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– Laurence Bush's BTI Stories

I worked briefly at BTI in the last four months of 1981. I thought you might find it interesting -- memories still remarkably vivid in my decaying memory.

My experience with BTI was brief but strange and strangely fun. Back in 1981, it began in Pollak Library at Cal State Fullerton, where I was searching the heavy tomes of Manufacturer's Index for potential employers in Silicon Valley. It listed BTI as a small but promising computer manufacturer, and so one query letter later, I had an interview with them set for the week after graduation. Fast forward to June, the interview began with talking to the Human Resources men with unlikely names: Jim Jolly and Don Whynott, who handed me off to the technical manager who said they were looking for someone to QA the assembler and eventually write shippable diagnostic code. Being an assembly code geek, I was thrilled -- but I could not start until August -- I had promised myself a cross-country trip after graduation.

At the outset of said trip, I called BTI and they said "you're hired," and I sped happily across the continent, as far north-east as Montreal and back home to SoCal, and I packed everything in a U-Haul and hauled up the old Interstate 5 to fabulous Sunnyvale. Ensconced a local hotel, I arrived the next morning at my new employer, clutching my job-offer letter.

This last turned out be be crucial because when I showed up at HR, they said "Who are you?" and I said that I was their new Engineer, and they said no you're not, there was been a hiring freeze. Fortunately, I showed them the letter and the mystery unraveled. All three -- Jolly, Whynott, and the hiring manager -- were no longer with the company, the project I was hired to do was canceled and they had no apparent use for me. But since I had staked everything on the letter, they confirmed that I was hired and paid for my U-Haul and temporary living expenses.

I met my new manager, a fine gentleman and flying enthusiast, Ron Crandall, who gave me a warm welcome. The first problem was where to put me in the building. With no office available, they stood me in a large, totally empty lab room -- shortly thereafter I had a desk, chair, and a classic CRT terminal with glowing green text. Ron suggested I write a game to become familiar with the local assembly language, so I embarked on a quest to computerize Mastermind -- a program I never got to work quite right but later handed the code off to the local gamers for completion.

The work environment at BTI was a bit unusual. Most of the engineering staff had nicknames taken from the Lord of the Rings. My cohort was Bill Baggett, aka Bilbo, so I dubbed myself Frodo -- a name that absolutely no one ever used. Visiting the offices of other engineers was always an adventure, because many worked in darkness by the glow of their CRTs. Some offices had love seats and other homey furniture that became part of the early Silicon Valley legacy. Another interesting custom was called mud-slinging. The local email system had the interesting feature of "aliases" where the sender's name could be untracably(?) replaced with another name. So there was a volley of emails the local staff mildly attacked and satirized each other, and one alias was one "Father Kindness" who tried to keep the mud-slinging to a certain level of civility.

To familiarize me with the BTI system, I was given a stack of VHS tapes to watch. It's hard to believe now but they tried to stop me from using the VCR because I had not been to the VCR training class. I had never used a VCR before, but it was intuitively obvious -- the only disappointment was the utter lack of popcorn in the break room.

The other means of learning the BTI was directly from the single master printout of the OS, which hung on a little cart. I remember pouring over the undocumented assembly code, thinking what-is-all-this, and occasionally, someone would have an urgent need for the printout and wheel it away from me for the day or the rest of the week.

Amid all this strangeness, an actual task came up for me. I was to patch the machine language in the boot EPROM so that the BTI 4000 could boot from tape. I remember repeatedly erasing the EPROM with ultra-violet until I got it working just right -- only a few dozen bytes of machine code was needed to do the trick.

After that, it was now December, and I was tasked with learning some arcane security protocol and was referred to one the engineers who was the local expert on the subject. I went to see him, trying to get him to spill, but he insisted I come with a series of questions from him to reply to. He said, "if you don't have questions, I don't have answers."

Fortunately, a big box Aerospace corporation offered me a job so I bid farewell to BTI. On my last day, I assumed the email alias of JRR Tolkien and sent a engineering-wide blast saying that I (Tolkien) had returned from the "moldy grave" to sue the local populace for assuming my copyrighted names. No one was amused. No one ever called me Frodo. However, they gave me a warm send-off and I never forgot my first experience working in the fabled Silicon Valley.

Best regards,
Laurence Bush

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