Posts Tagged ‘swindon’

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.

the lockdown log 46

At home and back from having my first Covid-19 vaccination earlier this morning. A quick and efficient process over at Swindon’s steam museum saw me in and out in about 20 minutes, 15 of which was the required waiting period to make sure that there were no immediate ill effects. I mentioned to my boss that I was just going to chill out for the rest of the day and he suggested that, as I was having the Pfizer version of the jab, I should have a German beer so lunch was washed down with a bottle of Pilsner: no side effects so far.

I have a few chores to do around the house, but am otherwise taking it easy on the sofa. The weather here is cold and the wind chill is making it feel very cold. My neighbour left me use her treadmill (in her garage) this morning so I have got a couple of hours walking in without having too brave outdoors too much. My weight is coming down, another 1.5 kg lost since last Friday, so I am keen to keep the exercise up.

Not much else to report this week. The garden is frozen and there is not much that I can do for the moment beyond a bit of tidying here and there. Next week looks positively balmy by comparison and perhaps I can do more that just look at it all and plan what I can get up to in the coming weeks.

I shall have to drag myself into the kitchen later to knock up some soup for lunches tomorrow and Saturday. Probably pepper soup as I have three red ones available so they, with an onion and the last couple of garlic gloves, should make a tasty brew. Low in calories too and no additives so healthy as well as warming. I like cooking from scratch and tonight, for example, am making a Chinese chicken dish that the Berkshire Belle found in one of her magazines. We do still have cook chill food most weeks, but probably only once a week and everything else will be cooked from scratch. It takes a little longer, but not much.

That’s about it for this week. Stay safe out there wherever you are.

the lockdown log 23

The twenty-third in this series reminds me that we are almost six months into this plague. Despite the rantings of some about the way things have been handled here nowhere is doing that well overall and it seems that we are stuck with the bug until a vaccine becomes available.

Here in Swindon the sudden surge in Covid-19 cases has slowed again although we are still an area of concern to the authorities. Personally I feel no more or less vulnerable than I did back in March and plough on regardless. I have worked all the way through apart from a week off in May and will be taking another couple of weeks off from this weekend.

Some time off will help with a focussed effort on my various domestic projects and I am looking forward to making some good progress. I will so my best to get things done despite the weather.

My diet/exercise regime continues to prune off about half a kilo a week, or just over a pound in old measures. I am told that this is good and remember my first wife getting similar advice during her many diets. Loose slow and it stays off longer or something like that. Whatever, it is steady progress in the right direction, I am over a stone lighter than I was eight weeks ago and when I go back to see the medics at the end of the month hopefully they will be pleased with the results three months on.

One aspect of the weather interruptions to my outside projects is that I have dug out ukulele and guitar and started to practice a little each day. Not much, sometimes just five minutes here and there, but it brings both the pleasure of (occasionally), getting something right and the frustration of cocking it up. It is good for the grey cells apparently so I shall keep it up and, once it becomes safe to do so, will try and find some local gathering or other where I can get to play with others.

Stay safe out there wherever you are.

the lockdown log 21

Time rolls by and there seems no end to this plague as yet. Here in swindon we are making a bid for the nation’s top spot and, having been in the top ten for a couple of weeks or so, are closing in on the top five. Not that this is anything to be proud of.

Our problems seem to be in two areas where ethnic minorities have set up home. I can remember working with some of the immigrant community from this part of town and being shocked to hear them talk of their overcrowded conditions, not that they saw it as a problem. Different cultures and expectations; fitting twenty people into the sort of two bedroomed house that my mother had lived in seemed ridiculous to me, but my background was very different to theirs.

The irony that the EMEA peoples are more likely to suffer from Covid-19, and for it to have a more severe impact, when they live in multi generational and, by my standards, overcrowded homes where it will spread more quickly is not lost on me. It is sad that people who have come to the UK to escape troubles that I cannot imagine in their homelands are now under such threat from a new enemy.

In my corer of the town life goes on as the weeks roll past. The weather is thwarting some of my efforts, but it looks as though I will have a dry day today to treat the deck with stain ready for the new shed’s arrival in a couple of weeks or so. That will also need painting inside and out before assembly so I am hoping for about three days of dry weather then.

I am back on my head in the sand attitude and am not looking at the news (I only know about the Covid situation here because the Berkshire Belle delights in telling me these snippets) and am largely avoiding social media where the political ranting of my Leftie friends I find moronic rather than amusing me as it usually does. I take each day as it comes and try not to think too far ahead beyond my personal projects. It works for me and fends off the worst of the depression that is luring too close at hand for comfort.

I am off to do some work. Stay safe out there wherever you are.

the missing piece of the jigsaw

Last week I had a bit of a go at the appraisal system and suggested that we all scrapped it; have you done that yet? You really should consider it, regardless of what your HR colleagues may say. Read more…

lessons in life and leadership from Pete Seeger

Last week the world lost one of its great communicators, teachers and leaders when Pete Seeger died and another of my heroes has passed on out of this life. I can’t be sad though because he has left such a legacy in his 94 years. Read more…

2013 blog review; wishing everyone a peaceful and content 2014

The stats helper monkeys prepared a 2013 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 3,200 times in 2013. If it were a cable car, it would take about 53 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

ThatConsultantBloke’s Quick Guides

A few months back I recommended some text books to a group that I was helping with their professional development. They considered what I had suggested, but felt that they already had too many text books and what they really wanted was a quick guide that they could have in e-book format on their ‘phone or tablet. Read more…

we need long term thinking, not short term populism

At a seminar last week one of my fellow speakers explained to the audience the true state of our energy production which brought into sharp focus the empty promises that one of our political leaders, and I use that term loosely here, had made a couple of day earlier. Now this is not an attack on any one party, but it is one on the premise that people can really be led by populist talk. Read more…