Posts Tagged ‘computers’

on decision making

to make a decision you need choices and information and therein lies a problem. We have available to us a vast resource of information that, for the majority, you only need to pull a slim device from your pocket and prod your finger at a few times to access. When I was young our family had an old Webster’s dictionary and a second hand atlas to refer to, but now you can find almost anything out in a matter of seconds.

Of course there is a lot out there that just isn’t true, but what is worse is that so often people just head for these dreadful echo chambers full of people who think the same way. What happened to critical thinking? This slavish belief in things that people have heard and refuse to submit to any sort of challenge or test is going to lead us as a society into all sorts of problems. Forget global warming, society is likely to collapse well before we all start to fry.

In recent years I have watched corporate decision making become dominated by the computer. Data can be modelled and the decision making process has moved more and more towards doing what the machine tells you to do. I have been a big fan of having the computer fed by doing the work rather than data being input manually and I have designed or coded a lot of such programmes. I have reaped their benefits too as an operator.

However, to just slavishly accept what the machine tells you to do puts decision making in jeopardy if you don’t understand where the data that it is using is coming from and what the parameters the algorythms that the computer programme uses to manipulate that data are. A recent example was in fully automating vehicle scheduling where the computer was sending vehicles out anything up to three hours late because of allowing for driver’s statutory rest periods.

Once the problem had been spotted it was relatively easy to reset some of the parameters the programme was using to make it do what was required, but an experienced human would have made different decisions and the problem would not have arisen.

Some systems are genuinely sophisticated. Take the software that controls a modern military aircraft. These are inherently unstable and cannot be flown in a conventional way, but the commuter systems take control inputs from the pilot and make the ‘plane fly accordingly. I am a lot happier with a conventional stick and rudder with some nice cables making things do what I ask, but then the sort of things that I flare not fast jets.

But back in the world of commercial decision making, or even personal decisions, we first need information and then need to know how to interpret it. We need to understand the consequences of our actions. All too often I see younger managers having an idea and going for it with no real critical thinking about whether or not it will work. There seems to be a culture of “I’m going to do this and it will work”.

I’m all for confidence, it’s a fundamental element of leadership, but blind confidence is dangerous. Yes, time for deliberation may not be plentiful, or even available, but a least have a process for decision making mapped out to that you can make the best decision in the time that you have. The more that you apply a decision making process you will, allied with the experience you have gained, get better and better at doing it.

It is also worth having a post mortem, not for apportioning blame, but to understand how closely the outcome matched your expectations. If you were lacking certain information then see what you can do to have it more readily available. If there were resource issues then try to find a way of getting faster access.

I once was asked how I was getting on a few days into a new job and relied that I couldn’t get my head out of the trench for long enough to work out which way the bullets were coming from. I was just fire fighting all day every day, but after a couple of weeks I was beginning to make progress. By improving information flow we started to get away from decision making being purely reactive and began to control our destiny.

Decision making needs to remain a human intervention. Even in a military aircraft the pilot is still making decisions: The software translates those decisions into action. It is a skill that we need to preserve, to take information, examine it critically and act on the choices that we make with a good understanding of what the consequences will be.

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.

on computers and me, part two

Last week saw me landing in Swindon, having escaped from IT and become, to a degree, poacher turned gamekeeper. Towards the end of the first week in that new job, back in the Autumn of 1984, two things happened; firstly, I met the lady who I would, at the end of that decade, set up home with (I’ll come back to her later, but, for regular readers, this was the Berkshire Belle), and secondly, I was presented with an IBM PC: I had not seen one before, but my new lords and masters had assumed, me being ex-IT, that I would know all about. Fortunately it had arrived late in the afternoon and so I took advantage of the wonders of flexi-time and buggered off home on the ‘bus with the PC’s manual, and the MS-DOS and MS-BASIC manuals, in my briefcase.

By the time that Thamesdown Transport’s Outer Circle service had dropped me back at the office the next day I had three programmes written in MS-BASIC; one nonsense routine to amuse, or annoy, colleagues, another to calculate expense claims and the third a new version of an American Football game that a pall and I had written in COBOL back in London. I settled at the computer desk, powered up the IBM for the first time and got to work. Sure enough, an audience arrived. Someone asked what I was doing, and I told them I was checking that it was working. How did I do that? I moved aside and asked a colleague to type in “Are you working OK?” They did, and, after a short pause, the word “Yes” appeared on the VDU. Some seemed impressed, others less so; “Is that it?” asked one. I suggested to the colleague who had taken my seat and typed the first question that they should ask if it was sure. They typed that in and, after a shorter pause; “I’ve told you once. Either ask me to do something or piss off and leave me to think in peace.” Scrolled across the screen. Exit audience, and it was about half an hour later than one of them sidled back to ask if that hat been a wind up. I told them no, that the IBM was sulking because I wasn’t wearing blue socks. (Quick lesson: In jokes only work with people who are in).

For a short while I was back as a programmer, writing odd little routines for the trio of IBMs that we had acquired and one of the simplest of these was another routine to blind with science. One of the stock controllers was getting regularly whipped at the weekly management meetings because his figures were manually generated rather than coming off the new computer system that had just been introduced. No-one would believe his numbers and so I wrote him a little routine so that he could type in his figures and print them off on piano lined paper. He did this and handed the report around at the next management meeting: Ho got no comments. Just seeing his figures as apparently off the system was all it took. Smoke and mirrors.

The project that I had been drawn down to Swindon for involved computerising purchasing and stock control at local and regional offices around the UK. This project would be linked to a parallel one in Swindon from where central stocks and purchasing were undertaken. I was back in my business analyst role, but with responsibility for field testing the new systems and rolling them out. This project ran on IBM System 36/38 minicomputers, standard business machines of the time and, again, the size of a large washing machine. The software was in a language called 4GL and I learned enough of this to write routines to run the sort of reports that we needed, it being quicker to do that than to go through the formal process of asking for them to be written by the IT people. They never spotted what had been done behind their backs.

The Berkshire Belle enters the story again here because her job changed and she became the key user contact for the Swindon based project and used to sweep into our office clutching her packet of Marlboros and her lighter to engage in heated debate with my boss squared. I developed something of a crush on her at this time. And she terrified me too.

Computer projects are a hard slog. They involve change and that is something that many people instinctively resist. They also mean that what people are actually doing, as opposed to what they are supposed to be doing, get exposed and that is a threat. They encroach on fiefdoms and, often, sweep them away. They also impose deadlines that few like to have imposed on them, but worst of all, they take control of things. On arriving at most sites and introducing myself, the words; “I’ve come to computerise your stores” often appear to be heard as; “I’ve come to rape your wife and daughters.” One is usually as welcome as a dose of piles.

But the weight of the corporate machine meets the wealth of corporate anarchy head on and usually the result is some form of score draw. I was unusual in that I was a generalist in a specialist role. I was well travelled around the business, knew how the system worked and had mentors in high places. I didn’t have to invoke the latter, but knowing the system meant that I could often break deadlocks and my reputation as a hustler grew through the mid-eighties.

One of the major problems with big computer systems is that they are big. The bigger the project the more people get consulted and involved and by the time that you get a specification signed off as what is needed that requirement is probably out of date. When you finally get around to implementing the thing, a year or more downstream, it is definitely not what is needed, even if it is what everyone wanted. Look at any of the major governmental computerisation projects and they all fall down this hole. Too much time is pend on getting the spec tight, when the better option is to go with something more flexible that can adapt to the world that it enters.

A lot of time is wasted on computerising what is done now rather than producing a system that will work with what is possible. I battled away, but the project that on was working on was shut down almost overnight when the organisation decided to split into four divisions: three operating businesses and an overall HQ. There was wholesale scrapping of computer projects, not just mine, and thus a large surplus of computer project people. I dived for cover into a strategic role: The ivory tower was not my natural habitat, but any port in a storm (I come from two generations of Royal Navy stokers, nautical expressions come naturally).

To be continued: Part three next week.

on computers and me, part one

My first interaction with computers, at least that I am aware of, came in 1972 when, in my job as a stock controller working in the regional depot of a national wholesale chain, I received print outs on the piano paper that we used back then. I also had to start using product codes rather than descriptions when ordering stock. Neither activity made much difference to my life either way, for I did not have any direct involvement with the magic box in far off Swindon, I just filled in forms.

A couple of years later I went to work in the TV rental business. Yes, a lot of people rented their televisions back then and every High Street in every town would have around half a dozen TV rental chains fighting for your business. There we again had no direct contact with the computers, but all the documentation that we filled in on multi-part pads had to be done in little grids, one letter or number per space, and letters had to be capitals. That, by the way, caused me to lose the ability to do joined up writing after nearly three years working there, but I digress. The computers at head office in Watford churned out all sorts of things for us to do. The machines were taking over my life.

I moved on, as we did in the Seventies, and machine-readable forms were all around. They had become omni-present in the world of commerce, and as I moved around the corporate monolith that I had joined computers lurked somewhere around, heard perhaps, but never seen. We used a service called Comshare (I don’t know how it was spelt) and every afternoon the call would go up from the team working opposite me that the bar had been lifted and they would all start to key in data, racing against the moment when our slot ended. I made sure that none of that nonsense sullied my working day.

By then I had a daughter and we had bought one of those tennis games that you plugged into your TV, my own first contact with the beast. That was soon followed by a games console, an Atari if I remember correctly, for which we bought various game cartridges, including the inevitable Space Invaders.

But it was around then, late 1981, that jobs as computer programmes were advertised at work. The business was recruiting computer professionals from outside but wanted to enlist some of their own people. I applied, went through a series of tests, passed them, and went on for interviews and aptitude tests before being told that I had one of the jobs. A colleague in the engineering team lent me a Sinclair ZX device (plus manual), but that left me somewhat confused, and apprehensive. What had I got myself into?

Reporting for work I found that I was to train as a programmer using a computer language called COBOL. I passed my City and Guilds of London exams and came back to work. In those three months I did not see a single computer. The nearest that I got was when I had my coding done and was allowed to book time on a terminal to input my work and then wait for the, inevitable, error report.

Back in the office we had all sorts of midi-computers lying around: Manufacturers were lending us kit to try and persuade us to buy their wares. I was no problem to find one to play with and we were encouraged to try our hand. One early project was to set up a programme to collate and report on a pub darts league. For this we were using a machine about the size of a large domestic fridge-freezer. No-one batted an eyelid.

I had been allocated to a project that had not yet started and my role was to be more of a business analyst with the software being supplied by an outside agency. With the spec in hand, I wrote one part of the intended system using COBOL on the same NCR machine that I had done the darts programme. There was something of a thrill to work out what you had to tell the machine to do in order for it to produce the desired results but, having demonstrated that I could do it to an acceptable standard, the business had found that I had other skills within the IT sphere. My programming days were not over, but I was destined for other things.

By now I was working with minicomputers, but these were the size of the sort of washing machine that you would find in a launderette. Home computers were around, the BBC, Commodore and such, but we treated these with some contempt, they were just toys as far as we were concerned, and we dealt with the real thing. 

Perceptions amongst our peers were odd though. We had a demonstration room where we could show colleagues, customers and other worthies (and more than a few unworthies) what we were up to. I had been drafted as lead demonstrator and, on my first rehearsal, the PR people (the floppy hanky brigade as we called them) decided that all of the backroom kit was boring. I drafted in a couple of old tape drive units, the sort that would just about block a doorway, and wrote a few lines of codes to make them whir and spin their tapes every few seconds, even throwing in some flashing lights for good measure. The floppy hankies were thrilled…

My project lasted just under two years and then I was lost in the pool of programmers and analysts waiting for The Next Big Thing. I would have settled for anything and did, getting involved in evaluating ATMs and voice recognition software. The latter was a hoot, and we had a press day to show off our prowess in such things. The morning session went very well with not a beat missed and so we retired to the wine bar for a quick lunch before a second demo in the afternoon. None of us realised how much effect alcohol had on one’s vocal functions and the bloody software had to be retrained before we could proceed and, of course, drinking water while we did it started to bring our voices back, so we were in a state of flux. That project was quietly forgotten.

I decided that I did not want to be a decent sized fish in an ocean and headed to Swindon where, for those of you paying attention, my first computing encounter had been driven from. Here I joined a team who were, in management speak, the Informed Client. That meant that we sat between the IT team (the one that I had just left, or, at least, the local branch thereof, and the various departments at that outpost of headquarters. It would take me a couple of years, but I was to become a decent sized fish in a modest pond, and to spend some of my happiest years at work there.

If you’re still here, thanks for hanging in there and I’ll be part with part two next Monday.