IN THIS CHAPTER:
- HR grading
- Living by the foil
- Back-door knowledge
- Learning products
- European differences
- The Big Orange
- TI99 series
- The big picture
In 1978 the two owners of KeyMed had decided to sell off the industrial arm of the business, which I had painstakingly spent several years establishing and expanding for them. Frustratingly they did a deal for it with their main supplier, Olympus. They used this negotiation to improve the potential for their pre-existing medical division. The clue was always there in the company name I guess, but it didn’t make it any more acceptable.
They did have the ‘decency’ to suggest that if I had any business idea that they might back me. In my Hugin days I had early contact with microprocessors and software, and my travels for KeyMed meant I had seen and become aware of early computer stores and computer kits in the States. I suggested a venture into home computing, but they were not keen.
I therefore wrote to the UK managing director of Texas Instruments, Robb Wilmott, and said I believed they would soon enter the home computer business and that I wanted to be part of it. Robb called me in to a meeting at a London hotel and exhibited some paranoia, asking how I had heard about this, I said it was just my personal surmise. We chatted about my ideas for home computing. He finished our meeting by formally denying TI had any plans to enter the field, but then blew this apart by asking me to fly down to TI’s European HQ at Villeneuve-Loubet, equidistant between Cannes and Nice.
ASIDE: While waiting for the meeting with Robb in the hotel I asked the hall porter if he could get me the hot ticket for the original run of Evita and he did (more later).
On arriving at the Euro-HQ I was interviewed and became the UK Personal Computer Manager for TI UK based out of Bedford. They revealed plans for three key products – a games console codenamed 99/1, a home computer the 99/4, and a small business computer codenamed 99/7. They were all end products applying the TI TMS 9900 microprocessor, the first 16-bit chip that would reach the market shortly.
My job was to complete the consumer research for 99/1 and 99/4, investigate and arrange to have developed suitable software and then launch the products. TI, by nature a semi-conductor manufacturer, had established a consumer division for its calculators and learning products, so my personal computer activity was placed within this team.
I was later attending a pan-European meeting of the freshly appointed European personal computer managers at Villeneuve and it meant I would now be away for those Evita tickets I had obtained. My daughter had regularly played the 1976 concept-album for the show, and knew every word of every song, so we agreed she should go with Jane, job done.
It had become a bit of a thing when visiting Villeneuve, that you often finished early and could try to catch an earlier flight home. This is what happened, I delightedly managed to switch my ticket to an earlier flight and thus might just make it into central London in time to see the show. But I was faced with a dilemma when Robb Wilmott, who had been attending another meeting, arrived at the airport looking to do the same thing. RHIP (rank hath its privileges) but I managed to duck and dive to avoid him – sorry Robb!
I got to the Prince Edward theatre early and looked around for a tout. I explained my wife and daughter would be arriving with two great tickets and I wanted to swap these for three fair-to-also-ran seats. He was merciless in his demands and we stood near each other knowing that we had unfinished business. I spotted Jane and Sarah arriving, Sarah in her best frock, she was nine years old. Fortunately, the tout saw the same expression on Sarah’s face when she saw me. Crestfallen doesn’t quite express it well enough, she was desolated (preparing her for becoming French years later, an early lesson in je suis desolé). As he had seen it, the tout showed he had a heart and gave me a reasonable deal on the three-for-two. Sarah sang every tune with the cast much to the delight of us and an American woman sat on the other side of her.
I have to ‘fess up to a lie or what I would prefer to call an obfuscation. All TI staff had a personnel grade, I believe mine was initially to be a 28, and at that level you had to have a degree, I didn’t (see later, I did one in my late sixties). Avoiding this issue for some weeks Dallas eventually caught up with me and asked me what degree I had. I carefully explained I had studied for an HND in Electrical Engineering, I never said I achieved it, and definitely did not mention that I had left after the first year. The HR member asked me what an HND was and I fibbed to suggest it was a rather more technical and practical version of a degree. She had what she needed and that box on my personnel file was ticked and we all moved on.
Living by the foil
Those trips to Euro-HQ had all sorts of lessons for someone who had not before worked for an American corporate. We lived by the ‘foil’, TI’s name for an overhead transparency. It soon became apparent to me that some of the middle management only ever produced foils and did little to push the notions expressed in them any further. I would later appoint an assistant who I tasked with producing the foils, so I could actually get some work done.
These foils had a whole folklore, you should have a set number per minute of presentation, there should only be a limited number of lines and quantity of text, anything underlined in red indicated a problem… There was a dictionary-full of mnemonics that were used constantly. At one stage in a mini-rebellion I invented one, ‘NME’, that I used before explaining it meant ‘enemy’ or competition, yes, it was a tumbleweed moment – Texas?
But I was delighted to attend the all-time-best foil presentation at Villeneuve. TI had an electronic watch production line in Rieti in Italy. The guy in charge of that plant was coming to explain why his factory had missed production targets by over a million watch units!
The presentation was to a senior manager, Maurice Chang, who had flown in from Dallas. Maurice was known for dissecting foil presentations and getting to the pith quickly and incisively. All presenters had no more than five minutes to show their good or bad news. We all sat waiting with bated breath for the Italian factory boss.
The guy walked out in front of us and threw his hands wide. He had good English but in perfect music-hall Italian said, ‘So we have-a da problem’. He then rapidly went through the densest set of foils I had ever seen, and so quickly that it was impossible to focus on what any of it actually meant. He sat down without any questions raised!
The guy I worked most closely with on this project, Roger, had previously been a management systems guy. They were the globe-trotting, big-drinking team, that everyone envied. Roger explained that while with them he had been part of a ring that enjoyed skiing near the Rieti plant, so they inserted some code into the plant’s management systems that went haywire every 28th February, prompting the leap-year as a possible explanation. The team arrived at the office on that day with all their ski gear and waited on the emergency call to go and sort out the plant’s systems, something they knew they could do in seconds. They flew down and spent as many days as they could spin it out for – now perhaps you can see why we envied them.
Mind you I could have killed Roger in our shared office when he was tasked with creating the sound used for the ballistic travel of a shell in Computer Battleships. I think he was tweaking and playing the damned sound every few minutes for several weeks. It came with a noise for its flying through the air then either a splash for a miss or an explosion for a successful hit, it was pure mental torment.
But then Roger had one massive benefit. All staff had a TWX code that the computer systems recognised and wherever you were you could access your messages, remember this was 1978, only seven years after the first email on ARPANET and fifteen years before it had taken off. The then President of TI stated that he didn’t like surprises, he had a bubble-memory computer with him at all times so there was no excuse for him to have any.
Dallas would communicate any news and developments directly with the Euro-HQ. Then Villeneuve would kick it around a bit, then insert their own spin on it before sending it on to us. But Roger could get me access to what Nice saw, as they saw it. Of course, as with Churchill and the enigma code-cracking, we had to be doubly careful what we said as a result, constantly reminding ourselves what we should know and what we did know. In 2002 Donald Rumsfeld, then US Secretary of Defense, stumbled over this sort of thing and was lampooned for it. He said, ‘There are known knowns. There are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we now know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we do not know we don’t know.’ In his defence (or defense?), scientific research is often, of course, based on investigating known unknowns.
There was a second strand to this back-door grapevine. The company was a semi-conductor company and the semi-conductor team developing the 9900 series, at the heart of our new products, were usually better informed than us on progress. We also some limited access to their comms, otherwise we could get them drunk in a face-to-face. The favourite tipple was Margaritas – Texas again?
Being in the Consumer Products division provided fun too. When they introduced the Little Professor, a fun calculator to drill children in arithmetic. The designers had included a small pad of paper and pencil for the child to do the ‘Math’ before checking it on Little Professor.
In those days in the UK, many companies used Boots the Chemist as their quality assurance team. They were widely appreciated as rigorous, so why do it yourself? The sample Little Professor we supplied to them, came back with a report that the paint on the pencil had four times the permitted levels of lead. The whole team had to spend a day and evening opening every product pack to throw away each pencil, we didn’t replace it.
TI’s Learning Products – Little Professor, Spelling B and Speak ‘n’ Spell
On another occasion we had to test an early-American prototype of Spelling B, another calculator-like learning product where you had a picture book. The child looked at the picture and then had to key in the word they believed it displayed. There were a number of choices that made clear the USA and UK were indeed separated by a common tongue (GBS?). The first was this slow-moving creature which we instantly identified as a ‘tortoise’ and had to work out that any self-respecting American saw the picture as a ‘turtle’. But the one that defeated us completely was a guy who vaguely looked as if he was Elizabethan walking on a beach, we tried various Elizabethans, none of us Brits came up with ‘pilgrim’.
I was to be on a busy commuter train travelling in to London for the launch of Speak ‘n’ Spell at the South Bank. This disembodied voice from my briefcase kept saying things like ‘Spell Elephant’ to the packed carriage, it was sufficiently disembodied that I could ignore it and my fellow passengers weren’t too sure where it was coming from. [Note: never did understood how a spelling teaching device could use ‘N and not and.]
In much the same way we learned much about our personal computer products by default too. We learned that if you wanted to operate internationally in all European languages then you needed to allow a further 25% for the text to be represented in German.
We also discovered the impact of different power systems – 120v/60Hz in the States, 220v/50Hz in Europe and 240v/50Hz in the UK. Some of the early software had chosen to use the power frequency as its time-base, thus had been developed to run on 60Hz. When they were run in Europe at our 50Hz you could hit every alien because they moved at 5/6ths their intended speed.
We used hall research to gauge consumer attitudes. This proved fascinating, for example we recruited people off the street and, without explaining anything, asked them if they would buy a home computer, most said no. Then we would explain what it might be able to do, most said they would buy in to those notions. Then we gave them a range of prices to see at which points they would still be interested. The big question was, what would the killer-app prove to be, not that we had any idea of that term back then.
We also consulted with specialist experts under NDAs (non-disclosure agreements). These included people from the British Heart Foundation for fitness programs, Magnus Pyke the TV nutritionist for health programs, Linguaphone for language courses, and so on.
Villeneuve-Loubet was one thing, but Lubbock was quite another level.
The personal computer division had been placed out in the heart of the panhandle of Texas at Lubbock TX. This area had been founded by the Compromise of 1850 following the Mexican War and this had expanded Texas along the Rio Grande.
TI had come here because of the allure of ready recruits and low salaries, but it was no Silicon Valley. Others on the team had not given it much of a recommendation, the usual comment was that ‘Lubbock was not the end of the world, but you could see it from there’ or that ‘happiness was seeing Lubbock disappearing in your rear-view mirror’.
If I set off with negative thoughts, then my journey rather confused them. I flew the Big Orange, Braniff, and the main movie they showed was The Buddy Holly Story which was how I learned Buddy came from Lubbock TX. While hanging around in Dallas airport the buzz was that the Shah of Iran had just been deposed and was headed for Lubbock Texas, his son served at a USAF base near there. So, from being the end of the world, it was suddenly at its cultural-political centre.
The Big Orange
The reason I was hanging around Dallas airport was Braniff’s fault, they got me in so late that I missed my connection – albeit by the smallest of margins. The crew aboard assured us that international passengers with connections were monitored and they would hold the plane for a late incoming international flight.
We landed, I got my luggage surprisingly promptly, and ran the whole way to my gate, I was younger then. I found the flight still there, the steps still in place and the door open, but the ground staff would not let me through. I could only watch it depart, then demanded to see their Customer Services Manager.
He was a piece of work. I patiently explained that with a little bit of extra care his team could have ensured that I caught the connection. His first gambit was ‘We’re the on-time airline and it had to get away on time’. I gently pointed out that my two experiences, the incoming flight and the connection, were both late so his claim from my perspective sounded a little hollow. He then asked, ‘What do you want me to do, cry on your shoulder?’ I was stunned. He continued ‘Have you read the ticket T&Cs, we don’t guarantee anything’, I stammered ‘Sorry, are you really the Customer Services Manager?’
He shrugged and played his trump card, ‘Look some people don’t appreciate my style, as a Texan I shoot straight from the hip, say it how it is, if you want, I can get someone else to help you?’ I don’t know where my inner Englishman sprang from, but I heard myself saying ‘No, I was content to deal with him’, when inside I wanted to strangle him. You just have to admire his technique!
When I finally got to Lubbock there was an unpleasant smell as we exited the aircraft, and I asked someone what it was. He said, ‘that’s the smell of greenbacks on the hoof, boy’. The stockyards were nearby, the stock knew what was coming and dropped their load.
ASIDE: This reminds me that, while there, I bought an aerosol can promoted as a ‘Bullshit repellent’, for spraying purveyors of claptrap, perhaps I should have tried it on the ambient smell. On that trip I also acquired several pads of illustrated Post-its, sort of mini Impakt stationery. My favourite said, ‘From the desk of the Memo Monster’.
The PC team was surprised to find the prospectus for the Lubbock plant, produced to lure individuals from Santa Clara in California to work in the panhandle. In it there was a picture of a tree. In our time off we sought it out and failed to discover one, we were reliably advised that it was about one hundred miles out of town.
While there I also met my first working robot. The site was all on one level which helped the robot’s cause. It was a mail-bot, a little box-like device into which senders could insert internal and external mail and key in a simple destination code. The bot followed a UV spray in the carpet along a fixed route and passed through a series of nodes, if one of these was a keyed destination it would sit there beeping until someone nearby fetched the envelope. If someone wanted to despatch something, I believe they just had to look out for the bot and step in front of it to stop it. For 1978 this was quite significant.
Braniff’s return flight was no better. We landed at Gatwick and the plane stopped rather quickly while still on the runway. The announcements began to tell us that we were being evacuated, we had to leave our luggage, females should remove high-heels and so on.
The thing I recall most clearly is the conga line of emergency vehicles that turned up for us and formed a circle. They were such a long way off, I pondered whether that was where safe was judged to be? It would take (even the younger me) an appreciable time to get off and run to that point.
In the event we were stood down because it was merely a hydraulic lead that had fractured and spilt its oil onto our hot engine, the whole airport thought we were on fire. We were towed into our gate – arriving late!
ASIDE: Many years later Jane and I were on a flight when an announcement said that oxygen masks would fall, and we should fit our own, then help others, etc. But no masks fell, momentary panic until we learned that a member of the crew had used an oxygen cylinder for an unwell passenger, and this had triggered the announcement.
To work at Bedford, we moved from Essex up to the Ouse Valley villages of Bedfordshire. The children were now into a serious educational phase, so we spent many years in Carlton and Bedford – the longest we spent anywhere – five years in Carlton and twelve in Bedford.
The children both went to local Harpur Trust schools that I guess we saw as similar to our own Grammar schools, single-sex with teaching and facilities of a great standard. As a result, Jane found she had more freedom and took a mature-degree, obtaining a BEd, and she went on to teach, spending some time working in Harpur Trust schools.
TI 99 series
Lubbock certainly didn’t disappoint, the meetings confirmed a number of the developments were on track, and it was back to Bedford to see them through.
I still have a TI 99/4A on display in my office today, but any success was somewhat hampered by the insistence that software should be delivered via a GROM (Graphics Read-Only Memory), itself a pet TI project. But this made software slow and complicated to develop and expensive to distribute. Early hobbyist computers were low-cost and used cassette-tape software. TI was trying to push back against this tide.
I had much more enthusiasm for the TI 99/7 because this was a proven market, SMEs (small-medium enterprises) would lap up a sensibly-priced computer that could run their accounts and payrolls, word processing was just beginning to get traction, perhaps it might also do a little stock-keeping. The features and price-points were exciting.
We were breaking new ground, but I find it interesting that back then I had to hand-draw my ideas for the launch brochure – because we had no PCs! Here are two of those pages. Interesting too to see how we were stressing what a PC might do for you in 1978/9.
The big picture
A guy flew in from Dallas, took me to one side, and avuncularly (and unwelcomely) draped an arm over my shoulder and said I had to understand ‘the big picture’. I felt that I did of course, because I had my illicit access to others’ communications, but didn’t mention this.
Also, I had learned things from the Semi-Conductor Division, who always knew more about where the company was going than anyone in the downstream end-user divisions. Through them I had already learned that the 99/1 was unlikely to happen.
The Dallas guy went on to say that some ‘very smart guys’ in Texas could better appreciate the big picture. These smart guys had decided to kill the 99/7 as well. I learned later that this was because a key product in another more-profitable division would have been embarrassed by its capabilities and price-points. In which HR manual is that sort of approach considered viable, he should have enrolled to take lessons from the Braniff guy! I was looking for the TI exit before he had finished.