My name is Matt Hancock and I work for Jenrick IT, an IT recruitment agency. I speak to people operating in IT environments daily and have come to know some of them very well. All have a story to tell. I thought you may be interested if I interview one or two about their experiences gained over many years in the workplace and the huge changes they have encountered from an IT prospective. Below is the personal story of one IT specialist who Jenrick IT have known over many years. I asked him about his memories in the workplace from some of the very earliest days when IT had a very minimal impact on the world around us and how IT evolved, from his perspective, from there on in. Here is his story, I hope you enjoy it: It’s quite incredible the amount of change in environments I have seen in my working life from 1974 when I started working full time as a 16 year old apprentice until present day. I thought, for those starting out in IT today, they may find this an interesting ‘museum piece’ about how IT revolutionised the workplace, going from environments in the early / mid 70’s where IT had either no or minimum impact through to the sophisticated IT systems we have today. For those of the same age group as myself, I guess it’s more of a trip down memory lane. Where to start. In 1974 I was taken on for a four year apprenticeship on site at a very large (at the time) global focused corporation. Whilst in the first year attending a foundation course at technical college I had the choice of either becoming a welder, a fitter or to go down the electrical route (one heavy and one light). I chose light electrical/instrumentation as the more interesting and technologically varied. Additionally in my first year of the apprenticeship, my first introduction to microprocessors was by building micro processor circuitry ie micro devices to switch things on and off using good old fashioned machine code. Between my second and fourth year of my apprenticeship, I went on day release to college. I was also able to learn skills in my workplace, working with tradesmen of all ages on various industrial plants covering electrical, mechanical, pneumatic, hydraulic and gaseous measurements and control. At this point I was chosen by a current tradesman to shadow him around the Cement Plant which included exposure to THE first industrial computer (from the ARK) called a Ferranti Argus. Wikipedia notes the following: Ferranti's Argus computers were a line of industrial control computers offered from the 1960s into the 1980s. Originally designed for a military role, a re-packaged Argus was the first digital computer to be used to directly control an entire factory. They were widely used in a variety of roles in Europe, particularly in the UK, where a small number continue to serve as monitoring and control systems for nuclear reactors. If you want to know more about this machine, why not take a look at this link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ferranti_Argus My memories of this machine, known as the ‘Beast’, was that it was the size of a car and had it’s own climate controlled room – it didn’t stop the cement dust getting in though!! It was hooked into the control room to take measurements and then send control signals, via motorised potentiometers, out to control valves and switches all around the Plant. When it had a ‘fit’ or ‘crashed’, the switches were thrown in the control room to take control locally and then either my colleague or myself had to re-boot it using a paper tape and then adding code corrections by pressing 8 switches to form an 8Bit coded value and throwing a ‘commit’ switch. As the years went by, this task became longer and longer, sometime taking hours. Eventually the controls were kept on ‘local’ for good and the “Beast” became redundant. In the same room as the “Beast” was a large single IBM teletype workstation - basically a freestanding printer with a full size keyboard. This was connected to IBM mainframes based at Head Office where they actually had their own computer site, the size of a football pitch. Off this site was a tiny corner room for what, I considered at the time and still do, were the best computers in the world – DEC VMS mini and micro computers. Personally I found programming a “Job” on the IBM teleprinter (and later on IBM VDU terminals) the worst computing experience ever – although I know there will be those out there who will beg to differ! However, I found them non-intuitive and user unfriendly. Thank goodness for VMS. At this point, in the late 70’s to early 80’s, IT became more prevalent with the arrival of the Commodore Pet/CBM and IBM workstations at work and the Sinclair/BBC micros at home. However, there seemed to be no other big uptake in IT environments at this point other than word processing in the offices and bespoke chemical analysis applications within the onsite laboratories. On a personal note, I was chuffed with myself that I was able to write my first ‘space invader’ type game on the Commodore Pet (I still have the floppy disk) and turned my ZX Spectrum with 4K of memory (coincidently the same amount of memory as the “Beast”) into a multi bar chart recorder - well it impressed my Dad anyway! In 1983 through to 1989 I became an Instrument Technician/Leadhand responsible for team activities in industrial plant control and maintenance. Instrument Technician Job Description:
- Inspects, tests, adjusts and repairs electric, electronic, mechanical, and pneumatic instruments and systems used to indicate, record, and control generating operations in conventional or nuclear power electric generating plant: Inspects meters, indicators and gauges to detect abnormal fluctuations.
- Tests accuracy of flowmeters, pressure gauges, temperature indicators, controllers, radiation counters or detectors and other recording, indicating or controlling instruments to locate defective components in system using test equipment such as pressure gauges, mercury manometers, potentiometers, pulse and signal generators, oscilloscopes, transistor curve tracers and ammeters, voltmeters and wattmeters.
- Traces out and tests electronic solid state and vacuum tube circuitry and components to locate defective parts in analog and digital, protection or radiation monitoring systems using test equipment, schematics and maintenance manuals.
- Removes defective instruments from system, decontaminates, disassembles and cleans instruments and replaces defective parts using handtools.
- Reassembles instruments and replaces instruments in system using handtools.
- Lubricates instruments and replaces defective wiring and tubing.
- Calibrates readings on instruments according to standards and adjusts phasing and aligns stages to ensure accuracy of recording and indicating function.
- Records calibrations made, parts and components used and inventory of parts on hand.
- Prepares schematic drawings, sketches and reports to reflect changes or alterations made in instruments, circuits and systems.
- May be designated according to type power plant as Nuclear-Plant-Instrument Technician; Instrument Repairer, Steam Plant.
As a fully qualified Artificer and then becoming one of the youngest Leadhand/Technicians at 25 years old, I was given stints on controlling other Plants such as the infamous vertical kilns (from a distance they looked like a cruise liner was in dock) and the Calciamatic kilns, which looked like huge donuts and were measured and controlled totally by pneumatics and thermo-couples because of their gas hazard areas. This was intricate mechanical engineering down at watch making level. My first microprocessor controlled measurements (transducers) experience started creeping in here to replace the pneumatics and I installed the first batch of fully programmable plant controllers to replace all the ancient horology in the control room. I took to this like the proverbial duck, blending the old and new technology and soon had that Plant singing along. I then did the same at the Cement Plant leading a gang of men to add new controllers and transducers and had that whizzing along, meaning that the plant was up 24/7 and churning out cement without breaking down as often. The operators loved us as we had made their shift work easier and they would call us out of hours at the drop of a hat if things weren’t right - very lucrative days! Although the Cement Plant had the highest levels of industrial technology which I enjoyed considerably, my favourite Plant is still the Crushing Plant, where a 50 ton dump truck would back in and drop its load of limestone into the mouth of the Primary Crusher. This looked like an upside version of Big Ben. It had a large bell shaped throat with a huge “dolly” rotating eccentrically and it quietly went about squeezing 6 foot pieces of stone into 6 inch lumps. It did this complete cycle every 90 seconds. In my opinion, everyone should see this awesome sight in action at least once in their lives. From two large conveyor belts underneath, all this stone would fan out into the rest of the Plant via many other conveyor belts to secondary crushers, bunkers, train wagons, road wagons and sent over long distances to the kilns. All these conveyor belts had belt weigher’s, all the bunkers were weighed by load cells and had level measurements and all the train wagons and road wagons were weighed statically or “on the move”. I even looked after the nuclear belt weigher’s which measured weight by integrating absorption of the belt material over fixed speeds. As a young man in charge, I had to decide who to send in there to work the shutters on these weigher’s. I chose one of the much older ‘mates’. He seemed happy to do it and already had four children!! All this and as much fresh air as one could take, allowed me to enjoy what I was doing – well, it was better than being masked up in the Hydrating Plant trying to have a cigarette without choking on burning quick lime dust (the Managers called it ‘steam’). In 1987, there was no holding me back. I started an Open University Undergraduate course studying technology, maths, and computer subjects to include : Computational Mathematics; Microprocessor-Based Tutors; Data Comms; Database and Data Modeling; Programming Languages; Software Engineering and Project Management; Systems Theory and Analysis Modeling. I also received formal company training to support company site-wide networking and computing resources to include: Office Systems; DP Systems; Comms - Async/Sync, Modems, MUX, PABX, Terminals, IBM networks, X25; Datalogging – Comms using VAX/FORTRAN applications over async lines. In 1989 I was selected as Information Systems Support Officer as part of a new IT Services Department headed up by my Cement Plant colleague and I developed the role to include company technical information systems and systems integration. So basically my colleague and I were back in the same old technology groove again, building an IT Department from scratch. In 1991 I became an Analyst/Programmer and was also instrumental in the implementation of an optical fibre ethernet LAN / WAN project to provide common resources over disparate site topology (up hill and down dale and through all the mud I could find). Sorry, boring bit here: Following the company divestment from the parent company, I was responsible for the defining and implementing company strategy to include:
- Financials/Accounting - Support of PROMIX -POP - SOP. Bespoke interface/report programs.
- Project Management Software - A GEMBASE system for company tracking reporting, and CA Superproject for standalone PC.
- Laboratory Information System - A GEMBASE system for the collection of laboratory analysis information.
- Leading to statistical reporting using GEMBASE & 20/20 on VAX.
- Production Information System - A FORTRAN developed datalogging system with automated GEMBASE links to feed a complimentary MIS & real-time monitoring systems.
- Works Engineering System - A GEMBASE system to track British Standard activities, CAD drawing details, Designer costs, Estimates, Calculations.
- Production Planning System - Based on COMAC EASE (distributed network application). Bespoke C++, dBase and DOS utilities.
- WAN/LAN network security - Integration of PATHWORKS & NOVELL using Turbopascal developed front-end security & DOS/Novell utilities.
- Site Equipment Security System - A GEMBASE system to track office equipment movement.
- Office Ware - A mandatory user based PC menu system using WordPerfect Office and Remote - PC software.
- DP Services - to include automated workstation and server backups, antivirus protection, disaster recovery, hardware & software specification and procurement, software evaluation, various utilities developed using GEMBASE, FORTRAN, VAX/DCL, BASIC, C, C++ and DOS.
However, amongst all the box shifting of PC’s (from £2K to £6K a pop back then, even a cheap DELL was £1K+) and wet nursing all manner of staff who could not read an instruction book, once in a while I’d disappear off doing bespoke programming work for the users on site. Like, for instance, the Site Managers who would ask me
“what else can these flipping terminals and computers do for me?"
I shall never forget the look on my colleague’s face when I got his beloved colour VT340 terminals to turn into multi coloured chart recorders. Coming from our instrument background, he saw this as a backwards step but the Mangers thought it was great to select up to 8 telemetry measurements from their Plant, load the colour printer with paper on a Friday night and hit the “Start Chart” option that would spew out all weekend onto the floor. On Monday they would have a complete picture of what their Plant and workers had done over the weekend. I believed then, and largely still do, there wasn’t anything I could not do with my VMS 3GL’s and GEMBASE 4GL. After all, its only software and the only other computer technology that has impressed me in my line of work since is C#, where I get the same feeling of creativity with abundant output in the shortest turnaround from start to finish. Happy days. However, the OU degree qualification then came through and my connections with the GEMBASE community took off - the writing was on the wall. In order to do better financially and for the good of my young family, I headed to Central London and haven’t done so badly. However, I have never enjoyed the same level of creativity as in those early years. I suppose this could be explained by the explosion of IT roles that I now see, ie there is now someone doing a separate role for every facet of my old job, where back in the day, my colleague and I used to do it all! Still, I reckon I still have a trick or two up my sleeve that will never be taught in computer classes again. Plant is still churning out the products, obviously with a lesser work force due to technology, maybe I should pop in one day and say hello. Further Information For more stories like this and additional information for working within the world of IT, please contact me, Matt Hancock at Jenrick IT on 01932 245 500 or email me. I always look to connect with like-minded people on Linked IN - please click here to connect with me.