The applications engineering police get busted

Bruce Moore -May 03, 2013

Working in a start-up environment like Touchstone Semiconductor is a bit like being in the Infantry. Not that it’s actually dangerous, but it can be a pressure-cooker,  and, like in the military, you often form close bonds with your co-workers, bonds that can last beyond the start up. 

This was definitely the case in the Applications Engineering department at a previous employer the 1990s.  We worked in a bull pen, answering phone calls from frustrated customers trying to get some wicked bugs out of their designs.  Side note: as a rule, engineers do not phone for assistance unless they have a serious and difficult problem. Engineers generally fall in the category of: “Mom, I’d rather do it myself!”

Beyond answering the phones (which were ringing off the hook), we all had new product proposals and definitions to do, articles to write, IC road tests to complete,  and we had to do it all on a shoestring budget. The company was famously cheap; by the law laid down by our hard-nosed CEO, you couldn’t get a new pen from stationary stores unless you turned in your old dried up one. This was the “Lose a Pen, Go to Jail” rule.

Our merry band of apps engineers had one good outlet from the stress generated by these tight schedules and tighter budgets, which was that the bull pen closed down for an hour at lunch, and we’d all go down to Spoons or Quoc Te to eat. Nobody really drank, so it wasn’t like the infamous Wagon Wheel bar down the street from Fairchild Semi. But we’d have fun, and there was a certain amount of chicanery such as burning some tire rubber or throwing firecrackers into the dumpster at Spoons.

One particular trick involved my good friend Martin Tomasz’s (now a Touchstone employee) Dodge Diplomat, which was a converted police car, so it still had official-looking paint and spotlights, and from a distance looked real. Martin, being a volunteer fireman and emergency-oriented guy, also had a light bar with rotating blue lights that magnetically attached to the roof. Other talent included a colleague who could whistle some very authentic siren sounds. 

So, returning from lunch, we’d sometimes stop a few blocks from the company and put on the light bar, rig up a loudspeaker that Dana could whistle into, and come tearing into the cul-de-sac with whoop whoop noises and lights blazing, looking for some IC designers who we could pull over and hassle. “You’re under arrest! Design rule violation number 22, P+ too close to iso.”

The fun came to an end one day when we were caught in the act by the CEO.  To make things worse, our supervisor, whom we loved, happened by chance to be in the car with us, even though he was not a regular member of the Apps Police lunch crowd.  We came tearing in, code four, bumping up over the sidewalk into the parking lot, and there’s the CEO.  Oh crap, was he pissed.

We made our blonde bombshell get out first (travel coordinator in her spare time when she wasn’t on the phone with her boyfriend. “You wanted to go to Oakland, not Auckland?? Gee!”)  But the visual camouflage didn’t work, and we were forced to debark sheepishly under the CEO’s iron gaze. As we shuffled inside, the CEO crooked his finger at the supervisor, and said, “I want you in my office immediately.”

Our supervisor comes back to the bull pen a little bit later, and says, “Guys, the Apps Police are over and done.  The CEO has absolutely no sense of humor about this. If we get caught again, we’re all probably going to get fired.”

Not long after that, the CEO made us keep manning the phones over the lunch hour, and there was a schedule for who could go on lunch and when. This effectively busted up the Apps Police and lunch was never as fun again.

The CEO did have a sense of humor. He thought it funny when I shot him with a Star Trek tracer-disc gun at a Halloween party. But he didn’t like the Apps Police, probably because we were fraudulently assuming the trappings of authority.  Sometime later, the CEO hired an actual ex-cop to head up Security.  The guy was very police-like, down to carrying a gun.

The only bullets were bullets on memos and datasheets, and the only craters were on circuit boards that blew up.  So, it was not exactly a war zone, but some of the same processes were at work that you might find on a real battlefield.  Looking back, I bonded with the crew of the Apps Police better than any other group of people that I ever worked with. 

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