The moment that changed his life, says Manfred Hunziker, came 58 years ago in the winter of 1963 – shortly before 4 p.m. on a Thursday afternoon. The 23-year-old had signed up for a trip to IBM’s European research centre in Rüschlikon, an excursion organised by the ETH student association AMIV. The tour of the recently opened centre was impressive – particularly the computer in the basement. But the most memorable moment came over coffee, when an IBM team leader mentioned that the company was looking to fill a programming internship. Hunziker applied and got the job. In the months that followed, he not only gained valuable insights into the world of computers; he also acquired hands-on experience of the employer to whom he would remain loyal until his retirement in 2000 – though he would never have guessed that at the time.
Dipping into the unknown
After graduating from ETH as an electrical engineer, Hunziker left Zurich and headed across the Atlantic. “Engineers always like to have a goal to focus on,” he says. In his case, it was a Master of Science in Electrical Engineering at Georgia Tech, for which he was fortunate enough to receive a scholarship. Hunziker had worked hard at ETH, and he showed the same dedication in Atlanta. This was reflected in his grades, which made a positive impression on industry recruiters who visited Georgia Tech towards the end of the academic year. But what made his CV really stand out was his experience with computers, which was then uncommon and highly sought after. Hunziker was soon invited to interviews at various companies in the US. These included IBM, where the recruiter decided to forward Hunziker’s application to their Swiss subsidiary. “They ended up sending me an interesting offer for a job in customer service – right around the time I was starting to feel homesick,” says Hunziker. Everything fell into place.
When asked what he learned from his time at university, Hunziker emphasizes the personal aspects: he recalls being something of a country bumpkin, and it was only when he arrived at ETH that he started mixing with more people and finding his feet in different circles. That meant not only Friday-night beers on Bahnhofstrasse, but also working as publishing director in the student association – and even taking the occasional plunge into student activism. When the umbrella organisation of the ETH students’ association tried to impose a levy of 6 Swiss francs to fund a mountain lodge in Klosters, Hunziker and his association opposed it. Hunziker produced a leaflet entitled “Where’s your money going?”, and that, together with a petition, was enough to stop the compulsory levy in its tracks. Today, at 81, he still sees fellow students who were involved in that particular protest; many of them would egg him on to fight for some cause or other, he recalls with a smile. They still meet twice a year for a leisurely meal in a cosy restaurant. The group has gradually shrunk as its members have got older, says Hunziker, but a good dozen of them get together on a fairly regular basis – “to reminisce about the old days”. Nowadays, Hunziker provides financial support via ETH Foundation for Excellence Scholarships at ETH, no doubt recalling the time when ETH helped him with a scholarship for his own Master’s degree in the US.