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– Ray Smith's BTI Stories

So, you want stories, is it?

BTI was an unusual Silicon Valley computer factory, given the diversity of its workforce. Not all of us were graduates of the Stanford school of Engineering. Many came from the military.

I was unusual in that my degree was in broadcast journalism. (My formal cyber-education came from the Contra Costa and DeAnza Community Colleges.) I'd worked as a reporter and news director for several radio stations back east. So, even though I was engaged in a totally different career in California, I continued to write letters and keep a journal. My work on "Uptime" was valuable practice.

After I gave my notice at Basic Timeshare Inc., I was re-assigned to an empty conference room as far away from everyone else as possible, and stripped of all duties. I suppose this was management's effort to throw me in jail for treason, or at least to stop the spread of defections to Pyramid, Tandem, and the rest. But they didn't take my login, and I did have an active terminal to play with. I passed the time by writing about how I departed BTI, and what was going on there at the time.

Years later, I wrote a book on WiFi networking for McGraw-Hill under similar circumstances. I'd been reassigned to the back room of my house and stripped of duties, laid off suddenly after twenty years at Verizon, and desperate for something to do. History doesn't repeat itself, but often it rhymes.

I found the BTI farewell two weeks ago while digging through plastic tubs in search of ancient photos. I won't send it to you verbatim. After so many years, I tend to see BTI through a nostalgic haze, and I'll bet the other guys do also. It was a great adventure for me to be sure, but at the time I wrote my swan song I was plagued with self-doubt, understandably bitter, frustrated, and disappointed. I suppose I'd expected to retire from the place as a millionaire. I've regained my sense of humor since then, and so I prefer to keep the whiny rants to myself. I'll send the other parts along as I can.

Click on any of the pictures below to get a full sized view.

Ray Smith, circa 1985

Ray Smith, circa 1985

While stowing holiday decorations, I came across a box of old letters, which included these two items.

The first is pretty obvious. Unfortunately, we did not wind up selling 8000's in a "big way".

Internal BTI memo, January, 1985

High hopes for the 8000, January, 11, 1985

The second shot is graveyard humor. The gentleman pictured shared some rented office space with me and a half-dozen others about a mile from the main BTI building on Maud. I don't remember his name, unfortunately. He served at nearby NAS Moffett on an Orion sub-hunter when he wasn't working in the education department and/or studying for a degree from the University of Phoenix.

After the Bank of America took over the Company for a loan default, the bank ordered many changes. One was a series of layoffs that cut the staff in half and then some. Another was that expenditures for rental room were stopped. This meant that those of us who didn't get the axe were called back in to fill the empty spaces at headquarters.

I found out about all this when I returned after my vacation to find the doors on the rental space locked, and the remaining office furniture piled in the back. After I learned that I'd been passed over, we returned to clean out our desks. Before locking up for the last time, we took a few moments to stage this photo.

The caption was: "Well, Mom, there have been a few layoffs here lately..."

photo of lonely office worker in huge, empty office space

Well, Mom, there have been a few layoffs here lately...

April 26, 1984

Dear Folks;

I am sad to report that there has been no word on raises for Bruce or myself. I was told to wait a month. Then I was told to wait two more weeks, and now my boss, Lou Yurek, calls Doug Gabrielson in personnel every day. Doug says he's working on it, every day.

I've been feeling low after the exit of a good friend and co-worker, Barney Truman. His sendoff party took place at Nicolino's, a posh restaurant catering to Yuppies. As with tradition, we all had plenty to drink. Wally Scott covered the tab for the first fifty bucks, which is NOT traditional. We spent three hours hooting at the women in the parking lot, gulping the finger food, throwing it at each other, and getting progressively more lubricated. I made a farewell speech to my old buddy.

I told how Barney and I had shared the same cube for over two years. I recounted how Wally's face turned grey the morning after the second layoffs when only ten of us could muster the nerve to show up for work. Two of those were Barney and me. When I finished, Wally held up a glass and proposed a toast. He left an hour later but he paused long enough to shake my hand. He knew how I felt about some of his decisions. But I'd convinced him, without really meaning to, that the disagreement was honest. We were both motivated by a loyalty to the company as a whole, if not to all of the characters currently employed there.

As he left, Wally gave Barney the highest praise imaginable. "If for any reason you ever need a job," he said, "call me." It was dark when Barney, staggering, decided his wife would reach critical mass if he didn't go home. Barney shook my hand too.

"It's been an inspiration and a pleasure working with you," he said.

"I feel the same way about you, Barney. I'll miss you."

We've hired a new COBOL programmer to help John with the trouble calls we will surely receive after the new high-speed COBOL is unleashed on the world. Official doctrine predicts that the world will beat a path to our door, and first in will be the venture capitalists who turned up their noses at us two years ago. The new hire is Dave Deitering. He worked an in-house trouble desk for hardware at a Control Data plant in South Dakota. Ex-Air Force. No real software experience, but he did well on the test. He is enthusiastic, talks too much and knows little, but we are gradually adjusting those attitudes. Dave has not been made fun of with the exception of Bruce's bachelor sendoff. (Bruce De La Cruz is getting married this Saturday to Anne, his room-mate of three years.) Gary asked Dave if it was all right if he read the newspaper while Dave talked about Cobol.

Dave is pumped at having made it from the sticks to Silicon Valley. He finally found a house to rent, after his wife and kids spent a month in a motel. They'll be moving in this weekend. For his part, Dave has already moved in--to my office. I'd been sharing it with Gary Korstad, who mercifully does not like to sit for long in any office. Lou first requested more space two months ago and plenty is available, because BTI used to have 480 employees and now there we have about 280. But the normally unimportant decision as to where the new man will sit bounced all the way up to the company directors. They argued themselves into a stalemate over it.

I've been under some real pressure as well. I've been customizing the file-sort package we bundle to the customers. The customer needs to sort 15-thousand records on the model 5000, with less memory than I have at home on my Apple II. The package consists of an interlocking set of five programs and except for cryptic remark statements, they are undocumented. The original author has long since moved on, naturally. The task was not unlike figuring out how an alien spaceship works, and then hot-rodding it.

At some points I doubted that I would be able to do it. In fact, I doubted my decision to get into data processing generally. I was so wound up at one point that Lou quietly ordered everyone out of the office for their safety. I left in despair early Tuesday, then phoned in to take the next day off. I spent the time feeling sorry for myself.

On Thursday, I was back and I did spot a couple clues that gave me hope that the file-sort overhaul might be possible after all. Good Friday was a holiday. I decided to use it for a scenic drive to the top of nearby Mt. Hamilton. I photographed Scott's valley en route to the 4,000 foot summit, where I parked and turned on my police scanner. I sat for two hours, thinking about for-next loops, looking down on the mess below, listening to police calls and mobile-phone deals zipping back and forth through the air. Seen from this angle, it was hard to believe that the entire valley used to be orchards for as far as the eye could see.

When the Lick observatory opened, I took the tour. Heaven seemed cleaner than the valley, I thought, but also much deader. I drove down the back way, on old Mines road. It's a county road that meanders through ranches and valleys and it was deserted, so I let my VW idle along at 30, and watched the horses run among fields of yellow flowers. I spent Easter weekend with friends in Berkeley.

The time off gave me a chance to regain my perspective. I ran off a fresh set of file-sort listings -- always a hopeful move -- and somehow it all seemed simpler. By 8PM, after twelve hours, the first successful test run completed. I drove home hungry and exhausted, but proud.

I've attached two photos:

Halloween costume, circa 1985

Ray Smith as "Silicon Valley Boy"

Halloween was observed enthusiastically in Silicon Valley in that era. It was a hoot to see one of the secretaries crossing the street carrying folders, dressed as Wonder Woman. Practically everyone dressed up in costumes, and at BTI we held a show each year in the lunchroom. Some of the guises were elaborate. I remember one guy dressed as a 7400-style integrated circuit, a gal in flannel pajamas, a big green dude in ragged shorts, as the incredible hulk, etc. One year I went as a Silicon Valley Boy, a takeoff from Moon Unit Zappa's famous hit "Valley Girl". The costume included:

Typical Silicon Valley building construction, circa 1985

Typical Silicon Valley Building construction, circa 1985

The other photo doesn't have anything to do with BTI, particularly, but I think it's a good snapshot of the valley back then. It was young, and booming like a Klondike mining town. Everywhere you looked orchards or old buildings were bulldozed flat and replaced with what you see in the pic, another flip-up. They were designed for quick deployment, and went from mud pits to full occupation in six months. This former cannery was a mile north of Maude, on Mathilda.

My first apartment in the valley, the Lanai Gardens, cost me $150 per month. Two years later I had a job at BTI and I moved to within walking distance, into an apartment half the size of my first one, at twice the price. My last Valley apartment cost $500 a month. After I left for Los Angeles, friends told me that they were paying 11-hundred. God only knows what it costs to live there now.

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