My changing workplace – part 8: 00's on the road

Early into the 21st century it was time to leave the working location that I’d spent nearly all of working life in.

Lake Districts StreamsAlthough I’d moved from one company to another and worked in many different offices (5 at this point I think) I’d still been based on the same site. I’d worked with people from different sites for the same customer, but most of my focus had been on this one location. It was a large site and there was plenty of work to do but it was time to move on.

I’d been asked to lead a team of engineers working with the Microsoft technologies that were growing in popularity with our customers and the ones that we had successfully deployed already. This was a new team that didn’t yet exist and needed to be built.

There was a location where some engineers already existed, they were near to another customer who wanted to deploy the latest Windows 2000 technologies both client and server.

It was time for me to get on the road, partly to build the team, but also to help out with the Windows 2000 project. It was time to move from a desktop working life to a laptop working life. It was time to move from a desk-phone to a mobile-phone. My workplace was starting the steps away from being a location towards being an activity that took place wherever I was.

There was still a strong mind-set that was convinced that someone was only working on a project when they were there in person. This meant that I was on the road a lot travelling from project to project, customer to customer. Most of the time was spent on the A14 towards Cambridge because that was where the major project was and the only way to work on the project was to be there.

Windows 2000 included a number of new technologies but the one that would dominate most of our discussions was Active Directory. It’s hard to imagine now the extent of the change that the move from Windows NT 4.0 domains to Active Directory was. There were new skills to learn and new organisational interfaces to work through. Take DNS as an example; most organisations already had some form of DNS but it was run by the networks organisation to support a relatively small number of devices. Windows 2000 would increase the reliance upon DNS, the requirements for DNS and also, potentially the technology on which DNS was hosted. Like most Microsoft technologies the abilities of Windows 2000 as a DNS was viewed by the networks organisation with suspicion. They had existing, mission critical, requirements that they didn’t want to compromise with some ‘immature’ PC technology.

There was still a divide between so called enterprise-class technologies and the perception of the PC technologies as less mature and less stable. A maturity split also existed between the groups of people who looked after the technologies. A good example of this was the different approaches to change control. No mainframe systems programmer (where I started my technology journey) would dream of making a change without going through a management process which required them to think through the impact of the change and how to back-out of the change. PC people were used to working on individual machines without having to think too much about the impact of the change because there was only one person impacted. As the PC server technologies moved into the server room and eventually into the data centre we went through a period of time where there was to much of the PC approach and not enough of the mainframe approach. My background was on the sys-prog side of things and it fell to me to try and instil the correct disciplines. Not only did the technology have to mature our approach to that technology had to mature too.

This split made my job of recruiting interesting too. We saw many people who could build and rebuild a PC with there eyes closed but had no experience working in a managed environment like the ones we were wanting to build. We saw another set of people who’d worked in a smaller organisation and supported a small number of servers but still had a mind-set that if something needed changing they could change it there and then, and would.

The technology was maturing, the processes were maturing and perhaps I was maturing too.

As time progressed I spent more and more of my time travelling around building teams and managing people. This meant that I spent less of my time doing technical things. For some people this is a natural progression but it wasn’t the path for me. I came to the point where I realised that every time someone needed a technical authority I would launch in and get the problem resolved, I’d do this to the detriment of my management duties. Given the choice I would pick the technical challenge every time. While I was providing technical leadership I was happy and motivated, when it came time to do some administration for the team I would make it wait. In time a new role was being discussed, I’d always thought of myself as an engineer, but this new role had a different tile – architect.

There were other shifts that were reaching maturity too. UTP was the only way to wire a building. Ethernet was now the only transport. TCP/IP the only protocol. The Internet was becoming the way to connect things. AltaVista, MSN Search and Google were the options for search.

My changing workplace:

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:

My changing workplace – part 6: Outsourcing 90's

This could have been a conversation at the beginning of the 90’s:

Ribblehead"Did we get agreement to buy that mainframe upgrade through the investment board"


"Why not"

"Because manufacturing needed a new machine to produce widgets so they got the money"

Why was that? Because I worked for an organisation that was primarily focussed on manufacturing and in that context IT was regarded as a bit of a money pit with limited value. Or, at least, that was the perspective that I got from the place where I was sitting. I wasn’t sitting very high in the organisation and my viewpoint was quite limited, but it was a widely held view.

Around the middle of the 90’s two of the larger IT hardware and software providers decided to make an approach to my employer regarding facilities management. In simple terms the proposition was about asset transfer – "We’ll buy your equipment off you and then rent them back to you, that will give you a bit of a cash injection and give us the responsibility to make the investment decisions. You’re a manufacturing organisation and don’t want to be worrying about all of this IT stuff, let us do that". There was an important message in these discussions and that was the the best people to do IT were IT people. In other words IT was becoming more professional.

The initial proposition was, an interesting one, but the organisation decided not to take them up on their offer; instead they decided to talk to a number of organisation about the idea that had been proposed to them. They weren’t the only organisation having the conversation but they were one of the earlier of the larger organisations to be thinking about this new way of deliver IT capability – outsourcing.

Eventually they settled on which one of these organisations they were going to work with, and which of us were going to work for them. This was the first time I came across a law that would shape many conversations over the years – TUPE.

From a personal perspective as someone in their mid-20’s looking to advance my career the whole thing looked like a wonderful opportunity. The extent of my advancement in the manufacturing organisation looked pretty limited, in the new fast growing IT organisation the horizon looked much more expansive. Although, as someone in their mid-20’s with a small child much of what happened is a bit blurry. I remember a couple of presentations telling me how wonderful it was all going to be, one in particular sticks in my memory because the short wiry Scottish man presenting was quite animated. I didn’t spend much time thinking about this change which, looking back, feels like a very significant one.

It’s fair to say that not much changed in the beginning of our new employment, we went to work in the same place and worked on the same things. But the world of opportunity had opened up and I managed to make a move from one part of the organisation to another, from there I took on a role covering more varied customers and staff across the country and eventually throughout much of Europe. I also realised that my core strengths did not make me good at people management, but that’s a story for another day.

Some people still define me as someone who has always worked with the manufacturing company where I started and having been back there to work a few times I don’t blame them, but I have gained experiences that I would never have gained if I had still been working there.

Speaking as someone who has worked inside the system for over 20 years now I see that outsourcing was an inevitable consequence in the lifecycle of information technology; a lifecycle that is still playing out today. We are in the processes of changing from one form of outsourcing to another in what many people call cloud. Outsourcing was an opportunity for me then and continued to be so for many years, the new outsourcing is bringing different opportunities.

"Do what you can do the best and outsource the rest" Tom Peters

"The best companies outsource to win, not to shrink. They outsource to innovate faster…" Thomas L. Friedman (The world is flat)

My changing workplace:

My changing workplace – part 5: Client-server 90's

As computers became steadily more connected across the 90’s new forms of applications started to emerge. In the 80’s applications ran on one computer with people accessing them from a terminal. This was fine for the simple text applications that we were used to running, but a new way of doing things was already becoming the normal way of doing things – the graphical user interface. It became known as the GUI which I personally pronounce something similar to gooey.

The emergence of the GUI and increasing compute power in the clients led to a realisation that it was perhaps better to do some work on the client device and other work on the server supporting it. This became known as client-server with each application having its own client and its own server.

My first experience of a graphical client-server application was Lotus Notes I think. We’d done some work with cc:Mail before it was purchased by Lotus, but it wasn’t really client server because there wasn’t any cc:Mail running on the server, all of the work was done by the client. All that you needed for cc:Mail to work was a shared file area that each of the clients wrote to and read from. Lotus Notes was different because it had a server that the client talked to. I don’t think we did too much with it prior to version 3, and even then, it wasn’t the dominant email client that people used in the organisation. We also did some playing around with Microsoft Mail and eventually early versions of Microsoft Exchange. The organisation I worked for, and later supported (after being outsourced), had a number of divisions and each division had its own opinion about email so ran its own systems. Each of these systems talked to the other via the x.400 protocol and we exchanged directory information using x.500. At some point the division I was supporting chose to consolidate its systems into a divisional Lotus Notes system as did some other division, other divisions chose Microsoft Exchange then at version 5.5 and still quite limited (the database on a server was limited, practically to 100GB and you could only have one database).

At one point I did some pretty basic Lotus Notes database development. We had a paper based ordering system for IT equipment and wanted to get away from all of the writing, so I was tasked with creating a database with the forms in it. We still printed the forms out and sent them off for approval and processing, but at least the creation of the order was done electronically. It was a great idea and the database lived on long after I’d stopped supporting it (it was given to a more professional development team to look after). Like many organisations the deployment of Lotus Notes lead to an explosion of databases for different tasks, everything from a lending database to numerous discussion databases, from document library stores to customer relationship lists.

Lotus Notes was only one of many applications built in this client-server architecture. We thought that this was the way that applications were going to be written for the foreseeable future but a new way of displaying information was already being used and a new way of finding information was about to be launched. I can’t be confident that I used Google in the 90’s, but certainly by the early 00’s ‘to Google’ was something that had become second nature. Before Google though, there had already been Yahoo and a number of other ways of searching the growing catalogue of information on the Internet. The Internet was now the place to find information (text and pictures) but little did we perceive that this would become the default way of providing any and every capability. Although you could argue that the browser is itself client-server in architecture the difference comes from the browser being the universal client for all sorts of applications. It took until the late 90’s for Microsoft to realise this and it wasn’t until the successive releases of Internet Explorer 5.0 (1999) and 6.0 (2001) that they built a (not to healthy as it turned out) dominant position.

In the early 1990’s we were still in a world were every device was built to support the person using it and that person could do whatever they liked on it. If we wanted to upgrade a client-server application we had plan an upgrade to the server and all of the clients. There was very little commonality between them and every device required local support. We knew how much it cost us to buy IT equipment and it wasn’t cheap, but a new term was starting to gain momentum – total cost of ownership (TCO). TCO was popularised by Gartner and it meant that it was no longer sufficient to just think about the procurement costs of IT we needed to start talking about other costs – operating costs, training costs, support costs, licensing costs, management costs, consumable costs. This change in thinking put personal computing under a bright spotlight as a place where organisations were spending huge amounts of money compared to the procurement costs of the equipment. PC support organisations were shown to be significantly larger per user than the equivalent mainframe support organisation (or so it seemed).

In the mid-90’s we started looking at ways of driving down the costs of personal computing; techniques that made use of network technologies to make things easier and to reduce the amount of travel needed for support purpose. We figured that if things could be centrally managed then they ought to be cheaper to operate, and perhaps there were some benefits for the end user in doing this too. The organisation I now worked for had a Novell Netware infrastructure (which was the dominant way of doing it at the time), but our client preferred us to look at Windows NT as the way of achieving this. They’d already done some work with the technology, some of it out of curiosity about it’s key developer, Dave Cutler, who also had a lot of involvement in the development of Digital OpenVMS. People who already supported OpenVMS, like myself, saw a lot of commonality between the two.

The free-spirited pioneering days were coming under significant pressure to demonstrate their value, but that’s another journey for another day.

My changing workplace:

My changing workplace – part 4: Connecting across the 90's

With the advent of the networked world, we have moved from the ability to reach people when we want to speak to them, to a world where we are connected to people even when we aren’t paying attention

Daniel W. Rasmus

The computing world has always involved networks, but they have radically changed and the 1990’s was a time of technology explosion and subsequent consolidation as the network became the utility service that we expect today.

Today I sit in an office and there are three networks available to me. There’s a wired network using Cat 5 UTP Ethernet, there’s a wireless network using Wi-Fi and there’s also the packet based 3G network that my phone and Kindle are using.

Each of these networks is using TCP/IP as the transport protocol.

(This desk also happens to have an analogue phone connected that’s also using the UTP flood-wiring, but that’s a legacy of when it was built.)

Everywhere I go I expect one of these three connections to be available. What’s more I expect my connection to connect me to everything (the only exception to this is that I’m in my corporate office and there are restrictions on which sites I can access on the Internet).

I expect to be able to connect to a network and get working quickly without having to reconfigure anything. As I wander around my mobile phone connects to different networks without me having to do anything.

These local connections provide me with high speed connections to other places including the other side of the world.

To print – I use the network.

Storing data – I use the network.

Finding information – I use the network.

Communication – I use the network.

I connect to the network, there’s only one of them.

At the start of the 1990’s the network’s job was to provide connections from a terminal to the central computer. There was limited connectivity between systems, but that was all about to change.

In the mid-to-late-90’s the consolidation to a standard way of doing things was already well on it’s way, but there was still a good deal of work to do.

We already had a number of ways of connecting things. There was the IBM SNA network that provided terminal connections to the IBM Mainframe. There were numerous thin-wire Ethernet networks providing access to the Digital VAX services running DECNet. There were other thin-wire Ethernet networks connecting various UNIX devices together. There was even some token-ring networks connecting PCs together (which had some of the most robust plugs anyone could wish to have) and running the LAN Manager protocol NETBEUI. There were also some Ethernet networks running IPX for Netware and connected even more PCs. The Mac’s ran AppleTalk. There were even some PCs running DECNet and DEC Pathworks.

Between sites there were X.25 and SNA connections.

There were a whole load of printer switch-boxes that connected multiple PCs to HP LaserJet and InkJet printers via their parallel ports.

In summary, a whole mishmash of connections and connection types. There were islands of connectivity all over the place.

Many of these connections would still be needed in the future, and that’s where emulation software came in. For part of my life I became the world’s expert in IBM terminal emulation software, a vital skill that is no longer needed, a cul-de-sac I’m glad I decided to move out of.

At some point in the early 90’s I went to Manchester University to talk to them about a new way of displaying information – Hypertext Mark-up Language (HTML). It was displayed using an application called Mosaic, you would type in a funny address (URL) and wait for the page to display, eventually. Mosaic was soon to be replaced by Netscape and then by early versions of Internet Explorer. We also looked at a way of retrieving information called Gopher that went off and found articles from universities around the country. Gopher was soon to be replaced by a new company called Google. The university was connected to the JANET network which was already connected to other networks using TCP/IP and routers, a network that we would come to know as the Internet.

At home I had a PC with a modem connected to it. The modem would connect to a service called Compuserve. It was only really good for two things, a limited form of email and bulletin boards. Some people jumped onto the AOL bandwagon, but for me it was the free ISP Freeserve that pulled me into the Internet age. My laptops still has a modem built into it, I have no idea why.

At some point in the latter 90’s my Grandma came to visit. She wanted to know what this thing called email was, she’d heard about it on the television. I decided that the best way to explain was to demonstrate. So I started the computer, typed in the email address of my brother who was working on a cruise liner somewhere near the Bahamas and composed a short message. Having clicked on the send button and listened to the modem kick into action, I explained to her that it was just like the normal mail only down the telephone line. She was almost OK with this explanation. What completely blew her away though was the reply that I received from my brother before I’d disconnected. She knew that my brother was at sea, so how did the message get to him? As Arthur C. Clarke said:

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

Sun had the slogan "The Network is the Computer" but only the most visionary of thinkers can have imagined what was ahead. But any computer is only useful if we can interact with it, and we normally interact using applications and applications were also going through a massive change. That will, however, have to wait until next time.

My changing workplace:

My changing workplace – part 3: The mid-to-late 90's

One thing I should say about this little series is that I’m writing the commentary as I remember it. In the previous post (part 1 and part 2) my memory of the sequence of events is clearer for some reason. I started this post thinking that I could cover them all in one post, but it was getting way too long, so there’s more to follow.

I’d moved to yet another office, this one was smaller and only had four of us in it. Each one of us has an L-shaped desk facing into the corner.

A number of tectonic technology shifts had occurred since the early 90’s. The first and most immediately visible shift was the emergence of operating systems and personal computers. I’m not just talking about PC’s, there were all sorts of personal computing being used around the place.

There were UNIX workstations from Sun, Digital, Silicon Graphics and IBM. I remember being quite impressed by the Sun SPARCstations, particularly the ‘lunch-box’ sized ones that stacked together with other SCSI connected peripherals. If I remember correctly there was one particular character in the office who’s stack of papers on his desk were always at least as high as his stacks of SPARCstation equipment. The IBM AIX Workstations were used extensively in the design department for 3D CAD. There were a few Silicon Graphics devices, limited to some high-end graphics requirements that we had. There were also VAXstations and X-terminals. These systems were all used for engineering purposes. Calculation has always been a huge part of engineering, those calculations where becoming computations and the computations were being integrated into applications. The human barrier to calculation was being removed.

Over on the business systems side another set of personal computers and operating systems were being used. DOS was still being used, as was Windows ’95 and Windows ’98, we also used IBM OS/2 1.3, 2.0 and Warp 3. As business systems these devices were used for word processing, spread-sheets and the newly emerging activity of presentations. Because we had a strong IBM heritage and also a history with Lotus Software we preferred the IBM OS/2 and Lotus SmartSuite approach. People would ask us all the time why we didn’t use WordPerfect, they were wrong. When Lotus was purchased by IBM in 1995 we thought that there was a winning formula there, we were very wrong too. Neither WordPerfect or Lotus SmartSuite would be the ultimate winners in the battle for dominance of office automation software.

On the hardware side of things, being an IBM shop, we preferred the PS/2. We thought that the MCA architecture was superior to the ISA architecture that all the clone manufacturers were pursuing. We stuck with IBM even after the PS/2 had been superseded by the IBM PC Series 300 and 700 (named in BMW model style). PCI was replacing both MCA and ICA. There were a number of clone devices around, primarily those from DEC and latterly Compaq, but there were also a number of Toshiba laptops around. The DEC devices were introduced by the teams supporting the engineering computing environment. IBM’s grip on the PC hardware and software market was well and truly slipping. At some point, I don’t quite remember when, we left IBM behind for desktop devices and moved over to HP Pavilions we never went back.

The laptop was a luxury and only provided to those who were important enough to justify it. I remember the embarrassment of one particular manager who had left his laptop on the roof of his car, forgotten about it, and then reversed down a hill, eventually driving over the top of his much loved Toshiba. It survived quite well, remaining in working order apart from a big crack down the middle of the screen. Most laptops were, however, IBM ThinkPad even after we had switched over to HP for the desktops. There was a number of people who got massively excited about the Toshiba Libretto. The problem with laptops of the day was weight and the diminutive Libretto promised a lot more mobility. They never really took off. The same was also true for the HP OmniBook 300 with it’s odd, inbuilt, mouse contraption. I’ve had a number of ThinkPad’s down the years and they’ve always been reliable work-horses.

There were also a number of Apple Mac devices around, but they were seen as special and only used by the people in some of the graphics departments. In our little office of four one of the team spent much of his time fulfilling the needs of this community, but Mac’s were never regarded as mainstream devices.

Most of these personal systems were built as stand-alone devices. Each one was built in it’s own unique way with floppy disk and CD, a few applications were becoming available on DVD but only the newest devices could read them anyway. We would know some of them intimately because all of the support was done in person. Most of my time was spent tripping from one device to another, changing a configuration here, adding some software there. We only patched things when it was absolutely necessary.

Another class of devices were also starting to be used, the PDA. Some people had tried to use the original Psion organisers but it was the release of the Psion Series 3 that moved these devices into the mainstream. When in 1998 Psion got together with other Nokia and Ericcson to form Symbian everyone thought that this plucky British company was onto a winner, we were, again, wrong. Another set of devices were already starting to become popular, the PalmPilot. The Apple man in the office played around with the Newton for a period of time too. HP introduced the Jornada PDA running Windows CE in 1998, that never really took off either.

The mobile phone was starting to have an impact too. My first mobile was a Nokia 3100 and later moved onto a Nokia 6130 which I still have today (It still works and occasionally, when the kids have damaged their more modern mobiles I’ve made them use it as a lesson. They affectionately know it as ‘bricky’). The cost of calls was high and we still did a lot of communication via pagers. The mobile phone was, after all, just a phone, although people were already starting to think of it as a more general communication device. At some point we started to use SMS for text messages, but that was, again, limited by the cost.

In a few short years computing had moved from 8-bit to 16-bit and on to 32-bit and 64-bit systems, it had also moved from the computer room onto our desks and into our pockets. Our expectations of what we could do had massively shifted too. Most documents were produced by the author and the typing pool was becoming a thing of the past. The personal printer had also arrived and we no longer took the long walk to the print room. We didn’t always print everything either, email was becoming the normal way of communicating.

There were other tectonic technology shifts changing my workplace. The network was starting to change the way that we thought about the whole computing landscape,
things were becoming connected. Microsoft was building a position of dominance with Windows and Office. Applications were becoming client-server.  I no longer worked for an engineering company, I had been moved into an IT company through the emerging business trend of outsourcing.

Those shifts will, however, have to wait for another day.

My changing workplace:

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:

My changing workplace – part 1: The 1980's

When I started full time paid employment in the later days of the 1980’s I walked into an office partitioned by large steel filing cabinets. Some of the filing cabinets had extra locks on them for security. Between the lines of filing cabinets were sets metal desks arranged in blocks of six.

Stack 'em highEach desk had draws down either side, a softer covering on the top and a chair. My chair was a simple wooden affair, others had arms. At one end of the main office were individual offices with dark wooden desks and leather chairs.

It took me a long while to realise that you could define the organisation hierarchy by the type of chair and the location of the desk. My simple wooden chair and desk located at the end of a row and the end of the office defined me as the office junior. If I wanted arms on my chair I would need to get a promotion.

My tools were paper, pen and a terminal. I didn’t have a terminal on my desk, no-one had a terminal on their desk. The terminals, both IBM 3270 type and DEC VT100 types, were arranged on a separate set of desks with a book at the end. The book was diary for each desk. If you wanted time on a terminal then you needed to book it. You also had to be prepared to have someone more senior to come along and take precedence.


If I need to communicate with someone I had two choices – phone or walk. The only phone was the desk-phone which wasn’t called that back then because the mobile phone was something reserved for a limited few (who had arm muscles and a wallet big enough).

It was clear where the people in the office spent their time and effort and it was processing paper. Everyone had cupboards and draws full of paper. The in-tray was the way that information was passed between people. If you did use a computer for a task it’s job was to produce paper. Sometime I’d go down to the print room and there waiting for me would be a whole box of continuous paper, normally the result of a mistake.

Most of the paper, however, was still produced in the typing pool from written notes. Everything that went to the typing pool was thoroughly considered before it was sent because the last thing you ever wanted to do was to go back to them to ask them to retype something. There was a rumour that somewhere in the organisation they were starting to use something called the Personal Computer.

A clocked-in and I clocked-out using a card which was placed into the machine. The cards where thus stamped with the time I came in and the time I left. At the end of the week I would add up the times on the card to demonstrate that I’d worked enough hours. The only work I did was between those two times.

There was a computer services department, but that wasn’t where I started, I started as an engineer.

My changing workplace:

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