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Halt and Catch Fire Hits too Close to Home


I haven't been able to bring myself to watch more than the first episode of Halt and Catch fire. The reason is the realistic portrayal of the treatment of engineers by US companies. It doesn't take the main character, Cameron Howe, long to realize that something is fishy at her new job with Cardiff Electric. She soon understands that the company brought her on to do something illegal. It turns out that they are setting her up to take the fall for copying the firmware of a competitor. As soon as the job is completed, they intend to fire her. One would assume this would allow the company to paint her as nothing more than a disgruntled employee and any testimony she might give as wholly unreliable.

This hits way too close to home for me, because all through my career I've been asked to do questionable things by employers and received zero loyalty from them. In fact, I've come up with a saying, "Loyalty that only goes one way is called gullibility." I came up with this saying in the late 1980's or early 1990's, even before the US wage laws changed to allow employers to fire anyone they wanted for any reason, or even for no reason. In the 1980's and most of the 1990's, companies needed engineers that they could hire for specific tasks and get rid of when the tasks were done. This way, they wouldn't have to hire "regular" employees, people they would have to come up with good reasons for firing to avoid law suits. I worked as a contract engineer on eight different jobs in several different states from 1991 to 1999. When each job ended, I had to move half way across the country to take the next job. This did get old, but one bright spot was that the pay was about 50% higher to compensate. Now, US companies don't hire contract engineers. They no longer have to. Thanks to new wage laws, they can treat their regular employees the way they used to treat contract engineers.

Although in some ways I had it bad as an engineer during the 1990's, at least I managed to stay employed most of the time for nine years. A close friend of the family wasn't so lucky. He graduated with a master's degree in electrical engineering in the mid 1990's. Afterwards, he went to work for a major semiconductor company. He took their job offer because they promised him that if he worked for them for two years writing microcontroller code, they would let him do what he really wanted after that, VLSI design. After two years, he went to his boss and said his two years were up and he wanted to work on VLSI design. His boss said he couldn't put our friend to work on VLSI design, because he had no experience. In other words, they lied to him to get him to work for them. After he had been at the company six years, the microcontroller and microprocessor work moved to China, and the company laid him off. The only thing worse than having your job move to China is having to go to China to train your replacements, which was the experience of another friend of mine in the mid 2000's. Anyway, this family friend looked for another engineering job for two years before he finally gave up and switched careers.

The bottom line is that for decades US companies have treated engineers just a little better than disposable burger flippers. Companies frequently want engineers to do questionable things and work many overtime hours. Companies have financial incentives for coercing engineers into working abundant overtime, because most salaried employees, AKA "exempt" employees, don't legally have to be paid for every hour they work, thanks again to our wonderful wage laws in the US. In fact, many companies have written policies against paying "salaried" engineers for overtime. However, I have never worked at a company and don't know anyone else who has worked at a company that ever allowed salaried engineers to work any regularly scheduled week of less than 40 hours. In this context, "exempt" simply means exempt from being paid for overtime.

These are some of the reasons I just can't bring myself to watch more than one episode of Halt and Catch Fire. The memories it conjures are just too depressing.



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