My changing workplace – part 2: Into the 90's

I started work as a mechanical engineer, but my eyes were opened to a new future after a rotation into the computer services department.

LismoreLike many organisations of its day this particular organisation had many different people owning and operating what we might call ICT today. This particular computer services department came out of the business services side so ran a mainframe. There wasn’t really a choice in those days – business system ran on mainframes.

Just like in ancient days where it was the person who could make fire who was revered, in this mainframe dominated world it was the mainframe sysprog who was honoured and feared. The last thing you ever wanted to see was the tall wiry man in the corner stand up with a bang of his hands on the desk and march towards your desk; or even worse for him to stomp into the computer room and then to stomp back to your desk having restarted everything. This was an experience I endured on a few occasions, fortunately I’m quite a fast learner.

The office was strategically placed next to the computer room because people had to be near the computers to look after them.

At the other end of the room to the tall wiry king was a line of three desks with phones. These were the home of the help-desk which had permanent occupants – in the mornings. In the afternoons everyone else in the department took their turn at phone duties except, of course, the tall wiry sysprog king.

In my first office the hierarchy of the office was defined by the chairs, in the computer services department it was defined by the model of IBM terminal that you used. Some people had colour screens some really important people had more than one.

As a business systems organisation the purpose of the mainframe was to support the manufacturing and finance processes of the organisation. Like most organisations at that time these systems were written by the organisation itself in COBOL.

IBM DisplaywriterLike I said in my last post the primary purpose of the computer was to produce paper. In the middle of the computer services department were a small group of people who looked after office systems. Some people around the organisation had been using IBM DisplayWriters for some time but this team were starting to deploy an emerging computer platform – the IBM Personal Computer.

This was the days of DOS and the primary application being used was DisplayWrite 4 a word-processing application. Another important application was the spread-sheet – Lotus 1-2-3. I remember spending many days using another programme, Lotus Freelance, to produce a whole set of overhead projector sheets that were printed out on another relatively new invention the HP LaserJet printer. These PC’s weren’t connected to a network though, they had a card in them to let them operate as IBM Mainframe terminals. All of the data was stored onto the 3.5" floppy disk.

One of the office systems team had been looking at a system called Microsoft Windows, but no-one was quite sure why you would use it. Very soon, though, things were about to change because there was talk of something new called Windows 3.1.

The computer service department didn’t have anything to do with the Digital VAX computers, they were there to support engineering, and engineering looked after their own. Actually, part of the reason that they used Digital VAX machines was so that they had the freedom to look after the computers without interference from the computer services department.

Both Digital and IBM were developing another new capability – email. And that’s where I came in because the computer services department had decided to deploy DISOSS on the mainframe; they’d also decided to deploy All-in-1 onto the Digital VAX environment. We live in a world where email is so ubiquitous, even too ubiquitous, it’s good for us to remember that this is a relatively new method of communication and also remember that we’ve come a long way. I started off in the DISOSS world until it became OfficeVision over time I also extended my scope to include All-in-1.

A colleague writes very eloquently about the cycle of innovation and I’ve seen a number of technologies work from genesis to utility – email is one of them.

DISOSS and All-in-1 were both built to allow people to communicate with people using the same system. These systems weren’t built for interoperability they different in every way, they even had different addressing systems. Like the early days of electricity people invented their own way of doing things because there wasn’t yet any pressure to interoperate. Neither of them supported SMTP, the protocol that supports billions of emails across the internet today, DISOSS used an IBM specific protocol (SNADS), All-in-1 used the ISO standard x400. We then had to deploy specialist gateways to enable them to talk to each other. Another set of gateways were required to interchange the directory information. We had no idea of the impact that these technologies would have on the workplace.

It was around this time that the organisation needed to extend the computer rooms and we were moved to a new office with, for the first time, L-shaped desks because there was an expectation that people would have a computer on their desk. It was about then that we started to look at different ways of connecting PC’s together but even in this different teams had different ways of doing things.

About this time people started to talk about another new concept – the paperless office.

My changing workplace:

11 thoughts on “My changing workplace – part 2: Into the 90's”

  1. I know – I was there!

    Just to add to the story, the mainframe also was used by a lot of engineering people who wrote in Fortran to perform calculations on engineering data. A lot of the data was entered by hand, code was written, compiled and executed mainly in a batch manner. Yes there were lots of paper, especially from these engineering programs – I remember that a person would come with a trolley to pick up all the output (on line print paper) – boxes of it stacked about a metre high. This would happen every week. That’s not to say that many of the engineering types would get their own Digital VAXs, MicroVAXs or even a wide variety of UNIX workstations – the names are mainly consigned to history: Evans & Sutherland, Domain, Apollo but some still survive: Silicon Graphics (now SGI). There was clearly a tension between the established computer department and groups doing their own things in their own way. All of which led to later integration issues.

    The 90s also in my memory saw the accelerating demise of the typing pool and more workers started to create their own documents. Often times this was using the mainframe with a basic editor and mark up languages. These were the precursor to modern mark up languages (i.e. HTML).


    1. I think my next post is going to be focussing on the explosion of operating systems and the impact of networking as we move through the 90’s.

      I spent quite a lot of time with the Tech Pubs people working SGML it was amazing to see what they produced with it.


  2. Another good post that takes me back. I can remember working in some of the computer rooms. Huge areas with raised floors. To get to the cabling you’d have this big handle with spikes on that you would hook into the flooring to allow you to lift the tiles. I also had to shift about disk drives, huge capacity. 20 MB they were, yes 20! Stored over 2 platters with one removable. It had to be powered up for a few mintues to purge the air inside before the heads were engaged otherwise there was a risk of a speck of dust crashing the heads.


  3. The 90’s bring my first experience of the workplace. I was lucky enough to go to Uni with a laptop. A very heavy, bulky Toshiba, I could programme it myself and it was useful for document creation with WordPerfect installed!
    When I started work we used MAC’s as standard computers. I then moved into my first real ‘IT’ job working for a company now known as Virgin Media and the onslaught of the MS revolution started for me. I learnt all about MSMail, building Windows Servers, networking and the end user support. I was also one of the ‘lucky’ ones to be given internet access and a laptop to perform my role.

    Looking forward to post 3!


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