In my early twenties I encountered home computers, in the form of my boss’s son’s Sinclair ZX81 (1Kb memory). Amazingly, thanks to a fan magazine, it was possible to find and programme games to play on your home TV with this machine. This was in the late 1970s.
A few months later I bought a Sinclair Spectrum 48Kb machine. This one had 8 colours, and with it I taught myself to programme in BASIC. I also bought a spreadsheet programme which I later used to replace the pencil and paper production planning systems for my employer. I also bought a book of Commodore 64 games programmes and translated them for use on the Spectrum. With the idiosyncratic “three band” display screen map used by Sinclair this was not easy!
Later I bought a 128Kb Sinclair QL, which used small disk drives instead of a tape recorder to load and save programmes.
In the mid-1980s my company bought an IBM desktop PC, followed by two “portable” machines, which were the size and twice the weight of a household sewing machine. Each had a postcard sized orange on black screen, but could be connected to a separate monitor. They used the new Disk Operating System (DOS) and were loaded from 256 Kb 5¼” floppy disks. There was no built-in memory storage. I translated my “Spectrum” spreadsheet to Lotus 1-2-3 and I used to lug one of these to Italy and back each month for planning meetings because our Italian colleagues had no computers.
Our next progression was to a Toshiba “Lap-top” machine. This had a red on black screen and a keyboard which would be recognisable nowadays. It was still basically “text only” and relied on the four direction keys rather than a mouse. We had moved to 3½” disks.
It was around this time (over about 2 years in the late 1980s) that three things happened.
- Our Italian company was bought by a Scandinavian company.
- The new owners developed a planning system run on a network of IBM AS/400 computers to link factories to sales organisations. I was on the first training course.
- Someone developed e-mail so that everyone could communicate outside the system and thus circumvent it.
By this time Lotus products were being replaced by Microsoft. I was well skilled in the Lotus versions and had to learn new skills.
Some years later (the mid-1990s) the company planning system was revised and redeveloped using then current ideas for computer-aided-planning. I was, as a user, partially involved in the development of this, although most of my opinions seemed to be ignored.
Anyway, the new system was implemented and I was again on the first training course. Soon afterwards a vacancy occurred for a trainer/support person for the new system. I applied and became part of the support team. One of my first jobs was to write a user manual. As a former user I like to think that I struck a balance between what the user needed to know and what they actually wanted to know. I also used to test new developments from a user perspective and suggest small changes to our developers, mainly in the form of screen layout and improved English abbreviated wording (they were Swedish).
I also went on several lecture tours around Europe to spread the gospel and teach the users the new system. Interesting times, particularly around the former communist countries. One that remains in memory was a trip to Istanbul where I found the local company, now headed by my former boss from the days when we bought the first desktop, was still using an Excel version of my original Spectrum spreadsheet!
These trips were to continue, covering all new users until around 2000 when the company training budget was slashed and all training was henceforth done remotely and far less efficiently. In those days you could share your screen but not see (even if you knew) that the trainee was actually reading their e-mails, etc.
One of my major support problems was the “handover” to new users whereby their predecessor passed on what they could remember and then the remnants of that were passed to the next user and so on. Then I would receive a question: “Why can’t the system do xyz?”. My reply was usually in the form of: “It can. Please read page zz of the attached user manual and then call me if you need more help.” If I received a call back, the manual might be adjusted for greater clarity. I used to maintain daily a set of dummy factories and sales organisations for demonstration purposes.
Entering the 21st century it was decided to introduce a new, off the shelf, modern planning system and phase out the one I had been working with. I helped with the transition, mainly by resolving differences between a dynamic real-time system and one which should be accurate at midnight (but whose midnight? – this was now running from California to Moscow the long way round!).
Six years ago, in December 2014, and as the world expert in a redundant system designed for the 1990s, I handed over the remains of the support operation and retired. I was pleased to receive many plaudits from my former friends, customers and fellow workers (all the same group really). I recently heard that the system has now also been retired, but the historical databases still exist.
It was brought home to me how long I had been in the job when the last person I ever trained said to me: “You started working for this company the year my mother was born!”
Now, as an older person, I still use Word and Excel and occasionally create programmes for my hobby using Visual Basic. I have e-mail and subscribe to Twitter and Facebook, but often forget which platform I am using, and with which Group I am communicating.
But I can still write you a programme for a ZX Spectrum.
One thought on “Confessions of an old geek”
Can’t we all? Sinclair Basic on cassette tapes, first to programme was a random encounter generator for AD&D. Which soon grew too large to load on to tape. Moving to an Apple IIE with twin floppy drives, one of which was for the OS – the other for the programme, which saved all the swapping of tapes.