My first company was incorporated on 30th September 1987, 25 years ago last Sunday, and there’s been a lot of water under the bridge since then both for me and the IT industry as a whole. In this short series of blog posts I want to share a little of those years with you.
For the benefit of any younger readers, let’s be clear that back in 1987 the world was a very different place from now. I’m not so much thinking that the first branch of IKEA had only just arrived in UK; Saddam Hussain had yet to invade and loot Kuwait; that Apartheid was still law in South Africa; or even that wearing a seat belt in the rear of a car was still optional. Rather I’m thinking that a portable music player was called a Sony Walkman, and it played a Compact Cassette tape because CDs (and the later Sony Discman that played them – I had a D121) had yet to be invented; if you wanted to heat food you probably did so without a microwave, because most UK homes still didn’t have one; “mobile” phones did exist (just) but they were called “transportable” phones (and preceded the Motorola “brick”) and you needed to be strong to carry it any distance; a portable computer was available, but is was about the size of a small suitcase and weighed the same as one would if jammed full of duty-free booze; and as for the internet… in 1987 that wasn’t even a figment of anyone’s imagination!
So that’s where we were, 25 years ago, when I first decided to jump from “permiedom” into contracting. My hand was perhaps forced a little by redundancy proving irrefutably that there’s nothing permanent about a so-called “permanent job”, and it was a little scary at first, but my Dad (then a practising solicitor) quickly set up a limited company for me and with hindsight it was one of the best things that’s ever happened to me. And sticking it out for a quarter of a century has definitely turned out to be one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.
Compared with now the Computer Industry (as IT was then referred to, also getting itself labelled IS at some point) was something akin to the Wild West, but it worked well despite (or perhaps because of) this. To get a contract in those days you had to be able to demonstrate that you could do the work, as simple as that, and anyone who couldn’t usually found themselves leaving site with zero notice. A contractor was there to deliver a service, full stop. Now, in complete contrast, it appears that to secure a contract a litany of certificates, accreditations and exam results is what’s needed. Once onsite the contractor now appears to get treated more like an employee than a method of achieving deliverables, and the only time I’ve seen a contractor terminated and removed from site forthwith in the last 10 years was when I instigated it because the individual in question was disrupting my team. Compared with a quarter century ago it no longer seems to matter whether somebody actually does the job: it appears to be sufficient that they have certificates saying they are potentially able to, and are prepared to attend site to tug their forelock on demand. Personally, I don’t consider this to be progress.
At the early part of this period I was programming Windows 1.0 Software Development Kit (SDK) and for those who program Windows now I can only say it was very different then: I had one of only five Windows 1.0 SDKs in UK, and when we later progressed to version 2.17 I was one of about twenty-five UK-based programmers with it; DLLs were introduced then, although you had to write your own custom loader-code using assembler, and the remainder of the program was in C; C++ was more of a concept for the hardy few, and available only as a pre-compiler which then spat out heavyweight (rather than beautifully tight) C for the regular C compiler to laboriously chew through; Microsoft Windows UK Tech Support comprised two guys, both working part time in the role, and the support process comprised asking them the question, for them to then phone up one of the other SDK users who was doing similar… they were effectively facilitators of a mastermind group, which worked brilliantly and the relationship was fantastic.
I was writing magazine articles too. I remember one about my early Windows SDK experiences entitled “Windows: A Clear Future Ahead, Or Just Another Pain In The Glass?” Another article, comparing Analyst Workbenches with full-blown CASE Tools, was published by (the long-since defunct) Systems International Magazine. And because I was the first person ever to get Windows 2 working with Oracle 5.1 on a standalone PC, and proudly demonstrated this at the Healthcare & Computing Conference in Harrogate in 1989, I was asked to write an article on Product Integration for the (also now defunct) Microsoft Systems Journal (MSJ) although I can’t recall whether it ever got published.
And all this started when I first played on a friend’s BBC Micro, following which my Dad bought me an Oric-1 home computer for £169 (a huge amount of money in the early 1980s) and I used it to teach myself to program games, which I then sold. So things had moved on a lot from there, even by the start of the quarter-century I’m discussing here. It does leave me wondering where the next UK generation (i.e. our children) will end up though, because the X-Box etc. don’t offer anywhere near the same educational experience suggesting we’ll no longer be a nation of IT innovators, and the youth of nations such as India and China will probably wind up leading the world’s IT forwards. The Raspberry Pi is making a belated attempt to address this, although I still don’t know any children who play with one at home. But I digress, and I should leave history to be the judge of that as I am with so much else here.
I moved from contract to contract, with proper contract terms in place like a cap on the maximum number of consecutive days without delivering service (even for a broken limb) before we got either terminated (if lucky) or sued for a breach of contract by virtue of non-delivery, necessarily taking holidays whenever gaps between contracts allowed. Compare that with now when many so-called clients even keep “holiday records” on their so-called contractors, although I always politely decline to partake in such nonsense as business is business and should remain strictly B2B!
Along the way I programmed for clients in various niches including market research, and retail banking, with a small supplier to a telecoms giant about 20 years ago being one of my favourite contracts (it was a rolling 2 week contract, that amazingly lasted for a full year, and for which I attended interview on a Sunday afternoon in bike leathers on my way home from Box Hill on my race-tuned superbike). Moving on from there I found myself getting security cleared to program some of the in-flight systems for the then un-released Boeing 777 (a machine on which I have never flown, with much of the software being under-pinned by Windows for Workgroups), before beginning a long association with an aspiring services provider (since bought out by a Japanese company and now a household name). I was still programming on Windows using C, of course, but by now I was getting into workflow systems and then CORBA in the then Object Software Laboratory as we strived to productionise software that had started life in the research labs. For the most part I was privileged to work on teams with a truly great bunch of people, and we had some great times and big successes as a result; some of my personal favourite achievements include being the first person to program a server ORB running on Windows 3.n, and being on a team of two to achieve the same on Netware and subsequently demonstrate it to Novell‘s VP who flew all the way from America just to see it.
They were heady days, where skill and innovation ruled high over certificates and exam results, and where remarkable people achieved remarkable things because nobody interfered and told them they couldn’t. It was also where I learned that something or somebody that’s good works everywhere: it doesn’t matter what niche or vertical market the client is in (and all-too-often now unwisely considers to be the all-important decider on who to hire). Good experience, good skills, and the right attitude work brilliantly for any client, in any industry!
In the next part of this series we’ll meet fellow contractor Tim, look at the arrival of the internet, discover formal configuration management, and leap into a new millennium. Stay tuned, or subscribe to get an update notification.
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