By the time I retire next year, I will be nearing 40 years in business, all of which is in the Information Technology field for one industry or another (wholesale, retail, pharmacy, higher education, healthcare, high tech, energy, municipal/state/federal government). I have had a terrific career and I really wouldn’t change anything. Throughout my tenure, I have learned that even bad experiences can become learning opportunities. I did not have dreams of inventing the next great ‘thing’ or becoming an innovator, but rather to have a decent career different from family generations before me who worked hard in steel mills all of their lives.
So for $6,000 annual salary, I started out to prove that there is life after steel in Pittsburgh. Though I was fortunate to start my career in 1974, I began working for a company with a huge investment in computer card equipment and processing. My first programming job was wiring plug boards for what were then called ‘tab’ (tabulation) machines. It was like walking back into 1956.
In the beginning, I thought it very strange as, although cards were still widely used, the extent to which this company went for its suppliers and customers, who also embraced this technology was a new experience. I came to embrace where we came from in the computing industry. And it allowed me to appreciate the History of Modern Computing class that I had to take as part of my training.
Now, I am astounded to know that History of Modern Computing class has been removed from today’s curriculum. How can you know what each marvel hitting the market today really is unless you understand where we came from? It is much like understanding the struggle for human rights without understanding the issues of slavery and the American Civil War. To me, there is not much difference when you look back at the progression of time and its effect on us all.
Believe it or not, we ran entire companies with computers that had only 24K of memory. That is “K” as in (kilo) thousands of bytes. Today, your telephone contains somewhere in the neighborhood of 42,000 times that much. That 24K was a room full of cabinetry. But business was efficient and more effective because of it. We learned to program efficiently back then. Operating systems loaded from cards and assembler languages made that possible. It wasn’t particularly pretty — computer cards and 80-character green screen displays never were, but it got the job done. Studies show that, with all of the wonderful advancements that have come along since then, worker productivity from the mid-’70s to the late ’90s changed very little. It is only today, that productivity is starting to catch up.
What would be wrong with knowing that it didn’t all begin in the Silicon Valley, but rather in my home state of Pennsylvania. Or learning about Jacquard’s Loom, the first industrial equipment using punched card technologies? Or the FastRand drum that was the first mass storage device in which the magnetizing heads rotated around the drum instead of stationary heads with a rotating disc that we know today as common. Or the card collator, alpha-numeric interpreter, reproducing punch, sorter, or keypunch (the originator of the ‘hanging CHAD’? Or learning about IBM and the BUNCH (Burroughs, Univac, NCR, Control Data, and Honeywell) as the leaders in developing and delivering technology? Or learning about early pioneers of the industry? No, it didn’t begin with Steve Jobs, but with people like John W. Mauchley, J. Presper Eckert, and Grace Murray Hopper who left us this incredible legacy. Learning about the era of going from manual to mechanical to electro-mechanical and then on to digital computing, we begin to understand our own advancement as a society and as professionals.
No, I am not advocating the return of the pocket protector and lab coats or any return to that past. It is, in fact past. But it is a history of who we are as IT professionals and, frankly, a history of America and a world which has contributed richly to the global economy. Embrace it and use it to your advantage! You will be a much better professional for it.
Here are some resources to get you started:
A History of Modern Computing (History of Computing) available from www.amazon.com
A Few Good Men from Univac available from www.amazon.com
Richard Voller is a Senior Consultant at SDLC Partners, a leading provider of business and technology solutions. Please feel free to contact Richard at firstname.lastname@example.org with any questions on this blog post.