A couple of years ago I had the chance to meet Giovanni De Sandre, who has become a good friend of mine. He is one of the engineers who, under the supervision of Pier Giorgio Perotto, created the first ever desktop Personal Computer, known as Programma 101 (P101 for short).

p101-team
The team that created the Programma 101. Giovanni De Sandre is sitting in the front row on the right.

After retiring, he is used to spending several weeks every year in his hometown Sacile, a lovely place where he was born in 1935. As it is just 5 km away from my home, I usually meet him a couple of times a year.

Chatting with Giovanni is like entering a time machine that allows me to travel through the epochs of Information Technology. His tales are an outstanding opportunity for me to understand how the electronics industry—and the economy in general— have changed radically over the decades, both at a local and a global level.

One of the anecdotes impressed me the most was the story of his employment at Olivetti, the company where he spent all of his professional career. He was hired at the end of the 50s, in the middle of the period that is known as the Italian economic miracle. [1] Right after his degree in Electronics Engineering, he received several letters from Italian companies that had a great need for engineers at that time. This fact alone sounds incredible to the recent graduates who have to send tons of resumes in order to get just a few interviews. But there is more. At the end of the successful job interview at Olivetti, he even had the chance to choose which department he would like to work in! He decided to work for the R&D department because he loved to work on cutting edge technologies and new projects. That’s how he joined the team led by Perotto.

Olivetti is also famous for the revolutionary ideas of Adriano Olivetti, its visionary leader who was able to invent and implement a company welfare system that would still be relevant nowadays. On a professional level, one of the most effective processes that characterized the company was the continuing education of its employees, that allowed them to grow—as professionals and as people—throughout their careers. Many of them achieved high-level management positions, regardless of the degree they had when they were hired. Giovanni, for instance, was sent to the United States to attend advanced courses about the emerging field of Microelectronics, held by professors at the best American universities. On one of these occasions, he met Federico Faggin, another famous Italian who made a significant contribution to the Electronics Industry. [2] Thanks to these brilliant ideas, Olivetti had up to 80,000 employees and it has been able to compete with American corporations for decades.

From a technical standpoint, the tales from Giovanni are really fascinating. He and his team had to solve unprecedented problems. Several times they faced issues that nobody had dealt with before. Even if his team was probably understaffed and/or underfunded, a notable combination of creativity and technical skills allowed them to achieve the result first, despite the fact their competitors (for instance Hewlett-Packard) could rely on more resources. This explains why I consider Giovanni as a true engineer, which I can not say about myself. Even though he graduated with a degree in  Electronics Engineering, he had to combine several disciplines of Physics and engineering—mechanics, electronics, electrotechnical, computer science, etc.—to design and build the P101. His capacity to deal with such different fields is remarkable, especially when compared to the current Information and Communication Technology engineers who tend to be very specialized. [3]

Another huge difference between that era and today is the access to the information. Giovanni had to travel to the United States to get up to date information about microelectronics technologies. Now, the information is just a few clicks away. Inevitably, young engineers take this for granted but they should be aware that the things have not always been so easy. If they understood how difficult things used to be, they would appreciate more the opportunities they have today.

Would it be possible to create a game-changing product like the P101 in Italy today? Would it be possible to have an Olivetti-like company in my country again? The Western world witnessed the move of many mass productions to other parts of the planet and my country is no exception. However, Italy has not tried to adapt to the changes within the global market, whereas other Western countries have been able to do so. [4] Thus, I sadly think that the answer to my questions is no. Honestly, it seems hard to catch up even though if we don’t lack qualified human resources, which is proven by the fact that thousands of my compatriots that leave Italy every year and are able to find gratifying jobs abroad.

 

 

[1] Thanks to the combination of several factors, my country—that was literally destroyed at the end of the WWII—was able to rebuild itself and to become one of the global industrial powers.

[2] Federico Faggin designed the first commercial microprocessor.

[3] Of course, ITC fields are so vast today that is impossible to master all of them. However, I think that engineers should not focus on a narrow branch of the field in which they operate.

[4] For instance, Industry 4.0 is one of these attempts, promoted by the German government.

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