How I Got A Job at Atari

It was summer, 1979. My wife Kathy had a job of a lab tech working in a cancer research lab associated with a hospital. Whenever a patient at the hospital was declared ‘terminal’, Kathy had to go to the patient and explain that, since the patient no longer had a chance of surviving, would they mind participating in a research program that wouldn’t help them, but might help develop treatments for future patients. She brought along a form to sign and a kit to take a blood sample. She was something like the Vampire Angel of Death, a role she hated. 

Then she heard about a program at the University of California at Davis, where we lived, called “Women in Engineering”.  There was a desperate need at the time for electrical engineers in Silicon Valley. The idea behind the program was to recruit women with bachelor’s degrees in the life sciences (Kathy’s was in Biochemistry) and put them through an intensive two-year program to equip them with an education equivalent to a bachelor’s degree in Electrical Engineering. They selected only smart, talented women, and ended up with about 40 graduates. 

Kathy got a good job in Silicon Valley but I was back in Davis, 100 miles away, and so had difficulty finding a job. Kathy went through the classified ads in the newspaper every night, looking for something I might like. We figured that I was looking for some kind of physics job, since I had a Master of Science degree in physics. I would have preferred a teaching job at a community college, but such jobs are rare.

Meanwhile, I had been building computer games as a hobby. I had in fact sold several hundred of my games, which was quite an achievement in those early days when few people had computers. So one night Kathy called me and with much excitement read me an ad. I still remember the title: “Computer Programmers: Make Your Own Games!” There was little else: three years programming experience. It was from a headhunter in Mountain View, in Silicon Valley. So I called him and made an appointment. 

I still remember that his office was just off the 101 Freeway. I showed him the games that I had self-published; told him that I had sold 250 copies of them; talked about how I had built my own computer; above all, I displayed my enthusiasm for the field. He listened, perused my resume, and then asked bluntly, “How many years experience programming do you have?” I explained that I had started writing scientific programs nine years earlier and had done much machine-language programming over the last two years. “But how many years have you been employed as a programmer?” he inquired. I had to admit that I had never been employed as a programmer, but you could see from my success selling my games that…

He stood up and announced that the job required at least three years professional experience. His tone clearly indicated that the interview was over. I drove back to Davis upset. It seemed so unfair — I had accomplished what very few people had. That night, I poured out my sorrows to Kathy over the phone. She grabbed the telephone book and searched for “Games”. She found two companies: Atari and Exidy. The next morning she called them to arrange appointments. We had one stroke of luck: when she explained to the Human Resources lady at Atari that I couldn’t show up on short notice because I was in Davis, the lady said, “Oh, is he an Aggie?” (meaning, did he graduate from the University of California campus there?) When Kathy replied that both of us were Aggies, that seemed to strike a favorable note with the HR lady. So I got the interview. 

I ended up interviewing at both Atari and Exidy; they were just two blocks apart. The fellow at Exidy showed me some of the cool coin-op games they were working on; he sat down with one and played it for a moment to demonstrate its capabilities, then invited me to play. I demurred; even at that early time, I regarded such games as a waste of time. I was interviewing for a position programming their brand new personal computer, the Exidy Sorcerer. They made me an offer but I opted for the Atari offer because I (rightly) suspected that Atari had a brighter future. That’s an important element of my career success: I’ve always had a good nose for sniffing out the technologies that would succeed and avoiding the technologies that would fail. In 1984 I had to choose between working on the Macintosh and a job at Amiga working on their computer. I chose the Mac. In the early 90s, I had to decide whether to embrace the new CD-ROM technology; I decided (on theoretical grounds) that it wasn’t as important as the new telecommunications technologies, although I thought that ISDN would be the game-changer, and I didn’t recognize the significance of the Internet. Yes, there was plenty of other stuff connecting computers by phone lines other than the Internet. 

Anyway, my interview with Atari went swimmingly and I got the job. A few months later, I discovered that the headhunter who had rejected me was trying to fill programming jobs at Atari. His narrow-mindedness served only to cost him his fee.