Bob Thomas: Hated tasks can be blessings in disguise
December 13, 2012
As an aside: “There are always a few who go the extra mile. Art Hannafin was one of those few.” — Bob ThomasSometimes when writing this column I revert to personal experiences to which I believe some of you can relate. You know, these are things where you might say, “Yeah, that happened to me, too.” Today I’m going back to when I graduated from UCLA in 1950 and went to work at North American Aviation as a fledgling engineer. Now, in a way this was oxymoronic because in those days no accredited university taught anything related to aircraft engineering and yet here we were. Incredibly, the vast majority of seasoned aircraft engineers, the ones who created our WWII birds, were industry-trained. Most had zero college degrees.So what did we learn in college? How to design boilers, bridges, power plants, heating and air conditioning, building structures etc. None of those flew very well. Being a WWII pilot and, as a youngster, a model airplane designer, plus six semesters of design drafting in high school, I naturally opted for the aircraft industry. Educationally, things were so bleak that Northrop Aircraft Company (my future employer) opened its own Northrop Technical Institute for its engineers to attend at night. I later took full advantage of that. Actually, I really thought music would be my lifetime career. While in college I made super good money playing trumpet in several dance bands and the movie studios, but that couldn’t last and I knew it. TV killed ballroom dancing. People stayed home. And Elvis and the Beatles changed music.Now for the hated part: The new “aerospace” division of the aircraft industry was having severe difficulties with electronic packaging. Electronic engineers designed dreadful packages for their circuits. Modules fell apart when tested to withstand shock and vibration. Moreover, the undersides looked like bowls of spaghetti, wires running every which way. So somebody got the wild idea that we mechanical engineers should live with our electrical counterparts until we mechanical guys absorbed enough electronic witchcraft to package the stuff properly.Talk about fate’s fickle finger: At UCLA, I studiously avoided anything electrical. To me, electrical engineering students were nerds. They chased electrons. Hell, nobody can even see electrons. And now I’ve got to learn circuit schematics and wiring diagrams. There were six of us chosen for this hateful project but, I must admit, it worked! The two disciplines reluctantly merged well enough over six weeks that our electronic packages passed every diabolical reliability test.At the conclusion of that adventure I was assigned to the missile guidance system group where I was able to immerse myself in some great theoretical engineering, working directly for an MIT physicist, a Dr. Horsefall. It was my job to translate his thinking into prototype hardware. He was extremely bright and I learned things of which I had never dreamed. I’ve often thanked my lucky stars for that association. In 1964, when my four partners and I founded our own electronic instrument company I was our only mechanical engineer, so guess who ended up designing our electronic instrument packages. Dj vu. What goes around comes around. Our chief engineer was mainly electronics and he was far too busy to mess with packaging. Two partners were chemical engineers and the other was our accountant-lawyer. I wore three hats in those days: mechanical engineer, president (CEO) and sales manager, sales taking most of my time.For the first 18 months we paid ourselves zero salaries. Three of my partners had to put their wives to work, remortgage their homes and sell their second cars. We borrowed zero money. We sold no stock. Our first customer was Pacific Telephone (Ma Bell) whose payment policy, thank God, was within 10 days of billing. In 1965, by the end of our 18-month dry spell, we had money in the bank and began paying salaries, and we never looked back. Were we successful? Yes, no doubt about it. Our company is now a division of Emerson, a Fortune 500 company. Lesson learned? We never know when we’ll once again need that which was gained from tasks we hated doing. • Bob Thomas is a retired high-tech industrialist who later served on the Carson City School Board, the state welfare board, the airport authority and as a state assemblyman. His website is http://www.worldclassentrepreneur.com.