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,