We all have to start somewhere and, like many, I started at the bottom. In the twilight of my 35-year IT career, I frequently reflect on how I got involved in the first place. Largely by accident, as it happened. However, I did - and I've never looked forward since.
It was 1966 and a friend of mine worked as a hardware engineer for International Computers and Tabulators (ICT, the forerunner of ICL), maintaining an ancient piece of kit called an Emidec 1101 in London Transport's computer centre at 55 Baker Street, London. I barely knew what a computer was (some would claim this is still true) but I'd heard tales of this new and exciting means of making a living and was persuaded to apply to ICT for an aptitude test. I took the test on a Thursday afternoon, passed it and was immediately offered a job. Overwhelmed, I said I'd think about it. There was little I could do but accept the formal offer that arrived in the following morning's mail. With the postal service as it is today I'd have had longer to consider things.
I started my employment with ICT on a 3-week operations course at their training centre at Moor Hall, Cookham, Berkshire. There were half-a-dozen of us - the names Terry, Eric and Ian come to mind across the years. The first week was spent learning about electro-mechanical unit-record equipment that we were never to encounter professionally. Some of that week's evenings were spent mugging up on this stuff, all for damn-all but we didn't know that then. The second week consisted of a crash course in PLAN, ICT's 1900 series assembler language, followed by a week on console operation simulation exercises.
It wasn't all work out-of-hours. Cookham - the Land of a Thousand Pubs, or so it seemed - provided many happy evenings, mainly in the "Royal Standard" and the "Bel and Dragon". For more adventurous souls with transport, Maidenhead, Marlow and Taplow (and their respective pubs) beckoned.
The week after, we were let loose on the real thing in ICT's computer centres at Bridge House South, Putney. Kitted out in navy-blue blazers, grey slacks and brown suede shoes (it was a flagship site for the company, hence the uniform), we were assigned to the hapless shift-leaders who were expected to make competent operators out of us.
There were two operations areas; System Development Services Branch (SDSB) which processed the development of ICT's systems and applications software, and Computer Operations Branch (COB) to which I was assigned. There we processed the testing of customer applications software, direct from users and that produced for them by the User Programming Services (UPS) team at Garratt Lane, Wandsworth. Staffed mainly by female programmers, we welcomed the in-person testing sessions by the UPS girls as a welcome interlude to the all-male operations atmosphere. Amongst others, Avril, Joyce and Marion brightened up many a dull, boring afternoon shift!
My first assignment was to a curious beast known as the FP2. This was one of two prototype machines (the other - the FP1 - was at West Gorton, Manchester) from which the 1900 series was developed. It was somewhat limited, even in the context of those days, as it had only paper-tape input and output, plus a line printer - no magnetic media at all! Even the peripherals were hard-wired as the FP2 lacked the 1900 series' then groundbreaking standard interface connections.
Apart from media there was another factor restricting the FP2's usefulness. At some point its ferrite-core memory had "baked", due to insufficient cooling during building alterations, and program loading was accompanied by frequent check-sum errors. Operating the FP2 was a very frustrating experience indeed!
The only person who really understood the FP2 was the Chief Engineer and, naturally, he had bigger fish to fry. Consequently the time came when nobody bothered to power it up or assign a shift to it. It joined a graveyard of strange peripheral devices lying around the building, including a wondrous piece of kit called a Magnetic Card File. Into this were loaded cartridges of magnetic plates that whizzed along a track past a drum with read/write heads, making a mass storage device. Card wrecks were common and its use was soon abandoned.
The early sales success of the 1900 series meant that there was a constant demand for experienced staff. In those days ICT took on and trained large numbers of operations and programming staff, knowing full well that a large proportion of them would be enticed away to customer sites for greatly increased salaries. I joined the brain drain from ICT less than a year after starting, playing "Double Your Money" by joining a user company in the defence sector.
For me, ICL (as ICT had become) operating changed to IBM operating, which changed to IBM programming, which led me into contracting in late 1973. If some people view contractors with suspicion today we were then regarded like aliens from outer space. We early cyber-mercenaries played it for all it was worth and were largely responsible for popularising the concept of contracting. No limited companies in those far-off days, just sole traders and partnerships. IR35 was far away over so many hills that we thought the party would go on forever. You should have heard the anguished cries when the Finance Act 1975 forced contractors into forming limited companies to avoid having their agencies deduct National Insurance Contributions and Income Tax on a continuous emergency code basis.
The day came when I couldn't look another program listing in the face - my brain felt as if it had the consistency of an Aero chocolate bar. Not wishing to leave the field entirely I moved into recruitment in the late '80s and management in the mid '90s, still (I'm proud to say) as a contractor. I might have continued for a few more years but the arrival of the Dastardly Prawn and her Anti-Contractor Tax resulted in me calling it a day from mid-2001. I won't sever all my ties with IT but the call of retirement is very tempting!
To misquote from "Beyond The Fringe", the classic early '60s satirical revue, "I've done my bit - now it's up to the youngsters". In Blair's IR35 Britain I wish them well of it. Nevertheless, I still wonder - what happened to the FP2?
© Brian Smith 2001
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