Some thoughts on working along time in IT

Punch it. You really had to “punch” the buttons of thes old 2401s if you wanted them to move.

When I first started working in IT, 27 years ago, my first role was mainly to operate things like these 2401s. I only did it for a few months, but I can still feel every aspect of those tape drives. The sound of the door slamming, the way the vacuums sucked the tape down so it could move, the feel of those buttons, the whirring of tape moving back and forth. I got to the point I could tell which type of program was using the tape based on the behavior of the tape (barely moving, spinning like mad, constantly going back and forth). Data made visible.

Those were 2401s. Then there 3330s and 3350 DASD. I can tell someone has been around along time when they refer to DASD instead of hard drives. And there were the mainframes, the 3033s and the 3081s, and the midsize 4300 series that were more like giant freezers. Everything had a four digit number and we got to learn them all and had to if you were going to be taken seriously. It was a lot of fun learning to operate these machines. It wasn’t what I aspired to, but I came to love it, and the ability to control and be responsible for these computers felt like a great privilege. I even got to operate vintage machines like an old 360 (model 145) that was an MVT OS and basically ran a few simple programs. I got to sit in front of the console of flashing lights, and when a job was finished I sat in front of a teletype device and punched in the command to run jobs like DICKEREP and JANEEREP. When I wasn’t doing that, I got to operate a bank of modems, each the size of a small suitcase. A clients modem would call, and I would vary on (“v on”) our modem and connect them via the console so they could sing their modem songs together at 1200 baud.

Months later, I worked as a VM system operator, running a number of Canadian mainframes that were part of a worldwide network of over a thousand mainframes worldwide. We had a list of all the systems, and one night another operator and I wrote a program to say hello to every one of them as a way of reaching out to everyone. To our surprise, hundreds replied back. Not knowing what to do, we furiously tried to chat with them all. This was mostly a failure, but we ended up becoming friends with some of them. There were no Instant Messaging Dummies guides back then.

When I first started, everyone at work was given access to a 3277 or a 3278 console so we could access something called PROFS, an email system. Not long after, 3 part memorandums were permanently shelved. I remember in the 90s people started saying “I have email now, here’s my address”, but I was lucky to have had it all ready for some 10 years. I even got to see one of the first viruses that way, the dreaded Christma exec. And even in the 80s, inbox zero was an unachievable goal.

A lot has changed in all this time, and a lot hasn’t. For people who have been working in IT along time, you will likely have your own memories come to mind as you read this. For people new to IT, I won’t bore you with any more war stories. I would say this, though: be mindful of the technology you use today, for it will have an impact on the world in ways you can’t even imagine yet. And when it does, you will look back and say: I worked on that in it’s infancy! And technology will become a touchstone of your life as you look back.

When I started, access to IT was rare. What has been the most significant change in all these years is not the PC or the Internet or Java or mobile devices or the WorldWideWeb (as it used to be called). The biggest change has been how more and more people have access to IT. It is becoming commonplace, ubiquitous. That to me is the greatest thing that has happened in all this time I have been working in IT. I started working on mainframes in a glasshouse environment writing PL/1 programs to run on MVS systems, and to most people then and now, that means little if anything. But right now I am typing this on a Blackberry and it is going to be crossposted on my blog, twitter and Facebook, and lots of people know what that means and indeed, can do the same thing themselves. That is the main difference, to me, in what has changed in all these years.

Thanks for taking the time to read this. And now off we go, into the future. Punch it. 🙂
Sent from my BlackBerry Handheld.

5 responses to “Some thoughts on working along time in IT

  1. Punch it indeed! Very nice post Bernie … has it been almost 3 decades (for me, I have been working in IT over 25 years)? It has been an ever changing ride, and will certainly continue to do so in the coming decades.

    • smartpeopleiknow

      Thanks! It has been along time, yet it seems to have gone by very fast, perhaps because IT changes so fast, and continues to do so.

      BTW, I also picked “punch it” because it is a phrase used both in the new Star Trek movie and Star Wars: the Empire Strikes Back. And, of course, you had to really punch those buttons to actually move them. None of that “press any key” :).

  2. Bernie, great post! I remember well the old tape drives and even more ancient equipment like manual card sorters.

    I wonder how much of the ubiquity of I/T was driven by the dramatic decline in cost and the associated miniaturisation of components. If Moore’s Law is bumping into physical constraints, what other developments might lead to the next burst of innovation? The surge in computing and networking capacity has led to a massive growth in data, both a boon and a curse. How can we turn that data into information that can help us make better decisions?

    • smartpeopleiknow

      Thanks, Norbert!

      And that is a good question to wonder about. But while it may be a curse to the richer part of the world, I think it is a boon for the poorer parts of the world. For the latter, too much data hasn’t arrived yet. It’s more the case of just getting data. As the saying goes: the future is here, it’s just not evenly distributed.

  3. Pingback: October pandemic highlights and ramblings (a newsletter, in blog form) | Smart People I Know