September 1957 Radio & TV News
Wax nostalgic about and learn from the history of early electronics.
See articles from Radio &
Television News, published 1919 - 1959. All copyrights hereby acknowledged.
Gaining a design engineering position with Google is (or at least
was) notoriously difficult because of some of the tests that are
administered - depending on the hoped-for job. Skills in logic,
creativity, problem solving, and fundamental mathematics and science
are among the capabilities that must be demonstrated. IBM was known
to have tough entry requirements for customer field service representatives
back in the early days of computers - for technicians as well as
for engineers. "A man who can think his way through a problem can
learn electronics, but a person lacking in analytic abilities will
never be a good service engineer," said an employment manager. Successful
candidates could expect to earn $400/month or more. That was in
1957 dollars, which is $3,400 ($41k/year) in 2014 dollars
BLS inflation calculator) - not too awful. Field-experienced,
well-qualified service engineers earned $500 to $750 per month ($4.2k
to $6.4k per month, or $50k to $77k per year).
Employment in the Computer Field
By William D. Bell
Schooling for trainees includes classroom instruction
using actual computers. ElectroData equipment is in use
Careers for non-engineers in a growing industry: qualifications,
background, training, and tests.
While Ph.D.s, physicists, and specially trained design engineers
are necessary to develop today's electronic computers, a degree
is not necessary to land a job as a field engineer. As a matter
of fact, a technical degree is not only unnecessary but is a positive
handicap in qualifying for most of these service engineering jobs.
Employers do not want design engineers or research scientists to
What the computer industry does want is men with a background
of electronics experience who are interested in becoming field engineers
to maintain the fantastic electronic data-processing machines about
which we hear so much. Here is a prime opportunity for the man who
has made electronics his career, but who has felt handicapped by
his lack of a college degree.
You say you know nothing about computers? That's all right -
if you can qualify there are companies that will give you extensive
training and pay you both a good salary and living expenses while
Such employment offers sound good but are even more impressive
when related to the growing importance of the computer field. The
use of these machines, many believe, will begin the second industrial
revolution. The first industrial revolution freed man from backbreaking
labor by substituting power machinery; the second will free man
from mental drudgery through the use of electronic computers. These
are not philosophical or theoretical statements, but a description
of a future which is already upon us.
A computer can read or write 15,000 or more characters per second;
in the same time a typist makes about 8 characters. Electronic circuits
add 10,000 times in a fleeting second while a girl with a comptometer
is trying to enter one number. These capabilities have begun to
change all aspects of our business world, the way we control manufacturing,
and even our ideas about national defense.
Already over 200 million-dollar computers are in use. By 1966
it is estimated that 10,000 large-scale machines will be in use
plus many more smaller systems. The men who must be trained to keep
these computers running will number tens of thousands.
It is this characteristic of explosively rapid growth in the
computer business which makes today's job opportunities so challenging.
The man who is a trainee today is a full-fledged service engineer
tomorrow, and, if he is competent, soon a supervisor. The rate of
growth within computer companies demands advancing good men as rapidly
A customer engineer, working for IBM, checks out a pair
of magnetic drums that are capable of storing 80,000 digits.
Look at ElectroData as just one example of company growth. In
November, 1952, Consolidated Electrodynamics Corporation set up
a computer division which later became a separate corporation. In
two years, the number of employees grew from 30 to 300. Today ElectroData
is a division of Burroughs and has 1800 employees, of whom 445 are
in the field engineering organization.
While ElectroData is cited to convey some impression of the growth
in this field, it is by no means an isolated case. Other giants
in computers include International Business Machines and Sperry
Rand. The latter is the originator of "Univac," probably the computer
best-known to the man in the street. In addition to these, many
other companies are actively engaged in computer operations.
One of the biggest hiring programs is being conducted by "Project
SAGE," which is an important part of America's air defense. Gigantic
"SAGE" computers will ring the country and compare radar data with
available air-traffic information to guard our frontiers against
surprise attack. IBM has a contract to maintain these "SAGE" computers,
each of which requires 15 service engineers per shift and operates
around the clock. Qualifications for these jobs are essentially
the same as for customer engineers on IBM's standard line of computers.
How to Qualify
What are employers looking for when they hire service engineers?
The most important factor is not electronic knowledge or technical
background. Instead, appearance and personality are the first consideration.
A survey indicates that 65% to 75% of all applicants are rejected
for this single reason. (See "The Men We Hire," page 77.) All companies
consider the service engineer first as a company representative
and second as an electronics man.
Employers agree that the second requirement is the ability to think.
Localizing trouble in a machine with several hundred tubes or transistors,
thousands of crystal diodes, miles of wire, and innumerable resistors
and capacitors is obviously a major problem. All the circuit knowledge
in the world is of no avail unless the engineer can logically analyze
his problem. Hunt-and-try methods, experimentally changing tubes,
and similar radio repair techniques plainly fail in the face of
the sheer size of the computing monster.
The third requirement is circuit knowledge and experience in
dealing with electronic equipment.
Some companies place great emphasis on mechanical ability. A
computer is more than electronic circuits; there are card readers,
tape punches, high-speed printers, magnetic tape units, and other
mechanical contrivances. These peripheral devices may be supplied
by one manufacturer for many systems, even though the computer often
belongs to another manufacturer. Service engineers with both an
electronic background and an aptitude for mechanical equipment are
harder to find than circuit men.
As to age, employers say, "We prefer trainees between 19 and
32 years old."
Computers use the latest components and assembly techniques.
This is a modular "building block," used in the Model 112
computer systems manufactured by Beckman Instruments for
the chemical and petroleum industries.
Most trainees have had some experience in radio and TV. Practically
speaking, radio is of little value: the tuned circuits in the r.f.
section and the linear circuits in the audio amplifier do not have
counterparts in a computer. TV experience is better, primarily because
of the sync circuits involved. The greatest advantage is knowledge
of test equipment, circuit components, and general experience in
dealing with electronic hardware. Companies are willing to hire
service engineers whose sole electronic experience has been in the
TV and radio fields - if their other qualifications are acceptable.
The majority of trainees are hired from one of two sources: ex-servicemen
with military training in electronics or graduates of two-year accredited
trade schools. One or two years of college is considered desirable
by most employers, but, as one manager pointed out, "College experience
is considered as valuable for broadening a man's personality as
for the technical education."
Don't get the idea, however, that employers are not concerned
about technical competence at all. Most give applicants tests to
check their knowledge of electricity, electronics, and, in IBM's
case, mechanics also. All of the questions could be answered by
a first-year college man studying physics and electronics, or by
someone who has studied the subjects in a technical institute or
has equivalent background. Some typical questions may be helpful
to the prospective applicant. In one example, the series-parallel
resistor network shown in Fig. 1A is given, and values are given
for E1 and R1 through R6, The applicant
is then asked to give the voltage drop across R6 and
the value of the current through it.
In another example, the applicant is asked to identify the tube
type represented in Fig. 1B.
Fig. 1. Job applicant tests involve these drawings, referred
to in text.
In addition to the technical test, most employers give a quiz
in logic or reasoning. Not correlated to previous training, this
tests the applicant's ability to think his way through unfamiliar
problems. He may be confronted with three figures such as those
shown in Fig. 1C. He is then asked to draw a figure related to object
"3" in the same way as object "2" is related to object "1." In another
example, he is presented with the following sequence of numbers:
16, 17, 14, 15, 12. He may then be presented with the following
statement and question: "Reading from left to right, this series
of numbers is constructed according to some rule. What are the next
two numbers in the series ?"
Much more importance is attached to the logical tests than to
the technical exams. A man who can think his way through a problem
can learn electronics, but a person lacking in analytic abilities
will never be a good service engineer. The employment manager of
one company says, "One applicant in five passes our electronics
test, but only one in twenty passes both quizzes!"
If you are a successful applicant for a maintenance engineering
job, your new employer will put you through an extensive educational
program that may last from 4 to 9 months. Instructors are excellent
and the latest teaching aids are used. This education would cost
an individual thousands of dollars if he had to pay for it himself.
Companies estimate that a trained man, ready to accept responsibilities
in the field, has cost them $5000 to $12,000 upon completion of
the education program. In addition to this training, most companies
pay per diem living expenses as well as salary during the training
The first thing the trainee must learn is the overall organization
of the electronic computer and how it operates. The "how" involves
the "commands," or the programming instructions, which control the
machine operations. Put in another way, the trainee must learn to
speak the computer's language.
Once programming of the machine is mastered, the next step is
to understand the circuitry which translates a program instruction
into a series of coded, timed pulses which generate the required
action within the machine. Since computers are essentially pulse-controlled
devices, the kinds of circuits which are studied include pulse generators,
wave-shaping circuits, triggers, flip-flops, and electronic gates.
A field engineer uses a scope to study pulses in a Datatron
computer, made by the ElectroData Division of Burroughs.
The most difficult part of the educational program is learning
the logics of the machine. Instead of a circuit diagram showing
tubes, resistors, transformers, and the like, the computer engineer
works with logical diagrams which show the functional parts of the
machine as symbols representing gates, inverters, flip-flops, and
A subject which is new to most trainees is Boolean algebra, which
is a mathematics of logic. This technique permits expressing the
logical, functional operations of the computer in terms of equations.
Once learned, the Boolean technique is a superior method of analyzing
machine troubles. Not all companies, however, use Boolean algebra
for service engineering.
On the Job
Once training is completed, engineers are assigned responsibility
for maintaining equipment in the field. Typically, several engineers
report to a working supervisor. When new systems are delivered to
customers, there is the big job of connecting all of the subassemblies,
checking out all operations, and, finally, turning over the machine
to the customer. The more usual job is the day-to-day operations
necessary to guarantee an efficiently running machine. About 1 hour
during or before a shift will be spent on preventive maintenance,
which involves making marginal checks by varying voltages and other
circuit parameters and by running "diagnostic" routines, which are
programs that logically check all of the different machine functions
and print out results that expose the malfunction of any part of
the machine. The rest of the working day is devoted to aligning,
adjusting, and performing other maintenance functions on peripheral
equipment which can be released from the main computer operation,
overhauling plug-in components which have failed and been removed,
doing advanced computer study, developing new analytic techniques,
and maintaining operational reports.
Of course, the service engineer really goes to work when the
machine breaks down unexpectedly. Something within the computer
fails - checking circuits or the machine program automatically find
the error, recovery procedures fail to correct the difficulty, and
the machine stops, with a glowing red light on the console which
shouts trouble! Operating personnel stand about with folded hands,
scheduled work is delayed, and money is going down the drain at
a rate of hundreds of dollars per hour. This is the time when the
service engineer really earns his money. His ability to find the
trouble and put the machine back in business determines the over-all
efficiency of an installation and the satisfaction of the customer
with the equipment.
What is claimed to be the world's largest magnetic tape
plant has been put into 24-hour-a-day production by the
Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Co. in St. Paul, Minn.
Built and maintained almost like a hospital in order to
achieve near-sterile conditions required for producing magnetic
tape for such critical applications as video tape recording,
electronic computers and instrumentation recording, the
plant incorporates many unusual production line features.
Shown in the photo is the isolated packaging area where
10½" reels of "Scotch" brand tape are packaged and
demagnetized by a continuous belt. Under the table is an
electromagnet for bulk-erasing to provide tape signal free
for most critical applications.
The better the preventive maintenance, the fewer unexpected breakdowns
Obviously, the service engineer plays a very important part in
computer operations. We asked many supervisors the question, "How
long does a man have to work in the field to become a truly competent,
well-rounded service engineer?" There was general agreement on the
answer: "Two or three years, in most cases."
Finally-what about pay? Field engineering jobs are salaried positions.
While there are variances among companies, trainees are usually
hired at $325 to $450 per month. Some employers are more liberal
than others in recognizing previous experience in establishing a
flexible starting salary. After training, $400 to $500 is a typical
bracket of salaries paid. For field-experienced, well-qualified
service engineers the range is $500 to $750. Supervisory and administrative
salaries go to $1000 per month. Fringe benefits include overtime
pay, insurance plans, retirement funds, paid vacations, and military-leave
Advancement within the company is stressed by all employers,
and the door is open to management, sales, design engineering, and
manufacturing positions to those who prove their abilities and have
interest in these areas.
In this day of engineering shortages, there are employment opportunities
that pay more for starting jobs. However, if you are looking to
the future, today's needs in the computer industry present a rare
chance to improve your electronic knowledge and get in on the ground
floor of a skyrocketing new industry.
Posted August 6, 2014