Automation

As a child I was fascinated with all things electric.  Lights, fans, radios, TVs, toy trains, car batteries, switches, buttons, wires, and transformers on power poles all grabbed my imagination.  My brother Bill had a train set that I endlessly wired and rewired.  I rebuilt his engines, fixed broken motors, and knew where the man at the hobby shop kept the replacement brushes for Bill’s HO gauge model trains.

If it had electrons running through it, I knew how it worked, could strip it down and rebuild it.  When I was asked the famous, “what do you want to be” question, I replied, “I want to do something with electricity.”  I was a smart kid and the school’s tests all showed I had a natural aptitude for math and engineering, so naturally I was given the lecture about doing college prep, working hard on math and science and I’d be a first-rate electrical engineer someday.

By eighteen, I’d taken all the math, science classes they told me to.  On the eve of going to college I found that I didn’t have any money for college. My parents had just gone through a divorce and there was no money left for me.  Father was willing to let me stay home while I went to school, while Mother gave me $2,500.  While I was smart, I never did well in school so there was no chance of me getting scholarships.

There weren’t many options.

In the end I found a local electronics trade school that was willing to give me a student loan.  I found a job as a security guard to pay for my books and after fifteen months of study (because of high school math I was able to test out of a few of the basic classes) I earn a certificate in “Electronic Engineering Technology.”  Because of a quirk in the school’s scheduling I wasn’t able to get into the color TV or FCC license classes I really wanted and ended up taking digital electronics and microprocessor classes instead.

It was this twist of fate that defined my career.  In 1979, microprocessors was a hot technology and when I applied for jobs I suddenly found myself with my computer training to be in high demand.  At 19 I found myself in the middle of a booming Silicon Valley with Apple Computer and other companies on the verge of exploding and radically changing our world.

By the time I was 22, I had doubled my salary, paid off all my student loans and bought a brand new car.  It was a wild time and I earned big dollars.  The new microcomputer business was out to change the world.

And we did.  Massive changes that have changed the fundamental nature of work and society.  It also changed my job and by 1989 I found getting work to be difficult with long periods of unemployment.

I started as a manufacturing test technician.  I tested and repaired computer down to the component level.  In time the computers got smaller with fewer parts to fix and then automated testing machines arrived and that coupled with the need for cheaper labor, drove guys like me off the factory floor.

The technology I had learned in 1978 simply didn’t exist anymore and was rapidly changing.  There was more and more automation and the jobs I used to do – building prototypes, designing circuit boards, troubleshooting – were all slowly replaced by computers and their ability to simulate electronic circuits.  Also by this time there was a general move away from analog electronics and into digital and eventually even digital electronics were replaced by ever faster and ever smaller computer chips.

In 1990, I took a job in at a tech school teaching electronics.  For two years I taught everything I knew about electronics and computers.  I thought I was helping my students start on a great career, until the day that I meet one of my former students in an electronics store.  He was selling computers and struggling to pay off his loans because the need for electronic technicians had fallen and he just couldn’t find a job.

Shortly after that our school closed as students stopped signing up.

It was then that I realized that all that I had learned ten years ago had been replaced by newer, better, faster and smaller computers that were so cheap that repairing them wasn’t economical.  My job, my dream, to “do something with electricity,” was fading.  It was an odd twist, but I started finding my skills being replaced by the computers I’d built.

Driven to bankruptcy, I moved back in with my father and took any job I could find.  One day, while bemoaning my fate, I found a catalog for the local University Extension’s Computer school.  They were offering professional training in a number of things, including “Unix System Administration.”  After a bit of research and discussions with Father, I decided to take the plunge and signed up for the first class.  Father was in better financial shape by this time and he paid my tuition.  I worked full-time and took classes at night.

In time I was able to shift from being hardware technician to software engineer and for the last twenty years have had a good career.  I wish I could say it’s been easy, fun and rewarding.  It hasn’t been.  It’s been hard work and a constant battle to keep learning new things.  The only way to survive this game is to work hard and constantly be learning new technologies.

I started out building data centers, then systems support for software groups, melding my hardware and software back grounds.  Today it’s all done in the “cloud” and I haven’t touched a server or seen the inside of a data center for years.  All this fancy stuff has put more pressure on guys like me as the technology changes faster and faster.

Technology is again on the verge of a new wave of automation and replacing human workers with computers.  Soon our cars will drive themselves and tens of thousands of truck drivers will be out of work.  Computers are learning human speech and thousands of call center employees will be unemployed. Heck, robots have started vacuuming our floors – it won’t be much longer and they’ll be washing windows and cleaning toilets.

and old electronic techs like me will either have to finally retire or learn a new technology stack and excel at it.

In the early days we thought computers would free humans to do bigger and greater things, but these days it sometimes feels like all it’s done is to help the rich get richer and eliminate the jobs that my middle class parents relied on.

Till next week,

Andrew

About Andrew Reynolds

Born in California Did the school thing studying electronics, computers, release engineering and literary criticism. I work in the high tech world doing software release engineering Then I got prostate cancer Now I am a blogger and work in my wood shop doing scroll saw work and marquetry.
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48 Responses to Automation

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  5. artseafartsea says:

    A very interesting read. I enjoyed it. 🙂

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  6. huckfinn47 says:

    Andrew, I just now read this. I like the way you combined your personal story with an analysis of changes within the electronic field and the effects that it had on you and on our culture—and that it will continue to have. Well done!

    Like

  7. restlessjo says:

    Not easy, Andrew, and I don’t have the feeling it’ll get better. You’re a survivor, hon! My son has just gone through a very torrid time. Hopefully he’ll get there 🙂

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  8. Having started in 1968, I can relate to many of your comments. Brought back some good and bad memories. Great read though.

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  9. Debra says:

    This was so interesting to read, Andrew, and I think one thing you make clear is that to succeed in maintaining employment flexibility is required. Giving a little background on how difficult it was for you to even go to college because of financial insecurity, you have really persevered. I recently retired from a university and I think students today have generally figured out that their paths are never going to be certain and they will have multiple careers over their lifetime, but when we entered and graduated college I don’t think we had any idea of how many ways employment would be undermined by shifting needs and certainly could never have imagined the “electronics” we see today. Well done!

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    • The days when a person would learn a trade and stay it for a lifetime left this country decades ago. I learned a long time ago that a career would require near constant change. My colleague are starting to admit that the world has changed, and will keep changing at ever faster rates. I’ve managed to strong arm my way through it and sometimes had to be willing to push hard for what I wanted. I am never sure how well I’ve done, but am still here. Thanks for your kind words.

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  10. Hope says:

    Great post. I liked learning about your technical background. Someday this could be a piece of his-story. lol 🙂

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  11. Nice BLOG!!! ADD my BLOG too!!! Kisses!!!

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  12. inesephoto says:

    Thank you for this retrospective post. I have read about a demographic theory that explains the rapid changes in technology. In short, it says that humanity walks into a different era (time period) when its numbers reach a next billion. The faster the world’s population grows, the sooner a radical change happens. For example, it took 3,4 million years for humanity to grow its first billion during the Stone Age, and only 1000 years during the Middle Age. You can compare the progress, and think about the modern times. Soon we are going to reach 10 billions, and after that everything will change faster than we can follow. What is going to come out of that, we will see.

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  13. Thanks for sharing your journey with us, Andrew. I spent my working life providing power for people and factories to make products, robots to run assembly lines, and Data Centers to collect zeros and ones 24/7/365.

    My advice to today’s youth is to learn a Trade if they are not on a defined career-track. To para-phrase Garret Morris from early SNL, “Electricity has been ‘berry, ‘berry good to me.”
    Ω

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  14. Thanks for sharing your story. I was in the operations and software side of things and yes it was a constant learning curve to keep up. I likening it to surfing a wave. I happened to be in the right place at the right time. Like you had the aptitude needed and worked ridiculous hours. No one else really understood what we were doing but boy I’m so glad to have had the experience.

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  15. As I read your post I wondered how people in the third world countries could possibly move into the 21st century. I sponsor an orphan in Kenya, a terribly poor country. The children do no have access to computers and certainly have no hope of learning to use them…they have countless steps to conquer before they can even think of competing in our world.

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    • That’s a huge problem. I’ve seen a few projects trying to address that, but the problems are big. Admission to the 1st world is some basic infrastructure and computer knowledge. Unless the rich nations decide to fund efforts to do this, it will only happen in limited areas. I know of some projects in the past that brought Kindles to some areas in Kenya and few limited mission efforts to send chromebooks to some areas, but without reliable power, network access, and eduction, these people remain 3rd world and in poverty. Cellphones are more likely to be used as they can be powered by simple solar panels and one cellphone tower can cover thousands of users.

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  16. dorannrule says:

    There is joy and sadness in change, especially change that comes so quickly. I refuse to throw my 1948 Compton’s Encyclopedia away even though it has nothing in it about space travel or computers and even the world maps and boundaries have changed. When job resumes change this radically and so fast, how can we be sure of anything at all? Your bio is stellar Andrew but you shouldn’t have had to go through all that re-training.

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    • I don’t like change for change sake. Some of the changes have been good, but it does require guys like me to agree to a constant level of watchfulness and constant preparing for change. At least it pays well.

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  17. I have a similar reaction to technology in education. I wrote a tech curriculum for K-8 and have to constantly revise it (which is a massive task) because nothing stays the same in how education uses technology. IPads, Chromebooks, robotics, gamification–yikes! I teach collect classes but constantly listen to my students, eager to find out what they think is important.

    My husband worked in telecommunications for a decade and hated every month of it. For the same reasons: Constantly changing. How does one stay abreast of such careers?

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    • As you know technology’s impact on education is massive and going to get more disruptive. I stay ahead by a combination of constantly trying to predict the future and always reading and studying new technologies. I spend a part of every workday reading technology news and often read technical documentation after work. The other key is to always be looking for the next job and preparing yourself to do it. Every 2-3 years I change jobs and every 4-6 years I learn a new technology. My last shift was into cloud computing with AWS. I am hopeful that this will be last shift and my next transition will be to retirement and full time playing with power tools and writing poetry.

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  18. A very well-stated history that serves as an analogy for many fields, even mine, which people seem to think is “recession proof,” but is not.

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  19. I remember the data center with the special force of young men who manned the computers in that room with the extra security on the door. Now it seems that the technology we use on a daily basis is disposable after a maximum of two years. Buy it, toss it. That makes for a strange workplace.

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  20. jfwknifton says:

    I can see now why working in wood must have been a very therapeutic thing to do. Computers will never create things like that. Or great art. Mind you, looking at the present day, we seem to have stopped producing great art anyway.

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    • I started my career by making things and touching real objects. Wood, art, words and creativity have alway been a release from the tensions of work and a way to reconnect my spirit.

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  21. Fascinating story and the minute you bring that computer off the sales floor to your car it is obsolete. You did good in life and worked hard for it. In the end everything works out even though sometimes the outcome are less favorable. Only in later years we may find the answer or a revelation will come forth of how things were made to work out the way they did.
    Computers replacing people is sadly has arrived on our doorstep. I think probably this will implode as there will be nobody who will be able to afford these robots as their jobs have been eliminated Be well my friend

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