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Looking Back on 40 Years of IT

This will be my last contribution to the sdg blog, as I will be retiring from full time work at the end of April. I thought I would share some of what I have seen over the last 40 years in the IT industry.

I started in IT in 1967 and worked for an insurance company in Newark, NJ. As a Math Major, I had a semester of programming in college, making me experienced compared to others coming out of school at that time. I worked on an IBM 1401 where trays of cards filled with mortgage loan data were fed in and re-punched out of the computer every night. (I wonder how many people’s mortgage loan data got dropped and thrown away…) When we had program changes to make, we would go to the CPU and use switches to reprogram our mistakes. Things were very simple and straight forward.

My next stop was in Louisiana. My first job was with Boeing where I worked on the first manned moon landing. It was quite an experience, although I had no direct involvement in the rocket that we produced, as I worked on administrative applications. Boeing made the first stage rocket, and we were required to watch the TV for 90 seconds till our first stage rocket broke safely away, and then it was back to work.

During the next few years, for those of us in IT, there were some subtle but great changes. At that time we had to code our programs (COBOL and FORTRAN) on coding sheets and then either key punch them ourselves or have someone do it for us. At first, the key punch machines did not have special characters, so you would have to multi-punch each special character. If you were coding in FORTRAN, you used a lot of special characters as you had many formulas. The cards did not have the whole interpretations printed across the top of the card, so you had to read the holes. Then they came out with machines with special characters, followed by machines with writing across the top. What a wonderful world it had become.

Most of this time I was working for service bureaus where we designed the systems, wrote the programs, and then installed the systems. In addition, we would do the documentation and often operate the computer ourselves. For one company where we were responsible for the user documentation, the owner of the company had the criteria that the document must be thick enough that it would not fit under his door. He wanted the client to think they were getting a lot for their money. Let’s just say it was really hard to stretch a check reconciliation system documentation to that thick of a document. In another of my jobs, to keep the payroll confidential, I had to run all the programs myself, sort the cards on the sorter, and program a board on a machine to collate updated cards with the ones we had punched out. Today, the programmer is so far from production, and for good reasons.

When I began programming (when we had to create patches for our programs for the clients, or bug fixes) we would either send the customer coding sheets with the new code or a magnetic tape with the new program. This would give us at least a two week turnaround before we heard something from the customer (good or bad). Then someone invented the fax machine. The turnaround became much shorter.  Then came email, and the feedback from the customer was instantaneous. I really missed the two week turnarounds.

Through the years, I worked myself up the ranks, got myself an MBA with a concentration in Technology, and ended up in project management as well as doing some direct management. When I first started writing systems, there were no project managers. The programmers did everything, as we knew so much more than the customers, such that after two days with the customer we could write a whole system, and they would love it… at least that is what we told them. As time moved forward, customers became more empowered, which was a good thing. Being a project manager, this gave me the opportunity to work with the customer while remaining in the world of IT.

Project management has also evolved over the years. I have managed big and small projects, and have done it across many industries.  The part I like most about project management is the people you meet along the way. Everyday is a new day, though it comes with ups and downs.. To me, the most important concepts for a project manager are the ability to communicate with their project team and management, and to manage change. If these two concepts are accomplished, as well as having an accurate project plan, the project will be successful. It’s been a great ride, and now it’s time for someone else to step up to the plate. It will be interesting to see how project management will change over the next 20 years.