Remembering Early Times at HP

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Hurdling to Freedom, by Les Besser

- Chapter 11 -

The Autumn of My Life





CHAPTER 11 - Table of Contents:


The Autumn of My Life

One of Frank Sinatra's big hit songs, It was a Very Good Year, became my all-time favorite. As the lyrics of the song describe, I've also had my share of good years.

  • When I was 14, I began to run track—that had a major influence in my life.
  • When I was 20, I came to the Free World and discovered new opportunities.
  • When I was 30, I graduated from college and began to work in the Golden State.
  • When I was 35, I became the father of a son.
  • When I was 40, I started a full-time business and had a daughter.
  • When I was 53, I married again—this time for life.
  • When I was 65, I retired and became involved with various volunteer activities.

After completely retiring from the management of my company in 2001, I continued teaching courses on a reduced schedule. Stepping out of management was easy. Leaving the classroom abruptly would have been too difficult, because I truly enjoyed interacting with the students.

In addition to the live courses, I also began to present webinars through the Internet. Conducting online courses inside my office, looking at and talking to a webcam instead of directly to the students, brought back memories of the time when I videotaped my courses. At least then there were some people in the TV studio. Teaching a webinar, I was by myself in a room, and that was not nearly as much fun as teaching a live class. On the other hand, no travel was required.

Three of our employees, Jeff Lange, Annie Wong and Rex Frobenius, expressed an interest in owning the company. We reached a mutually satisfactory agreement, and in 2003 they completely took over the operation. Besser Associates has continued to be the world's premier provider of continuing education for RF and microwave professionals.


Coaching Track and Field

To occupy some of my free time, I began coaching track at Blach Intermediate School in Los Altos. Both Nancy and George had attended that school a decade earlier, and I was glad to see that the 65-yard hurdle record George had set still stood.

Coaching children turned out to be another form of teaching. Instead of explaining to engineers RF and microwave design techniques in meeting rooms, I train athletes on the track to run over hurdles. I found the latter to be equally satisfying.

I worked with a variety of kids. At young age, children learn new skills and techniques quickly, and some of them became decent hurdlers in a surprisingly short time. During my second year of coaching, the head coach from Mountain View High School came to watch one of our track meets. “I was wondering who had been teaching some of our incoming freshman how to hurdle,” he told me after introducing himself as Evan Smith. “I could really use your help at our high school. Please come by and talk to our athletic director.”

The next week, I visited the high school and agreed to work with their hurdlers the following season. Occasionally, I would also need to help with the sprint and relay workouts. The kids at Blach practiced Tuesdays and Thursdays and competed only a few times. High school teams worked out five to six days a week and had track meets every week during their four-month season. It would require a more serious commitment.

Interviewing was the easy part of becoming a high school track coach. Completing the vast amount of paperwork, security procedures, and medical exams took much more time. Schools want to make sure that pedophiles and criminals are kept away from children, so I had to pass rigorous background checks. On the medical side, the district physician was alarmed to learn that I once had tuberculosis. Thorough examinations and comparisons with previous x-rays finally convinced him that I presented no danger to the kids.

As a high school student in Hungary, I trained at my club year round. Compared to that, the four-month spring track season at Mountain View High seemed very short. Several kids from the team also participated in other sports during the winter season and could not show up for track practice until we were three to four weeks into our training. It took me some time to adjust to the local customs and coaching philosophies.

At the writing of this book, I’ve coached for eleven years at the high school and have seen almost three complete groups of students from their freshmen years through graduations. I still keep in touch with several of the former athletes as they phase into their next steps of their lives. Working with the students has added a new dimension to my life.

magTwo of the souvenirs I received from the teams. The arrow in the left picture points to me.

Becoming an Author

Technical book publishers had been after me for years to write textbooks about RF and microwave circuit design. They offered free editing and printing, as well as assistance with illustrations. “It won't cost you a dime to write the book, and you can receive royalties for a long time,” one publisher told me. “We’ll take care of everything. All you have to do is give us a manuscript.”

In the past I had contributed to several books, but to write one by myself seemed to me a monumental task. I put off those offers by promising that “next year I would consider it.” When my teaching activities began to slow down in 2002, I discussed the idea of co-authoring a book with one of our instructors, Rowan Gilmore, who lived in Australia. After going through the list of topics we wanted to cover, we quickly realized that a single book would not be practical and agreed to do it in two volumes. We narrowed down our choice of publishers to John Wiley and Artech House. After having initial discussions and negotiations with both of them, we chose the latter, because they were more focused on our industry. Rather than competing with several textbooks already written on microwave theory, we decided to pursue practical circuit engineering and settled on the title Practical RF Circuit Design for Modern Wireless Systems. The publisher liked our choice.

Rowan and I had been teaching technical courses together for nearly two decades, so we knew each other quite well. We split the task evenly between us; I would write most of the first volume and he would focus on the second one. We committed ourselves to deliver our first draft in nine months and the final copy within one year.

Because I am not a fast typist, Susan agreed to transcribe the text into the computer after I recorded it by Dictaphone. All worked fine, except in a few cases when she interpreted some of the technical terms her own way. My favorite example of that took place in the filter design section of Volume 1. As I was proofing Susan’s MS Word file, the phrase “chubby chef filter response” took me by surprise. “How did you come up with the term ‘chubby chef’?” I asked her.

“That’s what you dictated,” she replied and played back the audiotape to prove it.

“It’s not chubby chef, but Chebyshev,” I explained, telling her about the great 19th-century Russian mathematician after whom several types of mathematical functions were named.

“I’m not an engineer,” she shrugged. “How am I supposed to know that?”

She was right. I would have to pay closer attention to the proofreading to catch those types of mistakes.

Actually, dictating the text went faster than I had anticipated. Most of the time, I talked into the microphone the way I did to my students in the classes. The illustrations and equations came from the slides of my course material. Rowan and I submitted the first draft to Artech House in MS Word format ahead of schedule. I assumed that most of the work had been done.

Well, I couldn’t have been more wrong. Artech House still had to convert the Word files to a desktop publishing program. My assumption that it would be a simple automated procedure was only true for the simple text portion of the book. Where we used special characters, such as Greek letters, subscripts or superscripts, an operator had to enter them one-by-one into the publishing program. All the equations throughout the books also had to be recreated.

After receiving the galley proofs, I could not believe the large number of errors. Apparently, the operators who did the manual conversions did not fully understand the significance of subscripts, superscripts and parentheses. Many of the equations were also incorrect.

My complaints to the editor at Artech did not help. “I’m afraid you’ll just have to mark up the galley proof sheets,” he told me. “Be sure to check everything carefully, because the page proofs that you’ll receive next can only be changed for really serious mistakes.”

It took me nearly two months to finish the corrections and send the pages to the publisher. To my dismay, a large number of the same mistakes still appeared in the page proofs I received later. Because the production date had already been set, they only had time to change a limited number of the errors. “You can create an errata and we’ll place one into each book,” the man in charge of production told me. Having the books going into production with many of those known mistakes was embarrassing to Rowan and me, but there was nothing we could do at that point.

After the two volumes were published in 2003, they quickly moved to the top of Artech House’s best-seller list. In spite of their high prices—$119 for each 570-page volume—they remained there for several months. Most of the errors were finally corrected at the second printing. Both volumes were also translated into Chinese and published in China.


Left: Coauthor Rowan Gilmore and I are signing books at a conference. Right: Pictures of our two hardbound books
and the paperback edition of Volume 2 published in China.

Our royalties for the books sold in the Western countries were reasonably high for the first three years; then they tapered off. We did not receive any royalties on the Chinese editions. Rowan and I joked about the return on our investment, saying that we had almost earned minimum wage for the one year we spent writing the books and correcting the errors. In our case, publishing did not bring millions!

Epilogue: Special Tributes to People Who Have Played Major Roles in My Life

Life has placed many “hurdles” in my path! Thankfully, my guardian angel has provided people to guide me over those obstacles. Most of the helpers are no longer here to thank, but I want to recognize them for what they have done.

My Mother. Finding suitable work with only a third-grade education and raising an illegitimate child alone had been extremely difficult for a single woman. When her employer, Mr. Braun, was taken away by the Fascists, she found a new place for the two of us to live. By working as a laundress and a house cleaner, as well as doing any other work that became available, she found ways to feed, clothe, and take care of me. Her working day began early in the morning and stretched late into the night. Unselfishly devoting her life to my welfare, she was always there when I needed her. When my cousin Éva was orphaned, Mother adopted her and shared our meager resources with the young girl.

Mrs. Dancsa. Right after my birth, my single mother could not find any domestic live-in work where I could be with her. Mrs Dancsa, with two young sons of her own, agreed to provide a loving home for the first three years of my life. During my stay, I cemented a life-long relationship with my “milk-brother” Pista and his grandmother, whom I also considered my own Nagymama.

Mr. Braun. When my mother realized that I was closer to the Dancsa family than to her, she searched desperately for ways for us to live together under the same roof. After numerous failures to find suitable employment, she considered ending both our lives. Literally at the last minute, a kind man, Mr. Braun, saved us by hiring her as a housekeeper and also accepting me in his home. He became my mentor and helped me to develop mathematical skills at an early age.

Elementary School Teachers. Three teachers provided exceptional care and guidance during my early days of schooling. My Class Chief and Hungarian language teacher, Mr. Hered, encouraged me to read and saw that I always received free school lunches. Mr. Bordás, the math and science teacher, elevated my self-esteem by declaring me a “math-genius.” Our PE teacher and a former Olympian, Mr. Vadas, directed me to track and field.

Coaches. At the track club, three of the coaches, Messrs. Agócs, Sugár, and Kovács-Kléri, helped me to develop running skills and learn how to both win and lose graciously. They ingrained in me the importance of proper running form by following the basic laws of physics. The lessons they taught me became invaluable in my own coaching practice.

Pista. My “milk-brother,” or, as I usually referred to him, Cousin Pista, was my early-life role model. When he began to build radios, joined a sports club, and chose technical high school instead of the conventional gymnasium, I immediately followed his example. I thank him for the involvement in electronics that influenced my entire adult life.

Mrs. Leflinger. After the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, I feared the Communist retribution for my minor involvement and considered escaping to the West. The path to freedom, however, was narrow and dangerous. I don’t know if I would have tried to leave if it hadn’t been for the assistance of Éva’s colleague. A small group of her friends and I safely reached Austria in a stolen Army truck and eventually immigrated to Canada.

Mr. Leahy. Without sufficient language skills, finding work in my new country was not easy. I was thankful to the Irish-Canadian man who had faith in me. He hired me to work in his radio-TV repair shop though I had no Canadian experience—paying me same wage as he paid to his other technicians.

Professor Wicks. After learning that I was not eligible for a track scholarship at the University of Colorado, I found myself without enough money to pay for the out-of-state tuition. The head of the electronics laboratories gave me a job as a half-time lab assistant, which reclassified me as a state resident. The lower tuition allowed me to stay in school. He was also my mentor throughout my three years at the university.

The Hewlett-Packard Company. After working at HP’s Microwave Division for only eight months, I learned I had been infected with TB while visiting Hungary. Management was extremely helpful and subsidized my expenses during my three months of mandatory hospitalization. They also placed my project on hold until I was able to return to work. No wonder I loved the way HP treated their employees.

My Family. When I was facing divorce, my two young children rallied to keep up my morale. Nancy and George wanted a 50-50 shared custody arrangement that helped me stay in close contact with them. Being a single father every second week for eight years taught me to appreciate the role of parenthood. In the absence of belonging to a church or social group, I found solace in my in-laws and close friends. They provided me with much needed emotional support. The lessons I learned at Lifespring also contributed to my acceptance of what could not be changed.

HP Memory Site Curator and Moderator. Special thanks to Marc Mislanghe and former HP colleague John Minck for inviting me to share my story and assisting with the conversion of the files. I also want to express my gratitude to everyone who provided encouragement and advice, as well as those who helped to review and edit my writing during the past two years.

Last but not least, my wife. After a lengthy search following my divorce, I met Susan who became my life partner. During the past 25 years, our relationship has taught me to appreciate true love. She has enjoyed many good things with me and stands with me when I need help. I am extremely grateful for having her in my life.

Los Altos
CA, 2013


Les Besser


Hurdling to Freedom, by Les Besser

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