A trip from the Swinging 60s

To most people the 1960s hosted a revolution in western culture, music and fashion. Yet the decade also witnessed the first intimations of the impact computers could have on the business world as well as the lives and careers of a select few.

To most people the 1960s hosted a revolution in western culture, music and fashion. Yet the decade also witnessed the first intimations of the impact computers could have on the business world as well as the lives and careers of a select few.

I wanted to understand how the world of data processing was different to the world of IT as we know it now. So who better to ask than Des Lee, the oracle (the thesaurus defines it as a prophet, soothsayer, visionary, rather than the company of the same name)? If anyone knew about both the 1960s and the embryonic computer industry, it would be him.

Lee started his working life as a musician just as rock and roll got started in the UK. He was a backing guitarist for several notable groups from the era. He also gave advice to the group that later became the Beatles. But Lee did not want to work away from home, so went to the JobCentre which sent him to the Coal Board for an ­interview.

Logic was seen to be the primary skill necessary for a computer job and only way to get a job in the field was to pass aptitude tests. While these tests have disappeared over time, they have been replaced by competency-based testing. Both methods seem to take the gut feel out of recruitment and try to ensure a competent workforce.

There were few computer jobs around in the 1960s and there was certainly no training other than reading the books (programme instruction texts) and taking the tests embedded in the books. Fail and you were kicked out pass and you became a competent programmer.

Experience usually meant a matter of months rather than years. Subsequently progressing to a job on the business side was not an option as programmers were viewed as techies who did not speak the same language as the rest of the business. It was very different to now, when career IT workers have successfully moved over into business roles.

Everyone knew that all the code ever likely to be written or needed would have been penned by 1975 - or thought they did. Data processing was not seen as a long-term career. A lot of the people who got into computing were of a rebellious nature many were failed graduates. Lee and I both fit the description. Interestingly enough, the same sort of people emerged and were successful when e-business and the internet altered business models in the mid-1990s.

While the software delivered what the business needed, the quality of what was produced was suspect as there were no methodologies or standards. It really was the blind leading the blind as no-one had any experience and every­one had to try things out.

Software companies did not really exist so there was heavy reliance on the hardware suppliers. The bid process was fairly simple as there were so few companies who could respond to your request for price. Suppliers still have a lot to learn, given the new way of buying.

Oh and yes, Y2K was not the first computing time bomb in the UK. In the late 1960s and early 1970s software development was overtaken by currency decimalisation, which required all systems to be changed from pounds, shillings and pence to pounds and pennies. The conversion process required a lot of new hires who were let go after D-day in 1973.

In the 1960s and 1970s - and the 1980s for that matter - hardware was king. The hardware suppliers were all-powerful and networked with the board. Today, hardware is all but a commodity, broadly self-correcting and not the huge investment that it used to be.

Software has also lost its power, which now lies with staff. Back then, huge rooms were needed to house the level of computing power that can now be found in a wristwatch. Each computer required a resident engineer to fix it when it went wrong - and it did, frequently.

When Lee's company took delivery of an IBM 360/65, he remembers saying that no company could possibly have a problem big enough to test this machine. It had less than 1Mbyte of memory. It took 18 months from order to delivery, and test centres were needed to test the new systems before the machine arrived.

Interestingly, service centres where you paid for computing power on demand or where you paid for data preparation cards to be punched became the norm. Lee agrees that since the mid-1960s the use of service centres has remained constant - it is simply the services offered that have changed over time. He is adamant that call centres were invented by mail-order companies decades ago.

In the early to mid-1960s hard discs were not common and it was necessary to manage massive tape libraries, and this was before the automated tape silos common today. All input had to be performed manually, whether via paper cards, paper tape, or reel-to-reel tape. Some of these jobs were incredibly mundane and boring fortunately, most of them are no longer required.

Computers were initially used to automate business processes such as accounting and payroll. Because of this role, the head of data processing often reported to the company's financial director, while the data processing manager was a middle manager and not a board director.

No one on the board of directors would have had a clue what data processing was about - and they were not really interested either.

The general board perception was that a company could run without a computer, it would just be a bit more efficient if it had one.

Nowadays, few companies, if any, could manage without computers. It is an unusual company, large or small, where the board does not regularly discuss IT investments, although scepticism about the return on investment for all that technology still remains.

 

CV: Margaret Smith

Margaret Smith advises businesses and government on IT and skills issues.

Formerly chief executive of CIO Connect, she was also CIO at Legal & General. She has been a non-executive direcotr of insurance standards body Origo Services and sat on the UK Cabinet Office Portal Board.

CV: Des Lee

Des Lee is a director of the Executive Change Group, which develops processes to enhance the performance of IT leaders.

He is a founding director of CIO Coinnect, and former CIO at Lloyd's of London, the Kingfisher Group, Unilever and Nestle Rowntree. He is life president of the IBM Computer Users Association.

 




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