Getting hired at Heathkit

School was difficult for me. I'm dyslexic, and (we found out much later) ADD (now they call it "ADHD", but I really prefer the "Attention Deficit Disorder" name, as I have no "hyperactivity"). Writing with pencil or pen and paper was nearly impossible for me. Several attempts had been made to teach me to type, but the lack of a functioning backspace key kept it from being very productive. Inaccurate typing is not much different than inaccurate writing from a readability perspective.

As I entered high school, home computers started being available and capable of "word processing" -- acting as typewriters, but with a backspace key that actually could be used to invisibly correct errors. This seemed like it might be the answer to my problem with writing. The problem was, they weren't cheap. A computer might start at about $2000, but by the time you added a printer, a second disk drive and software, you broke $3000...and that was in 1980 dollars, when a very nice car was well under $10,000. And I was a teenager with parents who were not ones to spend a lot of money on a "toy" for their kid. I wasn't even sure this was really going to solve the problem for me, "trying one" wasn't an option, as so few people had one to try.

My dad's answer to every child rearing problem was his three magic words, "get a job". There wasn't much we were prohibited from owning...but we'd have to go get it ourselves. It was pretty obvious I was to have to pay for it myself. What better way of buying something one is interested in than working for the people that sell it? Employee discount!

There were three places that sold computers I thought I'd try applying to.

Before I started floating resumes around, though, I was pricing out what I needed to get at the various places. I had my driver's license and my parents let me have access to the car. One Saturday in late May, I went to the local Heathkit store to price out what I would need for a word processor. Base computer: $1800. Operating system: $150. Word processor: $200 for the cheap one. Second disk drive: $500. Printer: $400. Lotta money for someone earning money only by babysitting. I was honest with the person I was talking to about my "(in)ability to pay" issues, and when he handed me the final price, he knew it wasn't good. I looked at him and mostly jokingly said,

"Do you hire people under age 18?"

Unknown to me at that point, the person I had been talking to was actually the store manager, and he'd been impressed by my product knowledge. Rather than giving me a "No" or "we don't need anyone right now" or otherwise telling me to go away and leave him alone, he said, "I don't know that anyone's ever tried. Bring me a resume Monday and let's find out!"

Well, you know what I spent Sunday working on, and yes, Monday, I drove back out to the Heathkit store and handed Dave, the store manager, my resume. This time, I was wearing something a lot more appropriate than the "work on the car" t-shirt and jeans. He took my resume, it was a busy moment, so he didn't give me much beyond a "thanks" and I left. As I said, this was late May.

I gave them a week or two, then jumped in the car and drove out there again to gawk at my dream computers, and see if there was any news. No news.

Soon, I decided I had better float my resume to Radio Shack and ComputerLand as originally planned. The Radio Shack manager took a look at it and said, "I won't hire you". I was puzzled and asked why. He gave me a great lesson in business -- he walked me over to the parts area. He pulled down a part, and asked me, "Do you know what this is?"
    "Sure! It's a five-pack of 1/4w resistors", I responded.
    "Can you help a customer find the right resistors for their need?"
    "Yes, I can!"
    "Do you know what it sells for?", he asked.
    "Yes! Thirty nine cents". I'm acing this, he's going to realize he has me wrong and he'll reconsider.
    "And there's the problem. How long do you think you can help a customer find the perfect part they need when all we are putting in the register is thirty-nine cents? That's why I won't hire you".
Oh. He had me understood exactly right. They don't hire aspiring engineers because they don't WANT to hire 'em. they'll spend all their time selling sub-dollar parts rather than moving multi-hundred dollar stereo systems.

At least I learned something at Radio Shack. The people at ComputerLand took my resume, sat on it for a week, then basically told me, "not interested". No feedback, no explanation. Just not interested.

But Heathkit was not saying no. I probably went tthere every two or three weeks (I'm saying that because I'd be embarrassed to say I was stopping by every week, but I may well have). Never got a word of discouragement, but never got a "yes", either. I do remember my parent's garage door opener dying, and looking at the receiver and finding a burned part. Problem was, the part looked like one thing, but was marked on the board like something else. I wasn't sure how to reconcile this, so I grabbed the part and the board and used it as an excuse to go to the Heathkit store, maybe they'd be nice enough to let me borrow a couple minutes of a tech's time to ID what this part was. So, I went in, saw Dave, asked if I could have a tech look at this part and tell me what it was. Dave looked himself, and said, "Oh, I can tell you that -- it's a capacitor, tantalum. Easily replaced with..." (he leads me over to the parts wall) " of these!" This was, as I recall, a very discouraging moment for me. This is the store manager, not a technician, and he knows more about ID'ing components than I do! (to be fair, it was a part I'm familiar with in a format I hadn't seen before. For the techies: it was a tantalum capacitor in a cylindrical epoxy case, looked very much like a diode. Part itself was burnt, so couldn't read the ratings from it). These people really are gods, why would they want to hire someone like me? (and yes, I fixed the garage door opener, dad was happy).

Discouraged, yes. Stop annoying Dave every few weeks? no.

Finally, one trip in October, I walk through the front door and before I say anything, Dave sees me walk in, and looks at me with a slightly puzzled look and says, "I'm trying to decide where I'm going to use you". He HAD been working on getting approval to hire me, and he'd just got it. "Can you start working on Friday afternoons [the store was open until 9:00PM on Fridays] at 5:00PM and all day Saturday?"

I had a job. I had a job at my dream place. I'm sixteen years old. How much better can this get?

My first day on the job, I handed Dave the paperwork the state required for a company to hire an underage employee. I was a little disappointed when in the wages box, he wrote an hourly rate that was a bit lower than the minimum wage at the time, but as a part-time employee and a full time student, it didn't really apply to me anyway. My disappointment turned into glee at the end of the day when I was getting ready to go home, Dave said, "Give me back that form a moment", and he crossed out the amount he had originally written and wrote in a number about 20% greater, and this time ABOVE minimum wage. Not a bad raise on my first day!

I'd love to say I took to working at Heathkit like a fish to water, but ... well, let's just say, while I had some technical skills, I lacked any experience with cash registers or even multi-line phones. I do recall on my first day, I think I actually managed as many correction slips (recording errors on the cash register so they can be accounted for when counting out the drawer) as I did transactions. At one point, Dave told me to answer the phone, I did, but the person on the other side was already talking, I figured someone else had already answered, so I quietly hung it up...and the light on that line went out. A moment later, the phone rang again, this time Dave picked it up, and the first thing I hear is, "Oh, that's Nick, he's new here". I just hung up on my boss's boss (apparently he was of the habit of continuing conversations with people around him even when he was placing calls to other people). First credit card transaction I did was with a very grumpy looking guy (turned out he was a long time regular customer, he just LOOKED grumpy. He and I became friends, in fact).

Ever since, if I see someone on their first day on a cash register at a store, I'm VERY patient, and generally tell them I was doing far worse on my first day than they are doing now. I'd like to say I say that to make them feel good, but unfortunately, it is accurate. I was really not very good on the register!

My second day on the job was Saturday. Late morning, this guy walks into the store like he owns the place. He walked up to counter where I was, then past me into the back where the techs worked. This was a bit of a problem because Dave had told me Friday, I had met everyone who worked there...and he wasn't one of them. Even at age 16, I knew the secret to being where you don't belong is to look like you belong there, but creating a panic on one's second day on the job didn't seem quite right, either. Dave was in his office, not far from where I was standing, so I backed up a little so I could talk to him, but still see what was going on in the store. "Dave, didn't you say I met everyone who works here?"
    "Yes, everyone was here yesterday"
    "I think we have a problem, then. Someone I haven't met just walked into the service area like he belonged there."
    Dave laughed. "Oh, that's Dean. Long story. It's fine". Dave took me in back to meet Dean. Turned out Dean worked at a local auto maker, but hung out at the store, fixing stuff for fun. He'd been offered a job on repeated occasions, but the wages Heathkit paid just didn't compare to what he earned working at an auto plant. He did accept employee discount, but would not take a job. Turned out Dean was actually a fantastic repair person and a great teacher. He became my mentor in the technical side of things. He and I are still friends to this day, almost 40 years later as I'm writing this.

I actually did get to surprise my coworkers with my technical skills fairly early -- not so much experience (I had almost none) but I had a fair amount of theory from reading about stuff, and excellent troubleshooting skills from repairing things for most of my life. I soon learned that these technicians that I was venerating as gods were a lot like me, much more experience, but actually a less theory in most cases. They puzzled their way through problems, unlike me, they had "good" machines handy to compare against and technical documentation. In retrospect, I was actually pretty good.

Soon after I started, we got a new printer that was much higher quality than others at the price point, and at a very good price point. I don't recall exactly how I ended up helping figure out the interfacing, but I ended up first helping, then figuring out how to configure it and our computers to work with each other. It was a serial printer, and I had worked out the basic strategy -- break the astronomical number of setting combinations into something that can be dealt with. By the end of the evening, I had the printer working. Suddenly, I'm a computer expert! We sold a bunch of those printers, too (MPI-99).

Things were oddly exciting for the first few months. Two weeks after I started, another person was hired, a full-time salesperson. Unfortunately, I lost track of him (Marvelous Marvin B., if you read this, please say "Hi!"). Shortly after Christmas, the manager who hired me was terminated and replaced by another manager. Not really sure why (I don't think he is, either), other than our store's sales were poor. The new manager, I later found out he had looked over the employee roster and decided they didn't need a barely 17 year old working there even before he was in charge of the store. Apparently he changed his mind before acting on terminating me.

After our new manager was there for a couple months, he pulled me aside, and told me he would be firing our TV tech. This didn't seem like the kinda thing to tell a junior, part-time person without reason, so I asked.
    "You are going to be our new TV tech until we get a replacement"
    "Why are you firing him?"
    "Because he's incompetent"
    "Ok, I agree. So why are you putting me in as TV tech?", I asked.
    "You know where the high voltage is, you are unlikely to kill yourself"
Quite a vote of confidence, though I may have felt differently if I had known my job was on the line early on. I actually managed to fix two TVs coming in after school on the earlier-close days for the two weeks until we got a full-time TV tech. One of them had a huge stack of re-services -- Jim had kept replacing the two parts that emitted smoke, rather than pursuing WHY those two parts were burning up. I did that, and the TV never came back for repair (HOPEFULLY that means I fixed it).

I ended up working at Heathkit for almost ten years. I worked there through high school. I worked near full time the summer before college. Shortly before my first summer during school, I called my boss to see if he wanted me back. He had to clear it with the area manager, but the area manager said, "Well, I don't think your store has the sales to justify him. But if he works at MY store a couple days a week, I think between our stores, we can justify bringing him back on" (I was assured that it was just because the area manager wanted my help at HIS store). One of those summers, I actually helped land the biggest sale in company history up to that point -- half a million dollars of Zenith computers. A little before graduation, I wasn't sure what I really wanted to do with my degree, so I called my boss and asked if he could give me a decent paycheck if I stayed on. He said "yes", and so I did stay on.

Ultimately, I worked there until they closed the retail stores in March, 1992. I was there for the transition from a consumer kit company to a hobby computer store to a corporate computer sales office. My store went from a basically failing store to the number two store in the chain in terms of sales, and we were quite profitable, and some of our customers were very big, very well known names, both locally and nationally. And when talking to people, if they know the name "Heathkit" (which is, admittedly getting less and less common now), they immediately respect my having worked there.

My notes on the closing of the Heathkit stores are here.

Copyright 2020, Nick Holland
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