I have relished my working life in the computer industry. I enjoyed every day. I was lucky enough to be at the front-end of the developing business of data processing, working in small, focused units selling systems. For half of my working life, I was with the Sperry Corporation (through many name changes), before it merged with the Burroughs Organisation in the late 1980s to form Unisys. I do not know if it was deliberate policy, but every two years or so my sales role within Sperry changed, from salesman, to technician, to manager. I was never confused, but as I was to learn this was not common practice at Unisys, which had problems putting me into a neat box.
I have always thought of myself as a salesman, although job titles may have obscured that simple definition and I did not always conform to my own definition of a salesman. I was certainly never any good at telling jokes, although for a short while I did make notes of some punchlines for what I thought were good things to remember. For me, this was a mistake. My strength was in sharing my experiences in the industry, which became particularly relevant as computers evolved through designated generations and the same mistakes were repeated with each cycle. I was a mainframe salesman, and remain a novice in understanding the full potential of my PC.
Every work opportunity that came up was more than likely accepted by my wife and me. We moved home 14 times, and lived and worked in five different countries with our two boys.
I managed to resist the challenge of working for myself until 2001. Opportunities arose, but I was happy to keep working in a multinational organisation, where experts were available if you had the courage to ask for help. When running my own small software shop, with limited resources, I was caught out by my lack of training and preparedness for protracted legal disputes, although in the early days as a salesman I was confident enough to draft customer contracts.
I decided to retire in 2005. In preparation for retirement, while I reduced the number of days in my working week, I wrote the following story. I was testing myself to remember events and names. Most of the events have survived the process of editing, but many names have been cut, and I need to apologise to a few hundred or so work colleagues. The question I had to ask myself in preparing the book for publication was: does the name make a significant contribution to the story? If it did not, it was cast aside. But all those names still live in my memory.
I was not quite sure what my book was trying to describe until I read Walter Isaacson’s book, The Innovators: How a Group of Inventors, Hackers, Geniuses and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution. Isaacson’s story follows the ups and downs of the innovators of computing and programming through to the challenges presented by the internet. I was interested to read about a few persons I knew, one or two I had the privilege of meeting, as well as others who were just famous names. I got to thinking about the purpose-built computing machines of the World War II and their development into the general purpose entities initially described by Alan Turing in the 1930s. My first experience of a computer was as a university undergraduate writing a simple formula for determining the amount of reinforcing steel needed in a beam to carry a specific load. We had been taught how to use a translation set of rules called Fortran — short for ‘formula translation’. Our scribbles were encoded in paper-tape, as were the results from the computer, which required another human–machine intervention to view. Today we expect to see such a result within seconds on the PC or tablet on our desk. Such has been the development of technology.
Walter Isaacson’s book features a number of key designers and visionaries who were seen as driving this technological change. My perspective is that the laboratory designer who strove to get a circuit to run at its fastest was certainly an enabler, but that the everyday user — in my case, the computer salesman — is also an innovator. Under pressure to sell products, I had to derive and sell the solutions to problems. In this, the development of my career has run in parallel to the development of computing.
I hope you enjoy the narrative.
Christopher B. Yardley