Serendipity and Bob Proebsting – Part 1

Posted: March 14, 2012 in Mostek

Sometimes small events lead to big changes. In my case a couple of small comments resulted in big changes in my life. I was reminded of this when I ran across an interview, click here, with Bob Proebsting. Bob was one of the major players in the history of the semiconductor industry and a person who had a major impact on my professional life.

It started while I was a graduate student at LSU. I was getting burned out on school and figured it was time to get out and get a real job. What do you do when you have been working on a gravity wave detector? The market in that area seemed pretty limited and already saturated. Fortunately, LSU had a very good career center. I interviewed for just about every job at the career center. The result was a wide variety of company visits and many different opportunities. Several were in electrical engineering. I have been an amateur radio operator since age 13 and have always loved electronics. In high school I would check out books on electronic design and read them from cover to cover. Other opportunities were in software. I had taken some programming courses and was familiar with a wide array of languages. Anyone else remember APL, LISP or SNOBOL? At this point there were so many different directions my life might take.

I wound up with a lot of company visits and dutifully arranged them in the most efficient fashion. That meant flying from one company to the next. One series of visits ended with Motorola followed by Mostek and then a flight home to visit with my family for Thanksgiving.  It was at Motorola that serendipity began to set in.

Since my background was physics and not electrical engineering, I was lined up by Motorola human resources, HR, to interview for jobs in process engineering and product engineering. As the day was coming to a close I was asked what I wanted to do. I mentioned design. A person whose name I have long since forgotten was gracious and arranged for me to talk to the design manager of Motorola’s SRAM design group. During that interview I mentioned that I wanted to do design but that I guess people thought it wasn’t a good fit because my degree was in physics. The design manager said “The best designer in the business is Bob Proebsting over at Mostek and he is a physicist. The physics degree isn’t a problem.” I was excited. That ended my Motorola time. I had to rush to the airport in Austin and catch a plane to Dallas to visit, fortunately, Mostek. Today many people don’t recognize the name but back in the late seventies, Mostek was a very influential player in the emerging semiconductor industry.

The Mostek visit was a repeat of the Motorola visit. I talked to people about process engineering and about product engineering. Late in the day another nice person asked the me what I wanted to do. Just like at Motorola, I mentioned design. The Mostek engineer called around but it was getting late and there was a long holiday weekend ahead. Most people had left. He found an SRAM design engineer, however, and I went to talk to him. That interview was deeply technical. At one point there was a complex schematic on the whiteboard and I was asked some voltages and currents. I remember saying that an electrical engineer might be able to write a network equation but I couldn’t. However, I could simplify it down using simple principles including symmetry. I was told to go ahead and I solved the problem. When I was done the interviewer, a man named Vern McKinney, said that that was how it was done in the real world. I felt better and proceeded to answer all except one of the other questions. Time was getting tight and I had a flight to catch. I followed McKinney as he left work and he showed me how to get on the highway to head to the airport. At the last minute I figured out the answer to the question I had missed. I rolled down the window and yelled it out. From there it was home for Thanksgiving and a bit of chill time before starting to cram for finals.

The next week I got a call from the head of HR at Mostek. He wanted me to return for another round of interviews. The problem was I had finals coming up and needed to study. In addition I already had five job offers. I declined the visit. The HR person said I should really make the trip. Again, I said “No.” He said I REALLY needed to return because one of the founders of the company was impressed by me. I said “What?!” He said “Didn’t you interview with Vern McKinney?” I said I had. He then explained that McKinney was one of the founders of the company. At that point I stopped being stupid and agreed to return for more interviews.

Upon my return visit I was met by Bob Proebsting. He started explaining the Mostek culture. At one point he said I was free to walk the halls by myself and stop anyone and ask them how they liked Mostek.  It was clear he was very proud of the work environment. He showed me his business card which listed him as a design engineer. He said that, if I joined, mine would say the same thing. Somehow I didn’t think the equality would go beyond that. My only interview that day was with Dr. Proebsting but it was an interesting one. He picked a complex circuit and explained it to me. He then asked if I had any questions which he then answered. Next, he turned the tables and asked me to explain the circuit to him. This was my first bit of insight into how Bob thought. At the end of the interview he asked me to come work with him on special projects. Here was the guy that the design manager for SRAM’s at Motorola thought was the best design engineer in the business. In a rare bit of intelligent thought, I immediately accepted. We went to see Bob Owen, then design manager for the DRAM group, and I signed the offer paperwork. This would turn out to be one of the best decisions of my life.

Tomorrow I’ll discuss working with Bob Proebsting and learning how to be an insightful design engineer.

The photo below was taken prior to my joining. It shows Vern McKinney and Bob Proebsting who I have mentioned. In a later post I plan to discuss the impact of L. J. Sevin. He is a person who not only influenced my professional life, but indirectly my personal one.

Tenth Anniversary Photo: left to right, Vin Prothro, Robert Palmer, Bob Proebsting, Berry Cash, Vern McKinney, and L.J. Sevin

  1. Paul Kimball says:

    I want to thank you most sincerely for both this post and the one that follows it.

    Bob was my stepfather. I was thinking about him today and decided to look online to see if anything like this very blog entry existed anywhere. I’m so glad that it does. You’ve captured a snapshot of him extremely well.

    Reading “he turned the tables and asked me to explain the circuit to him” nearly brought a tear to my eye: it’s exactly how he taught (or tried to teach) me pretty much everything from algebra to wiring a light switch. Teaching was something Bob clearly loved to do. I sometimes suspected it was as much to show off his own knowledge as it was to educate my brother and me, but he really did know a tremendous amount. Watching him constantly using his knowledge to find new ways of solving problems was the more important education for me, and surely contributed to me eventually becoming a (graphic) designer myself. In fact, I think the standards he taught me to hold regarding my working life are among the biggest and most durable contributions he made to who I grew up to be.

    Again, thanks very much for the remembrance. If Bob hired you, you must be one smart dude.

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