Monday, August 19, 2013

Was this English Major really a Major???

I described the current challenge to my description of my engineering career to an engineering friend who wrote back, “You might find your career at DAC as "ordinary", but to many (most?) people a career at a top flight (no pun) company working on exciting hi-tech projects is far from ordinary. Imagine some guy working as a purchasing agent for Best Buy, as one of many examples.

“You have an exciting resume and most people with lots of time to post on the internet do not. I see this on the firearms forums, where I have become convinced that most participants in the discussions do not actually own or shoot guns; they are engaging in ritual fantasy and really do not have real working experience with the topic.”

That’s an interesting perspective – I previously had a thought something like that, that I had a certain sort of advantage by working at Douglas, McDonnell Douglas, and Boeing for all those years, but the thought was in regard to things I wrote or the way I approached debates in the forums.  But when I think of influences, I usually rank the Marine Corps at the top.  In one of the Civil War histories I read, the author said something like “most enlistees enlisted at about age 17 and 17 through the next few years are the most impressionable for any young man” -- something like that.  That period for me included my three years in the Marine Corps and without doubt I was affected by those years.  After that I stormed through four years of college as a Marine and not as I might have if I’d entered college right out of high school.  I was very aggressive (intellectually) in college and that aggressiveness extended into my first job after graduation: working at Douglas.  I started in a group where I assembled and rewrote engineering proposals going to the Air Force.  The Air Force had complained that Douglas Engineers were such poor writers that half the time the Air Force had no idea what was being proposed.  The Chief Engineer decided to hire some likely-sounding young men who could write in order to make these proposals presentable. 

That was fairly interesting for an English Major.  Old time Engineers didn’t appreciate young people telling them their work wasn’t up to snuff and if they could, chased them off.  “Get out of here.  I have work to do.”  But I was a Marine, a Buck Sergeant no less, and wouldn’t be chased.  Many of these encounters were like the sand-box fights one has as a young boy.  You knock each other down for a while, get up, shake hands and become good friends after that.  It wasn’t long before these old-timers were confiding in my about what they liked and didn’t like.  I had become one of them.

That happened at Santa Monica beginning August 1959.  I worked on Thor mostly, but when we won the Skybolt program I worked on that – no longer on proposals but mostly on something called the “Task Plan” which was to itemize and describe every element in the Skybolt Program.  By the time Skybolt was cancelled (Christmas 1962) there were just a couple of us left, we who were hired by the Chief Design Engineer because we could write.  Most who worked on Skybolt at that time were laid off but I was able to wangle a transfer to Long Beach to become a “Specification Engineer” on the DC-8.  More experienced Spec Engineers were working on the just-launched DC-9.  I was given a few airlines and was responsible for the “Delivery Specification” for each delivered airplane.  No airline accepted a baseline configuration; so changes had to be processed.  That was also one of my responsibilities. 

I didn’t like being a Spec Engineer and so wangled my way onto each new major proposal.  I worked on the C-5 proposal for almost two years.  We lost the proposal to Lockheed.  After that I was accepted back into the “Spec Group.”  By that time we were working on extended versions of the DC-8.  When the KC-10 came along I worked on proposal for that as well.  This time we won the program and I finally got a job I really liked: Program Engineer.  I worked for the Director of Engineering and did many of the wide variety of things necessary to the launching of a new program.  During our peak effort we had perhaps six Program Engineers to cover the various engineering tasks.   The tasks that were most memorable for me were the electronic systems.  I had to not only make the proposal to the Air Force but sit through the pricing and negotiations and then oversee the work and be a liaison with the Testing Division as we proved to the Air Force that our system worked.  A system that comes to mind was Rendezvous Guidance -- as one might imagine the “Rendezvous” system was of vital importance.  The KC-10 tanker and the planes it needed to refuel needed to be able to find each other, but enough of that.

Back to Edmundson:   Consider the final paragraph in his article :

“What we're talking about is a path to becoming a human being, or at least a better sort of human being than one was at the start. An English major? To me an English major is someone who has decided, against all kinds of pious, prudent advice and all kinds of fears and resistances, to major, quite simply, in becoming a person. Once you've passed that particular course of study—or at least made some significant progress on your way—then maybe you're ready to take up something else.”

Since I did what Edmundson is recommending, do I see these matters the same way he does?  Not quite.  If I had gone directly into college after High School and then been sent to Douglas Aircraft Company, I wonder if I would have succeeded any better than the myriad of Liberal Arts graduates who left Douglas as quickly as they could for more congenial work.  My Marine Corps experience said as much about who I was if not more than my English Major.  I was a Marine who could also write.  That identity was much more acceptable to board engineers and engineering managers than a mere English Major. 

Also, I didn’t “take up something else” as a matter of choice.  I didn’t say to myself, “now I’m ready to become an engineer.”  After I graduated from college I had bills, needed a job, looked around and couldn’t find one, went to the Bliss Employment Agency, was sent to Douglas Aircraft and began the aforementioned career with a good deal of reluctance which I buried, apparently successfully, for the nonce.  Is there any justification here for the boasting I was suspected of?   None that I can see.  But perhaps I should be more appreciative of my career than I am, for as my friend illustrated I might have ended up a Purchasing Agent for Best Buy . . . Nah!

No comments: