October 28, 2012

My father was a professional - part 1

I recently spent some time at my hometown checking some old pictures and notebooks I've got from my childhood, and then spent some time thinking about all my father did for a living, for us, and for all the people around him during his life time. This is a short story of what I know about him that makes me declare that he was an engineer, in the best meaning of the word.

Jose Ponce Gonzales, my father, with my cousin, Nithza Batista

His childhood

First of all a little bit of background, his father was an empirical-mechanic that fought in the war, his mother a school teacher. During his childhood he had to work in order to help his family, so he used to make toys with empty cans: cars, dolls, tools, figures, etc.

Then sold that stuff or trade it for some groceries. During these years worked with his father fixing cars or doing maintenance, you have to understand that cars back didn't come with a manual, books were not accessible and knowledge about mechanics was almost impossible to get.

So he learned on his own, by inspecting, analyzing, figuring out about all the components and how they fit in this system. He learned a lot during this period and created a reputation around him, he could fix things that no one else could, and learned fast about new things.

Teenage years

While still working and studying, he started buying manuals and equipment from stores far away his town, everything by mail, making himself the only person able to get parts and also the only one capable of assemble them.

University

Eventually, he made it to the university, with the little resources he could save while he was working registered in one of the best universities in Bolivia, but his trip only lasted a few months since a military dictatorship closed all universities that were not complaining with their 'patriotic' vision.

Then came back to his town and got the chance to go study in a different country, but sadly he couldn't finish that course because he had to return to help his family, because his father fell into alcoholism and there was no point on trusting him any kind of job or money.

He came back and bought the equipment for a complete workshop, the first one in town. Then managed to avoid taxes on the equipment by making it look old or by splitting it into parts. And I'm talking about big machines, as they were in those days (60-70s in South America).

Professional career

Once in home, started working with his brother in the workshop, working with lots of people and doing everything on his own. He managed the budget, schedules, resources and planning. Planned everything and had a notebook registering all he did and how much he spent doing it, when something went wrong or outside the plan, he planned it again, updating the original plan according to the current scenario.

Among the things he did, these are ones I remember:

  • Adapted a car for a disabled men (his legs didn't work), so he could use only the wheel and the gear shift stick to accelerate, slow down, switch gears.
  • Designed and installed the electrical installation for his shop, as he needed different voltages for the machinery, and the electrical company didn't know how to do it, he did by himself.
  • Built all the infrastructure for a car washing shop, this structures needed to support a lot of weight and be generic enough in order to support several kind of cars.
  • Built his own sewer system, using reserve pools in order to improve water's use.
  • Designed a pressure-based water system for the car wash shop (using Bernoulli's principle), so he could use very few energy in order to make the water flow through a hose.
  • Created his own door-security system, not a big thing, but it managed to keep the doors closed in even with the strongest winds blowing.
  • Built a small car for us using and old washing machine, pretty cool.
  • Built a car for the family using parts of broken cars, pretty cool also.
  • Learned armory on his own, and fixed weapons for the military men that once tried to arrest him.
  • Adapted race cars, this was huge, because all racing cars were always in his garage, pretty cool.
  • There are more things....I'll be listing them in the future....

Practices I've learned from him

My father was very good in empirical situations, he knew a lot, and if he didn't know, he was really quick in learning. These are some things he did I really appreciate:

  • Planned everything, and kept planning if anything changed.
  • Made a budget for everything, scheduling everything based on the real time he needed.
  • Was truly honest about his work and progress, this didn't always was well taken.
  • Never worked overtime, he kept this discipline until his dead.
  • Treated his coworkers and employees with respect, and payed a fair salary, even when this meant that he wouldn't get any income.
  • Taught his workers, shared knowledge.
  • Checked for prior art about anything he involved into.
  • Kept his workplace always clean and ordered.

Things he did I disliked, or things he didn't do at all but should have

Even though I loved my father, he had some things that neither I nor my family liked that much.

  • He was hot-tempered when he failed.
  • He didn't like to read anything that wasn't technical.
  • If something went wrong, it took a while for him to recognize a mistake.
  • He made things for his coworkers if he knew that it will take them longer to do.
  • He avoided discussions and because of that, lost lots of deals.

Things I'm ashamed I didn't learned from him

This will come on part 2 (including my justification about the title)....