Teenage Experience Saves The Day

As a teenager in the late 60s and early 70s I experienced the joys and frustrations of listening to music on eight track cartridges. First contact with an eight track tape deck was at the home of a close friend I grew up playing guitar and banjo with. His stereo deck could both record to and play back from eight track cartridges and we used it to listen to our favorite music and then to record ourselves trying to play those tunes together. That deck was well built and trouble free, never misplaying a tape cartridge or eating any of them. Later on, an eight track deck in the family car I was occassionally allowed to drive as a teen was more problematic. It wore out quickly to the point of eating tapes and at times only playing older cartridges if you gently pressed upward on the end of the cartridge after inserting it into the tape deck—something I did while driving distracted by the damn thing more frequently than I care to admit. When I got my first car I immediately installed a cassette tape deck in it, forsaking eight track tapes and decks from that point forward.


Unbeknownst to me at the time was how that experience with jinky eight track tape technology as a teenager would help me solve a vexing technical problem two decades later while working for a petroleum well logging company called Halliburton Logging Services.


Shortly before going to work at HLS they had acquired Gearhart Industries which had spearheaded digital well logging technology in the USA. Part of that technology was a proprietary compact, dual 4-track tape deck which could record and play back digital well log telemetry. It was a dual deck to allow logging engineers to plug in a fresh tape cartridge while the other cartridge was still recording data without having to pause well logging operations. During playback for post processing of the raw logging telemetry, a log analyst could likewise switch tapes as needed to keep the data flowing into the analysis modeling software without pause. The 4-track cartridges looked similar to the old eight track cartridges I had experience using as a teen but were a little bit smaller and thinner.


A few months after being hired on at HLS, the logging systems software manager came to me asking for help trying to figure out why the post processing system software had started having problems reading data from a tape cartridge after it was plugged into the deck. A few other software engineers had been working several weeks trying to find out why it was happening without success. So I went to work with debugger activated and started carefully tracing down the problem, but nothing in the debugging sessions ever revealed any defect in the software. It appeared to be working as it should to properly detect and respond to a tape cartridge being plugged into the idle deck slot, and to make matters worse, the system would work perfectly most of the time I was doing my testing.


I dutifully reported my findings to the systems software manager which seemed only to cause more aggravation and impatience, making me feel like I was failing at my new job until one day we were both standing at the test station in the lab repeatedly running the debug sessions and trying to spot root cause of the intermittently occurring problem. At one point when the problem finally happened upon plugging another cartridge into the deck I had a flashback to my teenage driving days distractedly reaching over to press upward on the edge of an aged eight track cartridge to get the music playing again and did that to the 4-track cartridge I had just plugged into the deck which was now stubbornly failing to playback its raw data. As soon as I applied a little upward pressure to the edge of the 4-track cartridge the deck began playing back its raw telemetry into the post processing system as smooth as glass.


I looked at the systems software manager with a wry grin who just scowled at me with an expression somewhere between disgust and relief, turned and left the lab to go report the tape deck head alignment problem to the hardware engineering group without ever uttering a single word of thanks to me for finding root cause of the problem.