on going freelance

It’s coming up on fifteen years since I went freelance. I had been thinking about it for five years, having, in 2002, been looking at redundancy. The Berkshire Belle was in the same boat and so we had set up a limited company through which we could trade. As things worked out we both kept our full time employment, but then, for me, came a decision point in 2008.

It was time for my annual review, and I was heading up to London to meet my boss for lunch at the Institute of Directors. When I set out for the station that morning I had no thoughts about what the day might bring. Annual reviews were a chore that you went through and it was, in effect, a day off for me. A mid-morning train ride into Paddington, a decent lunch with a glass of wine and then back home to Swindon. I didn’t even take my laptop or even a briefcase. The sun was shining on that early March morning and I was enjoying a day out.

From Paddington I used the Bakerloo line to Charing Cross and walked the half mile or so to the IoD. Meeting my boss there, he was using it as a base for several meetings that day, we had a brief chat and went in to eat. Things went well, and whilst it had not been a great year in terms of one area of work, the reasons for that were well understood and, in other areas I had done well. My bonus for the year was very acceptable and all that remained was to talk about the year ahead.

For the previous three years I had been, as they put it, parachuted into a different business division. I worked was a sort of non-executive member of the management team with no direct authority, but in an advisory capacity. In general my temporary colleagues viewed my as an unnecessary addition and I was made as welcome as the ex-boyfriend at the wedding, but there had been some progress and I had learned a lot. But what next?

In each of my previous cuckoo roles I had been able to work from home with the occasional overnight stay, but for 2008/09 they wanted me to work with a division based in Leeds and it was obvious that I would have to stay up there. I liked Leeds a lot, but to have to effectively live up there for a year was not something that I wanted to do. There was an option to find me a flat so that I didn’t have to stay in hotels, but I really wasn’t interested. I knew that to refuse the job meant that I was resigning, and suddenly that seemed the best choice.

We had a telephone conversation with the Personnel Director and a package was agreed. I handed in my mobile ‘phone on the spot, promised to take my laptop into the Birmingham office the next day and was on immediate gardening leave until the end of the month when Leaseplan would come and take away the Audi. I would get three months pay in lieu of notice and would formally leave the company at the end of March.

I left the IoD to walk back to the tube and, as I crossed Trafalgar Square, I was ten feet off the ground. I had not realised what a weight the job had become and freedom was exhilarating. Yes the times ahead were uncertain, but I was going t go it alone. Every ‘phone call or email could bring a new adventure.

There were a lot of lows, more than there were highs, but I got to work in all sorts of places including Columbia, Libya, Thailand and, twice, China. I worked with companies from SMEs to global businesses with various governments in between and, apart from a couple of rogues, always got paid.

One thing did not change once I gave up the fat salary, private health care and flash car and that was the work ethic. Being your own boss is one thing, but if you don’t work you don’t get paid and the more that you work the more you earn. It is not an easy option, but you stand or fall on your own; own decisions, own quality of work, your own merits. There is non safety net.

on memories

I think that I have a decent memory still, and have a lot of memories amassed over 7 decades, but how reliable is it? A couple of recent experiences have shaken my faith a little.

There is a problem with 1971 where, as I have mentioned here before, I suffered an industrial accident in early ’72 and forgot most of the previous twelve months. I still can’t piece together that bit of my life too well and rely on what others have told me, and some inescapable facts, to reconstruct things.

It is from that period that the second experience came this morning. Back in ’71 there was a car chase movie called Vanishing Point. As a car guy I took myself along to the Odeon in Romford to see it. I think that I went on my own, although I was in a relationship at that time, but I kept dozing off though the film and my recollection of it was that it was boring. However, it was on Talking Pictures yesterday and so I recoded it to watch this morning.

One memory was correct: It was boring, and I stopped watching around the half-way mark and deleted it. But there was something else. Very early in the opening credits comes the name Jimmy Bowen as music supervisor. Now back then I thought that I have an unusual surname, and knew no other Bowens beside my namesake who wrote scripts and books, so how come I don’t remember seeing something as obvious as Jimmy B? Maybe I was looking at something else at that moment in the cinema? It jarred with me seeing it today, yet having had no recollection, so maybe it is just something else that I lost when I got the bang on the head.

The other dodgy memory is TV related. Howard’s Way is on again and the Berkshire Belle and I elected to watch it. Now my memories of seeing the first episodes when it first came out are that I watched it when I lived over in Marks Tey, in darkest Northeast Essex, but looking it up on IMDB it was first shown in September 1985, a year after I had moved to Swindon. The penultimate series on TV when the Berkshire Belle and I got together.

Both are trivial incidents, I know, but do demonstrate how unreliable memories can be. I do check a lot of things using the wonders of the internet, although care needs to be taken even there. Does it matter? Not really, but I do have a nagging concern about dementia and the Wonder of Wokingham and I watch each other carefully for signs having experienced both of our Mothers go that way.

At least what I do remember gives me pleasure. Sure, I have bad memories too, but I leave them alone and take comfort from the good ones. If they are a little flawed I don’t mind, I’m happy with them as they are. After all, I do have a lot of them.

on mental health

My mental health is my business and yours is yours. If you want to share your problems the I have no issue with that, but I really don’t want to share mine.

Some of that comes from my age. I am of a different generation, once removed from the one that went through the Second World War and we lived through the threat of a nuclear war along the way. My father served in the Royal Navy during WW2. I know from his service records that one of his ships was not inly sunk, but that the one that rescued him was sunk too. He did not talk about his wartime experiences other than occasionally mentioning some of the places that he saw.

I was brought up around people who did not share their problems too widely. You might confide in a close friend, but that was it. The idea of confiding in a stranger was unthinkable, but did we emerge from this as generations of twisted people? No. Of course there were some who had issues, but, in general, we got on with life.

It’s about experience. The old expression “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”, like most old adages, is based in truth. I think that I was lucky to have lived in the period that I grew up in simply because I grew up. Life was hard and certainly was not fair, but we got on with it. We took the knocks and toughened up. We had to because we knew that life would hit us again sometime.

Somewhere along the way, as we tried to do the best for our children, and their children, we softened them up and then they took it further. All this cobblers about “No losers”. Of course there are losers and someone is going to come last. So what? We should be striving to make ourselves as strong as we can be, not a bunch of no-hopers. There will always be people who excel, and we should celebrate that, encourage it. 

I feel very sorry for modern generations who can’t seem to cope with anything. There is so much help on offer and I hope that people can make use of it, but the real answer has to come from within. It’s your mind and, in the end, only you can manage it.

on stupidity

OK, I am old, and it is a fact of life that times change. Old gets like me are out of touch and all that, long live the generation gap (or gaps, in my case). I get all that stuff because, if you think about it, I was young once too. I’ve done it all in my time.

The thing is though, and I know it’s our fault because we bred you lot, and your parents. We voted, or didn’t, and have, along the way, allowed a lot of crap to infect society, or which the worst factor is that we have created a world full of idiots.

When I was young we were competitive. We wanted to be better that our parents. We wanted to be better than each other. Being a gormless idiot was not on our radar, and nor was just being one of the mediocrity. We understood winning and losing and, whilst we wanted to be winners, we were prepared to risk losing to get there.

Knowledge and understanding were vital and we sought knowledge. Looking stupid was an anathema, so it bemuses me when I see examples of stupidity almost being celebrated these days. How did we let it happen? The silent majority have a lot to answer for.

What sent me off on this musing was media coverage of motorists who had been caught out over the holiday period when their electric cars needed charging as they headed around visiting friends and relatives. Some of the quotes were priceless and, whilst I have some sympathy with folks who have been stuck at motorway services for hours, they brought it upon themselves.

I’ve driven for years, and one of the basics of self-preservation is that, before setting off, you check to make sure that you have enough fuel for your journey. On the times when even a full tank would not be enough I would have a plan about when and where to refuel so that I could get back. Electric cars don’t have enough range for many of the journeys that were being undertaken, yet people set off anyway, assuming that they could get to a charging point when they needed one, despite it being blindingly obvious that they would have a problem.

Then you got the seemingly considerable number for whom it came as a surprise that using car heat would reduce their range. Hello, where do you think the power for the heat comes from? You’ll have the same problem with the air-con in the Summer. OK, some scared do have the capability to generate power on the move for powering auxiliaries, but it would seem that I lot of people set off with no real plan for their journey and I’ll bet that most of them did not have a Winter survival kit one board either in case they did get stranded.

The number of people who claimed that this was their first major journey in their electric car just made things worse. Ignorance is no excuse, and if we are in a position where the planet has limited resources, then why are we allowing these idiots to waste them? I can’t normally be bothered to get angry, but this gets me close.

This is just one example, but the problem of “nobody warned us” is everywhere now. Take responsibility. Learn, do your research, take pride in knowing, but don’t be certain (that’s another story). Just be sure that you have worked it out and own your decision.

The accusation from the young that we fucked up the planet is partially true; we bred our accusers and allowed them to grow up as snowflakes with a level of ignorance that would have been wholly unacceptable in our day. For that m’led, I plead guilty.

life log #11

We get along. So far, we have not done too badly with cutting back on utilities, but the cold snap that we are now entering will not be fun: The heating will get turned up a bit, I can’t have the Berkshire Belle getting cold. She is my not house flower, my orchid, and needs nurturing at times like this.

Otherwise, we are fine. The Hastings Hottie (she’s still hot stuff, if even she does feel the cold) spends part of her days trawling the internet for good food. She has a short list of suppliers now, for fish, meat, continental foods, curries and more. We also have a couple of good butchers locally and we have a fruit and veg box delivery. I do all the cooking these days and, with good ingredients, we eat well, and I think that that goes a long way to keeping us healthy.

I have stalled on most of my projects but have started writing a lot again. The writer’s block that had enveloped me suddenly fell away and the keyboard has been getting a pounding. It is a long time since I published anything other than a blog, but maybe 2023 will see something come from the series of ideas that I have been working on. Some of these go back ten years or so. I had been writing short stories for bank holiday blogs, usually putting myself into some weird situation, historical, sci-fi or whatever. One or two of these started to get too long for blogs and so I began to develop them into outlines for novels.

It is a very big step from a blog to a short story, let alone a novel and when the first one ground to a halt I tried another, then another and another. I have about seven partly written and might get one of them done one day. My non-fiction stuff still sells the odd copy and, if we are lucky, pays for an annual literary lunch. I’ll never get to Dan Brown levels of sales, but I did, for a short while, have a Number One Best Seller on Amazon, even if it was in a rather niche category.  Going back to blogs, I note that on this page I have published over 500 posts. Seems a lot.

My other writing at this time of year is to produce a poem a day for the Berkshire Belle. I start on the 13th and do the twelve days up to the 24th. This year I threw in a short story of how we got together in the style of Jane Austen, and that went well enough for me to then do another one about the first time that I saw her in the style of a dime novel, and then had another go at the day we got together, but in a 007 meets Gunsmoke pastiche (it was full of in jokes that only the two of us would get). The other nine days had poetry, and, for me, there was some of my best work.

Christmas, for us, was the usual quiet affair. No-one came knocking nor will we did not go calling. We had some nice things to eat, more than enough to drink and, most importantly, have each other. That will always do for us.

on computers and me, part seven

I had planned to go freelance in the early Noughties, after an impending takeover of my employer made it likely that I might be shown the door. Instead, I was one of those kept on and, for the Berkshire Belle, something similar happened, and so the opportunity for us to go back into a working partnership slipped away. However, we had formed a limited company and needed a web site, email et al.

At home the original Amstrad PC was long gone, replaced initially by a Packard Bell, then one mail ordered from Mesh, in turn swapped for another ordered on the web from Dell. All of these were upgraded as and when necessary, with more RAM, bigger hard drives, faster processors and so on. We had adopted the Web fairly early, back in the dial-up when required days, then to an always-on connection and then Wi-Fi, and so moving to having our own website was a new adventure.

Around the time of setting up a registered company we also bought a holiday home in Florida and were planning on renting that out. That needed another web site and, with two domains registered and parked, we needed content. One of my team at work had a son who was getting into web design and offered to do the Florida villa site for us. He set up a landing page using some software that he had (Dreamweaver rings a bell) and we uploaded it. That one page took all of the memory available within the hosting package that I had bought.

There had to be a better way, and so I bought an HTML book and wrote the first two websites myself. High quality images for the villa site took up a lot of space, but by avoiding all of the baggage that comes with using a software package we were fine and avoided the exorbitant hosting costs that I would have had to incur to support what my colleague’s son was producing. All of that economic and sleek programming philosophy that I had been taught in my COBOL days, when we only had about 1K of memory to play with, came to the fore, but this time in HTML. In the end we had more than ten web sites as I ran various business ventures in my efforts to make a crust, but most of these are long gone now and I have not written any HTML since 2019 when we sold the villa.

I did enjoy it though. Whilst I didn’t get around to building a PC from scratch, the constant upgrading and programming gave me a lot of pleasure. The latter also saved us a fair bit of money with it all being done in-house. I am starting to miss it and, having moved the last couple of websites over to WordPress, it is like being in a straight jacket. I will get the hang of WP at some point, but I find it harder to use now than I did when I started with it, for every upgrade that is supposed to help seems to make it harder to do anything.

This is one of my beefs about computers. I don’t want them to think for me unless I ask them to, and, with every software upgrade, I find that I am turning off features. I used to love Lotus software because it was very easy to customise, and I was sad when they vanished. My early prejudice against Windows (I was very snobby about it when it first arrived) dissipated and I can remember the excitement when I got my hands of Windows 95 to upgrade whatever PC we had back then. These days I almost dread a new version of software and can rarely find anything that helps me very much in terms of what I want to do.

It isn’t just computers in desktop/laptop/tablet forms. The computer interference in my cars is equally maddening. I first encountered this in 2002 when I had a new Land Rover Freelander and, one damp evening on the run home from Newcastle to Swindon, decided to relieve my boredom on the Brackley by-pass. Deliberately chucking the Freelander into a roundabout to get the back to break away I was faced with all sorts of mayhem and the car’s brain tried to get me out of something that I had provoked and was perfectly capable of dealing with it if it would only leave me to it. Fortunately, between us, I did not end up in the ditch. Even turning off traction control didn’t entirely solve the problem and I resigned myself to another fun aspect of driving had gone.

My current car has a marked tendency to sulk if I transgress in some way and I am frequently bonged at for my sins. That reminds me of some of my early experiences with satellite navigation systems. I am a maps man: I have been since I bought myself an old world atlas for sixpence at a jumble sale when I was about seven. My navigation skills have often been commented on and I usually say that I am a direct descendent of Vasco da Gama (although he was actually lost most of the time). But sat-nav came along and I use it from time to time, but I used to switch the voice so that I got the instructions in German. I used to call my navigator Brunhilda and would love to piss her off by ignoring her and going my own way. She never did try to get me to invade Poland though: Probably didn’t trust me not to go after Denmark instead.

I was equally snobby about Apple at one time. I had come across an Apricot PC back in 1987 when I filled in for someone for three months and it was what they were using. I did get the hang of it, but it was Microsoft operating systems that I became used to at work and at home. Apple seemed to me to be all style over substance. The change came when the Berkshire Belle bought me an iPod for Christmas. It still took a long time, but then an iPad mini came along from the same source. Then I got my first iPhone. Eventually, also leaned on heavily by number one daughter, I bought the MacBook Air on which this blog is being written.

The transition has not been easy. There is still a lot about the way a Mac works that drives me bonkers and I still have two HP laptops that are about twelve years old and have been much travelled; North and South America, Libya, China, Thailand and more. One is still on Windows 7, the other recently upgraded to Windows 11 (I’ve also got the HP PC that used to be in the villa, I don’t use it too often, but…).

Another “helpful” aid that drives me mad is tapping. I came across it with no warning when I acquired the first of the HP laptops I mentioned just now. I was setting it up and at some point, dragging my finger across the touchpad, I ran out of pad, lifted my finger to move it over a bit and then, as it landed back on the pad, things happened. Eek (that’s a polite word: I used something stronger). I couldn’t understand what was happening, the bloody thing seemed to have a mind of its own. I plugged in a mouse, got control back, found that I had encountered tapping and turned it off. The MacBook has a form of tapping, but I’ve somehow got used to that and don’t have any issues, but, having tried it again on both HPs, it has me screaming in seconds.

Another thing that infuriates me is the dumb insolence that computers can demonstrate. Stroppy teenagers have nothing on them. You try to load some new software, or to delete some old stuff or similar and get a message that tells you it hasn’t done what you asked because you have a file open. If you know that I have a file open, THEN TELL ME WHICH ONE IT IS AND I’LL CLOSE IT! There are ways around these things, of course, but there have been many times when there has almost been a laptop sized hole in the window.

But computers have been good to me. I have had a working life that took me from the shop floor to the boardroom, and that path really took off when I applied for the programmer’s job. If I had not have taken that route, then I would never have met the Berkshire Belle. She and I have been together for thirty-three years now, nearly half of my life, not quite half of hers. Computers may give me grief from time to time, but they have given me a lot of pleasure. I’ll forgive them anything for giving me the woman of my dreams.

on computers and me, part six

This is turning into a saga, but there is more in me yet, so on we go, or at least, on I go.

One of the curious things about strategy is that it is almost always wrong. You might have a plan as to where you want to be and what you will look like, in a business sense, in 5, 10 or however many years, but everything is changing around you and you haven’t got a clue as to what the other buggers are up to.

My dilemma was that I was running a national distribution centre that had been designed in 1969 and fully opened in 1973. Almost nothing had been renewed or replaced, nor had anything of any value been added since and much of the original kit was life expired, or no longer needed. The computer system that had gone live in 1989 told us what we had, what was on order and what we needed to send out. It could also do the standard stock analysis stuff, but nearly half of the 26,000 stock lines we held did not operate to normal stock turn rules, so that was of little help. To know where anything was we had to resort to clerical records.

But we were a logistics business and there was a plethora of products on the market to help such operations and it was to that market that I turned. Yes, we were special, unique and all that crap, but to me we were a big shed and we brought stuff in at one end, fiddled about with it a bit and sent it out the other side. It was that simple, and so my first 5-year strategy, 1990-1994 was to put us up with the best logistics operations. (These are empty words, but I had an idea to sell. I probably even said we were going upper quartile: There were a lot of plonkers around who couldn’t understand plain English).

What I had in mind cost money; half a million pounds on computers, software and some associated kit, about another third of a million on infrastructure and mechanical aids, so I called it one million for no other reason than when you go to the corporate well, the more you ask for, the more likely you are to get it. I knew the system well and was known to the Board Member for Finance, the man who ultimately held the purse strings, but I also had a secret weapon, well not really a secret, just something that everybody in my end of the corporation saw as a weakness; about a third of my workforce were due to retire over the period of my plan. All I had to do was to show that my proposals were going to make us more efficient and run with less people. They were going anyway.

I got away without involving IT in my choice of software supplier and, by buying a package off the shelf, the hardware too. I was lucky that the senior IT person that I should have deferred to was a coward and elected to turn a blind eye. He was already stung by my criticism of the way that he had run the 1989 implementation and felt that if what I did worked, he could take some credit, and if it failed it would have been all my fault. He was sharp enough to know that what I was buying was a proven product, so why bother?

I had left my first wife in 1989, and the Berkshire Belle and I became a couple personally as well as professionally. Perhaps she thought that I needed keeping an eye on. We made a dynamic duo and had a few spectacular falling outs, some stage managed for effect, others quite genuine, but we got married along the way (and are still together). The place got transformed: We had computer terminals on the new forklift trucks, new racking, bar codes all over the place and would, in the next phase, have gone into RFID tagging. We were exploiting the possibilities that computers and allied technologies could bring us and, because of what we were doing, attracting new business that we could not have hoped to have won the previous year.

It was my swansong though, at least as far as playing with major computer projects was concerned. I had barely finished the second 5-year plan, 1996-2000, when corporate changes, one of which I had instigated, did me out of my own job. Sunshine promises were made, but I had no faith and jumped ship. Just over a year later they split my old job into two and, whilst some of what I had planned was implemented, it all went very wrong. I didn’t gloat; too many of my old team, including the Berkshire Belle, were still there trying to survive the new regime.

I wasn’t entirely done with computer systems though, for I was using the emerging technical products. I was now completely location independent, and my new role was to manage several headquarters properties, so there were things like access control, CCTV and similar systems to install and manage. My new team used CAD systems to plan office layouts and we installed video conferencing and all sorts of whizzy stuff in meeting rooms. My latest laptop had satellite access to the network, no more searching for a LAN connection or hooking up via ‘phone or dongle, I could just log in from almost anywhere,

There is one computer story from that era that must be told though. We were bidding to manage the properties of a client in a far-flung part of the UK, and, in conversation with the person doing the buying, they mentioned an interest in having some way that users could report faults, book meeting rooms or other services from their desktop or laptop. I knew of at least one system that did just that and so, with the client coming to see one of our sites for a visit, I faked up just such a system. It was not complete but had two or three working functions and we showed it to the client when they came to see how we worked.

They chose us as their new supplier and asked for that software package as part of our service. No problem, the supplier of the real thing was happy to make a sale, and we are talking about a £10k order for them here. A check list of system hardware requirements was sent to the client, and their IT people confirmed that all was in order. We were ready to take over from the previous suppler and the software company flew a couple of their people in on the Friday afternoon to install and set up the programme. I was strolling up the path to my front door that evening when I got a call from the installation team: The client had no LAN to run the system over. I know now that I will never have heard everything, there will always be a new one somewhere.

Over the twelve years that I spent managing commercial property estates I came across many computer systems, but they were all ones that I inherited along with the buildings. My days of specifying, designing, programming, buying, implementing or whatever were over, and I was also disillusioned with being a suit on a salary. In a stunning display of strategic foresight, I walked out in the Spring on 2008 and went freelance. What was I saying a while back about strategy? Within five months the business world was in a tailspin, the clients I saw myself working for weren’t hiring and the freelance market was awash with people who had been made redundant.

In the next part I’ll talk about surviving that and how computers came back into my life.

on computers and me, part five

I’m going to backtrack a bit here and talk about some of the brief encounters that I’ve had along the way, starting with my first encounters with a few things that, these days, we take for granted.

In chronological order, my memory sort of works best that way, although my head is stuffed with so many memories it creaks at the seams, even though I do have a big head. I don’t mean in egotistical terms, although there is a bit of that, alright, quite a bit of that, but I mean in a physical sense: Getting a hat that fits is a problem for me. Anyway, starting back in 1983 I first found email.

As a business, we decided to adopt a system called BT Gold. It was a closed loop email system in that there was a business account and any of us on it could send each other messages, but we couldn’t go outside of that. There was no intercompany option.

I was made the account manager for reasons I can’t remember. As I was on long term detachment working in Portsmouth rather that in our main office by St Pauls in London it made little sense for me to do it, but it was probably because no-one else wanted the hassle. (The other remarkable thing was that no-one could have met the spectacularly gorgeous lady that BT appointed to look after our account otherwise there was no way that I would have been asked to do the job).

The senior management team all had accounts, but I suspect that their secretaries, for back then we still had such wonders in the office, used it for them. I’m off on another side track here, but as a young man in the Seventies and Eighties (OK, I was in my Thirties at the time that I am writing about, but only just) one of the things that I had learned was that the real power in any office environment lay with the boss’s secretary. If you wanted to make a name for yourself, you needed access and you got that through the secretarial mafia. They were all female and, as an unashamed ladies’ man, it was no hardship to court them, in a purely business sense of course.

Anyway, back with BT Gold, those of us who were mobile were the ones that the system was being aimed at to enable us to report in from the field. To do this we had a mobile terminal that was like a portable electric typewriter that included a thermal printer and had, at the back of the device, a pair of rubber cups into which a telephone handset could be inserted. You typed up your message or report, put the ‘phone handset into the cups, dialled up the server and transmitted your message. Then you’d disconnect and ring up the person you had just messaged to tell them that they had something waiting for them. You could also tell them what you had just sent them while you had them on the line, and almost always they asked you to do that. You can see how good this was, can’t you.

Naturally, this was a corporate environment after all, rife with petty jealousies, one-upmanship and, to some degree, a blame culture, there were those who began to abuse the system. Most common was the; “But I sent you the message on Gold, and I left a ‘phone message that I’d sent it” approach, and also the writing of a nugget of bad news that, somehow, didn’t make it into the subsequent ‘phone conversation.

All of this was before laptops and even mobile ‘phones of course, and, as such, it did give us a better way of communicating that FAX or TELEX. It was also private, and that was important as there were often things that needed to be communicated between base and site that you didn’t want the locals to overhear. A few years before this, as a salesman, I always carried a bag of small coins so that I could ring in from a pay ‘phone whilst on the road and was doing it again prior to BT Gold coming on stream so that I could nip out and ring HQ from a call box for a private chat.

Jumping ahead four years I was seconded to a job for three months. If you draw a line on a map of the UK from The Wash to Bournemouth, I was roaming the area below that line and was given two tools: the first a factory demonstrator Ford Sierra GL, and secondly a mobile ‘phone. This was one of those things with a battery the size of two house bricks with a phone handset and rotary dial on top. It used to wedge nicely between the front seats of the Sierra. I was glad to give it back at the end of the loan. (I was not glad to hand back the Sierra).

When I left IT in 1984 I left BT Gold behind, so I don’t know how long it carried on. Moving down to Swindon I was lucky to be allocated my own desk ‘phone and own number on the internal exchange: That was not the norm back then as the PABX that ran the office system had a limited number of lines available. Second line managers and above all got their own lines, but first line managers, such as I was at the time, only had one if deemed essential, and other ranks only got one if they were customer facing. We communicated by memo if it had to be written, and all of that went through the typing pool.

It was 1990 when email came back into my life and, by then, I had, as a senior manager now, been allocated a desktop computer connected to our first local area network. I don’t remember what word processing software we had, but a few of us had a licence for Lotus 123 as the spreadsheet was beginning to achieve some prominence as a business tool. We were beginning to hear about something called Windows, but I was back writing my own little programmes, mostly databases that did things that I couldn’t get the early Lotus versions to do. The email service was being rolled out across the business and all of a sudden, the; “But I emailed you” game was back on. The assumption that pressing send was the same as speaking to someone was everywhere. “Read” receipts helped put a stop to that, but people could see the email in their in-box, realise it was trouble and just not read it.

The BCC, blind copy, was also a blight as folks tried to drop as many people in the shit as possible, but possibly the worst thing that came from email as it was rolled out to more and more people was that it killed off the typing pool and, in doing so, destroyed corporate style in written correspondence. Because we all had desktops and access to word processing software there was no need for the typing pool anymore, but they were the last bastion of maintaining a decent standard of correspondence. Spelling and grammar were just part of it, for the typists maintained a certain way that each business wanted their correspondence to look and sound like when read. With us all doing our own thing that was lost forever, and I think that it was a sad loss.

In 1991, I think, because I often had to be in other places for meetings, I was allocated the second laptop to come our way. Using this on the road did mean that I could write stuff on the train, but communicating remotely was not that easy and relied on being able to get access to a spare LAN port and hoping that your machine would be allowed access through it. By then I had a mobile ‘phone again, this one pocket friendly, but there was no way to connect ‘phone and laptop then: Really, for most people, they were more for posing than any real benefit to the business, and people were so indiscreet when using these devices in public places. They still are.

I’ve got ahead of myself here, so I’ll take up next week where I left off last week. See you then.

on computers and me, part four

In 1987 I bought my first PC, an Amstrad purchased from Dixons and with it a dot matrix printer. My children were ten and six and I wanted to, at least, get them used to a PC. I quickly found that we did not have enough memory and so a Western Digital hard drive was fitted and so began a decade or more of upgrading computers. It also got me back into programming because the proprietary software always had so much overhead and writing a BASIC routine that did just what I wanted and no more was far more economical on working memory. It also got me back into hands-on computing.

At work the following year I was interviewed for the job my old boss had vacated and was appointed. My appointment start date would be April 1st 1989. I should have realised the significance of that, especially knowing well who it was that I would be replacing. I had shared with my old boss my old user software testing plan to help him with the system that I would now be inheriting, but it turned out that he had ignored it. We went live on the Monday morning at eight and by ten we had ground to a halt.

Things were compounded by the stock take that had gone on over the previous weekend and the initial valuation, after inputting the figures, showed us to be £M22 overstocked. With my boss in hiding and the MD on the warpath I had the Berkshire Belle hunting the cock-up whilst I tried to get us working again.

The computer problem was a simple one: There had been no soak test of the system with all types of user running on it at once. Instead, each module had been tested in isolation and each worked fine. The trouble was that as soon as someone accessed an item’s record the system locked that item. If a buyer opened the record for item 4567889 Goggle Sprocket, left-handed, no other part of the system could use that record, so if someone ‘phoned in to order one, the person who took the call could not process the order. If One of the warehouse teams wanted to print a picking list that had that item on it, they couldn’t, and nor could they confirm that they had picked it for another order. Any activity regarding that item was barred across the entire system until the buyer closed the record, and they had probably gone off to make a cup of tea. It didn’t matter who was on the system or what record they were looking up, no-one else could use it.

It was an idiotic piece of programming, based on a requirement that should never have been allowed to be written into the spec, but there it was. Faced with a system that we could not use, my IT friends, and I use the expression with a shovelful of irony, told us that we had agreed that there would be no system upgrades for three months. I told them that if there was no sign of an upgrade for me to test by close of play the following day, I would re-write the thing myself. For the immediate problem I took away access to the system for everyone except a select few and, by mid-afternoon, we were trying to catch up by entering all of the transactions that we had had to log manually. It had all been a bit too macho, with all the testosterone flowing, but I was really pissed that my new team had been misled and let down so badly by people who should have done better: I felt entitled to a rant and enjoyed it so much that I began to incorporate it into my repertoire. Just for special occasions your understand.

The solution took a week to re-programme after I had taken a day to re-design the way it needed to work and issue a specification accordingly. It was a baptism of fire, but there is a great deal of pleasure in firefighting. It is now way to run a business, but, boy, is it fun. The adrenalin rush is a serious high and I was loving being back in a hands-on environment again. Oh, and we found the £M22 too, thanks to the Berkshire Belle and her pal in Finance.

Out of nowhere I had found new motivation, and, despite a horrid home life, I had found a reason to carry on. Any thoughts of ending it all dissipated through that Summer of 1989, but I needed to end my marriage and took legal advice on the subject. The Berkshire Belle and I had become friends as well as colleagues as we got to know each other better and were spending a lot of time together at work as well as travelling on business together. Things were purely platonic though.

The computer system was running, but it suffered from the problem that I talked about a couple of episodes ago in that it had been nearly five years from feasibility study to go-live. A lot had changed along the way and the initial scope had been too limited. We stocked around 26,000 products on a regular basis, but the system would only give us a stock total for each line. With three warehouses to spread our stock around we were still using manual records so that we knew where everything was. For example, we might have 56 pallets of one line, but they could not all be in the same place. We needed to know where each on was and be able to track stock as moved around the site.

We also had a clapped-out fleet of fork lift trucks and a lot of redundant conveyor systems, and so I put together a five year plan with an outline of how it would be financed. That all got through the corporate capital planning round in the August and we were good to go to start doing something better for the troops.

More to come next week.

on computers and me, part three

My journey into the world of computing back in 1982 had also seen the crumbling of my marriage. That first, high-profile, prohad seen me working away from home for weeks on end. Often, I would get home on Saturday evening and be on my way back to site on Sunday morning. My son Peter was born in June 1982 and the oft stated “I didn’t see him awake until he was eighteen months old”, whilst said in jest, and obviously untrue, is not that far off the mark. I was earning a small fortune and getting immense professional satisfaction, but my personal life was descending into the toilet. Leaving IT for the Swindon job was about trying to save my marriage as much as anything else by getting a job where I had about a 30-minute commute each way. I could see the children before I went to work, and they would be still up and about when I got home from the office.

Last week we had arrived in the back end of 1987, and I had been saved from the corporate scrapheap because of a chain of events. The computerisation of the Swindon operation had gone live in a very restricted form, but the full computerisation was still outstanding and one of the problems was that the key player on the user side had not done anything that they were supposed to have done. They got found out and had some form of breakdown that required them to be replaced at short notice. I was the natural choice, but I did not have the rank. My boss did and he was shunted across whilst I was stuffed into what was left of his old job, given some extra things to do and, pleasingly for me, I got temporarily promoted to his rank.

It was barely five years since I had first got involved in computing and now I was sitting on various steering committees deciding on the strategic direction of one of the country’s major public corporations. I should not have been there in terms of rank, but such things were boring to those who should have been there, and they hadn’t got a clue as to what was being discussed, nor decided on. I did, and so I got to go. I got by because I knew what was being discussed and I had enough credibility because of the projects that I had been involved with. Yes, the meeting were often boring, but being there meant that I had influence and that was a drug that I quickly became hooked on.

The Berkshire Belle and I had got to know each other a little better and, whilst I still fancied her, I was on about Plan K of trying to make something of my marriage. I loathed what I was doing at work and that threw my disastrous home life into sharp relief. I decided that one last throw of the dice was worth taking and then, if that didn’t work, I would kill myself. If I could last a year on my temporary promotion, then it would enhance the death in service benefits due and my wife and children would be financially secure. I would be gone and so did not give a shit.

The last roll of the dice was to move house again, this time to a village just outside of Swindon where I could still commute by ‘bus. We made that move in the September, but it changed nothing. My end, I decided, was nigh. But you’re still here, writing all this crap thirty or more years later, I hear you exclaim, and you are right. Did I bottle it? Not exactly. As usual, things are complicated.

I was, by then, a regular traveller along the old Fosse Way as I had to go to our offices outside of Rugby a lot. Usually, I would be driving back late in the evening having been speaking after dinner there and I had found on the long, dead straight, stretches of that old Roma highway, two large trees embedded in the bank beside the road. “Looks like he fell asleep at the wheel, he’d done a day’s work in Swindon, then driven to Rugby and was on his way home about 11. Must have been knackered.” They would have said. Hitting one of those trees at 90 mph would have been my lot, and who would thought that I had done it on purpose?

So that was my plan, but then two things happened in a single day. I had gone to London on the train and, on the way back from Paddington, was held up for an hour between Reading and Didcot because of a Woolly (Wolly Jumper; person committing suicide by walking into a moving train). A quick aside: Why do the media always say, “Person hit by train” and thus imply that the train has left the tracks and hunted their victim down? Anyway, I was somewhat pissed off by this selfishness (OK, I’m coming to that), and thinking about that fact that I was on one of a squadron of HSTs, each carrying about 600 people by that point, all of whom were being inconvenienced, plus the effects on the train crew and emergency services. Erm, yes, so what about my plan? OK, I wasn’t going to walk in front of a train, but I was going to close a cross country highway for several hours and, whilst I had planned on a late-night accident, I knew full well from experience that the road would probably still have been closed for the next morning’s commute. Bad plan. Scrap it and thing of another way out.

I got home and trotted into work the next morning to find that the General Manager at work was moving on and that his operational subordinate, my old boss, was to replace him. That left a vacancy and, as I was only in a temporary position, and one that had not guarantee of continuing, I was told to apply. I did, not least because one of the key aspects of the job was that the computer system was going to go live on the day that I would, if successful, start work. I would have a new computer project: Well new to me anyway. It also meant that I would be working with the Berkshire Belle. 

To be continued, part four next week.