Friday 10 February 2012

Fukaya 1 - A New Beginning

Have you ever worked at a place for years and was never an actual employee?

Well, that was my situation when I was at IVP, a large VCR factory in Yishun.

IVP was a joint venture between Toshiba and Thomson. It had 2800 employees and exported to the world. A particular thing about this j-v was that the companies kept their respective R&D departments. Although I was physically in IVP, I actually worked under Video Engineering Pacific Pte Ltd, a Thomson Consumer Electronics company. It handled all the design and processes necessary to bring a VCR to production.

I was then a CE Design Engineer. Started in RF but decided to switch to Product Evaluation and a test project.

When that test project came to an end, I wanted to leave. My excuse was to go write a book. I was quite active in sci-fi then and wanted to write a story or two. But really, the reason was that the project tied me down. I was missing out on a couple of career opportunities that was more challenging. One was to work with underwater submersibles. How cool was that? But I've never been one to leave things half done, so I stayed.

My boss, Andrew, on receiving my 'white envelope', was surprised. But I must say he took it rather well. He reported the matter (as according to protoccol) to his boss, an elderly American gentleman by the name of Jack, the general manager of VEP. We sat down and chatted.

I was quite surprised that Jack knew what I was up to in the company. Besides that important test project (which became an engineering showpiece there), I was also involved in IVP's QLP (quality leadership process) Steering Committee. I was young but the company gave me opportunities to flourish... which is why I enjoyed working for that French company TCE (often simply just called Thomson).

My other responsiblity was as member of TCE's inter-subsidiary Recreational Club. TCE at the time had several divisions in Singapore reasearching and making things like TV and audio products. There were also Sales and Marketing offices.

A year ago, I had run a very successful bowling tournament at Kallang Bowl for all these TCE employees. They were hoping that I would repeat the same event again that year. Back then, I didn't like bowling. It was often associated with smoking and gambling and I was never into those things. Fights were also common at the lanes.

But I took on the bowling assignment as a learning opportunity. It was not easy as I had to arrange practice sessions for the teams as well. The tournament turned out to be quite the success. In the process I found new confidence in event management. I also had renewed respect for folks who bowled. My weak wrist could never spin that heavy ball the way they did.

Jack leaned back, put his fingers into a steeple and asked: "I heard from Andrew that you wanted to write?"

"Yes," I replied, wondering what he thought of the idea. I further mentioned my interest in the Sci-fi Association of Singapore, that we had just finished a live-action role playing game on Fort Canning Hill the year before. A mega production that involved lots of props building and costume making mostly from the help of young volunteers.

"We have this position over at Documentation. For a while we have been thinking of expanding that to provide more After-sales support. It involves writing and teaching. I think you would be most suitable for it given your product knowledge and outgoing nature. Andrew has good things to say about you."

On hearing that last bit, I was rather embarassed.

Personally,  I felt bad leaving Andrew's New Product Evaluation Group. The folks there were excellent buddies and Andrew, as I would compare later, was a pretty good manager. Like most managers, he was a task master, but at the least he sought to make things easier so that our work got done. He was a facilitator even before that term got trendy. Andrew would also bother to build rapport with us by playing darts together, often at a pub in Duxton Plain (Tanjong Pagar). One time, we even played a prank on him by moving his car to another part of the company's carpark. He was quite sporting about it even though he was concerned about his fave Saab 'tank'. I actually took a while to get his car going because till then I had never driven an automatic before.

At the end of my meeting with Jack, I was asked to mull over what was discussed. A reason Jack gave for holding me back was that IVP R&D was trying to build the same test project (actual name: Auto Evaluation Station, or AES) in their lab and as lead programmer, my expertise was needed to help the two engineers involved get started.

The AES was cutting-edge because it could evaluate four VCRs in 45 mins instead of the usual four hours. I also built an interface box that connected the video, audio and RF signals. Control was via infrared remote control, RS-232, GPIB bus and PC parallel bus. Such interfaces were common before the invention of USB. That high-performance interface box itself was built for less than $500, something I took great pride in.

Also, unbeknownst to me at the time, Andrew had sent the project up for NSTB National Technology Award consideration. It thrilled me and my project partner Mong Hua that it got nominated. But I knew then we would never win because the award was always biased towards those in the Sciences. Engineering innovations often got ignored even at the international level (like the Nobels). Nevertheless both of us were chuffed that the project received national recognition.

The new AES and the fact that my new role would be worldwide was another impetus to put my writing ambitions on hold.

The only thing I was unsure of was my new boss Chee. The few times our paths crossed, he came across as young and not very sincere. He was the sort that smiled a lot and used the words "No problem" too easily. Compared to him, Andrew was a paragon of wisdom and rock-solid reliability even if he could have been more technically savvy. Andrew was a Big Picture fellow, why I think he later found success designing and setting up factories.

I think the basic problem with Chee was that he isn't very bright. I found that out during our first trip to Japan. We were at the Narita train station and he couldn't figure out the subway map. In the end, I had to take the lead and got us to Toshiba's VCR factory in Fukaya. It ws about one hour away from Tokyo by train. Like him I too was new to Japan and did not read or speak the lingo.

Chee might not appear very bright but he was ambitious. I remember thinking what a dangerous combination both would make.

My other executive colleagues in the new after-sales unit in the Documentation Group were Esther and Tuang.

Esther was an engineer in her late 20s. She was not overtly sexy but was comely in a full-woman manner. She was fair, had rosebud lips and a nice pair of legs. Her eyes weren't very big and were single lidded. They seemed to scrutinise whatever they set upon. One could easily tell that Esther was intelligent and observant. But she was a gentle person at heart. You could tell this by her voice, which was sweet and sometimes "manja-ish". She was an engineer feminine in more ways than one.

But do not be mistaken, Esther had low tolerance for dumb blondes. I think most engineering girls felt that way at the time (maybe even now).

When I first met Esther I was thinking here was a mature and competent person who should have been running Documentation rather than Chee. But as I got to know Esther, I realised she was a good soldier who preferred not to have too much responsibility on her shoulders. I think she was more of a guy's gal than an Alpha girl. She preferred a guy to take the lead. She was laid back like that. But Esther was meticulous in her work and would stay behind late to finish a job, no matter how late. She was married but did not have any kids then.

Esther's smart yet soft womanly ways endeared her to our Japanese colleagues in Fukaya. One was particularly smittened and would send her flowers whenever he was in Singapore. He even proposed to her one time when she was in Japan, probably half in jest. They knew she was married.

Tuang on the other hand was a bit of a worry wart. He would often say: "What? Are we really going to do that?" or "See, didn't I tell you so!" He was lean, tall and spoke English with a dialect accent oftentimes in a rather loud voice. He was a vegetarian and we would lunch at a certain place in Yishun Street 22. He often spoke of his mom and came across as filial and a decent bloke.

Actually, I don't blame Tuang for worrying. What we were about to do was not going to be easy. We would be teaching service heads around the world how to service and maintain IVP-made VCRs. We had to teach them not only the existing models but also new ones that were going to be launched. At the same time, there would also be new troubleshooting methods to grasp. IVP VCRs were getting more advanced by the day. Our RCA lab in the US was particularly innovative, churning out new VCRs that were slimmer, lighter, and with fewer PCB boards.

One particular model was impressive. The PCB boards did not need screws; they simply clicked and locked in place. Other models were all very servicemen-friendly. At the base of the VCR were points-designate where a technician could probe to find out if a certain waveform was there. If not, that could indicate a fault somewhere.

Whilst the R&D folks were innovating and creating all these features, someone had to inform the various world-wide service center heads of the changes. They would in turn inform and train their own men.

That's where me, Tuang and Esther came in. We were called the After-sales Team because the information and training we provided were essential to the 'after' sales of a product, i.e. in the servicing and maintenance of its lifespan. Such information were all contained in a service manual - the bible of the Service folks. From this manual, they could glimpse common problems, remedies, troubleshooting steps, data specs, etc,... The whole technical writing lot.

To be effective, me and Tuang as instructors had to be pretty savvy with the workings of all the VCRs that our factory exported. These comprised of models that worked in the PAL, NSTC and SECAM TV system markets. For example, much of Asia followed the PAL system. In France and parts of Africa, it was SECAM. In the Asia Pacific region, Japan was the oddball out as it used a version of NTSC that the US uses. The Chinese market was an unknown then as it was just beginning to open up.

Tuang was a bit worried that we might not know everything. But after saturating himself with a ton of system manuals and technical documents, he simply said:"Bo chap, chiao gar!" meaning "Heck it, let's just teach" in Hokkien.

In a way, we needn't have worried too much about teaching the more experienced Service Heads "how to suck eggs". Our job was more to inform than teach, i.e. to tell them of the new circuits, features and methodologies so they could prepare and ready their centres and staff for the new VCRs to come.

With our minds cleared up about that, we buckled down to organise ourselves better. I would take the NTSC markets, Tuang the PAL markets, and Esther would be our Base Support person. There were three other staffers under Esther who belonged to the Documentation Group proper (Ida and two other ladies).

Mr first meeting with Chee did not leave a good impression. It was to sign my new appointment letter. In it was a list of  responsibilities that included the job of PC network administration and making an e-document solution work. This was never discussed with me before.

That e-document solution was something TCE had bought from Canon about two years ago (no thanks to Chee). I think it was called Canofile. It had been a white elephant ever since. That's not a surprise as people were more accustomed to faxing, photocoping than pdf-ing then. The PC network bandwidths at the time were simply too narrow to support large file transfers. Chee asked me to make the e-document work. I read that to mean "save my ass".

Chee had dumped all these additional work on me without due consideration of my principal role in After-sales. There was no discussion. I don't think he even knew in depth what After-sales was or should be. In any case, I had little choice but to sign on the dotted line. At the time, I had just recently handed in a resignation letter to Andrew. If things did not work out, handing in another white envelope to Chee wouldn't be too difficult. Chee probably deserved it.

Next: Fukaya 2: Strange Eatery
Previously: A VCR Affair

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