I spent a good portion of my childhood in front of a Commodore Amiga 500, an amazing home computer for the late 1980s. I purchased mine used, after having saved months of hard-earned income delivering newspapers.
When author Brian Bagnall created a Kickstarter campaign to fund Commodore: The Amiga Years, a book about the history of the Amiga in 2015, I backed it. As Kickstarter projects go, 2 years later, I received it (now you can buy it on Amazon).
The Amiga was a really neat computer with great capabilities for its price point, much of it enabled by a number of custom chips. The design of these chips was lead by Jay Miner, a former Atari Engineer. I was surprised to learn that for one of the chips, Jay Miner hired Glenn Keller, an oceanographic engineer visiting California looking for work in submarine design, with no prior experience in chip design.
From The Amiga Years:
The engineer who would end up designing the detailed logic in Portia seemed like an unlikely candidate to design a disk controller and audio engine, considering he had no prior experience with either and didn’t even use computers.
In 1971, MIT accepted his application and he embarked on a masters in ocean engineering, graduating in 1976. As an oceanic engineer, Keller hoped to design everything from submersible craft to exotic instruments used in ocean exploration. “I’m the guy that builds all those weird things that the oceanographers use, and ships, and stuff,” he says.
When the oil crisis hit in 1973, Western powers began looking for alternative sources of energy. One of those potential sources was the power of ocean waves. The project caught Keller’s eye while he was attending MIT, and in 1977 he moved to Scotland to work for Stephen Salter, the inventor of “Salter’s duck”, a bobbing device that converted wave energy into electrical power.
The British government created the UK Wave Energy program and in turn, the University of Edinburgh received funds for the program. This resulted in them hiring Keller to work for the university.
The experience allowed Keller to develop skills in areas of analog electronics (with the study of waves playing an important role), digital electronics, and working with large water tanks to experiment with waves. “That resulted in some actual power generated from ocean waves,” he says. “It was a lot of fun.”
In March 1982, with oil prices returning to normal, the UK government shut down the Wave Energy program and Keller returned to the United States ready to continue his career in oceanographic engineering. He soon landed in California, where much of the development of submersibles was occurring. “I was up in the North Bay looking for oceanography jobs and ocean engineering jobs,” he recalls.
Soon, Keller was boarding a train for what would become a life changing experience. When he exited the train he was greeted by Jay Miner, wearing one of his trademark Hawaiian T-shirts. “I go to Sunnyvale, I show up at the train station, and there is this guy in a Lincoln Continental with a little dog sticking out,” laughs Keller.
One doubt Keller had was his lack of experience in the computer industry, or with personal computers of any sort. This was 1983, after all, and millions of personal computers had already permeated homes across North America. “I had done programming but I didn’t understand the world of personal computers or indeed the world of Silicon Valley,” he explains. “I hadn’t been there.”
Once at Koll Oakmead Park, Miner brought him into the shared office space with the whiteboards and block diagrams. Although Miner hoped the proposed system would have a great impact on Keller, he failed to get it. “I didn’t really understand why the architecture was so great in a general sense, because I didn’t know that much about where computers were at that point,” says Keller.
Instead, he hoped his diverse electronics background would give him enough skills for the job. “I had done a lot of electronics but no chips,” he says. “But I liked Jay and I always liked pretty colored wires. I had done a lot of different kinds of electronics. Being in ocean engineering, you do everything: digital, analog, interfaces, all that stuff. Even software. You do the whole thing. So I had a pretty broad base even though I hadn’t done chip design.”
Decades later, Keller sounds mystified as to why Miner would hire an oceanographic engineer into a computer company. “He hired me for some reason,” he says, musing the reason might be because, “I guessed correctly the difference between a flip flop and a latch.”
Most likely, Miner knew all he needed was an engineer with a good understanding of both analog and digital electronics for Portia. He could bridge the gap of chip design by mentoring a junior engineer.
A great story about a successful hire based on an assessment of someone’s potential to learn and grow.
Incidentally, in my high school years, that Amiga 500 landed me my first part time job at Dantek Computers, a small store that assembled IBM PC clones. By this time, around 1994, the Amiga was obsolete, and parent company Commodore was bankrupt. At my interview, Dan of Dantek looked at my resume, saw “Amiga”, and said in French:
“Amiga – ça c’est un signe de bon goût “. I started the next Thursday at 4 PM – I worked there after school for 2 years, and saved enough to pay for a good chunk of my engineering degree.