Home > The Monday Musings Column > on computers and me, part five

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.

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