Archive for Sunday, August 6, 2006

Super summer job

Lawrence teenagers work on computers at MicroTech

August 6, 2006


Like many of her high school classmates this summer, Samantha Sparkes showed up for work with no real experience, without a specific job title and more than a little bit of anxiety.

"I've never really done anything like this before," she recalls thinking.

Then again, neither had anybody else at Microtech Computers Inc., where she and nine other children and associates of staffers found themselves involved in what just might be one of the most high-tech summer camps around.

The teens' summerlong project: Help build two identical supercomputing clusters, each big enough to require seven miles of fiber-optic and Ethernet cables, powerful enough to run 6 trillion calculations per second and fast enough to outpace all but 100 or so of the world's computers.

The $6.5 million worth of hardware - to be transported later this month to two classified locations for the U.S. Department of Energy, where the clusters will be enlisted to tackle Homeland Security tasks - will ingest a combined 340 kilowatt hours of electricity for operations (enough for about 32 typical homes) and another 120 tons of air conditioning power (enough to chill about 24 homes) just to keep cool.

Microtech Computers Inc. employee Steven Peng, 15, searches for serial numbers on the front display of computer clusters in the company's warehouse.

Microtech Computers Inc. employee Steven Peng, 15, searches for serial numbers on the front display of computer clusters in the company's warehouse.

Not bad for an 18-year-old Lawrence High School senior, who doesn't even bother telling her friends about the project she has been working on for $8 an hour, 40 hours a week.

"They'd be like, 'Yeah, right,' " Sparkes said last week, fastening a black metal rack. "Most computers just lock up and die on me. This is the first time I've ever done anything like this.

"It's better than baby-sitting."

The folks at Microtech, 4921 Legends Drive, still can't believe their good fortune.

The student employees, working in what Microtech managers affectionately referred to as "Summer Technology Camp," spent their days installing motherboards, running wires, erecting cabinets and handling other tasks associated with fulfilling the biggest single assembly project the 20-year-old company had ever taken on.

Lesson plans


Mike Zheng, president, owner and founder of Microtech Computers Inc., explains how his company's latest $6.5 million project - building two supercomputing clusters for the U.S. Department of Energy - will function, and how hiring young employees for the summer helped get the job done. Enlarge video

Teen employees worked with tutelage and under the responsibility of four managers at Atipa Technologies, Microtech's supercomputing unit:

¢ Qiwu Liu, who supervised and monitored hardware troubleshooting and repairs.

¢ Everett Edwards, who supervised and coordinated assembly processes.

¢ Roger Heflin, who, as lead engineer, oversaw installation and configuration of software.

¢ Edward Cote, who supervised and coordinated installation of cables and placement of equipment on racks.

Company officials say that the managers' youthful charges worked out so well on the Department of Energy project that they're already looking forward to the next big job - whether it's next summer or sooner.


Byron Snowton, a Free State High School senior, shows off some of the computer hardware he worked on this summer, and explains how the skills he learned at Microtech Computers Inc. should pay off in the future. Enlarge video

"They've done a better job than some people we've had here before," said Mike Zheng, Microtech president and owner.

It's a compliment that Byron Snowton proudly accepts.

When the 16-year-old returns to Free State High School this month to start his senior year, he'll have newfound confidence. Before joining Microtech for the summer - at the suggestion of his ex-girlfriend's mom, a longtime Microtech employee - the biggest job he'd ever handled was helping pour concrete for a house in Texas.

Future foundation

"When I leave here, I'll know how to build one of these," Snowton said, as 1,300 high-performance Opteron Server processors whirred in a completed cluster behind him. "I feel lucky. That's a lifelong skill I'll have."

Dana Chang, Atipa's vice president, said having such "kids" on the payroll could do more than improve efficiency, ensure quality and build camaraderie for the company. It also could help the area build strength as a high-tech powerhouse on the Plains.

"Lawrence could become the Silicon Valley of the Midwest," Chang said. "We have Austin (Texas) for the south and San Jose (California) for the west, but nothing for the middle west. Lawrence is well qualified to be the next Silicon Valley."

Sales speed up local company

Annual sales are holding steady at between $20 million and $30 million for Microtech Computers Inc., said Mike Zheng, company president. But the business' focus is changing. While the company was founded in 1986 as a maker of personal computers, and at one point did as much as $15 million a year in such business with the state of Kansas alone, the state contract today generates less than $5 million in annual sales, he said. Supercomputers now account for more than half of the company's sales, a share that will be expected to grow as researchers and governments continue to demand faster computing speeds and PCs become more of a commodity, he said.


grubesteak 11 years, 8 months ago

What a great opportunity for the next generation preparing for the workforce to have!

I'm sure this experience will prove invaluable for them as they continue with their education and careers. Good job!

fletch 11 years, 8 months ago

Actually, Marion, Austin and San Jose both experienced big tech sector growth while being dominated by progressive city leadership.

lawrencephilosopher 11 years, 8 months ago

fletch wrote: Actually, Marion, Austin and San Jose both experienced big tech sector growth while being dominated by progressive city leadership.

DARN IT, CALL IT AS IT IS: Actually, Marion, Austin and San Jose both experienced big tech sector growth while being dominated by EXTREMELY LIBERAL city leadership. IT'S NOT WORKING HERE AND WE ARE SCREWED!!!!!!

Fred Whitehead Jr. 11 years, 8 months ago

Yeah, Right! We have heard from Microtech before. I worked there a few years back. This company is not the great shake that this story tries to present. The HR door is a revolving door. People go to work there and soon leave. I wonder what they are paying these "kids" as Ms Chang (Mrs. ex-Zhang) calls them? Microtech has found a neat way to present their temp/part time labor, just hire some wide-eyed "kids" and after the job is out the door, off to McDonalds or Burger King for the rest of their summer pizza and beer money. Don't get me wrong, I think that having a high tech company is a good idea, but this one is run like a certain non-mentionable ethnic slur fire drill and jobs with some future, benefits, and advancement possibilities are virtually non-existant. And I wonder if anyone has checked the birth certificates or green cards of these "kids", eh???

christie 11 years, 8 months ago

The REASON this place has a revolving door is evident in this article. They obviously pay their employees crap and as soon as they gain experience the company would rather see them walk than pay them what they are worth.

We see this over and over and over again from employer giants like KU down to independent business owners.

I'm tired of driving to O/Park to make a decent living. The high cost of gas and the low wages paid in Lawrence is driving me out of town. I'm leaving next week for Nashville, TN where housing costs are lower, and people are paid much more for their skills. And my commute will be 5 miles each way instead of 40. Do the math.

hipper_than_hip 11 years, 8 months ago

Is this the same place that got busted for not paying overtime to it's hourly workers?

Lowell Holmes 11 years, 8 months ago

The reason they used these kids is because they can no longer find people to put up with the crap Microtech and Dana particularly doles out for the slave wages they pay.

Michael Stanclift 11 years, 8 months ago

Lawrence the next Silicon Valley my ass. There would have to actually be some decent tech jobs for that to happen, and not just ones where high school students are paid $8 an hour to put together server racks and install motherboards.

Overland Park is the Silicon Valley of the Midwest. Just go look at CareerBuilder or Monster and search for IT jobs in this area. An overwhelming majority of them are Overland Park with a sprinkling in Lenexa.

Commenting has been disabled for this item.