The Paper Doll Adventure

DN Staff

April 24, 2010

3 Min Read
The Paper Doll Adventure

By Gary A. Crowell Sr., P.E., CID+

After graduating with a shiny new BSEE degree, I was obligated to spend my next four years in the Air Force. This time was spent as a contract management officer stationed at a major (and now extinct) defense contractor. Unfortunately this job didn’t particularly satisfy my desire to do engineering design. At the first opportunity, I literally walked down the long hallway, and applied for a job.

A design engineering job was offered, but the hiring managers explained that in their formula for determining starting salaries, my four years of “experience” was only being counted as one and a half. I understood their reservation, and to tell the truth, my four years of paperwork engineering had resulted in a bit of self-doubt.

But I accepted the job, and I was finally doing “hard” engineering tasks, assigned to work on a signal processor
that was used in several Navy sonar systems. I took to it quickly, assimilating the details of the system as best I could, and working on several small assignments. However, I was having a hard time grasping the overall picture of the system. Each card in the system had a complete document describing the function of that card, but there seemed to be a vacuum where a description of the whole system should have been.

I’m sure most of the other engineers were getting tired of my questions, and those questions often entailed a circuit of several offices, since most of the engineers were focused on their own single card in the system. They each had a block diagram of their own card that detailed its busses, registers, and control and logic functions. Surely there had to be a better way that would involve less walking, and fewer questions.

I have to mention that this was in a time before personal computers, Visio, or Autocad. Secretaries typed up documentation from handwritten notes, and graphics were done with a straightedge, templates, and a drafting pen. Armed with a stack of the manuals for each card in the system, a photocopier, scissors, glue, a large sheet of paper and my own drafting pen, I began to play “paper dolls.” All I had to do was cut out the important bits of block diagram of each card, and glue them into a cohesive whole, organized around the inter-card system busses. I added in the register controls, and noted which bits of the microcode they were assigned to. The result was quite pleasing and useful. Hung on the wall next to my desk, it allowed me to follow data throughout the system, even when the path spanned several different cards. I’m sure my annoying question factor dropped significantly.

Whenever I talked to someone about the system, I tended to refer to my diagram. Soon, someone asked for a copy. After a few weeks, I noticed copies hanging in other offices. Ultimately, it seemed to be just about everywhere.

Eventually, there was a 90-day evaluation (that I hadn’t known was coming).  Called into the manager’s office, he explained that they thought I had been “underhired.” A 30% raise resulted… mostly, I figure, from playing with paper dolls.

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