Title: Senior product designer at Ultra Electronics-USSI
Hometown: Fort Wayne
Education: IPFW, associate degree in mechanical engineering
Family: Married to Karen, father of four, grandfather of eight
Hobbies: Playing video games, especially flight and driving simulators; watching science fiction programs, including “Star Trek” and “Dr. Who”; riding amusement park rides during the family’s annual gathering at Cedar Point; and cheering for the University of Oklahoma’s football team, where his son-in-law is a coach
Last thing read: A technical journal online
Sometimes Steve Putman gets so engrossed in his Xbox 360 gaming system that … well, let him tell it.
“My wife has to pull on the cord on me periodically,” he said, smiling.
It’s that kind of youthful exuberance that has helped Putman adapt during the past 50 years as owners, offices, co-workers and technology have changed around him.
The 67-year-old Fort Wayne man last month celebrated a half century of working for the same employer: now called Ultra Electronics-USSI.
Back in 1962, when Putman joined the apprentice program straight out of South Side High School, the business was owned by Magnavox. Since then, the operation – also known as Undersea Sensor Systems Inc. – has been under the North American Phillips banner, then Carlyle, Hughes and Raytheon before being acquired in 1998 by Ultra Electronics Holdings PLC, a British conglomerate.
The workforce has been housed in six different buildings in two cities over that span. But Putman, who loves science fiction and amusement park rides, has remained largely unchanged.
“You’re just moving forward and moving forward, and it isn’t until you hit a milestone that you stop and reflect,” he said of his 50th anniversary.
Joe Peters, president of Ultra Electronics-USSI, praised Putman’s “excellent mechanical skills” and productivity. But a lot of what has made the product designer so valuable, Peters said, is his cooperative nature.
“He’s a guy that doesn’t have an enemy in the world,” Peters said.
A high school shop teacher encouraged Putman’s interest in drafting. That was back in the day when it was a real craft, with expansive tables and pencils that you rolled between your fingers while you drew – to keep your line at a steady width. It took weeks – sometimes months – to create one plan with the necessary precision.
“The whole goal was to make it accurate and repeatable,” he said.
It’s been 15 years since Putman had a drafting table at the office, although he still tinkers with one at home. Now, it’s all computers.
But that’s OK with him. Putman was the first in his neighborhood to buy a computer – a Commodore 64 with 64K of memory. Putman, who once dreamed of being an astronaut and traveling to the moon, is what they call an early adapter.
Peters said older workers, including Putman, can often have an easier time adapting to new technology than younger workers because the older workers have had to update their skills so many times already.
Putman said co-workers who tried to hold onto the old ways of doing things gradually left the company, either by choice or by force.
In retrospect, technology’s progress has sometimes seemed painfully slow to him.
The product designer recalled the company’s first calculator. It was so heavy that it needed to be wheeled around on a sturdy cart. And it performed only four functions: add, subtract, multiply and divide.
As technology evolved, the company adopted it.
The workforce has fluctuated, too, over the years.
The drafting team included 80 workers when Putman joined the company and grew to about 340 in its heyday. After the operation changed to computer-assisted drafting and hired some contractors, the headcount fell to three. Now it’s seven or eight, he said.
Putman wasn’t immediately assigned to the drafting team. The apprentice program placed him in various departments, giving him an idea of how the company worked. He built models of products, copied documents and pulled orders in the stock room before settling in behind a drafting table.
He was able to earn a two-year degree with the help of the company’s tuition reimbursement program.
Through the years, the company’s primary product has been sonobuoys, which are 3-foot-long cylinders about 4 inches in diameter. The biodegradable tubes gather data – sometimes to locate submarines, other times to monitor water temperatures or fish migration – and transmit it to aircraft, ships or satellites.
Although the product has been adapted and refined over the years, its size has stayed the same, allowing each new generation of sonobuoys to be loaded snugly into existing carousels aboard the airplanes that drop them into the ocean.
Designing sonobuoys has called for the utmost precision. Although Putman has always shown extreme attention to detail on the job, he’s been known to be a bit more lax at home when tinkering in his workshop.
“I leave tools out, and there’s sawdust everywhere,” he said, adding that his wife, Karen, “thinks I’m too sloppy.”
Maybe that’s an improvement; Karen Putman used to tease her husband for being “geeky” in the days when he wore a plastic pocket protector.
Karen Putman was attending Ball State University when she met her future husband and didn’t even really want a boyfriend. But, she said, his kindness won her over.
“The way he treated me” melted any reluctance, said Putman, who is an activities director and admissions coordinator at University Park Health and Rehabilitation Center in Fort Wayne.
The couple talk occasionally about retirement, but they’ve agreed there’s no magic age that will signal the end of their work lives.
Putman’s parents both retired in their early 60s and later told him they regretted it.
Neighbors often asked Putman’s father to repair broken furniture or perform other handyman tasks but didn’t pay for the work.
“He never did retire,” Putman said.
As long as he can make a meaningful contribution at the office and get four weeks of paid vacation each year, the product designer sees no reason to retire.
The days off allow the Putmans to visit their children and grandchildren frequently, including attending tap dance recitals and volleyball, basketball, baseball and soccer games.
Anyway, others who have left the company have told Putman he’ll know when it’s time to retire.
It’s not time.