Inside Data 60
by Graham Keitch
Some of today’s IT current challenges are not dissimilar to those of 30 years ago.
HardCopy Issue: 60 | Published: May 1, 2013
I was lucky to have had a job and an unrelated hobby thirty years ago that were ideal for anyone wishing to get into computing. The financial industry was an enthusiastic adopter of technology and I worked for an investment company which is now part of the Lloyds Banking Group. A huge Burroughs mainframe computer took up almost an entire top floor of our office and I recall one hardware upgrade involving cranes and the removal of part of the building! The IT department consisted of a few programmers and operators who seemed disconnected from the rest of us, but something was underway that was going to change things dramatically.
Home computers first appeared just over 30 years ago and I became the proud owner of a Sharp MZ80K which I used for my work as an amateur astronomer. Together with a few Americans and Japanese, I was monitoring the changing appearance of icy comets that release gas and dust when they warm up as they pass through the solar system. We were helping to model their physical structure and composition in readiness for spacecraft missions to Comet Halley in 1986. We programmed mostly in BASIC to determine their orbits and predict their behaviour. We needed to exchange data and keep in touch despite the distances that separated us and the scientists using our observations. This involved early Internet-like work long before the World Wide Web existed.
Hobby computing and office work was a dangerous mix 30 years ago! Things came to a head when my interest in astronomical mathematics resulted in my transfer to the mortgage department. Mortgages weren’t our line of business but we did offer them to a few select customers. A small team was needed to calculate and prepare monthly interest statements at a time when rates were fluctuating frequently. This was a laborious task by hand but I demonstrated how it could be completed in a fraction of the time with perfect accuracy using a programmable calculator. With some trepidation my boss approached the boffins upstairs for permission to implement this exciting new technology, but things didn’t pan out as expected. The message came back that under no circumstances should I bring a programmable calculator into the office! For several months, I ran the program at home and the results were used to find errors in the hand cranked statements before they went out. Eventually, IT backed down as it became apparent that calculators, micros and later PCs were going to transform office productivity beyond recognition.
Business staff didn’t transfer to IT back then, although later it became a desirable practice so they placed me in the Actuarial department to provide programming assistance for the business’s financial and profitability models. The actuaries had their own minicomputers, making them an early example of what later became known as ‘end-users’. The potential of end-user computing was now being recognised and IT had to formulate an appropriate response. As now, IT needed to retain control of centralised systems while allowing data access so that business departments could create localised applications. At first these were little more than automated letters, the forerunner of Office applications. I was eventually transferred into IT to head up a team tasked with promoting end-user computing. This was the Information Centre and Help Desk and our job was to install networks of desktop computers and provide analytical skills and training to help users automate their business processes. In the early nineties we became one of the first to go all-PC which was something of a gamble.
For IT departments, some things haven’t changed. The programmable calculator of thirty years ago is the BYOD of today, although user expectations and participation is much greater now. The modern highly distributed architectures that involve mobile, on-premise and cloud platforms require new controls and partnerships to be put in place. IT is again restructuring and formulating strategies for a new era of end-user self-sufficiency and autonomy. This is reflected in software too, especially self-service BI tools. The IT department still needs to manage the increasing demands of infrastructure complexity, security, governance and availability without restricting the end-user. With hindsight, ‘upstairs’ was probably right to ban my programmable calculator, at least until its reliability and impact had been properly assessed. When the time was right, it was also wise to pioneer end-user computing as this provided agility when the financial industry was facing great challenges, much like today.