Brett's experience mirrors mine in many ways.
I was in the middle of a three-month cross-country motorcycle trip that summer, having just gotten out of the Navy. I was planning to return to Seattle at the end of the summer to start college. My best friend lived in Lubbock and asked me to be the Best Man at his wedding, so I worked it into my trip. While riding around Loop 289 with a girl he set me up with, I saw the plant and asked her what it was, "TI!" she yelled over the wind hitting our helmets. On a whim, I rode over the next day and filled out an employment application.
To my utter surprise, I received a phone call the next morning urgently asking me to come in for an interview. I said I was on a motorcycle trip and didn't have any nice clothes, and was told not to worry about it. When I arrived, I met with an engineer sporting a cowboy hat and giant belt buckle. He smiled and said, "I read your resume and saw you were on submarines. Me too! You're hired!!" I replied, "Don't you think we should go inside and show me around first?" What I didn't know then was TI had a very difficult time attracting anyone to Lubbock. In the TI universe, it was considered Siberia.
I ended up accepting the job and spent nine of the longest months of my life in Lubbock. I've never lived anywhere that the locals seemed to hate so much. One of the best-selling t-shirts had a picture of a automobile's rearview mirror with Lubbock's downtown skyline on it with the caption, "Happiness is Lubbock in Your Rearview mirror" a line from a Mac Davis song. Another popular poster was a hippie peeing on the base of the Lubbock city limits sign. It was by far the most boring place I've ever lived. (I spent the previous two years in the SF Bay area.)
Working the entire time I lived there on the graveyard shift, the operation was total chaos. I had at least six supervisors in nine months. I spent my first three months at the North Site (shown above) three months at a renovated Levi Strauss building where a single assembly line was set up to keep up with demand, three nights at the Warranty Repair building, and the last three months back at the North Site working in incoming QC, which was a lot nicer than being a repair tech on the assembly lines, watching power-crazy supervisors screaming at the women (with lots of subsequent tears) for minor offenses like leaving staples in travelers (the paper sheets that traveled with the computers to document their progress during assembly, test and repair.)
There was no formal training, we were assigned to sit with someone for a few days and that was it. On my first night, I asked where the schematics were. Not one tech knew - that was my first indication of how inefficient the manufacturing operation was. I ended up getting a set of drawings, taught myself how it worked and my repair numbers immediately jumped. We were supposed to fix 18 boards a night. --Most techs were doing four or five. A couple of weeks went by and we added forty techs one night - TI hired the entire graduating class from a technical trade school in Kentucky. We heard a rumor that someone on 1st shift had fixed 100 boards. That became my goal. The graveyard shift was thirty minutes shorter than the other two shifts I think. Before long, I was doing a hundred boards a shift, and the techs all started competing, which was kind of fun. The supervisor-of-the-week asked me to join him in opening a new assembly line across town as his Lead Tech, and offered me a ten cent raise. I took the offer immediately.
Soon after, I convinced him let me use a conference room for two nights to teach the new techs how the machine worked, which made a big difference. After one session, a tech asked me, "How long have you been here?" When I told him, "Four months" his jaw hit the floor; he thought I had been there for years. I assured him he would be just as knowledgeable after repairing a few thousand of them.
For reference, the standard wage for a tech at TI in 1982 was $8.09 an hour. We got extra pay for working "graves", which lofted it up to $8.33 and hour. Standard line workers made around $4.50 an hour, so we were considered "well-paid".
There were multiple areas that boards dropped out of: Power-up Testing (PUT) --where the boards are connected to a power source and if they didn't power up with the TI Logo screen, they "Fell out" and we could walk over and pick up a plastic tub with about twenty boards in it to take back to our benches. Power-up testing was considered easy pickings because the majority of the problems were manufacturing-related and usually troubleshot with keen eyes, like chips inserted backwards, unclipped component leads, shorted leads, solder shorts from the wave soldering machine or a little harder to find: chips with a pin bent under the body not making contact with the pad.
After PUT, bare boards made their way to a diagnostic tester where every port was connected and tested. Failures from there were a little harder to work on, but were a combination of manufacturing defects that didn't cause the board to lock up (joysticks, cassette circuits, I/O buffers, etc) or thermal problems that occurred soon after power-up.
Then there were the harder problems that I liked most of all: Burn-in Test rejects. There were tens of thousands if computers on shelves in the Burn-In area. Each computer was loaded up with a diagnostic command module that looped endlessly for 48 or 72 hours, and were checked via a rotary switch from the video output connected to a monitor. These failures were 99% real-world hardware faults, so they were challenging to work on, but took longer because you had to disassemble/reassemble the cases. We used pneumatic screwdrivers hanging above our benches to speed the process up.
I made some good friends there. The techs partied hard, and all were from somewhere else, struggling to accept life with the grim reality of Lubbock, which was isolated, hot, dry, flat, and exceedingly dull. Even the layout of the city was boring - numbers on one axis and letters for the other. 75% of the workforce were women, so I considered this a target-rich environment compared to submarine duty. We'd leave work at seven, and eat breakfast and end up completely hammered by 9 AM! The locals would watch us, utterly horrified - you have to remember Lubbock sits squarely in the Bible Belt. Unless you were going to college during the day, there wasn't much to do in Lubbock except visit Prairie Dog Town, drink, and wish you were somewhere, ANYWHERE else. Lubbock was a dry town then, so you had to drive outside the city limits to buy bottled hard liquor (beer was available in town) so all of the revenue went to the country - not the city. Weird. . . I remember waiting at a stop light one Sunday morning on my motorcycle when a woman pulled up next to me, rolled her window down and yelled "You should be in church!!!" I gave her a one-finger salute and sped off when the light changed.
One night, (around Feb '83) we had an all-hands meeting and a sales rep displayed a linear sales chart that ascended off the right side of the slide. He said there was no way we could keep up with demand. What he didn't elaborate on was the fact that every two or three months, we dropped the price by $50 to compete with the Vic-20 (rather than the C-64 which was a closer match technically). Anyway, it didn't matter how many we sold if it was at a loss. He actually said, "We may lose money on the console, but we'll make it up in volume!" I mean, on what planet does that math add up? TI kept the GROM technology proprietary with the idea that they could make their profits selling the software which cost very little. Cartridges were going for an average of $40. If they had made the technology open source, more (and better) software might have been written, keeping the machine alive longer.
We were paid so little that I couldn't afford a computer at that time. I watched the price drop from around $350 when I started in Aug '82 to about $150 when I left in May of '83. At one point we were handed employee satisfaction forms to fill out anonymously and I spent two hours detailing how inept the 99/4A operation was. I ended with, "I'm so disgusted, I'll be taking the first job I'm offered to leave this company."
Just a few examples that come to mind:
1) The 3' x 3' camel-hair carpeting squares in the manufacturing modules were static generators. These had to be removed, which totally disrupted operations. ESD compliance was a huge issue. They gave us 1'x1' squares of aluminum foil to hand-carry boards around!
2) J. Fred. Bucy was the CEO and a Texas Tech (the local college) alumni. He came out to inspect the plant and the graveyard shift shut down one night to straighten the place up. The next night we were chastised for low production numbers!
3) I had one really good supervisor - he was a pilot who had just left the Air Force. He might have lasted a month before he quit in disgust.
4) I remember getting yelled at by a clueless supervisor for wearing my ESD strap around my ankle to keep my hands free of the spiraled cord that got in the way. Apparently he didn't know that my ankle was connected to the rest of my body at the same electrical potential. . .
5) We were constantly exhorted to crank up production (and repairs) ahead of the Christmas holiday season. In the beginning of December, a group of Texas Tech (remember J. Fred?) Electrical Engineering students (cheap labor) were brought in to "help" the techs with repairs to increase out numbers. There were two assigned to sit on either side of us. We spent more time explaining and less time fixing boards and as a result, our repair numbers dropped to record lows. We were yelled at for that too . . .
Finally, on a Day of Days in early May of '83, Fate smiled and my phone rang. An HR person from the government asked me if I wanted a job repairing submarine weapons systems at the Trident Submarine Base in Bangor WA. (I had put in my paperwork before I left for my motorcycle trip a year before.) I accepted before she finished her sentence! Not only would I be leaving Lubbock, but I would be making more money doing something much less mundane. For comparison purposes, the starting wage for a WG-11 Electronic Mechanic then was 10.56 and hour, so it was quite a bump from TI - plus, no graveyard shift!!!
That night, I floated into work and asked my supervisor in Incoming QC how to give my two-week's notice. I'll never forget the puzzled look she gave me. "Why would you want to not work here? I've been in this job twenty years and no one has ever quit. I'll have to call HR tomorrow and find out what the process is." I told every one of my tech buddies slaving away in the production areas to start looking for a job, because there was no way TI could continue to sustain the kinds of losses we were having. Some nodded, other laughed at me. (All were laid off six months later.)
Two weeks later, I watered the city limits sign with an ear-to-ear smile on my way out of town. The view of Lubbock receding in my rearview mirror only made that smile bigger.
The positive thing I took away from that nightmare experience was I learned more electronics in six months than I did in six years in the Navy. My employment with the government for the following 15 years was extremely enjoyable and rewarding.