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ORANGE COUNTY AT WORK: CAREERS, COMPANIES, CORPORATE LIFE : County's Software Industry Keeps Growing in Diversity, Sophistication

May 03, 1987|CARLA LAZZARESCHI | Times Staff Writer

For $50, you can mail order away for "Primal Screen," a new software package from Genest Technologies in Santa Ana designed to take the hassle out of using Lotus 1-2-3, Wordstar and other personal computer programs.

Studio Software in Irvine has invested more than $4 million developing and marketing "Front Page," one of the few software programs that allows the IBM personal computer to operate a complete printing and publishing system.

And then there's "Finance 10," the program that Creighton Development in Irvine promises will help taxpayers figure out what they owe the government without turning off their personal computer.

Fun, innovative and headline-grabbing programs for the personal computer are perhaps the most visible and best-known form of software. But despite the growing numbers of such programs being developed in Orange County, they are hardly the largest piece of the county's booming software industry.

Largest Contractors

Orange County's diversified and sophisticated software industry ranges from such one-program publishers as Genest Technologies to the nation's largest defense contractors, such as Rockwell International and Hughes.

The need for software is felt throughout business and government, leaving most office workers as dependent on software writers and data processing analysts as they are on telephone operators and repairmen.

"Program writers do everything from 'Star Wars' to Word Star to Pac Man," jokes one industry analyst.

And although the growth rate in the industry has tapered off from its peak a few years ago because of the overall sluggishness in the electronics industry, software in general is among the fastest-growing industries in the county.

The state Employment Development Department estimates that the number of computer programmers and systems analysts in Orange County will exceed 8,000 in 1990, a 60% increase over 1980 levels. A large percentage of the county's software developers and writers work for the county's many defense contractors.

Key Roles in Defense

Software is a key element in the video display consoles Hughes' Ground Systems Group in Fullerton makes for several U.S. Navy submarines. It also plays a major role in the air traffic control systems the company builds for the Federal Aviation Administration. And it is relied on heavily in the radar systems Hughes builds for the Navy, Army and Marine Corps.

"We use software in everything we build because it drives the technology that these systems use," a Hughes spokesman said. "Basically, if you have a computer-based system, you need software."

The Hughes Fullerton campus includes a 1,000-employee software engineering division specifically to create, write and "de-bug" the software programs needed by the various construction and design projects. It is the largest operation of its kind in the county.

At McDonnell Douglas Astronautics Co. in Huntington Beach, software engineers create programs that operate the computer systems used in a helicopter-mounted radar system used by the Army. The system, a kind of a seeing-eye system, helps pilots find their targets. Software programs also guide the operations of the satellite-launching Delta rocket built at the Orange County facility.

Work on President Reagan's so-called "Star Wars" project in Orange County all involves software, even when the defense contractor is assigned to build a piece of the system or design one of its elements. At Irvine Sensors, a small Irvine military contractor, engineers have designed software to operate the infrared detectors and other "smart sensors" that the company is building for the "Star Wars" surveillance systems.

Software is also what propels many of the large computer component manufacturers in the county, even though few of them actually sell anything remotely resembling a floppy disk or reels of magnetic tape. At Alpha Microsystems in Santa Ana, software engineers are needed to continually update the proprietary operating system that governs how the company's machine processes information.

Software Tests Devices

At AST Research in Irvine, the nation's largest maker of accessory products for the IBM personal computer, software engineers help determine how the company's plug-in boards and other devices will work with the host computer. The electronic test equipment made by Computer Automation in Irvine requires internal software programs to perform its task of evaluating computerized devices made by its buyers.

Dependence on and use of software is not limited just to high-tech companies.

Grocery stores use software and programmers to handle their automated checkout and inventory control systems. Banks, school districts, department stores, manufacturing plants, medical offices and dozens of other businesses use programmers to instruct their computers on how to handle payrolls, inventories and other management-information systems.

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