My changing workplace – part 7: The late 90's

As the 90’s turned to look towards the new millennium a new wave of change was about to occur.

Lake Districts StreamsI was now employed in an outsourcing company and for the first time nearly all of the IT people and resources worked in the same organisation. Sometimes before you can sort something out you need to put it all together to work out what you have and we had a lot. The desktop environment was varied and getting more fragmented by the month. We couldn’t even agree on the best way of connecting everything together. We were still an engineering organisation at heart and each device was individually engineered for each of the people who were likely to use it. There was a growing conversation about the cost of all of this technology but it hadn’t yet really impacted upon the ways that we worked.

At some point in the later 90’s we were approached by some people from the customer’s Engineering department who were used to buying UNIX workstation, VMS workstations and X-Terminals. They wanted to explore the possibilities of delivering the capabilities that the engineers required in a different way – using PC’s.

(This is where we will get into a social experiment on selective memory. A number of the other people on the team at this time read this blog, I still work with some of them. I wonder if my memory will align with theirs?)

My first memory of this project was being asked to attend on behalf of my boss who was somewhat against the whole idea. There’s was a bit of politics between the site where I was working and the site where this idea had been birthed. I’m not going to say any more than that other than to say that I noticed it again in a meeting recently some 20 years after the people concerned even worked in those locations. I was a bit too naive to recognise it in those days, it would have saved me some hassle if I had, but I might not have had quite so much fun.

The meeting was in yet another portacabin which had the disadvantage of being at the end of a runway that was in use for flight testing. Meetings and phone calls were occasionally interrupted by the noise of jets. It was an interesting working environment, I sometimes wondered whether you could measure the productivity impact of each take-off and landing. I don’t remember everyone in the meeting, but I do remember some of them. There was an external consultant who’d been recruited specifically to run the project from a technical perspective, I found him quite intimidating the first time I met him, it didn’t take long to get beyond that and build a mutual respect. There was a programme manager type who had quite clearly previously been in the armed forces, he had a way of talking that gave his background away. There was another gentleman who I had worked with before and had a lot of respect for his ability to think through issues. There was a gentleman who was the customer and later became a colleague and a friend.

This was the first time I’d worked in this type of team construct with dedicated people to run the project and other people to work through the solution. It was also the first time I’d worked within formal project management techniques. The organisation I now worked for had an extensive methodology framework that would soon become embedded into my day-to-day work.

The project wasn’t going to be run in the portacabin though, it was going to be based on the first floor of a building in the middle of the campus. In some ways this felt like full circle for me because this office was right next door to the one I had started out in. The group was quite small and became a lesson in the power of a small, well focussed, highly skilled team.  Different members of the collective had different skills and the blend was great. Some people were contractors who had some experience in this type of project, some were people I’d known for a while and understood the customer quite well.

The team was also given quite a high level of autonomy. Some decisions were made for us, we didn’t have completely free reign. The outsourcing organisation that I worked for had a preferred desktop management approach using the CA Unicenter toolset and we weren’t going to change that. I’m not sure where the decision to use Windows NT 4.0 and Office 97 were ultimately made, but I do remember there being a whole load of discussions about it.

There were other discussions about what capabilities the engineers required and which applications would be provided to let them do their work. Terminal emulation software capabilities were one that we spent a lot of time on. We also spent a lot of time thinking about file sharing with personal file areas and team file areas. Then there was the domain structure that we would use and the trust hierarchy. This was in the days before Windows used DNS and address resolution was done using WINS; WINS required a whole load more dialogue. Naming standards also needed consideration and designing. Then there was printing, server sizing and location, support processes, alerting, anti-virus, application deployment, remote control, security, peripheral support, imaging, packaging and so on.

We had to design many of these things from first principle, there wasn’t a model we could just pick and replicate, neither was there much best-practice around. Much of todays normal was considered novel then. It was a fabulous place to learn.

Things went so well that people started to ask questions about how relevant the work we were doing was for all of the other people in the business, or for other businesses and customers.

That work paved the way for many more projects and a whole stream of thinking that has been with us ever since (outliving its usefulness in places). But they are stories for another day.

My changing workplace:

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