Having nothing much to lose, I decided to be pretty straightforward about what I wanted. "Look, Mr. Yates," I said. "I may not know much about electronics, but I have a good background in math and science. In my freshman year at college I was the only student to get an A+ in calculus. I can write, I can think and I like to work hard, so please give me a chance. You won't be sorry. I'm the best person for this job."
Yates wasn't sure I was truly qualified, but I think he liked my chutzpah. Besides, there were no other applicants for the position. Also, there was a fairly good chance that if he had turned me down, I would simply have punched his lights out. So he said, "OK, if you can convince the big guy, Ed, that you can do this job, then I guess you can have it. But it's only on a trial basis." And thus Yates led me down MITS' grungy linoleum-tile hallway to Ed Roberts' "suite," which included an alcove for his assistant--a pleasant woman named Barbara who turned out to be the only person at the company who wasn't stressed out 95-plus percent of the time--as well as Ed's rather imposing office and a private bathroom.
I waited in the alcove for a few minutes, chatting with Barbara about mundane things like which restaurant in town had the best blue-corn enchilada and why so many people in Albuquerque wear so much turquoise jewelry. I learned that she had recently graduated from New Mexico State University and was married to someone named Bobby who sold electronic parts for a company called Hamilton, which turned out to be a major supplier to MITS. It all sounded nice and tidy.
Finally, a gigantic man with a crewcut appeared at the doorway and asked, "Are you David Bunnell, the guy who thinks he can be a technical writer?"
"Yup, that's me," I replied. "And you must be Ed Roberts. It's a pleasure to meet you."
I followed the CEO into his office, which smelled of stale cigarette smoke, and sat in front of his gigantic desk, the most prominent accessory of which was a huge circular ashtray filled with about a thousand cigarette butts. Ed sat back in his chair, coughed a couple times and lit one of the bigger butts from the ashtray. "Do you smoke?" he asked. "No, but go ahead," I answered.
Ed began the conversation with a brief history of MITS. The acronym stood for Micro Instrumentation and Telemetry Systems, which reflected the fact that its first products were backyard model rockets. These rockets would blast off into the atmosphere to a height of several thousand feet and return to Earth with a parachute that sometimes opened and sometimes didn't. Ed actually had started the company while he was stationed at Kirkland Air Force Base in Albuquerque. Later I learned from his best friend, Eddie Currie (who also worked at MITS), that even though Ed claimed that MITS was a hobby, it was really the other way around: The Air Force was Ed's hobby, while MITS was his main focus.
The company was currently making build-it-yourself electronic calculators. For a couple hundred bucks you got a kit that included a bunch of transistors and capacitors, a circuit board and other electronic stuff that you soldered together yourself and fit into a plastic case. With any luck, you ended up with your very own fully programmable calculator, and it was a real bargain at the time because HP was selling models with equivalent functions for $900.
Following the history lesson, I told Ed that I had majored in history in college. When he asked me what I specialized in, I replied, "World War II," and we then spent the next six hours talking about that subject. It was after 9 p.m. when I finally stumbled out of his office, my head spinning madly from all the smoke. Yates was waiting for me in the alcove--Barbara had gone home.