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
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 here.
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 maintain equipment.
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 you're learning!
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
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 as possible.
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
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 period.
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
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,
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 will
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 arrangements.
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