Wednesday, September 19, 2007

History of Computing Culture 102: NBC (with the RCA Spectra and Univac 1110, in the 1970s)

Continuons-nous! I got a call from a director at NBC, who had moved up there from the RCA operations research career program (Sunday post), once my resume was on the loose. On Monday, August 12, 1974, three days after Nixon’s resignation, I started as a programmer-analyst. We worked on the 14th floor of a satellite wing on 6th Ave and 49th Street in the (now GE) RCA Building (there was no 13), with the Univac 1110 and RCA Spectra on the 8th floor.

I even remember Gerald Ford speaking to the nation that night. “I am a Ford, not a model T.” But during the first week of September (after a Labor Day weekend in Mexico City to “celebrate”) I moved into the Cast Iron Building on 11th and Broadway to start a new life. I sold the car to a Univac employee.

The pace was slower in those days. The project was to implement a new general ledger system. One had to read the transaction tapes on the Spectra 70 and convert them to be readable on the Univac 1110. For the general ledger we purchased a general ledger system from Infonational and converted it to Univac Ascii COBOL, which did not cause significant problems.

The Spectra part was the first COBOL program that I ever designed. This was done all with punched cards. This was also in the days before structured programming, go-to-less programming, self-documenting code, top-down testing, etc. were the expected norms. So aesthetically my first programs on that machine were ugly to look at. But once implemented, they ran perfectly every accounting closing. The needed to, because fixing them on the fly would have been unthinkable with an old computer.

Working with the purchased COBOL programs on the Univac was much easier. We had teletype terminals, that did not have a CRT display, but that had a paper tape that kept a record of what you typed and of the system’s responses. We had semi-private offices, with two people per office. There was a rule against “compiling in demand” during normal business hours, but you could schedule a batch job to compile and link and usually it ran right away. Exec 8 was very convenient, much less verbose that IBM DOS or OS JCL, which I would encounter later in my career. It also had an automatic jobstream generator, SSG, which IBM didn’t replicate until JES2 and JES3.

Accounting cycles consist usually of daily or weekly voucher registers, and proofs, including a final proof for end of month. Each proof was printed in carbons and was comprised many stacks of greenbar computer paper, that was separated and given to users. Accountants make adjusting entries to the proofs. There is also a chart of accounts, which is maintained, in those days with batch jobs before the cycle. End of month could be a bear because of the huge detail sort in the last voucher register. In those days, it could take a Univac 1110 three or four hours to sort 300,000 records or so. I learned what it was like to be “on call” for my own applications. By the mid 1980s, an Amdahl or IBM mainframe could to the same in a few minutes.

The mechanics of how we worked deserve note. The paper tape came in handy. These were days long before sophisticated system security and “separation of functions” according to the job. Programmers had full update access to production files. We often set up test files as copies of production ones. (That is not acceptable today in many shops because of consumer privacy, but this was decades before modern security and privacy concerns hit the media.) If a programmer inadvertently reversed the order of file qualifiers in a copy (GL and XGL, for example), a production file could be overwritten and it would not be noticed until after the closing was run. So we kept the hardcopy terminal tapes of exactly what we did; that was the “security.” By the late 1970s, however, companies were learning that it would pay to install security systems and safer ways of working.

This was a job. In time, I came to understand the virtue of good coding practices as we now know them. Generally, I did not think much about the “glamour” of the media. Television studio tours were available (you didn’t dare visit them during working hours, or you could get fired.) The one exception was when we were invited to work on soap opera sets for a few weeks in the spring of 1976 during the NABET strike. (link May 27). That was an interesting taste of the “real world.”

I certainly wonder how the information technology environment must have changed, several times over, since the 1970s, with the GE and Universal mergers, and the new generations of web technology and monumental changes in the legal and reporting environments.

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