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A Long, Long Time Ago – IT Stories

My first exposure to IT was as a keypunch operator. I apologize if this means nothing to you. There may be portions of this post that will also mean nothing, but I will try to clarify when I can. Now let’s get back to my keypunch days.

I did not keypunch on a card machine for long. They were soon phased out and the key punching was done onto a large floppy disk. I hated the work. It was tedious and mundane and prone to errors. Part of my job also entailed dropping off the disks to the IT department where I met a lot of the programmers and operators responsible for keeping the mainframe up and running. When an internship was advertised, I applied and was selected for the position.

My first responsibility was as a programmer. I was a good programmer but not an inspired programmer, especially when responsible for debugging someone else’s programs.  Our Cobol programs required recovery routines in the event something went wrong during processing. When an error was encountered, an statement would be executed that said “GoTo and the name of the recovery portion of the code.” I often encountered “GoTo H*ll” or something similar. Worse than that was when the different procedures had meaningless names – it made the work more tedious.

I eventually moved into a position as a System Programmer which had the responsibility for the operation of the internal code that ran the computers, not just the business programs that ran on the computer. I never drank coffee or beer until I started in IT. I worked as much after midnight and weekends as I did during the day. My children spent a lot of weekends at my desk while I worked.

Programmers loved to put the operators who loaded tapes and monitored the main console through their paces especially if they were new. They wrote programs to generate console messages which the operators would see and respond to appropriately. One night one of the guys thought it was time to break in a fairly new operator. It did not go well.

This particular night, the programmer decided it would be funny to send this message: “The system will self destruct in five minutes.” The operator was not experienced enough to detect the possibility this was a hoax. As a result, he immediately issued the SHUTDOWN process which brings everything to a grinding halt. The programmer (a fairly senior guy) rushed in for fear the operator might try to manually dump the halon (a gas used to extinguish fires). (Later fire suppression systems may have eliminated the ability to manually discharge halon. Halon systems have now almost completely been eliminated due to environmental concerns.) That would have been a disaster as you can see in the video below.

It is always an adjustment when contemporaries are promoted into a leadership positions. One of our programmers was promoted into the position of security manager and he took his job very seriously. We implemented IBM VM CMS which allowed individuals to have their own individual profiles – each one controlled by logging in with a user name and password. Our security manager implemented a change that would require the password be changed every thirty days AND required the passwords be randomly generated. My senior Systems Programmer wrote an APLDI program to generate random passwords for every user. It went smoothly – at least the first time. The second month, the program ran and we sent the passwords forward. The only problem was the program generated the SAME random passwords. The program required a ‘seed’ to start the process, and my co-worker forgot to change the ‘seed’.  Whoopsie.

I worked on a military installation (we were all civilians) and my mentor was tasked with writing a check writing program. It was a bit complicated and getting the checks to line up properly had not been an easy task. When he went to demonstrate the program to the base Commanding General, the first check that rolled off had my mentor’s name in the Pay to the Order field in the amount of $10,000. Again, it goes without saying the General was not amused.

Mainframes have large disk drives (DASD) that contain a large amount of data. We had one unit that failed and had to be replaced. The device was initialized, uninstalled and a new one replaced which required a weekend of work. Our aforementioned security guy decided the disk drive needed to be remounted and overwritten in its entirety with binary ones and zeroes to ensure no data remained. I do not remember how this was resolved but there were a lot of curse words thrown around in our office for a few weeks.

After a move across country from Alaska to Maine, I again took a job as a Systems Programmer. I had responsibility for all the voice and data communications controllers, devices, and software. It was again a VM shop and it was another team of quirky individuals. When my boss turned 40, his wife threw him a surprise party and invited all the staff. When he finally arrived on the scene, he had been out on the boat fishing and drinking beer all day and was quite ‘toasted’ when he arrived. Someone gave him a bright yellow pair of bikini briefs which he proceeded to put on over his fishing clothes. Long story short, one of the other Systems Programmers decided to edit his profile to execute another program – it displayed a bright yellow flashing pair of bikini briefs on our bosses terminal when he logged on the following Monday. Needed less to say he was not impressed with the breach of security nor the reminder of the prior Saturday’s antics.

These are but a few of the stories that come out of working in a high pressure job that requires a great deal of focus and sacrifice of personal time. I am sure these things would not be tolerated in today’s world. It was a different time for sure.

20 thoughts on “A Long, Long Time Ago – IT Stories”

  1. The first time I used a computer was when I trained for a new job with the Police, in 2001. That was an in-house computer-despatch and information retrieval system, nothing like Windows or Apple. I later bought a Dell laptop, in 2003. I had to spend all day with a tech-savvy friend at his house while he showed me how Windows XP operated.
    21 years later, using a Windows PC with an SSD Drive and a fast processor, I am still not much further on in know-how from that old laptop.
    What you have written about here reads like a techical fantasy land to me, Maggie. 🙂 🙂
    Best wishes, Pete.

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    1. It is all in what we learn along the way. Much like your career, I would be lost. My first home computer was a Commodore 64 and it really did not do much of anything. My kids used it more than I did.

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  2. A true pioneer in IT. Great story, Maggie.
    I think there should be a law against surprise parties Way too often the givers get a bigger surprise then the givee..

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  3. My first experience with computers was with keypunch cards in college. After that I avoided computers as much as possible. They eventually won me over, sort of. You obviously took to them better than I. Most interesting to read about your early days.

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    1. Thanks, Ally. My kids were the generation of Apple techies in school. I learned by doing and I think that is why I can troubleshoot fairly well. I appreciate hate you taking the time to read.

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  4. We are fortunate (assuming everyone is the same age as me) to have seen so much development in computers. I started off on the build side rather than programming side, although everyone had to know basic programming to start with. The real test of progress is to compare the speed and memory of computers now against the early years. To think that we all carry a far more powerful computer in our pockets/purses, than was used to land on the moon, absolutely blows my mind!

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    1. I agree. We have seen a lot, Peter. I always admired people who could build computers. There is a great deal of knowledge learned by doing.

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  5. I am so impressed Maggie you obviously know your stuff. My eldest and youngest sons have both worked in IT since their first jobs and have both progressed up the ladder being high up in their game now …..they both help me …..they must think I am dumb though! 💜💜

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    1. I doubt very much they think you are dumb. Personally, at my age, I have seen so much ‘new and exciting’ technology throughout my career it’s hard to get excited about it any more. We all need someone to help us from time to time. ❤️

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  6. I enjoyed reading this. Your story along with the video brought back many memories. I remember the keypunch cards from my university. I was an unskilled typist and tapping out programming code was painful, doubly so when card reader spat out on a simple syntax error. After that, the teletype monitor was revolutionary!

    I spent all my professional years on the software side of the business & early on I remember being in awe of the ‘systems guys in IT.’ What a bunch of cowboys. All that went away when six sigma became a thing.

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    1. We were in many ways pioneers – and even I was late to the game compared to the mentors I had. Thank you for reading and taking the time to comment. I am glad you enjoyed it.

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