Old Skool

At Agile in the City, London, recently one of the keynote speakers, Kevlin Henney,  briefly touched upon his ‘history’ in the tech industry, recounting tales of technology of days gone by. I don’t think Kevlin’s as old as I am and so I, too, have memories to match and his talk caused me to take my own trip down memory lan, for that I am grateful.

So here are some things I remember from my first job, writing and testing software for a Telex exchange…

Well – there’s the first thing. Telex. The primary method of communicating via text, soon to be shoulder-barged out of the way by the Fax machine. And that reminds me of a story about a chap who couldn’t find any A4 paper in his office, so we faxed him some over from ours.  True.

So what sort of technologies were we fighting with? When I first started we had magnetic drum storage. I forget their capacity, but I suspect it was in Ks, not Ms.  The compact units we had were only a couple of hundred kilos (although they were pounds in those days) and were bolted at least to a substantial rack and preferably directly to the floor.  They took hours to spin up and days to spin down, and the gyroscopic forces involved caused clocks and watches to run fast to the east and slow to the west.  Engineers were advised to spend equal amounts of time in front of and behind the racks to even out the effect.


To be fair, that was pretty old kit even by the standards of the day. Much more high tech were the 300MB removable platter hard drives we had. The drive itself was the size of a washing machine and the platters were a pretty good alternative to a gym membership.


They were top-loaded not unlike the washing machine I mentioned before.  The noise was quite similar too. But they did provide movable storage – you could take a platter from one building to another without needing a fork-lift – although I do remember a memo (a written form of communication, before WhatsApp) stating that platters moved from one building to another should remain in place for 24hours before being loaded up. Tolerances were tight and a few degrees difference in temperature could spell headcrash.  

What else? Let’s go low-tech. With no access to ‘the computer’ (singular) how was one to write code? Answer – on paper. We had coding sheets (basically paper with squares on it) where we would write a single character in each square so that every single character, including white space for indentation, was accurately portrayed.


The stack of paper went off to the word-processing department (wherever that was, I never found out) and would return as a stack of punched cards and a print-out the next day (fanfold paper with tractor holes down the sides, or course). If you were lucky you could get a set of compilation errors in 2 short days. I’m frowning now, because I can’t remember what happened next. Surely we had access to some sort of editor?

(Brief aside: I’ve just remembered those slightly sticky-feeling entrance mats in the doorways to terminal rooms and (bows head in respect) the computer room. I think they were an attempt to keep dust and stuff out of the clean rooms. They didn’t work. Or was it something to do with static electricity? Citation needed.)

I found writing code on squared paper very tedious. I recall a time when I’d made an obvious mistake but couldn’t be bothered to write out the whole sheet again, so I crossed out the offending variable name and wrote it out again somewhere else on the sheet with a handy arrow pointing from it to the crossed out bit. 24 hours later I got the results – the corrected variable lovingly re-created over on the right hand side with exactly the right number of spaces to position it where I had written it and an apologetic hand-written note at the bottom of the print-out. “Sorry – I don’t know how to do arrows”

My last low tech-memory for now is not paper-tape as such, but the hand punching splicer machine thing we had that allowed us to actually punch tape by hand using a block with template holes in it in all the right places and a centre-punch like tool to put the holes where you needed them. An early IDE if you will. Good engineers could read tape. Really good engineers could write tape.  The best engineers didn’t need to do either. Hand punched sections of tape would be spliced in using sellotape – you were doing well if it got through the tape-reader without jumping out or tearing itself to pieces. You were doing really well if the holes you’d punched actually made hex sense to the machine you were feeding. 


I found this image, which matches my memory precisely.  Happy days.





Of course, it’s not just the technology that’s evolved over this period of time. Working practices and office cultures, too, have changed so let me use the last part of this post to call out some other things I recall from my early days in industry. I hope they give you a reason to smile, frown, recall and reflect

On my first day in my first job after graduation I was given two things:

  • a journal for my notes
  • an ashtray

Honestly.  It seems weird now, but don’t forget you could smoke on planes and in restaurants too.

I remember fondly that the work site was a real community with its own life and culture  – we had a bank, a nurse and a library along with a sports & social club that had many active sports sides and subsidised lots of cool stuff like theatre tickets and trips. At one point it even had a caravan in the West Country that was available for members to hire. Some of my earliest sailing was in Poole Harbour in a dinghy hired from the S&SC.  Inter-departmental cricket was hard-fought and we had half a dozen squash leagues, although no one could beat Simon Nash.

Back in the office, written communication was paper-based. The phrase ‘Didn’t you get the memo?’ was literal, with memo pads freely available in the stationary cupboard.  If I look hard enough I may even still have one lying around somewhere.  These time-critical messages would get a list of recipients names stapled to them and you’d cross your name off before handing it along to the first person you could find whose name was on the list.  Documents were printed and copied (using the printing department, who controlled the printer).  The master copy would have ‘Master Copy’ stamped on it in red – colour copying wasn’t around, so this simple method of version control worked pretty well.

Perhaps the most interesting observation for me was about the gap between ‘manager’ and ‘engineer’. Privileges were given to those who made it to management rank, whether or not the privilege made any sense. For example, a management graded employee was allowed to have carpet tiles under their desk. And a phone. If you were senior enough the phone would have access to an outside line too.

We had a management carpark and a management canteen.  There wasn’t a sense of ‘us & them’ – it really was us and them.

New technology, too, often seemed like it was used as a sign of rank rather than function. Managers got email access and then internet access first. Laptops were a badge of honour.  

How much of that culture is within our organisations today? How many ‘Reserved’ signs are in the carpark?  How many offices stand empty when meeting rooms are a scarce resource?   Is there an immediate clash, I wonder, between the culture we experience and the values we advertise?

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