Tuesday, September 18, 2007

History of Computing Culture 101: non-IBM, without a "marketing profile"

Carrying on the History of Computing Culture 101 that I started and presented on Sunday, I venture further into the subject of non-IBM mainframes in olden times – and especially of trying to sell them.

In the early 70s, besides IBM, the other players were Univac, Burroughs, NCR, RCA Spectra, Honeywell, Data General/VAX, and General Electric. In time, they would drop out or merge and various brands would get eliminated. Univac was probably the largest competitor; Sperry Rand, owning Univac, was a large conglomerate with a major skyscraper near Rockefeller Center in New York. It might have outpaced IBM given how things looked in the 50s; IBM, though, turned out to be the better marketer. It had an efficient, easy to learn and code JCL called “Exec 8” with simple commands that are a bit like today’s Unix. Univac sold three large mainframes with its proprietary architecture (1106, 1108, 1110), and an “minicomputer” imitation of the 360 called the 9000 series,

In the spring and summer of 1972, a couple of friends at NAVCOSSACT left and went to work for Univac as instructors in their education center in Tyson’s Corner, VA. I almost did that. I had an interview with Univac at Bell Labs (a revisit) and I remember a bizarre question from the Univac interviewer, “Do you like programming?” Then, I was 29 and wanted more adventure—my friends had it. On Aug. 23, 1972 I got a sudden call at home from a Univac branch manager in New Jersey. I went up and interviewed the Montclair Branch on Aug. 30 and started a “new life” on September 25.

I was officially a “Systems Analyst” and the job was to support sales teams at client sites. I was assigned to Public Service Electric and Gas in downtown Newark, which gave easy access to New York City. My personal life (other blogs) was “changing” but I had a convenient garden apartment in Caldwell, with pretty efficient bus service. There were five staff members assigned to the account, and I was the “processor support person” for FORTRAN and COBOL. At the time, there was still a lot of FORTRAN. In the “Management by Objectives” jargon of the time (now the buzzword is “Total Quality Management” and “Team Handbook”) the goal of the team was to get an 1106 machine on rent by some certain date. A couple of staff members spent all their time analyzing panic dumps (and installing fixes with SYSGENs) from system crashes, which did happen then. (Dumps in Univac were in Octal, not Hex; the most common character sets were Fieldata and Ascii.) Essentially they were what we call today “systems programmers.” The following spring, we had benchmarks of an 1110 at the test facility in Eagan, Minnesota, a suburb of Minneapolis-St. Paul, just off the 494 “strip” (where the Mall of America is now).

Univac tended then to be ahead of IBM in programmer online access; most programmers at PSEG had their own terminals, some of them teletype, a few cathode ray. It also made sophisticated keypunch equipment; in fact, the third floor of the Montclair branch office (where I had a little used desk) was a major center for keypunch distribution and sales. While at PSEG I wrote an assembler program to real the log tapes and monitor how much use each programmer made of various facilities, called BIGBR, or “Big Brother.” That wasn’t that big a deal there, but in those days computer time and use was expensive, and in some companies programmers could be penalized for needing too many “shots” to get a program working. (This was particularly true overseas.)

After the benchmarks, the Branch manager came to the conclusion that I did not have a “marketing profile” (what does that mean behind the lines?) and ought to transfer. (On Oct 2 in this blog, I had talked about, “Can Techies Sell?”) Dress at Univac was not the big deal that it was at IBM; my first day on the job I war a chartreuse colored suit, and other reps had lively, sometimes flamboyant suits that would not have met the more conservative standards at IBM and certainly EDS at the time. Even the salesmen were a bit showy. (EDS, in a memo that I saw once, claimed that the dress code was intended to gain the confidence of customers who did not understand computers.) Rumor had it that companies like that told you what kind of car they expected you to drive. (I had a Pinto.)

I did get to take a two-week COBOL course at Tyson’s, from one of the friends who had left before I did. That was my first introduction to what would become the mainframe procedural language for business applications for three decades. It wasn’t apparent how important COBOL would get until the early 70s, after which so many financial, manufacturing, and retail companies would write their own inhouse applications, before the large software vendors grew.

I was assigned to a smaller account, Axicom or Transport Data, for a while, before interviewing the Bell Labs account and getting transferred to the AT&T account in Pascataway, NJ, farther away from the City and less convenient (although close to the Metro Park commuter station and on the “Blue Star” route). I got an apartment near Bound Brook, near the Raritan River, which has flooded twice after I was long gone.

Pretty soon, I was invited to travel repeatedly to St Paul for another 1110 benchmark, the object of which was to process the magic “1150 transactions per hour” on a new 1110. The Bell Labs programmers had written complicated simulations of the transactions that had to work, with lots of DMS 1100 calls. That database followed the network model also used by IDMS on the IBM mainframe, with a DDL and schema and location modes of CALC and SET. I trained myself by writing a little DMS-1100 application for my classical record library. Now, you ask, isn’t that computer use for personal business? Yes it is, but in those days it was Okay if there was a legitimate learning purpose. Security and misuse (despite the expense of disk space and computer time) was not the big concern then, even on client computers.

We ran the transactions from punched card decks, and at the time keeping the decks organized and ready was part of the job. We usually had computer time from 4 to 12, but as the final demos approached I certainly remember the all nighters and the exhaustion. I was well into adult life. One of the biggest technical problems was the DMS-1100 "rollbacks" caused by "deadly embrace" or "Catch 22" deadlocks, which were finally resolved by processing database updates in parallel transactions in the same sequence.

After the benchmarks, I was assigned to the AT&T account, and spent a lot of time in lower Manhattan, and some in Westchester county. It’s hard to get anywhere just troubleshooting and supporting customer’s applications, unless one moves into marketing. It was apparent that I should code my own applications again, and I wanted to move into the City. That started the next chapter of my career.

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