Computer Chronicles Revisited 60 — Heald College and DECworld '86

Alexander “Sandy” Astin was a longtime professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, best known for creating an annual survey of college freshmen. Astin, who passed away this past May at the age of 89, first developed “The American Freshman” survey at the American Council for Education in 1969. He continued the project after joining the UCLA faculty.

Gary Kildall referenced Astin’s 1985 survey in a March 1986 Computer Chronicles episode on “Careers in Computing.” Notably, Astin’s survey of the previous fall’s freshman class found that only 4.4 percent of respondents “aspired to careers as computer programmers or computer analysts, down from 8.8 percent in 1983,” according to the Los Angeles Times. Astin suggested the decrease may have actually been the result of greater exposure to computers by the 1985 freshmen, as they realized computers could be useful in fields other than tech. He further speculated that students “may be misinterpreting the recent, well publicized troubles in the computer industry.”

In any case, this episode largely focused on the process of seeking jobs in the computer field more than the overall state of the industry. Keep in mind, this was only a few years into the era of the personal computer, and traditionally access to machines was limited to people attending or working for institutions of higher learning. So the emphasis here was on college graduates seeking work.

Stability or Fun?

Stewart Cheifet and Gary Kildall opened the show by looking at an online career network accessible through a Macintosh. Cheifet said these “electronic help wanted ads” offered jobs in fields such as fiber optics, semiconductors, personal computers, computer-aided design, robotics, and new computer architecture.

But Cheifet added that many potential job-seekers were confused. After all, one day you read in the newspaper that a computer company laid off 500 people, and the next day you read there were all kinds of job opportunities in the computer field. So which was it? Kildall said the computer industry was still young and “quite volatile.” Someone seeking stability would move towards the mainframe market, where a bright engineer with a well-rounded education in mathematics or computer science would always find long-term employment. Career planning in newer, emerging areas was more difficult. But if you were adventurous, you’d find it was a “lot more fun.”

Self-Employed Consultants Filled Short-Term Needs

Wendy Woods presented her first report. She profiled Jack Porterfield, a self-employed consultant in the computer field. Woods said that between the “stodgy giants” and the “fragile startups” of the computer industry, there were a group of people, like Porterfield, who performed the important role of independent consultants–primarily programmers and designers that sold their expertise.

Woods said Porterfield decided to leave the security of the corporation in exchange for his independence. He told Woods that he’d decided to work on his own because the company he had been working for had grown too large for his comfort. Several of his friends were working as self-employed consultants and they helped convince him to “take the plunge as well.”

Woods noted that Porterfield’s “office” was now in his living room, which housed some “very sophisticated” computer equipment. Porterfield had been keeping busy since choosing self-employment, she added, but he warned that consulting was not for “timid souls.” He told her that the ability to take on a job, do it well, and make a client happy were really what it came down to. In this business, if you had to show a resume, you didn’t get the job. Rather, you had to convince somebody on a one-to-one level that you could do the work–and then back that up by getting a product running.

Woods said the demand for independent consultants demonstrated how a computer company operated, and why it needed to go outside for the solutions to its problems. Porterfield said the two main reasons were technical competence and support. With respect to technical competence, the company may not be able to hire someone or it may not have anybody to fill the necessary role. As for support, the company may just need a particular job done once. And while it may appear on the surface that it was expensive to hire a consultant like him, the company may only need him for 2 or 3 weeks to get something up and running, and then it never has to deal with that particular problem again.

What Were Companies Looking for in College Graduates?

James Patterson and John Podkomorski joined Cheifet and Kildall in the studio. Patterson–not the author–worked in the career placement office at Stanford University. Podkomorski was a research-and-development section manager at Hewlett-Packard (H-P) and also worked with the company’s college recruiting.

Kildall asked Patterson about Sandy Astin’s recent study and its finding that fewer college freshmen were interested in pursuing a computer science degree than in past years. What did he think was the reason for that? Patterson said he wasn’t sure, but he thought what happened was that even liberal arts students found they could also obtain employment in the hi-tech market just by taking a few courses in computer science. One did not necessarily need a degree in computer science or electrical engineering to find employment in the hi-tech industry.

So computer science training had been dissipated among other disciplines, Kildall suggested. Patterson said yes. For example, you could find a music major getting a job as an assistant programmer so long as they took the courses necessary to perform that particular work. Kildall asked Podkomorski if that was his observation as well. Podkomorski said he saw some of that. There was also a “renaissance” of people getting into the computer field by getting business degrees. That said, he continued to see a “very high” emphasis in the more technical computer science and engineering fields.

Kildall asked Podkomorski what he actually looked for when he went to a college looking to recruit potential new hires. Podkomorski said H-P had several different types of requirements. In his department, which was research and development, they were obviously looking for well-qualified students with a “very high GPA” who had strong technical backgrounds and a demonstrated ability to work in the field. They also recruited for traditional computer jobs–programmers, technicians, et al.–that all had slightly different criteria.

Looking at the other side, Kildall asked Patterson how he prepared a student to talk to a recruiter like Podkomorski. Patterson said they wanted the student to talk about their background and give a potential employer an overview of the types of courses they’d completed to meet the employer’s particular need. He also counseled students on resume writing and general job-hunting skills. In particular, he emphasized communications skills, noting that engineers no longer worked in isolation but were expected to function as part of a group.

Cheifet asked Podkomorski how competitive the market was for new college graduates. Cheifet quipped that a company like H-P probably had its choice of 50 people with a 4.0 GPA for every open position. Podkomorski said the competition was “very, very tough,” particularly if you were coming out of a degree program and looking to work for a major corporation. He said that on the campus where he did his recruiting, there were about 150 to 200 computer science graduates each year, and H-P typically hired only 15 to 20 of them. And that represented the top 20 percent of the class that all the other major computer companies wanted to hire. Ultimately, there were enough jobs for everyone, but if you wanted a job at one of the major companies the competition was intense.

Kildall asked Podkomorski about the schools his company specifically targeted and what were the characteristics of the graduates they sought. Podkomorski said he recruited at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Altogether, there were about 20 schools that H-P targeted, including the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, Stanford, Berkeley, and MIT–all schools with good scientific and technical programs.

Cheifet said that if you had intense competition from students who all had 4.0 GPAs, what was that extra thing a recruiter like Podkomorski looked for to make a final hiring decision. Echoing Patterson’s earlier point, Podkomorski said it was communication skills and experience. He also looked at faculty recommendations and the student’s ability to demonstrate “practical skills.” He cared more about that than if they got As on their exams. Kildall commented that as an employer himself, he often looked to see if a student had completed a “good-sized project” from start-to-finish.

Cheifet asked Pattreson what areas of employment were students actually looking to get into right now. Patterson said the trend, particularly among electrical engineering students, was to get into product marketing and customer support rather than focusing entirely on design. He noted one benefit that students had in Stanford’s area was that they didn’t have to just apply for work in the semiconductor industry. There were also companies focused on “emerging fields” such as telecommunications, robotics, and biomedical engineering. But the critical thing was that engineering students realized they no longer wanted to focus exclusively on design–they wanted to work with people while still working with their technical expertise.

Podkomorski said that in an academic environment, students were often told that they must go into research-and-development because it represented the “state of the art,” yet the student’s personality wasn’t suited to that type of work, so they ended up failing. It was therefore important for students to focus on finding the right job for their personality. Kildall said technical people–presumably including himself–now understood they needed to have marketing people around to support their work. Podkomorski added that the number of people working in developing new products was also much smaller compared to those tasked with sustaining existing products.

Training Students for the Future Jobs of 1995

The next segment was just Cheifet and Kildall looking at, and discussing, online job listings for several minutes. This wasn’t interesting enough to recap, so let’s move on to Wendy Woods’ second report, a remote segment from Heald College in San Francisco. Woods said that 9 out of 10 students would graduate from Heald, a two-year technical school, and walk into well-paying jobs in the computer industry. Heald trained students in the fields of hardware systems analysis, software programming, and computer maintenance.

Woods said that according to the U.S. Department of Labor, these computer fields were expected to be among the fastest-growing occupations in the country through 1995–among the best for any profession. Despite the computer industry’s slump in 1985, the careers that Heald’s students were training for had “tremendous potential.” While fewer would enter the manufacturing end of the business, at least compared to several years ago, more would get design and engineering jobs, especially in fields such as microwaves and telecommunications, as America’s electronics industry matured and specialized.

Timothy Knapp, Heald College’s vice president of admissions, told Woods that his students would have “wonderful opportunities” in electronics and computer technology. He said that included not only design and manufacturing but also quality control, installation, and servicing of electronic products.

Woods said that while students realized that increasing enrollment in computer studies also meant increasing competition, they were still optimistic. One student, Bob Sutton, told Woods that while the computer market was down 3 or 4 months ago, it was picking up today. Woods noted that enrollment in technical schools was generally increasing by about 15 percent a year–while the number of available jobs outpaced that figure. Woods added that by 1995, many people who graduated from technical schools today would be employed in specialties that we could only dream about today.

Telecommunications a “Hot Area” for Job Growth

Pat Hill Hubbard and Harry Hamlin joined Cheifet and Kildall for the final segment. Hubbard was the vice president for engineering and technical education with the American Electronics Association (AEA). Hamlin–not the actor–ran a hi-tech recruiting firm.

Kildall asked Hubbard what was the “hot new area” to enter in the computer field. Hubbard replied it was telecommunications. She said the AEA recently published a small survey that projected the market for telecommunications software would grow by 2.5 times its current level over the next five years. Kildall asked what was driving that. Hubbard said telecommunications was no longer driven by a single company–AT&T–but now drew the interests of all kinds of electronic and information technology companies worldwide.

Kildall asked Hamlin for his views on the hot areas. Hamlin agreed that telecommunications was one. But he said overall, it was software, which was the “language of high technology.” He agreed with Kildall that it still made sense for students to have an overall background in computer science.

Cheifet asked Hubbard what major a college student should pursue if they wanted to get into a field like telecommunications. Hubbard said that posed something of a small problem. AT&T used to train all of the country’s telecommunications engineers, and they weren’t doing that anymore. She said the AEA was actually on the verge of launching a new master’s degree curriculum for telecommunications engineering. But right now, the best preparation was probably an electrical engineering degree.

Kildall noted he’d had difficulty finding qualified engineers himself at Digital Research. So what was the best way to find qualified people? Hamlin said that was basically what his company did. It was a dedicated project to find such people. An employer had to give him a “very accurate specification” of what they wanted. It then took him 30 to 90 days to find a qualified person. Most of the candidates he looked at were referred to him by others.

Kildall noted that Silicon Valley tended to promote a “checkerboard” career with people moving from one job to another in rapid succession. Hamlin added that the typical lifespan of a project, from conception to production, was roughly 2 to 3 years. (It used to be 5 years.) So when one project was completed, an engineer was usually ready to proceed to something else. Kildall suggested an engineer should then view his career as a bunch of roughly six-year “segments.” Hamlin said that was not inconceivable, as the goal was for an engineer to learn and acquire new technologies rather than doing the same job over and over again.

Cheifet wanted to know more about the “geography” of job opportunities–i.e., Were we only talking about careers in Silicon Valley? Hubbard said California remained the main hotbed of computer-related jobs, with 4 or 5 of the top-10 geographic markets. Indeed, the entire Pacific, including Oregon and Washington–and even Alaska and Hawaii–were a hotbed. The other major hubs after that included Massachusetts and Texas. She said Virginia was also a developing area, particularly near the Wasington, D.C., area. She also pointed to North Carolina’s “Research Triangle” and the emerging “Technology Crescent” near Atlanta.

Kildall noted that many high-profile tech founders–such as Bill Gates, Steve Wozniak, and Steve Jobs–were college dropouts. So how important was a college education to entering the hi-tech industry? Hubbard said it was still very important. She noted technology was becoming so complex that a sound theoretical base combined with the pursuit of continuing education to avoid job obsolescence was still the best path for most people.

Cheifet asked Hubbard more specifically about opportunities for women in the computer field. She said that while women were going into computer science, they were seemingly not as interested in computer engineering or electrical engineering. She suspected one reason for this was a lack of female role models in the classroom. There were very few female and minority professors in engineering.

Cheifet pointed out there was also a shortage of teachers in these fields. Hubbard agreed, noting there was currently a 16 percent shortage nationwide in computer engineering faculty. That was in spite of the fact that salaries were rising. And in California, the need was enormous, so there were plenty of job opportunities in teaching.

More Complexity = More Jobs?

George Morrow’s closing commentary focused on what he called the “law of diminishing returns on complexity.” By this, he meant that the labor burden of a machine increased in direct proportion to its complexity while the labor benefit decreased. In other words, if Machine A was twice as complex as Machine B, then Machine A would only replace half the labor force as Machine B while using twice as much labor to maintain. In the context of computers, he said the complexity of today’s machines had created enough maintenance and repair jobs to reduce national employment by about half.

E-mail Starting at 40 Cents a Page!

Stewart Cheifet presented this week’s “Random Access,” recorded in early March 1986.

  • Hewlett-Packard announced its own line of RISC-based computers, which it claimed would be faster and cheaper than IBM’s RT PC. H-P called its new technology “precision architecture” and the company was “staking its future” on the project. Cheifet noted the first H-P RISC machines would not be out until the fall of 1986 and were expected to cost $225,000.
  • Some engineers believed that RISC machines would be very difficult to write software for and the chips themselves were less reliable.
  • Digital Equipment Corporation kicked off its third-annual DECworld conference in Boston. DEC announced a new local-area network system called DEC Connect, which allowed a single digital wall plug to accommodate four separate feeds: hi-speed data, lo-speed data, voice, and video.
  • AT&T announced a new low-price e-mail system that would cost 40 cents to send a one-page letter. (Cheifet noted that a postage stamp cost 22 cents.) AT&T would also offer “delivered e-mail” to recipients without computers starting at $7.50 for overnight delivery.
  • At the recent Solid State Circuits Conference in Anaheim, California, Hitachi showed off a new Josephson Junction chip that performed a calculation in trillionths of a second. NEC displayed a new RAM chip that the company claimed operated at 25 billionths of a second. AT&T demonstrated a chip that claimed to move 3 billion bits per second. And IBM said its experimental microprocessor had 93,000 transistors on the chip and could literally run a mainframe program on a desktop computer. (For comparison, Apple’s recently announced M2 chip has 20 billion transistors.)
  • The General Services Administration completed a survey of computer use by the federal government. The most widely used applications by government workers were spreadsheets. Respondents said the biggest benefit of computer usage was “more timely output.” And the biggest complaint was “inadequate training.”
  • The Denver Public Library developed an “electronic atlas.” A user could enter criteria into a database and get answers to questions. Cheifet noted there were about a thousand variables such as census figures, demographics, and business locations.
  • International Robomation, a manufacturer of bar code readers, demonstrated the reliability of its product by putting a bar code on a Frisbee and throwing it. The barcode scanner still managed to accurately read the data.

Private Equity Managed to Destroy Heald College

There were no products in this episode, so instead I’ll briefly discuss one of the featured locations, San Francisco’s Heald College. Edward Payson Heald started the for-profit college in 1863. Originally known as “Heald’s Business College,” it claimed to be the first college in the western United States focusing on “instruction in commercial subjects” for both men and women, according to a 1928 advertisement touting the school’s 65th anniversary. Heald created a companion school for engineering and mining in 1875.

Larry Barton, a former Heald College president, wrote in a 2014 article that when he took over in 2000, the school “boasted 12 campuses in California, Oregon and Hawaii, serving over 1,000 students at each,” over 80 percent of whom were minorities. But Barton said that Heald College’s financial success–driven largely by federally backed student loans–eventually drew the interest of private equity funds.

In 2007, an unnamed private equity group acquired Heald College under the name Heald Capital LLC. Two years later, in 2009, Corinthian Colleges Inc. purchased Heald Capital for $385 million in cash. Founded in 1995, Corinthian basically gobbled up vocational schools like Heald and tried to grow them rapidly. But as Barton noted, Corinthian had a “rich history for alleged deceptive practices in recruiting and delivering education.”

In 2013, U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris, then California’s attorney general, launched an investigation of Corinthian’s various colleges, including Heald. Harris filed a lawsuit accusing the company of using deceptive marketing tactics that targeted low-income students with false promises of job placement. The U.S. Department of Education and Consumer Financial Protection Bureau subsequently launched their own inquiries.

By 2015, the Department of education suspended Corinthian’s access to federal student loans. This effectively brought the entire scheme crashing down. After receiving a $30 million fine in connection with its management of Heald College, Corinthian abruptly closed the college down in April 2015. Corinthian and its multiple subsidiaries filed for bankruptcy shortly thereafter. To add insult to injury, in 2016 a California Superior Court judge ruled in favor of the Attorney General’s office in their original lawsuit, adding a (largely ceremonial) $1.1 billion civil judgment to the defunct Corinthian’s debts.

At the time of Heald’s closure, the Department of Education announced that students who attended the school during Corinthian’s tenure would be eligible for an “expedited” debt relief process. But just a couple of weeks before I wrote this post–June 1, 2022–the Department of Education announced that it would “discharge all remaining federal student loans borrowed to attend any campus owned or operated by Corinthian Colleges Inc.”

It Was Basically the Late ’80s Version of Apple’s WWDC

Another small item that caught my attention was Stewart Cheifet’s mention of Digital Equipment Corporation’s “DECworld” conference. While it may not sound like a big deal now, DECworld ‘86 drew about 16,000 business executives and 4,000 Digital Equipment Corporation employees to Boston. DEC claimed the five-day, invitation-only event cost $4 million and was the “world’s largest single-company computer exposition held to date.”

The conference took up three hotels in Boston, which were all connected via a temporary local area network constructed by DEC According to Wendy Woods’ Newsbytes, the setup included “[h]undreds of DEC computers ranging from Rainbows to high-end VAXes” tied together by Ethernet. The temporary LAN also tied into DEC’s internal network, EasiNet, enabling 30,000 of the company’s employees outside of Boston to attend sessions remotely.

While DECworld was not open to the public, it was partially broadcast on local television. DEC purchased time on two local UHF stations in Boston and Manchester, New Hampshire, that aired nightly, half-hour highlights packages from the conference. This was primarily for the benefit of DEC employees in New England who could not attend in-person. (The Boston Globe noted that DEC decided to preempt reruns of “The Flying Nun” and “WKRP in Cincinnati” but not “Star Trek,” as the company acknowledged many of its employees were fans of the latter.)

As for product announcements, Newsbytes said DEC failed to fulfill rumors of new PC compatibles but did unveil updated versions of its DECtalk voice synthesizer as well as “[s]everal information-management and decision-support packages for the VAX.”

Notes from the Random Access File

  • This episode is available at the Internet Archive and had an original broadcast date of March 4, 1986.
  • John Podkomorski retired from Hewlett-Packard in 2006 after 30 years with the company.
  • Pat Hill Hubbard remained with the American Electronics Association as a vice president until 1997. She went on to co-found the Ciocca Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Santa Clara University, where she served as the director until 2002.
  • Timothy Knapp spent more than 20 years as an administrator with Heald College, leaving his position as vice president of admissions in 1997. In recent years he’s owned a number of small tech-related companies, including DataGreen, a California firm that helps homeowners perform cost-benefit analyses for installing solar panel systems.
  • That experimental IBM microprocessor was known as the IBM Micro/370. The CPU Shack Museum has a detailed write-up of this chip’s development history. The Micro/370 was never actually put into production, as IBM decided to go with the Intel 80386 as the base for its next generation of minicomputers. (Thanks to Ed S on Mastodon for pointing me to this article.)