Remembering Jim Williams, 5 years later

-June 10, 2016

Williams was an inveterate lab rat. He had an expansive window office at Linear Tech, but spent most of his time in the lab. Hoffart worked at the adjoining bench. “The hardest thing was coming to work after he died and not see him sitting at his bench,” Hoffart recounts. Williams would build up hundreds, if not thousands, of prototype circuits on plain copper-clad circuit board. He tested the boards with one of the banks of stacked test equipment. Williams and I both dislike touchscreen test equipment, preferring real knobs that click and snap into position.

 Image courtesy of Fran Hoffart. Click to enlarge.

The scopes at Jim’s lab area had character. The setup below was used by Hoffart, who was an ideal neighbor to Williams’ bench. Williams used to complain about the anti-static floor tiles in the lab, saying they cost more than a scope or network analyzer. The lab area was not tidy, but everything was in position to assist in the troubleshooting and design of high-performance analog circuits.

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You could be envious of even one half of Williams’ bench, but the photo below was just one side of the aisle where he worked. He had an equally-full bench on the left side, out of this picture’s view. In the immediate foreground you can see two Tek high-voltage probes that Williams used on some of the more dangerous projects. He was both intellectually and constitutionally fearless. You can see a chair used as a file cabinet again. The box was full of folders with Williams’ EDN articles when we were going through his history. He published over 60 EDN articles in the 1980s. He did this while working as an app engineer, presenter, and mentor at Linear Tech. The writing was not even his full-time job.

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Williams’ office was more a performance art installation than a place to do paperwork. His desk had dozens of engineering curiosities. You can barely see the red Jaguar car model, representing the Jag that Williams drove. He criticized my time with Ford, over the low quality. I told him god invented Lotus cars so Jaguar owners had somebody to laugh at. On his corkboard he propped the dozens of CCFL (cold-cathode florescent lamp) power supplies he designed, mostly for Apple notebooks. Dobkin recalls, “When we changed buildings and offices, Jim took a picture of his old office and positioned items in the same place in his new office.”

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The chaos of Jim’s lab bench and desk was not replicated at his home lab in his attic in Palo Alto. Jim’s wife Siu told me he was pretty constant in leaving Linear Tech at 4:45 or so. A co-worker noted, “Oh, he is not done working, he is just changing labs.” Leaving early allowed Williams to spend less time in traffic, away from the circuits he so loved.

 Image courtesy of Fran Hoffart. Click to enlarge.

Robert Reay, vice president and general manager of mixed-signal products at Linear Tech observes, “Jim’s home lab was very well organized, and the complete opposite of the LTC lab. My method of gauging lab organization is to observe the banana cable racks. In Jim’s home lab they were neatly organized by type, length, and color. My conclusion is that Jim’s LTC lab bench had become so iconic, that he was forced to keep it as it was to maintain its reputation.”

 Image courtesy of Ron Quan. Click to enlarge.

Jim’s bench had become such a Silicon Valley legend that the Computer History Museum moved Williams’ bench from the lab at Linear to an installation that ran for over six months in the museum. After that period, Linear Tech moved it back to a second-floor lab in building 5, their “Guru’s lair.” That same large picture of Jim adorns the wall. One of the young lab techs told me “It makes me more careful and diligent. It looks like he is watching me wherever I go in the room.”

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