My Career Was All a Mistake!

This began with a request from my fraternity about our lives after graduation.

Of course you know I graduated with a Bachelors degree in Electrical Engineering from Syracuse University in 1962 and, not having had enough of Syracuse winters, headed off to Michigan State for more of the same. The next year, after receiving an MS in Electrical Engineering I had several offers from around the country: IBM in Bethesda, Maryland, RCA in Cherry Hill, New Jersey; even Hughes in California. However, Hughes didn't offer an interview trip and they wanted me as a technical writer.

Actually, that may not have been that far-fetched – although my SAT mathematical score was high, my verbal score, percentile-wise, was higher. Also, as you may have seen from my website, I have been drawn into writing about things that attract my interest.

Another offer that was very attractive was from the GE computer division in Phoenix, where I interviewed in February. To be lounging around a pool, immersed in the aroma of orange blossoms only hours after trudging across the tarmac through the blowing snow to board the plane in Lansing, Michigan was a real revelation. Not that I wasn't used to harsh winters; I grew up in upstate New York and one winter at Syracuse University we received over 150" of snow.

If I had been a little more cynical I might have accepted the offer. For the next two years I would work half time and attend school half time to earn another masters degree, this time in a very computer-related curriculum. At the end of that time, if I decided I wasn't really interested in computer design, I could transfer to another GE facility.

But I was really interested in communications theory and The Martin Company in Middle River, Maryland, a suburb to the northeast of Baltimore, had an interesting project in spread-spectrum radio for the Army. (Today it's used in cell phone communications.) However, after I arrived I found that I had actually been offered a job with a different group.

Although the theory part of that project was also quite interesting, applying pulse-ratio modulation to the control of rocket thrust, that part had already been completed. What was left was to implement the concept; that is, to build the circuitry to accomplish the control. This was not a good fit – I did know which way the arrow pointed on a PNP transistor, but I hadn't taken any circuit synthesis courses and had never done any circuit design. When my deficiencies became obvious, my boss exclaimed, "But you were recommended by Galucci!"

I realized that he was actually referring to my adviser at Michigan State, L.J. Giacoletto, who had been named a Fellow of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers "for his contributions to the understanding of transistors" while at RCA. It's possible that I had just been randomly assigned to him, although it also may have been because he taught a course in Statistical Communication Theory. Obviously, his fame in electronic design had convinced people in The Martin Company that his advisees must be expert in the same area. So misunderstandings on both my part and that of The Martin Company settled me in this part of the country.

Although they eventually did find another, more systems-oriented, job for me I had already started looking elsewhere when it was announced that Martin's Electronic System Division would merge with TRW's computer division to form a new company called Bunker-Ramo, named after the CEOs of the respective parent companies. Most of the staff were offered jobs in Canoga Park, California, a Los Angeles suburb, although only the managers got on-site visits. They gave us a slide show and it looked very attractive. Probably if they'd offered me a job there I would have gone....

The job they did offer me was in Silver Spring, a northern suburb of Washington. As it happened, a friend who was offered a California job didn't want to go. He was a native Baltimorean who had attended Johns Hopkins and was still living at home, and he had found a job at a not-for-profit organization called The MITRE Corporation, located near the courthouse in Arlington, Virginia. We shared an apartment halfway between our jobs, although he usually went back to Baltimore for the weekends.

At Martin he had been designing torpedo guidance systems and found his new job unsettling. I still remember the day he called me at work and told me about the strange place where he worked. He was in his private office looking out on a park-like area. He had asked his boss what he should be doing and he gave him a book on game theory – and it was about baseball!

I took a look around my area; our room had six people, three on each side, each of whom worked at a table – not a desk. (This was a step up from The Martin Company, where there were over one hundred in a bay, and even the first-level managers were in cubicles in the middle of the floor. And we had heard that it was even worse in Martin Orlando – there a surveyor lined up the desks and anything left on them at the end of the day was destroyed.)

Even here, there was a single telephone on each side of the room, both sharing the same phone number. The building was windowless, so we wouldn't know if we might be stuck in snow when we left, punching a time clock on the way out....

So I asked him the name of the headhunter who got him the job. He warned me that MITRE preferences were "under 30, under 10;" under 30 years of age and earning less than $10,000. In 1965 I easily met those qualifications, and it was the beginning of my 35 years with MITRE. The last I was able to find about Bunker-Ramo, they were bought out by Allied Signal in 1982. My roommate had already departed for a job at Westinghouse when I arrived at MITRE, and I eventually lost touch with him.

I was hired to work on an underground communications project, since one of the studies I had been doing at Bunker-Ramo was on that subject. However, when I arrived at MITRE, I was assigned to other Defense Communications Agency projects. Maybe by now I should have realized that the job you get isn't the one for which you were hired! You may be familiar with MITRE, but in those days not many people had heard of it. The fact that the total staff size was about 250, less than one-tenth of today's number, does have something to do with that.

A spin-off from MIT's Lincoln Lab, it was chartered in Bedford, Massachusetts as a not-for-profit corporation to develop a command and control system to detect Soviet bombers and direct aircraft to intercept them. It became obvious that such capabilities could also be used to control aircraft in the increasingly congested skies over the U.S. and a site was established in the Washington, D.C. area to advise the Federal Aviation Administration in the development of such a system. Soon the Defense Communications Agency sought their help, followed by many other government agencies.

I had enrolled in the night school Ph.D. program in Mathematical Statistics at George Washington University and completed all the necessary course work and tool exams. However, after the five years this took, it didn't seem that the additional years of esoteric research that would be needed to complete the program would be of that more benefit to me than the statistical knowledge I had already gained. Although I did then take another Masters degree's worth of courses in Operations Research; including Game Theory.

After five years, the Defense Communications Agency budget suffered a downturn. Fortunately, about then (1970), the Urban Mass Transportation Administration funding for ground transportation research was increasing, and I joined MITRE's UMTA support.

My statistical background served me well in my first assignment, developing a test plan for evaluating automatic vehicle location techniques, all of which used different technologies. The importance of this is because after six months I took a leave of absence to accompany my wife, Betty Lou, back to Syracuse University when she was awarded a sabbatical year to earn a Masters degree in Reading Education, and MITRE was under no obligation to accept me back.

On a similar subject, I later became a regular presenter, and eventually session chairperson, at technical conferences nationwide, which helped to insure my continuing employment when others with seemingly similar qualifications were let go.

I persuaded Betty Lou to do the same at English and Reading conferences. (When I first experienced the lavish receptions sponsored by the big book companies I was astounded. There is big money involved in the choice of a line for an entire school system, and the competition is fierce. Any receptions at my conferences paled in comparison.)

Her presentations in the U.S. and abroad (the large banners in Dublin welcoming the 1982 International Reading Association [IRA] must have caused a few double takes) didn't hurt in her selection as 1984 Virginia Reading Teacher of the Year; the first secondary teacher so honored.

Ten years later, 1980, government interest in ground transportation research waned and I moved into Federal Aviation Administration work. After about five years a new area called Traffic Flow Management (including the infamous ground delays which are designed to save fuel by delaying aircraft on the ground rather than circling at a distance while waiting for weather to clear) began to gain interest and I moved into that work for most of the rest of my career.

When I was in high school I had been a foreign exchange student to Luxembourg, and we had traveled to Europe many times since. In 1989 an opportunity opened up at MITRE's Frankfurt site, which advised Germany's equivalent of the FAA, and I took advantage of it. (Actually, there was much more to that decision than this brief statement might imply.)

And what a time to be there! The Wall came down, we were in Budapest when they had their first free elections in over fifty years, and Prague was just awakening when we visited – we found our gradually improving German to be quite useful in Eastern Europe. There were regular business trips to Stockholm, jaunts across the French border to Michelin three-star restaurants, to Munich for Oktoberfest, to the Canary Islands at New Years', and a Greek sojourn in Skopelós, in a house purchased by a German colleague for his retirement.

As I approached age 60 I was increasingly glad that MITRE had a 403(b) program – the 401(k) equivalent for non-profit and educational institutions – in which I had participated from the beginning, and into which MITRE liberally added to our contributions, and that I had finally paid enough attention to the investment opportunities, to be in equities – the boring kind of index funds, not the dot-coms and techs – during the '90s runup.

I have often mused about how the various choices I made along the way has led to where I am today. Very early on, if someone at The Martin Company hadn't misunderstood the intent of my adviser's recommendation, and if I in turn hadn't misunderstood the resultant offer letter, and if they had later offered me a move across the country, and perhaps even if my roommate had accepted his offer, I wouldn't have had this very rewarding career in such a very interesting locale.

And I wouldn't have met my wife of these many years (I just realized that I should let you do the computation from 1966, rather than my regularly having to remember to update the number of years; although I should mention that as of my latest revision to this account, we recently celebrated 50!) with whom I've shared so many interesting experiences, including art and culture, food and wine, and foreign travel, some of which are described on my website.

© Copyright 2008 Jack Ludwick - All Rights Reserved