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