Was this the best question about technology ever?
Way back in the 1980s, I worked for an organisation that wanted to "computerise", in the jargon of the day. In practice this meant getting PCs running word processing software to secretaries, and an accountant would have a PC running a spreadsheet. I was the only one on the office with any computer experience, so was tasked with the job, indirectly leading to my time in IT. I was helping the chief executive's secretary with something or other, and the great man himself appeared. "Marvellous" he clucked, as he looked over his secretary's shoulder.
Then he became thoughtful. Eventually he said to me "Those words on the screen..."
"Yes?" I said?
"Where are they?"
Silence in the room, as we tried to understand what he meant. He tried again.
"Those words on the screen. Where are they?"
Eventually I realised. He was used to someone typing onto paper. Typing letters on a typewriter physically became words on a piece of paper. So he wanted to know where the words were. He thought he knew they weren't really on the screen, but were they in the box under the screen? Or on the floppy disks? Or did the screen know something?
I still do not know whether this was the most stupid question I've ever been asked or the most profound question I have ever been asked about technology.
Bizarre kit - but it was necessary
In the late 1980s, part of the PC repair kit I kept included a bottle of methylated spirits, a toothbrush and a pencil eraser. These were the days when motherboards really were motherboards, and were really base plates for much of the rest of the system, which used expansion slots for the floppy disks, hard disks, if there was one, video and so on. So when something happened to the machine, the first thing to make sure about was that all the connectors were actually connecting. The add-on board edges were cleaned by running the pencil eraser across them, while harder to get to areas were cleaned with the toothbrush dipped in meths.
In the late 80s, we were given a week at a timeshare hotel by some friends, at a time when we really needed a break. They found out I had something to do with computers, and asked if I could help, as the PC that managed their bar stock had failed. To be honest, I wasn't sure what was wrong, as it was running an interpreted COBOL application, and I was fairly sure it was a software problem. But it was what one did to make sure the problem wasn't an intermittent hardware fault, so I duly used the eraser on a nearby desk and re-seated all the components. This seemed to do some good, as although I told them they should contact the software developers, they were grateful enough to give us a rather good dinner at their up-market restaurant, which we could never have afforded.
Sometimes things just happen - a watched computer
In the early 90s, I was working at a financial services company. Their Compliance department was an important one to the business, so when I got a call about something wrong with one PC, I was keen to solve the problem quickly. I can't recall what the issue was, but the whole thing made no sense at all. Eventually, I got it going, but told the person, "It's going, but I have to say I don't know why, and I don't know what caused the problem in the first place. I'm telling you because it could happen again."
I expected a rant in return, because it really wasn't satisfactory, but he just said "That's fine." I was little taken aback, so apologised for not being able to resolve the issue more certainly. He said "Have you noticed I don't wear a watch?" "No," I said. "Well, I don't. They break when I wear them. Other things go wrong when I'm around them too. I'm used to it."
Sure enough, things often went wrong with his machine, but he was one of the most patient and appreciative clients with whom I ever dealt.
I had taken on a new user support person. She was very competent, and like a terrier when she had a problem in her mouth, and ideal user support person. One day, she had been working on a laptop problem for a good couple of hours, but declined offers of help, as she wanted to learn from the process she was going through. Eventually, I went over to her desk and saw her look of frustration. I don't recall the details of the problem, but I had a quick look, and said to her "Have you checked (some or other subsystem)? "It can't be that," she said, "and anyway, I've checked it." But a couple of clicks later, and the laptop was fixed. She was livid with herself. "How did you do that?" she said "What made you think it was that sub-system?" The trouble was, I was unable to answer her effectively. I could have just told the truth, that it was years of experience giving me the feel for what the issue might be but that was no help.
Similarly, a friend in the village, who did work on my car from time to time, saw me at the local pub. "You'd better let me have the car," he said. "The exhaust manifold is going to go." That's a strange thing to fail, but I said "How do you know?" "Not sure", he said. "You drove past the other day and I think there's a problem." A few weeks later, I heard a strange ticking noise from the passenger footwell. It was gas pressure escaping from one cylinder of the exhaust manifold. Similarly, years later, also to do with car experience, I needed to remove the stuck viscous fan on my Land Rover. The manual gave all kinds of special tools necessary for the job, but I took it to our local garage. The mechanic and owner took a look, went inside and came out with an air ratchet, to which he fitted a percussion tool. He aimed it at one of the nuts on the fan and gave it a short "prrrp". The he simply spun the fan off its mount. It had taken five seconds. I was deeply impressed. "That took five seconds and twenty five years," I said. He smiled, understanding me perfectly.
Do as I say, not as I do
We were in the process of deploying a complete change of IT direction, and the first new systems were almost ready to go live. I had purchased a huge server (for the time) for these systems. It had multiple and redundant everythings, from processors, memory to disks and, of course power supplies. In fact, it had four power supplies, only two of which were needed. The machine was conveniently on a set of wheels, as it was hefty. One day, fortunately before the go-live date, I carefully moved the server to one side for some reason, and all four power cables popped out the back. After that, I sourced power cables with little lock mechanisms.
In the 1990s, I worked as a technology consultant all over the northern hemisphere for a company that had numerous subsidiaries. I was being shown around the subsidiary in Tel Aviv, and in the Administration department, I noticed that each PC had its own uninterruptable power supply. "The power comes and goes," I was told. I had also been told about how direct Israelis tend to be, something which annoyed many UK colleagues, but I found refreshing. But I was still taken aback when one of the workers saw my colleague and me, and shouted to me "You, IT! Why is my computer so slow?" I walked towards the desk, and noticed scuff marks all over the UPS and the computer unit under the desk. "How do you switch off your computer?" I asked. "I kick the switch on the UPS," he said. I bent down under the desk, and straightened up immediately. "Try that," I said. He did some work and said "You've fixed it. How did you do that?" "Aha," I said, getting a little revenge for the rudeness. "Shut down your machine properly and don't kick your equipment." Later, I told my local colleague that the problem was the old style "Turbo" button on the main computer unit. These buttons altered the clock speed down to as low as 4.77MHz and the machine would have crawled. The user's rough kicking has flicked this button, and all I did was click it again to resolve the speed problem.
Sometimes, it's all about you
I had arrived in Hong Kong for the first time in the late 90s, just before it reverted to Chinese control. I was badly jetlagged after an awful flight, but the office was just across a busy highway within easy walking distance of the hotel. I hadn't been so high up a skyscraper before. The office was on the 52nd floor, and I had also never seen a double-decker lift. It seems after the original skyscraper was built, they decided to increase its height even more. There were then not enough lifts for such a big building, so resolved the problem by adding a second lift to the same shaft. The lift would stop without the door opening and a recorded voice said something in Chinese then "Serving other deck" in English. So by the time I found my way to the office, I was overloaded with new experiences. I walked into the office, and the receptionist said "Oh, you are Stevan, Come with me please." I followed, and she led me towards, I assumed, the people I was due to meet, but instead took me straight to the little office kitchen. "Please get that box off the top shelf," said the little Chinese receptionist, appreciating my 6'2" height rather than my technology skills.
Doing the right thing may be wrong
In one job, I inherited a dysfunctional development team. They were a real problem, partly because of lack of knowledge and experience, and their mistakes were rubbed in their noses. So they were badly motivated, but the IT changes I was bringing in were going to demand a lot of them. They were sent on weeks of training courses, which they seemed to enjoy, and started embracing a more competent style to their work. As a further boost, I spent a sizeable amount of budget on the best and most powerful machines as their development workstations I could find at that time. These included superb Sony Trinitron monitors, widely accepted as the best, especially for the type of work the development team was doing. At one department meeting, I called for questions and comments, and one person said he wanted to complain about the monitors. he was distracted by the lines on the screen, he said I laughed it off, as I assumed he was making a joke. In comparison with the standard monitors of the time, these were chalk and cheese. But after the meeting, the person came to my office and said he was deeply unhappy at how I had dismissed his complaint. Mmm, awkward. I explained that I thought he had been making a joke, given that his equipment really was top drawer, but he said he really hated the monitor, and could not work with it.
It turns out that Trinitron monitors had support wires holding the cathode gun, and these are visible on all such screens as a fine line about two thirds of the way down. Most people either don't notice the line, as it is tiny, or tune it out without difficulty. This developer simply was unable to do this, and it irritated him severely. I asked what he wanted me to do about it, and he asked for his old monitor back, with its poorer resolution, mains hum and all. He was welcome to it, and was happy after that, but it taught me to be aware that people differ.
How to make someone's life a misery - and then blame them for it
I was told, when I took one job, that the first thing I would have to do is fire two people, They were trouble makers and poor workers, I was told. One was the main systems administrator. I had never, and have never, fired anyone, so I made it a priority to find out whether I really did have problem people on my hands. To my horror, I found out that the systems administrator, a responsible, critical role in the company, was being paid a menial, low-skilled employee's salary. What was more, he had taken company loans to tide him over, as he was so poorly paid, and was therefore trapped in his job. He had been given increasing amounts of responsibility, but no recognition for his work.
I went straight to my boss, and told her that I wanted his salary doubled with immediate effect. "You can't do that," she said. "Why not?" "The salaries for this year have already been agreed, and anyway, he's a junior." "Oh," I said. "He may have been a junior three years before, but now he's got saleable experience, But now you want me to fire this person, almost certainly illegally, and replace him with someone on four times the salary, but you can't increase his salary?" Eventually I presented an ultimatum; not only was his salary to be doubled, but it was to be doubled again in two stages during the next year. The poor person really had been doing a job worth at least four times what he was paid.
I went back and spoke to the employee. "I am sorry," I said. "You should never have been placed in this position." I told him his salary would double, and for the first time, he raised his head and a saw a little light. But I could also see a look of "I'll believe it when I see it," which I could not fault.
Within six months, he was the star of the department. Not only were his "attitude problems" a thing of the past, but he started broadening his interest, becoming helpful in many different ways, in work, and, I started hearing, in his non-work life too. I was only at that company for about 18 months, but it was with some satisfaction that I heard that my "problem" had found a high-powered systems role at a significant salary and had left soon after my departure.
The story with the other person I was told I'd have to fire was similar. She needed to be paid properly, but mostly she wanted responsibility. Once she was told she had that autonomy, and saw that she could test the words with deeds, she shone. If I look back on my time in corporates, the change from surly sullenness on her face caused by uncaring corporate complacency to being bright-eyed, engaged and trustworthy is one that I cherish, as I feel I helped in some small way to make a positive difference to someone's life. She asked to be sent on an assertiveness training course, A few months later, at a departmental meeting, someone piped up, making it clear he was joking: "Why did you send <person> on that course? We can't get away with anything now!"
A dog could do it
IT departments need someone to answer telephones and direct calls. It is best if higher paid and higher skilled technicians do not have to do this function. So the role is often fulfilled by someone interested in IT, but without experience, but very quickly, they become disillusioned and feel they could be doing some IT work themselves, So filling this role is often difficult and changing. At one job, the company had been growing very rapidly, and had gone through a phase of having endless meetings. To their credit, they had employed a blind person as a minutes clerk. She was able to use her braille writing stenographic equipment at unbelievable speed, and later produced close-to verbatim minutes. But the company was changing again, and the endless meetings were no longer considered necessary. She was going to lose her job. A delegation appeared in my office. "You must employ N," I was told. "She can't lose her job now." "I don't see how I can do anything about it," I answered. The only job we had was the first-line telephone response role, and that person needed to check on equipment, tally serial numbers and so on. "We want a department dog," they joked, referring to N's guide dog.
But the more I thought about it, the more I thought it could work. N would not quickly grow frustrated and want to progress up the IT chain, because, while she was very capable, she had other physical disabilities. The role needed a good memory, and clear thinking. N would do well. So I took a chance and said I would take her on. After a little fight with HR, who wanted to alter her salary downwards to take into account her disabilities, and who I think were getting some grant for employing a disabled person, I won the fight and went ahead.
She was fantastic. We rewrote the helpdesk software to work best with her braille readers, which further streamlined the operation. She never lost enthusiasm. Other staff took it in turns to exercise N's guide dog at lunch times, and she galvanised the department around her in exactly the way I had hoped. I have never see that role performed better.
I had a habit of having monthly individual meetings with the department members. When it was N's appointment, she started calling for her dog to put her harness on. "Don't bother," I said. "I'll walk you." She took my arm and we slowly (because of her other difficulties) walked towards my office, chatting about this and that. As we approached my office, to my horror, I walked through the door, and walked her straight into the wall. I was mortified. Fearful that I had hurt her, I desperately wanted to know if she was all right. To my relief, she was not only fine, but highly amused. It seems that, for a moment, I had forgotten she was blind, and that made all the difference. But I was justifiably ragged mercilessly for weeks after that.
Important piece of IT kit - the pigeon-poo scraper
I worked in London for a short period, in an old, cold building that shook as trains from the underground went through underneath. Some people had IBM token ring networking of the time, and their machines were cabled using the dreadful thick, impossible to control IBM type 1 cabling. These were fed straight up into the roof space, where they were connected to cabling concentrators. The trouble was, the building was home to hundreds of London pigeons, who made the homes in the roof space. So when a problem occurred, the first thing to do would be to reach for the scraper to scrape the pigeon poo off the concentrator, then clean and re-seat the cabling. Frequently this was all that was required to resolve the fault.
Also at that company in London, the business was plagued by unreliable overnight batch runs on the mini-computers. Eventually, a new operations manager was appointed, who called in one evening on the operator's after-hours phone number to check on how the overnight operators were getting on. He was surprised at the level of background noise on the phone, when the person who answered offered to get the duty operator. On checking the following day, the new ops manager tried the number again, and found that it rang at the pay phone at the pub next door to the offices. The night-time mini-computer operators spent so much of the evening at the pub, they found it simpler to give the payphone as the official contact number. The overnight batch runs were never monitored, and when they were, it was through a beery haze. No wonder the over runs were failing.
Once that arrangement was stopped, the overnight batch runs improved dramatically, but a while later, all kinds of new problems started occurring. One was very odd, suggesting that the heavily air-conditioned mini-computer suite was overheating, but all environment monitors showed no problem. The new ops manager thought he had seen something similar, and suspected lack of airflow in the underfloor cooling ducts, He lifted the floor, and found the cooling ducts were stuffed with crates of beer. The overnight operations team, having had their access to the pub restricted, had brought the pub to the computer suite. Fortunately, with their fun now curtailed, the overnight operators soon resigned.
How times change
I was fortunate to be in the thick of it at a time when the personal computer and networking started making its mark on the world. In the early 1990s, the sales margin on computer equipment was typically 40% or more, and they were expensive. In 1991, the company I was with had two Novell Netware servers for 400 users. There was a tight disk capacity restriction of just 5MB per user. To provide this storage capacity, we bought two 650MB disks. Yes, megabytes, not gigabytes. Each of these cost £10 000.00 and they took over 24 hours to "compsurf", the Novell equivalent of a high level format. I have thousands of times more storage capacity than that merely in my camera, these days.
How times change II
The rise of the Internet was clear to me for a long time. We had a dial-up internet connection at home as early as 1989, in the days before the world wide web. There were services such as "WAIS", the wide area internet search, where you wrote your search criterion in an email, and later an email would return showing you the likely location, if you wrote your search correctly, of the information. Email was most useful then, as now. By 1992, we had installed internal email at the company for which I worked, but i also installed a "gateway", which provided every user with an internet email address. We were not allowed to make the facility generally known, though, partly because these types of facilities were considered management perks, and partly because expensive dial-up email exchanges made the whole thing work.
At that time, the company had a UK branch connected via leased lines providing analogue connections to the minicomputers. The "comms" people typically signed long, expensive contracts in those days, and the branch network had a budget of over £1million a year, for services we would now not tolerate on a mobile phone. But then came email, and the desire to allow branch managers access to email. My boss at the time paid £20k to a consultancy company to develop a solution. But I looked at the emerging Internet standards and thought we could apply those to the problem, and also that it was likely that Internet protocols and standards would be the right place to start such a service. The consultants duly presented a system built on Novell's proprietary IPX/SPX protocol over the 9.6kb/s analogue lines, encapsulated in, if I recall, the SLIP protocol. This managed a speed of less than 2kb/s. I managed to cobble together bits of old machines, and demonstrated to my boss TCP/IP running over PPP. which managed 7.5kb/s over the same lines. While at first my boss would not believe the difference, I ended up completing the entire project for just under half the research costs to the consultancy. These days, it would be unthinkable to use anything other than TCP/IP and perhaps PPP for such a requirement. It is also hard to remember the hold proprietary systems had in those days. Things that seem obvious now were by no means so back then.
Dealing with the enemy
A constant has been the joys, or lack of joy, of dealing with large companies who know they are behaving poorly. BT figures prominently. I once had to connect offices in two buildings, which could be seen from each other, in the same town, but we still needed BT's infrastructure. We settled on connecting 30 phone lines over an ISDN connection, and we would start with just a 2Mb/s data connection. The phone connection was going to cost £10k a year, while the data connection was £100k. I felt this was extortion, and pointed out to the salesperson that the 30 phone channels amounted to 2Mb/s. Fortunately, the salesperson was accompanied by an engineer, who said "Oh, I hadn't thought of that. Why don't you use a converter?" I forget the details, but I think it was an x701 to x21 converter. We could buy two for £700 each, and then run an additional ISDN-30 line, saving £90k a year. The look on the salesperson's face was priceless and my respect for knowledgeable engineers rocketed.
I did an infrastructure consultancy project at a very prestigious London address for a large multi-billion pound company's new corporate headquarters at the time of their flotation. I had selected a particular supplier to provide Internet access, but decided to stay with BT for voice services, as they had a relationship in countries where the business originated. I had just three months to complete the project. One day, the BT salesperson said to me "Three months, huh? The internet supplier you have chosen will have to use BT lines for their service. I'll tell you now that BT will not complete the connections within three months. of course, if you took BT internet services, there will be no problem..." He knew he was blackmailing me, and that what he was doing was illegal in terms of BT's privatisation conditions, but I had no option. I signed for a minimal contract, and left detailed notes of the event, urging the company to whom I was handing over to ditch BT at the earliest possible time. I doubt that behaviour would be tolerated now, but those days were like frontier conditions at times.
Still on the subject of telephony, I inherited a dreadful old telephone switch system supplied by a long-standing company that no longer exists, at one job. It was old, and we were leasing it. But we needed more capacity, and the switch barely coped as it was. I discovered that the lease was more than 12 years old, and that the salesperson, every time, for example, a new telephone was added, extended the lease. When I discussed this with them they simply replied "Tough." When I said we needed a more modern switch, they said I could have one, but had to continue the old lease. A quick discussion with company lawyers convinced me that their behaviour may not have been legal. I negotiated with a rival company, and found that I could install an entirely new switch, complete with higher capacity and more phones, and pay outright for less than the annual lease costs of the old system. We installed this, and on the day it went live, I phoned the old company and told them that we were not going to pay any longer and that they could collect their equipment. "You can't do that," said the salesperson. To be honest, while I thought right was on my side, I wasn't sure of the likely outcome either, and I recall being very nervous about making the call. But they knew they were behaving unethically, and that they knew they had recouped their costs many times over during the years of the locked-in contract, as they never responded to the letter I subsequently sent. Nor did they bother to collect the equipment with which they had been extorting my employers for years.
If it's rude to whisper, is anything worse?
I worked for a large South African-owned company and from time to time had to go to South Africa to their head office. My responsibilities were for a smaller, much more agile part of the operation, while my South African colleagues had massive legacy systems to manage, with bureaucracy to match. So we often did not understand each other's problems. I recall one meeting, when something we were doing did not meet their approval, they switched language to Afrikaans among themselves to discuss not only the problem, but what they thought of us, too, in their certainty I would not understand them. They hadn't realised that, having grown up in South Africa, my Afrikaans was still quite good. For once, I had the presence of mind to keep my mouth shut.
By contrast, on that same visit, I was being shown around the huge data centres by a services manager, when a colleague ran up to him and, in Afrikaans, his home language, told him of an urgent problem. It really was a crisis being described, but the services manager, for my benefit, stopped his colleague and said "Praat Engels," (speak English). The contrast in the courtesy between these two experiences within days of each other was marked.
That's not what I meant
Generally, when I was on business trips, I preferred if at all possible to walk from hotels to offices, as the only way of experiencing a country. On a visit to our subsidiary in Tel Aviv, I asked the local CEO if it was safe to walk from the hotel at the beach front to the office. "Of course," he said. "Tel Aviv is very safe. You may get mugged but you won't get killed." I'm not sure he realised that it was scant help, but the walk was enjoyable.
The wrong trousers
Still in Tel Aviv - I flew from the UK one Saturday for the start of the business week there on the Sunday morning. I was unpacking my bag at the hotel when I realised my business trousers were still at home and I just had the one pair of black jeans with me. When I arrived at the office, I apologised to the CEO for not being on conventional business attire, rather than hope no-one would notice. He offered to bring in a pair of his own trousers for my stay - in fact, he insisted on it, so I gave in. When I tried them, they were too long and too broad, so now I had the choice of wearing a pair of safety-pin enabled clown's uniform or my jeans. But as folk in the office were having a good laugh about the whole thing, I stayed in the baggy trousers, and the mood for my visit was duly lightened so was, I hoped, more productive.
In Israel, you have to go through a security check before departure, which can be time consuming, intrusive and scary. But if just have hand luggage, it was possible to get security clearance the day before your flight. A colleague, after we had been to dinner on my last evening there, took me quite late to a security office. In contrast to the hours of queues at the airport, at that time of night, no-one except the staff were there. A small, heavily armed woman chatted in Hebrew with my colleague for a few moments, and when my colleague turned to me and said "When did you first come to Israel?" she broke in in English and said "No, I am asking you, not him," possibly to cross-check my story with hers. My colleague then sat down to wait while it was my turn, and the security person took my passport, ticket and so on, and started questioning me about where I'd been, who I'd met and so on. Behind her, a large soldier watched closely. Halfway through the questioning she suddenly said "Excuse me, my colleague is undergoing training. I need to speak to him for a moment," and turned to him to discuss something in Hebrew. This went on for a while, and my colleague, getting bored, shouted across the room "Stevan - don't forget to tell them whose trousers you're wearing!" I could have fainted from fright, but a smile must instead have appeared on my lips, while the two security people stopped in their conversation. Eventually, my passport and tickets were stamped and I was cleared. But just as I was walking out the security officer said "Just one minute." "On no," I thought as I turned around. With a huge grin on her face she said, "Whose trousers are you wearing?"
Be sure your footer will find you out
I knew, at one place I worked, that I did not have the best boss. But I was surprised one day, a few weeks after I had completed a fairly significant and lengthy report about the IT estate, when my boss's boss came to my office. He handed me my report and asked "Did you write this?" I had a look and said "Yes," and gave him some background information. It was easily recognisable as mine without reading it as I have a standard way of laying out such reports, and the footer includes my initials. "Have a look at the last page," said the bigwig. I looked, and where my signature had originally been, my boss had taken my name out and substituted hers, but she had not noticed the initials on each page. He asked for a copy of what I had originally produced and took it away. While I don't think that that was the cause, it may have been a nail in her coffin, as a few days later my boss was gone.
bE cAREFUL oUT tHERE
In the 1980s, before I was formally in IT, the accountant could not get into a particular important spreadsheet. This was in the days of floppy disks. The problem was not the file, but the fact that she had encrypted the file. She was sure she remembered the password, but it would not work. Months past, but suddenly I had a thought. One of the things I have never understood is accountants' habit of leaving the CAPS-LOCK key on and writing all details in accounting systems in capitals. I asked the accountant if the password she remembered had capital and lower-case letters. "Yes," she said. "Right," I said. "Put on CAPS-LOCK and retype the password." Sure enough, what she thought was "PassWord" now became "pASSwORD" and the file opened.
Do what is needed, not what is demanded
The company was growing fast, mostly by acquisitions. One such was classified as a "merger" though it was clear where the balance of power lay. Speaking to senior management about strategic approach resulted in a series of management-guru statements, none of which were born out by their actions. I realised that the M&A activity of the company would result in change, and that, though management stated after each one that this was their new course, along would come something else to change it.
After this big acquisition I was called in by the acquired MD and told to integrate the two sites' IT absolutely and tightly. He wanted visibility of all activity in head office. But was this just an ego-trip, or really a corporate strategy? I thought practicality meant it could not be a valid strategy, and continued with my own IT strategy fp a federated structure, allowing for local conditions and support, while defining minimum critical levels of connection and integration, loosely defined as anything inside the firewall was serviced locally, anything outside by corporate head office.
My strategy was vindicated when I was called in by the CFO and given three hours to dismantle all connections with the acquired company in question; it was being sold and the deal had to come to a head in such a hurry. Had I obeyed the directive some years before, it would have taken weeks if not months to separate the systems. As it happened, it was possible to dismantle it all and leave both sites running with minimal disruption within the hour.
The lesson was to open your own eyes and use them to check what you are being told.