, but an aircraft carrier, two battleships, and a few destroyers were left over from World War II, with plenty of ammunition to fire from 5 and 16 inch guns into Vietnam. IMG_0023

I was a good submariner, but not much of a sailor. I learned a lot, the technology was easy and interesting, but like most things, it took me years to figure out just what I had learned and its value. I was a boy running a nuclear power plant. When I look back, I am surprised at the effectiveness of training which can teach boys to do such things, and do them well. The United States Navy had the best and most effective training I have ever seen. I tried to emulate what I had learned to teach engineers as I moved on. It became part of me. I hope the training is as good today. I suspect it is better, as today they teach kids like my niece to run machines on ships at sea far more sophisticated.

It was hard to be a good sailor or soldier then.  It was difficult to wear a uniform that set you apart from those who had been your peers, but whom you could never be like again. You saw things different, but I never saw them like my father did. I respected the Navy, loved my country and its people, but have come to fear my government. I learned that governments do two things well; take your money and take your life.  I have seen man’s inhumanity to his fellow man.  It is independent of race and culture. There are a few tasks we are stuck having government do.  I prefer to keep it to as few as possible, because I expect little, and fear the motive. I trust people in a factory far more.

 

I left the military, went to college, got an engineering degree, mostly paid for by the G.I. Bill, a bill intended for guys like my father and his brothers.  I deserved it, I thought. I was able to make my way through school without taking any money from my father, but it was easy to get a part-time job that paid enough to get by, and to drink plenty of beer on weekends.  A good education was cheap back then. You didn’t have to borrow money. A few years later, I spent more on day-care than I had on college tuition. I thought it was the way it was supposed to be, but had no idea it was because of guys like my father, and a post-war economy that wouldn’t last. In retrospect, I feel naive, but at least I think about it more than the people we elected. I know; that’s a low bar.

I graduated in the spring of 1977, looked in the local newspaper, The Erie Times, circled a few ads, applied to about ten jobs, and was offered more than one.  Getting a job was easy back then. I took a job at an interesting company, for $13,000 a year.  I bought a car, with payments of $79 a month.  I rented an apartment, and by the time I was 30, bought a house for $32,000, and was soon earning $30,000 a year.  Earning your age meant you had “made it,” that you were on your way.  This reinforced that I was getting what I was due.  I deserved it, by God!

I was smart, and learned quickly, but so were a lot of other guys.  Smart guys were easy enough to find. Yes, it was guys.  There were hardly any women running factories in those days.  There were a lot of black guys working in them, but few were helping to run them.  One black guy, the next door neighbor when I was a boy, had a high level job at GE.  He was an extraordinary man, in a world of smart guys. He had to be. We should have found a way to include minorities before the government got involved.  We would all have ended up much better off.  A good capitalist should have done it for no other reason than minorities and women buy stuff and see things in a different way. Seeing things different from the way I do is interesting to me. Even today, I don’t spend much time hanging around guys like me. What’s the point? Seeing things in different ways has become part of me.

If you just showed up at work back then, put in a little effort, you could make a good living. I was making my way up the middle class, a place I thought I deserved.  There were workers in the factory who could support a family, maybe not so well, but the work was dependable even if some of it a drudge.

My first job was an easy place to work for me, but once again, I didn’t know it.  We mostly made plastic milk crates in several cities in the U.S., with a few clever twists, and knew we would make a few more every year.  Brad, the guy who took the company over from his father was strange, but clever.  He was also smart, but clever matters more than smart. He was a good man, but haunted in more ways than one. Life has taught me that haunted people are often the most clever among us. So has history.

Brad was one of a very few haunted men, who I think, clever enough to develop a good idea, hire a few smart guys, build a factory or two, and keep it going.  He thought he had something to prove to himself. You try to prove something to yourself, do it, then change the criteria. It’s nigh impossible to do enough to prove enough to ourselves if we are haunted.

There were lots of guys like me, smart, young, who were able to keep the place running, week after week, and year after year.  We didn’t need to be clever. We just wanted a little more.

 

The older I get, the more fondly I think of Brad, and what I learned from him. He certainly is unforgettable.  He hired people who could really sell, and he knew how important it was. I remember, one day, sitting in his office in Los Angels with a few other guys talking about ways to spend his money on some silly project.  Brad half-listened, jumping up and down, sliding the glass partition open and shut to order Suzie to do some damn thing, breathing hard, and snapping his teeth.  The harder he breathed, the closer he was to saying something.

“Nothing happens until something is sold.”  That’s all he said. I had no idea what in hell he was talking about at the time.  I do now. Go sell it, whatever IT was, then do it. Sell it first.

Now, in my own little company, I try to get a purchase order for one dollar. If I can do that, I can get another, and another.  I watch others flail away trying to make a million dollars, while I want to earn a buck.    Way back then, I resented the sales guys.  After all, they weren’t as smart as I was. They just dressed better, and were all better looking guys.  But they could sell, and nothing happened until something was sold.  If they didn’t sell, there was nothing for me to do. Brad knew it, and knew how to hire the right guys to sell. To me, I still thought in terms of what was fair…fair to me.

Brad had a few other clever ideas. One was crazy.  He decided to buy a business that was making components for hard drives in the days when it was a new product.  He was also crazy enough to give me the most senior manufacturing management job.  I had no idea what in hell I was doing, and was too foolish to admit it.  If I had, there were guys to help, like Tim and Mike. However, I was lucky, and learned a lot, especially from a couple of guys in the tool room.  I was able to put what I learned to good use in the next few years.  I was lucky.

We were machining parts for one gigabyte hard drives back then, that were as big as apartment-size washing machine, selling for $40,000.  Today I can give away a 128 gig thumb drive with my company logo for customers to hook onto a key chain.

In Brad’s primary business, the one before he decided to buy the company that made hard drives, you could project sales for the next year based on the last. It was easy, and you weren’t likely to be far off, so at the end of the year, you could easily congratulate yourself about how smart you were.

I was just learning to use an electronic spreadsheet back then. I remember working with Alan to figure out what it meant to “replicate” numbers and formulas down a column.  A year or so before that, I was using thirteen column green accountants paper to project (guess) at budgets. The speed at which you could make a change was based on how fast you could use an eraser, pencil and a calculator.

Electronic spreadsheets are something my father never learned. It involved typing and he wanted nothing to do with it. When I was in about the 9th grade, I signed up for Personal Typing. When my father found out, he said, “No son of mine is going to learn to type,” and threatened to pull me out. How was I supposed to know that Real Men Don’t Type?

Nothing came of it, but I made sure I didn’t get a good grade.  I only took the class because Jim, Mark and I thought there were lots of pretty girls in there. I think my father must have feared that any desire to learn to type meant that I was sweet on Jim or Mark. Years later, when Dad took a job in San Francisco for the Southern Pacific Railroad and had a gay secretary, I reminded him of that episode.  He was far more tolerant at that stage in his life, but clearly had hoped I had forgotten.

Neither Brad, Mike nor I had any idea that everything we were machining for hard drives would be obsolete in 6 months.  We had no idea that the business, that business in general, would change so fast. We should have. The sales and profit projections on that new spreadsheet thing were silly. Not only did we need to learn to make and sell things as they were being invented, we had to have access to clever people, and lots of them, to do it. Then it wasn’t the sales guys that mattered as much as the engineers who could change the factory around on a dime, and make a profit with increasing competitive pressure.  We didn’t have it. I didn’t know it then.

I think Brad learned, slowly, to face his own shortcomings, and came to depend on Mike to compensate. Brad came to trust Mike, who was smart, and worthy of Brad’s trust.  Mike became clever. Mike didn’t gossip with those who didn’t matter.  He had a level of humility, or at least exhibited it, that was beyond his years. Clever, I think, is latent, not learned, but must be developed and fostered to flourish.  Mike pulled it off. I wonder if he knew what he was doing at the time. I didn’t.

Manufacturing and industry were on the cusp of a revolution.  The products made in the USA were going to change and change fast.  I had no idea what was to come.  I don’t think Bill Gates, Andy Grove or Steve Jobs did either. They had clever ideas; extraordinary ideas.  Were they also haunted?  Jobs was.  It was to be the best of times, and the worst of times. Things happened, and a lot of people suffered while many got rich. Although techies got rich, not many got into the middle class as a result of what was to happen. Politicians took credit for the best, and blamed capitalism for the worst. It happened fast. I know what happened, and why.  Politicians don’t.

I was in the deep end of the pool then, in over my head, at least then, and so were a lot of other people. I was escorted to the door, lucky or smart enough to know some of what I didn’t know, determined to move on, to learn and to protect myself. I did learn or develop this thing called clever, and ultimately find my place. Maybe clever comes from failure. I did fail, but learned to fail and fail fast, then move on. My place was in the factory, a place I liked, and learned to be among the best in a very narrow field.  I was no manager, no general manager.  I am a specialist, in a field that has only a few.  It wasn’t so much that I wanted to be the best, it was that I liked factories, liked making things, liked making them run better, and and was liked with the people who worked there. Factory people are special.  They are the reason there is a middle class.  They really do add value. I know it, and I help.

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The New Science of Fixing Things

We got good at it.  It was fun. We got to be the best.

Chapter 2 A Japanese Machine Tool Company  soon

Chapter 3 An introduction to Consulting  a little later…

Chapter 4 Founding a Consulting Company..after that..

Chapter 5 The New Science of Fixing Things  A project or two

 

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4 thoughts on “A Working Life Chapter 1

  1. My favorite fortune cookie: “Cleverness is serviceable for all things, sufficient for nothing.” It was tacked up by my writing desk for years until it disintegrated.

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