Computing Cases Header, Picture of a Keyboard with the text "" printed over it

Life on the Testing Line

Most of the "girls" on the testing line had a high school education, and some had previous experience in precision manufacturing. But the work of testing chips was really something you learned right there on the job. You learned the job from another girl mostly, though you had some supervision from the floor managers (LaRue and Goodearl).

There were about 14 girls on the line, and though they were collectively called "the girls" a few were male. Each girl was assigned a station she learned, and those who had been there for some time knew the work on several stations. The work on each station consisted of doing the testing and keeping records of the fact that the testing had been done. Each chip traveled about in a pink plastic bag, and each bag had a "lot traveler" attached to it. This traveler specified what tests were to be done, and what the particular settings needed to be on that test. The chips traveled about the floor in plastic tote boxes, about 20 at a time, each with its own traveler. There could be different testing values indicated on the travelers for chips in the same tote, so testers had to carefully read the lot travelers to determine the appropriate tests and settings. Thus, each tester:

  1. Selected a chip (and its traveler) from the line of chips to be tested at that station. This meant making a decision about which chips were more important, that is, were there any "hot parts."
  2. Checked the lot traveler that was attached to the chip.
  3. Made sure the setting on the test machine was done as per the specifications on the traveler.
  4. Put the chip in the testing device and ran the test.
  5. Read the results of the test and marked this on the traveler that went with the chip.
  6. Moved the chip on to the next appropriate testing station, or put it in the "rework" bin, or marked it to be discarded (all depending on the type of chip and the outcome of the type of test).

This work was relentless, painstaking, and done under great time pressure. Chips needed to go out to customers, and Hughes Microelectronics (in the person of Don LaRue) would not tolerate any slow or inaccurate work. It was made more difficult by the fact that, at any one time, there were between 500 and 1,000 chips in the testing room. Each of these chips had its own testing regimen outlined on its traveler. But even chips that were the same might be marked differently on the traveler, since in addition to "production parts" that were shipped to customers, some were simply for the folks in engineering to use or for proof of design (does it work) or manufacture (can we make it). These chips required less testing.

Matters were not made better by the management style that was standard at Hughes. People would be told to do things, given no reason, and were expected to jump to the task immediately without question. If you did not, you might be warned once, or, or occasion, simply fired without warning.

Quality assurance (QA) was a regular presence in the area, though staff for this was thin. The QA people would look for mistakes in procedure and report these to supervisors. On occasion, the US government would make (carefully announced) visits to audit the testing area to make sure everything was being done in accordance with procedure.

But the most regular presence in testing was that of the floor manager Don LaRue. In addition to overseeing the testing room, his primary job was to make sure "hot parts" got tested quickly and got shipped to the customers on time. When his assistant, Margaret Goodearl arrived, he was able to spend more time babysitting the hot parts. If a chip failed a test, he would often take the chip from a tester and retest it himself, sometime after hours. He regularly pushed "hot parts" through the testing procedure and explained little of what he was doing to the girls. He would simply take a part from them and disappear. He had work to do, and was simply too busy to explain.