Programming in the Large with Ada at GTE

In 1985 after graduating I took on a position as a “Software Engineer” at GTE Government Systems in Mountain View, CA. The physical location is gone now, here it is today (track houses), in the 60’s, and around my time there: 1991.

GTE Sylvania - 1965

Picture 3 of 3

Aerial view

That bubble building is what we were known for outside the company.  Looks like it moved between 1965 and 1991.  I remember in the 80’s you could see it from Summit Road high in the Santa Cruz mountains.  My wife always asked, “what’s in that bubble?”, and of course, I said, “If I told you I’ll have to kill you”.   I was joking – I never stepped inside that thing.

The history of GTE Governments Systems – West Division (GTE WD) is right here where after some searching you’ll find only one note about a project:

1985 West wins Sly Ocelot contract. CSD wins the Mobile Subscriber Equipment (MSE) contract: the Armys largest procurement of field communications equipment is valued at $4.2B.

Nothing else.  That’s the thing about black projects, everything is in the dark as far as the public can see, and certainly, you won’t find much on the internet about some of the greatest engineering feats in Silicon Valley. That’s right, even with all its grand history, you still don’t know the real story.  However, I found something close, posted by a guy named Steve Blank. He used to work at TRW/ESL, almost a sister company of GTE WD (employees would go back and forth) not too far down the road in Sunnyvale –  a company I eventually joined to work on a non-classified experimental UAV (AKA drone) project. That’s another story.

So, it goes without saying this project was classified. What I can say is it brought into Silicon Valley about 200 “software engineers” in 1985, mostly new grads in their 20’s.  We were to work on a signal processing communications system, a very sophisticated one that involved a lot of software expertise to go along with all the science/engineering radio communications know-how already in place for many years (and well documented in Steve Blank’s presentation).

So, for a few years there was a strange mix at the “bubble” company.  A bunch of “kids” on standby (waiting for security clearances) and learning a new language called Ada, and a bunch of old electrical engineers working in buildings called “tanks”.  Once in awhile we’d see an old guy come out and play basketball with us, or run a general meeting, but that was all we knew about who we would soon be working for, much less what we would be working on.

However, I was different.  Since I had to work my way through school,  I had a lot of experience relatively.  I was a little older as well, and that along with being from the beach cities of Southern California meant my background checks would take a lot longer than the fresh eyed kids from some boring mid-west town. Thus I was immediately put to work on a tools team to put together the development environment and engineering processes we would use for all the projects over the coming years.  Our group was called the PSE (for Programming Support Environment) group.

Once again, like the Beckman LMS project (another story) while working through school, I found myself on a team of contractors because there were few experienced software engineers within the company that was available.  In fact, there were hardly any that really understood what “software engineering” really meant. I was one of the few kids that could define it, it was not something you learned in your computer science courses.

PSE was an elite group, and we were thought of as elitists, I mean my team was. I was just a young grunt looking to learn and challenge everything that didn’t make sense.  This was also to be under a new development process standard called DOD-2167A, which today is considered a grandfather of D0-178B/C, the current aviation safety critical process standard.

Back then a lot of new software development disciplines were being developed and introduced, including  “object-oriented” design and stricter typed languages for embedded systems such as Ada.  This meant any new programming environment embracing these new concepts would receive angst from the Cowboys, especially systems and hardware engineers where C was, and still is, the pedal to the metal language of choice.

This is where the world of “software engineering” developing large systems (programming-in-the-large) clashes with the rest of the programming world.  I loved that kind of stuff (still do), and I loved the team (I need to post later about my admiration of independent contractors in the 80s/90’s, and how something later broke within our IRS system playing a big part in lowering the software quality level in this country.

Like all project/teams at GTE, you’d get a mug , I still have mine for PSE:

SlyO Mug

I wrote a paper (or two) on configuration management and integration processes with Ada libraries. Exciting yes, but I gave a lecture at several conferences around the world on this (well, actually Nashville and Santa Barbara) and taught classes internally within GTE.

Then I got a Publication Award, which was embarrassingly announced by some managers at this huge meeting  – making some speech about how I was an example (a “role model”) of the new breed and exciting times to come to GTE.  He then handed me a check for $5k (nice, but meant I would be footing the bills at the bars for the next few weeks).

To understand my passion then and now with Veriloud, you have to understand Ada, and how good it was.  My entire experience at GTE was a complete validation that programming-in-the-large can be done, and Ada and the processes we proposed at PSE were a huge part of that.  I would soon have to eat my own dog food, that is,  implementing and developing on the PSE within one of the first and most important projects to be completed.  I was able to refine my ideas to where I became convinced this would be my future.  I’d like to delve into these technical experiences in future posts, as I relate them to the current mission of Veriloud, for those hopes quickly died in the next few years after leaving GTE, but not the passion and belief.

Anyway, I was the first person to write a peer reviewed publication among the new breed, that is “software engineers”, among the many great scientists/engineers at GTE.  Don’t believe me?  Ha ha, neither did my GTE buddies (where many were still on “stand by” and noticed I could party just as hard they could every night at the nightclubs). Well, here’s proof:

GTE Publication Award

GTE Awards Banquet Photo

The picture was taken at the awards banquet, and no, that guy on the lower right is not a busboy that snuck into the picture.  I swore nobody told me to wear a suit.  I remember apologizing to GTE’s vice-president at the banquet table, and we had an interesting conversation. He called me, again, a role model for future grads, he actually said that.  I said, “wait a second, the cream of the crop candidates won’t go for this role model stuff.”  He said, “Clay, if all we hired was the cream of the crop, we’d only have to replace them because they would leave when the work started to get boring.”

He foretold my future. However there was one more exciting thing to do at GTE. I got my clearances, became an old guy working in one of those “tanks” on a skunk works project where for the next 9 months I would hardly see daylight again working 18-hour shifts. There are three moments I remember outside the tank though, two were photo shoots to continue as a “role model”, once to play hoops at lunch, this was the other:


These were included in the brochures GTE sent to college campuses around the country. The other moment I remember is early 1988, where one late afternoon I was told to go home because of gunshots at our sister company, ESL.

Anyway, I can’t find the photo shoot where I am playing basketball shirtless on our outdoor court, apparently, the babes loved that one, ha ha.  Yeah, the geek babes that is. The one pictured above with me is Lisa, she also worked in the tank I was in.

She got bored and went to ESL very soon after.  When my project completed later that year she recruited me to join her, where my office would be in the very same building of that shooting I mentioned – where some wacko named Farley made worldwide headlines.

Like I said, that is another story.


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  1. I found this interesting to read! I have a vintage coffee mug/glass store and I recently found a few GTE mugs in Denver. I found a Sly Ocelot mug and a Blue Diamond. Your post is the only thing I can find with any information on what these mugs are! Now I’m intrigued to learn more…

  2. Awe Blue Diamond, there’s also Firefox (or maybe I’m miss-remembering it with the browser?), and …, I can’t remember the other ones. Fascinating time, where all that’s left is mugs and memories. Funny about finding them is a mug store. Can you post some pics?

  3. Cool, I bought the Sly O one. Thanks! Maybe one of my friends here will go for the BD one. Cheers.

  4. Herculano Calvillo Jr. January 27, 2017 at 5:44 am · · Reply

    I don’t know about “blue diamond”I do remember a project there call “Blue Nickel”in the late 80’s being worked on in the mountain view plant

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