The History Of (My) Coding – Part 2 The Punk Programmer

My forty year career in IT blossomed in the late 1970s as I learned a valuable lesson about continuous stationery and undertook my first legacy modernisation project…

The seventies were drawing to a close and technology was moving at pace. Actually, if you compare it to technological developments today it wasn’t really moving that quickly. My career as a computer programmer in a brewery was taking off, with lunch times spent playing pool in The Spreadeagle, evenings spent sharing a beer with the dray lads in The Royal Oak, and in between times I was rewriting invoice programs, fixing bugs, and finding new ways to get the most out of our ageing technology.

The invoice program was of particular interest, as it had to be extensively tested. The daytime was packed with processing for the 9200, so I had to run my tests in the evening. This involved printing around 300 invoices on a dot matrix printer that did about two pages per minute. The invoices were on continuous stationery, and they stacked up neatly at the back of the printer as the test prints were produced. I’ve got a couple of hours to wait, I thought, so I might as well go to the pub. About a minute after I left the machine churning out invoices, the paper skewed. When I returned an hour later there was paper everywhere. A red light on the printer told me that it had given up, and most of the invoices were unreadable as the paper had come off its sprockets. I had to start again, whilst destroying several hundred sheets of paper through the shredder. The cost of a box of pre-printed invoice stationery was regarded as negligible, which is somewhat ironic given the palaver with the ‘self order’ system, but more of that below. Incidentally, to avoid confusion with genuine invoices I wrote ‘TEST’ on the box of test invoices, as well as on the first few pages of the invoices themselves. I was, of course, using genuine customer data, including names, addresses and order details. I don’t think data protection even existed in 1979.

I was working long days, well into the evening, but I got to stay out with the dray lads, gradually earning their respect, or so I thought. Back then everyone in an office wore a tie, and I was no exception. After a particularly long day I was in The Royal Oak with three of the dray lads, one of whom was always a bit chippy. He reached over the bar for a pair of scissors and cut off my tie. I was a scrawny seventeen year-old, shouldn’t even have been in there, but I had to respond. So I picked up his pint and poured it over his head. He wasn’t the tallest of draymen, but he was built like the proverbial brick sh*thouse (they all were). The landlord threw us out, and fortunately he went off in a different direction. For days, or maybe weeks, the drays told me he was looking for me, and I believed them, but actually our paths just never crossed. When they did it had all blown over, and maybe I had earned his respect just enough to stop him from violating my clothes!

Help with the creaking computer was at hand, as the powers that be decided that an upgrade was required. The Univac 9200 would be replaced, but what with? Honeywell and IBM were the front runners, but after protracted discussions, and maybe a brown envelope or two exchanging hands, we went for another Univac machine, the System 80. This was a major change, with online file maintenance, real time order processing (well, not quite, but we could dream), and sexy new terminals. The sorters and the collator would be redundant, this new machine could do everything. To aid us in the transition we were allowed access to the System 80 of a well-known footwear retailer in Wythenshawe, as their machine had a card reader. Dozens of programs needed to be written, and whereas the 9200 was just a batch processor, this new machine required an online suite to be developed. It was the equivalent of going from semaphore to a mobile phone. Completely different techniques had to be learnt, and we had to up sticks to the Wythenshawe shoemaker’s offices for the duration of the project.

This had a serious impact on my drinking and pool playing, though we did manage to find a couple of decent pubs for lunch. Another problem was the lack of shops. There was literally nothing to do in Wythenshawe but write code, whereas the metropolis of Stockport allowed me to buy the latest albums and singles of The Stranglers, The Clash, Elvis Costello, Ian Dury, The Rezillos and oh so many more, on the very day that they were released. Of course, back then the physical disc was everything, unless you wanted to pirate a cassette tape off the radio, which I did with very poor results on more than one occasion. I also played bass guitar in a punk band (we thought we were ‘new wave’ but we weren’t that classy!) and it was a lot easier to get bookings in Stockport than Wythenshawe.

Although we had access to a System 80 to code during working hours, we could only use their processing power overnight. So, I would create several program decks to hand over to the night shift operators, and I would arrive the next morning for the results. Generally, it would take three or four compiles before I got an error-free program, and maybe another three or four code changes to iron out all of the bugs and produce a fully functioning module. The twenty four hour window for compiles taught me to be very careful with every line of code. Hours spent laboriously ‘desk checking’ could actually save days in elapsed time.

Eventually, the system was ready to be shipped back to the brewery, and everyone was happy. This new-found capability led to more and more requests. A ‘self order’ system created a particular challenge as the brewery did not want to waste paper. This enabled pub landlords to visit the brewery to pick up anything that they had run out of. The system needed to produce a picking note and an invoice, and if it was done the traditional way it would mean every order having to be fed out of the printer on the continuous stationery, thereby wasting one sheet of paper. I devised a method whereby the picking note, which did not need a name and address, would print a couple of inches down the page. It would then spool to the invoice which started at the top of the next page, and when it had finished it would position the paper ready for the next ‘self order’, so although the invoice was a printed page, the name and address part was logically at the bottom of the previous page. No paper wasted, I was a genius. Must have saved the company at least twenty five quid!

It wasn’t just the computer system that was changing. Technology was being introduced everywhere. If it had a computer in it, I was the man. The more I looked into stuff, the more that I realised ‘it’s only code’, a mantra that has stuck with me. Someone has written it, and therefore someone, i.e. me, could sort it out. I thrived on the variety of new computing that came my way, and I used it to my advantage. The new switchboard that was used to monitor calls needed regular maintenance (clearing out call logs, etc.) Telephone usage was strictly controlled, and with mobiles still many years away, the cost of landline calls could be prohibitive, particularly in the morning. I discovered that I could stay above the law by making a call whenever I wanted to, quickly going downstairs to the call monitoring box and switching it off, thereby removing the latest 16 calls from the call log. The brewery would still get charged for them, but there would be no record of them in the weekly reports where every non-essential call had to be justified.

I was the punk programmer. They could not do without me, and I took risks and chances. My programs were developed, tested and implemented quickly. I had no idea what coding standards were – and why would I? The only person that would ever read my code was me! My programs were always ‘right first time’ and I began to take liberties! I started turning up to work in a leather jacket and jeans, ready to go straight out afterwards, and management had to figure out a way to get me to be more ‘professional’. They offered what they thought was ‘the world’! My manager had got himself a cushy number, as far removed from IT as it was possible to get. They wanted to make him Office Manager, and that would leave the way clear for me to become Head Of IT. Head Of IT? That would be head of, well just me and the operator! The order entry girls were now more a part of marketing.

However, they did manage to tempt me with a new incentive. Assembler was yesterday’s language. This was the early 1980s. We were going to introduce COBOL into our IT estate.

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