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Jon's First IT Job

September 24, 2017

Reminiscing seems to go hand-in-hand with getting older, and so we thought we'd use this post to reminisce about how we got started in IT. We invite you to join in by sharing your own memories of how you got started in the comments section. Today we're going to get the ball rolling with Jon since he's the "senior" member of the partnership. Susan will tell her "getting started" story in a later post.

Here's Jon's story:

It would take me too long to explain exactly how and why I decided to get into the world of computers. Suffice to say that at age 18 I took a job as a trainee operator on an ICL 1004 system (which was actually a rebranded Univac 1004). My real objective was to become a programmer and I was promised that after my first 12 months I would have the chance to do just that.

To give the youngsters among you some context here, I should note that this was back in 1967—10 years before the appearance of the Commodore PET and long before Apple IIs, IBM PCs, or TRS 80s changed the world. In fact, at the time, the system I worked on was one of only two in the entire town of some 65,000 people.

The 1004 was a hybrid machine. It wasn’t a mechanical tabulator, but it did use a plug board for programming. Unlike tabulators, it used ferrite core memory for saving values, accumulating totals, etc. In fact, there was a program board available that allowed program instructions to be read from punch cards and executed (this was not used at my site).

The main unit consisted of a card reader and integrated "high speed" printer (a massive 300 lines a minute!). In addition there was a separate card-reader/punch that was used to produce invoice summary cards, for example, that would in turn form the input to the subsequent monthly statement run. The 1004 had magnetic tape units available, but they were horrifically expensive and the company did not think they added sufficient value. Instead we had thousands and thousands of punch cards.

We also had a 600 card-per-minute sorter and a collator. The sorter was used to sequence the cards into account number sequence, for instance, and the collator would merge the customer name and address details into those cards so that invoices could be printed.

The cards that were the input source were produced by the "girls" in the punch room, who were ruled with an iron fist by Molly, the supervisor. It still amazes me to this day that these incredible ladies could enter data (very accurately) while simultaneously smoking and discussing the latest TV show, music, husband woes, etc. Because management was too cheap to buy alpha keyboards, all the data entry machines used a numeric keypad and you had to know the key combinations for letters of the alphabet, punctuation, etc. In fact, to this day I remember the alphabet, since I had to learn it to punch cards to replace any that got damaged during processing—not an uncommon event. I also had to learn to "read" cards without the assistance of any printing on them. Not having a printing card punch in the shop was another cost saving exercise by management.

Looking back at it now, it all sounds so primitive, but compared with the manual methods of producing invoices and statements that preceded it, this method was a major step forward. It also gave me a solid foundation in understanding how individual pieces of information could be organized in different ways for reporting purposes.

Other than giving me an introduction to the world of IT, there were two other unusual aspects of the job that made me the envy of many of my friends.

The first was that that one side of the machine room overlooked the local lawn bowling greens. So when waiting out long boring collating and printing tasks you nearly always had something to watch. When there was nothing going on there, on the other side of the room, we overlooked the town's main soccer and cricket fields and had a good view of the games.

The second was that I was the only guy in the shop. The punch room staff, programmers, and the senior operator were all women. In such circumstances, the fact that I was not "one of the girls" got forgotten very easily. The result was that it was quite normal for me to walk into the department in the morning, or after lunch, and find one or more of the young ladies in a state of undress. Without thinking they would greet me with "Hi Jon" and then, typically some 10 seconds or so later, there would be a scream as they woke up to what had just happened. I never complained.

I stayed in the job for some 18 months, during which time I discovered that nobody had told the IT manager that he was supposed to be training me as a programmer! In his view there was no way he could do that. He felt bad about this and as a result helped me to find a job in London where I was guaranteed a programming position. And thereby begins another whole tale.

So what about you? How did you get into IT? What was your first job like? Tell us about it in the comments and in a future blog post we'll get Susan to share her story.

Posted September 24, 2017| Permalink