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Margaret Goodearl

Margaret Goodearl was born in Ireland and finished high school in Ireland and England before she emigrated to the US. In California, she worked doing assembly and then line management for several precision manufacturing companies (including a company that made mechanical heart valves). When she got her job at Hughes Microelectronics Division, she was first employed in manufacturing, but was moved from that job because she could not get the security clearances she needed. She was not yet a US citizen.

She was eventually promoted to a supervisory position in the environmental testing group. She would be working with Donald LaRue, the current supervisor for environmental testing. LaRue was near retirement and would need someone to take over his position when he was gone. She was promoted to be his assistant with the idea that she would take his position upon his retirement. The group that LaRue (and now Goodearl) supervised tested the chips that Hughes made in order to make sure they would survive under the drastic environmental conditions they would be likely to face.

Hughes made computer chips for the US military. The chips Goodearl was in charge of testing would be used in many different military applications, including F-14 and F-15 fighter aircraft, air-to-air missiles, the M-1 tank, Phoenix missiles, etc. Many of the chips were part of guidance systems for missiles or targeting systems for tanks and aircraft. These battlefield systems undergo tremendous environmental stress from dust, vibration and impact, heat and cold, and long term exposure. Thus the chips needed to be able to withstand these environmental pressures. The chips were protected against the environment by a metal cap that would seal off everything about the chip except the connectors from the harsh environment. But the sealing process itself could damage the chips, or might not have been done correctly, or the chip might fail because of some internal flaw that would become evident only under stress.

This is where Margaret Goodearl's testing group came in. They tested the chips after they were sealed and before they were sent out to their customers. Often other divisions of Hughes were the customers and were assembling aircraft or weapons from the parts they received. These customers, in turn, sold the assembled aircraft and weapons to the US government.

In an ideal world, the chips Hughes was sending to its customers (and thereby on to the government) would be subjected to rigorous environmental tests. Those chips that failed would either be reworked (if the contract allowed it) or scrapped. Only thoroughly tested chips would be delivered, because of the critical nature of the military systems involved.

At first, things were fine. She shared a desk with LaRue on the floor of the testing area, with a view of all the testing stations. She followed LaRue around the environmental testing area, learned how to do all the tests, and became acquainted with all the "girls" that she would be supervising (they were called this even though a few were male). She learned how and when to make exceptions to the required tests, and learned all the different protocols associated with each test. She learned how to quickly read a "lot traveler," or the paperwork that accompanied a chip as it was being tested. The traveler specified what tests the chip required and had a place for the test operator to check of that the chip had passed.

There was one additional wrinkle in this standard procedure: hot parts. Some of the chips going through the testing procedure were behind schedule and were in short supply. Customers were regularly calling upper management with complaints that these parts were not being shipped quickly enough. So, Don LaRue met every morning with representatives of upper management to determine which part were "hot" that day and needed to be rushed through. He would then make sure that these parts were tested first and shipped along quickly, ahead of chips that could wait.

So the ideal was rigorous testing of the chips, but with some chips getting in line ahead of others to be tested. In the last several months, however, things had not been ideal. Goodearl saw tests being skipped. When she tried to report these problems, she was told she was not a team player, that she should simply do her job and pass the chips, and that if she kept reporting problems, she might get fired. But because the tests were so important, and the chips were for such crucial systems, she felt like she had no other choice but to continue to report the problems she saw. At that point, it began to get really bad.