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How I got here in the end, part three: " ... But we upgrade to COBOL next year!"

In early 1988 I bought a small apartment. I sold it in early 1989, for a big enough profit to put myself back into university in order to escape a Fate Worse Than Death — the kind of career Leonard Cohen was singing about in "First we take Manhattan."

There was colateral damage, of course. As you can imagine, the kind of property bubble that funds career breaks for some breaks careers for others. I just barely hung on to my mortgage repayments during Nigel Lawson's infamous inflationary "blip"; but the bubble's abrupt bursting in mid-1989 plunged the UK into a recession. I'd strongly recommend being a student during a recession ... but looking for a job afterwards is not so much fun.

And so ...

... What's a newly-minted graduate with no track record in the IT industry to do?

My patchy memory thankfully dims the residual trauma of the milk round interviews; let's just say, things were grim up north. And this time I was older and more cynical and not afraid to avoid being panicked into taking the first job that came along.

Case in point: a large British catalog shopping organization called, let's see, something like "Imperial Merchandise". Not the biggest catalog operation in the UK, but definitely not a small one, this company had a data centre in Bradford. And they were hiring programmers. So it came to pass that I grumbled and struggled into the old business suit (this was a year or so before I decided that I never, ever, wanted to wear a suit and tie ever again) and proceeded to go for a job interview.

Imperial Merchandise's IT division occupied a couple of floors of a grand sandstone edifice of Victorian vintage, down in the valley near Forster Square railway station. Bradford is ... well, it's the Yorkshire city that time forgot. There are worse places, but this city grew up on the back of the dark satanic mills of the early industrial revolution and the wool trade, and it hasn't forgotten the glory days. (Take IM's building back in time a century and you'd likely see it filled with whirring weaving machines run by sweated child labour instead of mainframes and serious-faced men in three-piece suits sitting in front of 3270 terminals.) My first stop was a reception area where a bored secretary, banging out dictation tapes on an Amstrad PCW, paged one of the IT department managers. My second stop was an office off one side of a vast, echoing grotto full of green screens operated by the aforementioned serious-faced men, and a chair on the other side of the desk from two of their tribal elders. Let's call them Mr X and Mr Y.

"We were very impressed by your CV," said Mr X.

Mr Y nodded, poker-faced.

"We'd like to invite you back for a second interview. And an aptitude test."

"An aptitude test?" I asked.

"Yes," said Mr Y. "To see if you're suited for programming."

At this point, alarm bells began ringing in my head. (Here is a hint: the top item on my CV was: "Computer Science Degree".)

"That's interesting," I said. "If I pass your aptitude test, what happens next?"

"Well, we would be inclined to make you a job offer. You'd join us with our regular autumn graduate intake, and we'd send you on a three month training course."

"A training course? What sort of material does it cover?"

"Oh, the usual stuff. What a computer is and how they operate, how to count in binary and hexadecimal, how to program."

" ... " (Imagine, if you will, my noises of politely bemused agreement.)

"And then you'd start as a trainee programmer!" said Mr X.

"Hmm. What sort of systems do you operate here?" I asked.

"We have two Amdahl mainframes running MVS and VM/CMS. We keep all our stock lists in the databases on these machines, and there's a variety of software. Some of it is written in 360 assembler, but we also use PL/I and a variety of 4GLs --"

"But we upgrade to COBOL next year!" Mr Y added enthusiastically.

At this point a vision of my life in the world to come flashed through my mind's eye, and it was not a pretty vision, full of frolicking kittens and rainbows. It was more along the lines of wearing a three-piece suit each day as I toiled in a grim Victorian workhouse, learning an obsolete skill set just in time to be downsized as a result of one of the 12-monthly management changeovers. Imperial Merchandise was on its third new CEO and executive team in five years; there was no sign of networking or indeed of 1980s technology in the entire business, and I'd just about learned enough about relational algebra and database theory to spot an enterprise-wide transition to Oracle coming down the tidal bore like the mother of all tsunamis.

I don't think I said "don't call me, I'll call you," as I left the interview. But I should have. And that's when I realized that looking for a job even one micron behind the bleeding edge of technology was a Bad Idea ...

(To be continued (along with more hair-raising career-related anecdotes from the early 90s, when I finish the final draft of this ?!*&**!!@! novel ...))




Given that "Imperial Merchandise" appears to be now solely a brand name badging a rather generic shopping website (the substantative operations having closed down or become doomed spin offs over the years), I think you could perhaps now drop the euphemism...

Revealing fact about the remnants of West Yorkshire industry - a wool mill in Keighley is the only time I've ever seen someone paid about £100k to take the business on...


Richard: the brand name still exists and presumably is of some value to its owners, so I'd rather tip-toe around any possibility of defamation. In any event, I am certain the apparently hidebound management culture got the heave-ho at some point in the past 19 years. OK?

Wait 'til I get to my next-but-one employer. That's not a skeleton in my closet -- it's a whole dancing conga line!



You were planning on becoming a celebrity terrorist?


"They sentenced me to thirty years of boredom / for trying to change the system from within ..."


Hoo boy. That brings back memories I had interviews with Shell and Marks&Sparks at about the same time. Grim in Ellesmere port and London respectively. Shell definitely had the same idea that you should forget all that nice CS degree and they'd teach you what you needed from scratch. Though since Cambridge has a S/370 mainframe I was able to earn some brownie points by poiting out that I'd already learned s3&0 aseembler (and due a stint at IBM, also APL*).

But fortunately before I needed to sign on the grey line to either of those - or any of the other titans of British Industry - I was offered a job in the exciting new field of PCs and LANs. Ok so it was Broken-Ring not Ethernet but it had a lot more growth potential than mainframe programming.

*Interesting side note. In the late 1980s APL processes on IBM mainframes got a higher priority for CPU and memory than other jobs while they were running. Normally this was fine because they typically finished very quickly but if you wrote a recursive APL program that didn't terminate then you ended up grabbing about 150% of the mainframe's CPU and memory. This meant, amongst other things that even the operator console in the machine room ran sluggishly thereby making it hard for the operator to kill the rogue...

I don't say I was the cause of IBM rethinking that particular priority but I'm fairly sure I contributed to the rethink.


Graduating and looking for work just as the bubble burst-I imagine a lot of people can relate.


Ironically, you could have made a mint around 1999 with a good COBOL background. (Unemployable thereafter, of course.)

But speaking as someone currently trying to hire good engineers, I have to say that "Computer Science Degree" on the CV says nothing about whether the person knows programming.


@ Steve Burnap - Speaking as someone with a first class honours degree in AI (almost computer science) I can only nod in agreement. I got very good at writing essays about computer-science related topics at university, but I could never programme, any more than I could play chess (I found the mental barriers were much the same).

It took me six months out in the real world (if that's the right term to describe the very peculiar dot com start-up I worked for) to decide to go off and do something else entirely...


Good story. You made the right choice.

In my first full-time technical writing job, during the first interview, I was shown a room full of writers working in Interleaf on modern UNIX workstations. A few months later, when I got the job, I was ushered to my cubicle - there was a thing on it that I didn't recognize that looked sort of like an old TV with a keyboard attached. It turned out to be a 3270 terminal. I wouldn't quite describe it as a bait and switch job (I got to work on a UNIX workstation eventually), but it was a severe shock to my system.


This does sound rather like a bad joke. "And all the device drivers are coded in JCL..."

At about the same time as you were doing the interview, the company that I worked for thought that they were ahead of the curve by running a VAX/VMS, but they were too cheap to, you know, actually provide a compiler, so the technical support staff wrote their programs in DCL, interfacing with a text database system called BRS.

All on VT220 terminals, mark you.

Several years later I got brownie points by rewriting these in C, converting what had been several-hour batch jobs into one-second command line applications.

A decade later, they had to port everything to Solaris, because DEC was terminating support for VAXen as part of their Y2K approach. If the routines hadn't been converted to C, I expect they would have tried to port DCL to ksh. So much for being ahead of the curve.


Who's the breeder of the crud that mangles you and me?





Charlie, will you include something about your RPG writing for White Dwarf? (IIRC). I'd like to hear about that.


Heh! I don't mean to boast, but my first programming job after university in 1992 was fun! Processing the live feed from a polar-orbit satellite... into microfiche catalogues. Aimed at farmers. A lot of whom thought they could just blow up the microfiche and not pay for proper imagery. Good fun, I reverse-engineered the feed format and got to play with histogram palette optimisation from 24 bit to 8 bit. Good ol' Turbo Pascal.

And then my next job was x86 assembler for a fancy 8 port (8!) serial card talking to water quality monitoring equipment.

And then I wrote some software for electric doors. They measured temperature. And even opened and shut.

And since then... sigh. Boring DB stuff that pays a gazillion times better.

I feel absolutely no shame in saying I copied my Cobol assignments at university. ADD WASTE_OF TO TIME GIVING JACK.


Around that time I was also programming in a Yorkshire mill for a totally insane company called Supported Systems in Dean Clough in Halifax. The worse thing (apart from the insanity that was Supported Systems) was the lack of windows - just a diffuse light from the roof - you could tell if it was light or dark outside but that was about it.


The firm I worked for, in their London Research Labs (Note that!) had an old IBM "mainframe" that used real, actual CORE Store, and 8-chars-per-line-punched-card FORTRAN IV input .....
After a year or two, I applied to join the computer section, took the in-house tests, and heard precisely nothing.
I asked about 3 months later - "what happened" and got back the reply:
"Oh your aptitude was one of the highest we've ever seen, but we weren't allowed to hire you from your current department, because the (admin) boss [ NOT my actual boss, you notice, he, was all in favour of his people bettering themseleves ] .. "We were told you didn't have the right pro-company attitude".
And this in a firm that depended 110% on scientific and engineering expertise to stay the top of their field, which they were at the time.
But they've been screwed by digital imaging, now - so that should tell you who they were and are.


You avoided the trap I fell into.

My first job, in 1980, was programming an ICL mainframe for $BIG_DEPARTMENT. When I say "ICL", it was in fact made by one of the companies that ICL had assimilated, then dropped in favour of their System 4 series. We paid them money for the lease, they didn't maintain it - I briefly shared a flat with one of the techies who took dead boards home to repair to keep the damn thing running.

We programmed the beast by filling in a form which was posted to the ladies (remember, this was 1980) who turned the form into punch cards, which were posted back to us for us to check they'd been punched properly (great fun if, as was the norm, the ink in the punch machine was out), then posted to the input room next door to where we programmed (no, you couldn't just take it in, that was a messenger's job, and the Union would Have Words with you...)

About a week later, we got the printout dump back to tell you if program worked. We then had to translate the results into plain English and submit a formal report to the people who'd asked for the program.

While we had a reasonable success rate in getting the programs to run, the $BIG_DEPARTMENT had around a 2/3 failure rate in asking for the right program ("That's not quite what we want. Can you... ?")

I lasted 9 months and went to another office swearing never to touch another computer program again. Then Uncle Clive brought the Spectrum out; but that's another story and this is your blog.


Workplaces like this are "Tatty".

When you walk in, the office looks "tatty".

There's a tatty mindset that you can spot. Warning signs include things like; 4-ways plugged into 4-ways plugged into normal wall sockets. Instead of proper structured wiring. Boxes for things stored in heaps in the office rather than in a storeroom somewhere. Wierd security arrangements involving getting keys from places. Old chairs in the meeting room. Junk stored in the meeting room.

Those are the physical signs of tattiness. And the tattiness will survive into their software as well. Tatty places are caused by tatty minds and those tatty minds will make tatty software.

It generally comes from being regarded as a cost centre in the business rather than a profit centre. Almost all of the catalogue-order places are like this -- the IT people are just a cost; never mind that without proper funding for the computing systems the business just doesn't exist these days. Everywhere I've worked where they've had this idea that they're not a tech company, they do something else and the tech helps them do it has had tatty IT and tatty software. And then it becomes a reinforcing circle. IT is still too expensive but it breaks down all the time, the more they cut the budget the worse value they seem to get from it. No, you can't have more servers; not until you can make the ones you bought with last years budget handle this years loads. Etc.

They are absolutely hell to work for. They don't get any better.

They KNOW there's something wrong because they can see that the IT departments have revolving doors. Talented people stay... oh, about as long as it takes for them to get another job. They can tell this isn't normal, but they think it's an attributed of talented people who can't sit still, rather than a function of their environment.

They periodically ask what they can do to start retaining staff, but they only ever ask themselves. They don't think to ask the companies who can or the talented people who are currently working their notice before leaving to go somewhere nicer.

And if you try and force change on them, they'll hate you...


That would be the giant catalogue company from Bradford that didn't morph into the world's leading credit-reference/private snooping giant database operation then. I take it their IT must be better...

(I once worked in a Bradford catalogue shopping company's call centre. I was fired for hanging my jacket on the back of my chair. The call centre was located on several floors of a Victorian mill; the line shaft might have been replaced by the LAN, but the shades of Scrooge were still in full effect.)


#14, #17 and #18: Yep, that's exactly the atmosphere I sensed walking into that interview.

I guess I was lucky insofar as I was rebooting my career; while I was applying for a "first job", I had a previous career history in which I'd seen some mind-bogglingly stupid shit, and I was old enough to have enough self-confidence to walk around the turd on the career footpath.

But ... yes. These trailing-edge, dead-end employers aren't so common nowadays -- market forces tend to weed them out, eventually -- but if you end up in one, Cthulhu help you.


These trailing-edge, dead-end employers aren't so common nowadays -- market forces tend to weed them out, eventually

Ah, I spent 18 months at a now-deceased accountancy firm. Call it, say, Hobson Hoads, taken on pretty much because I needed a job and the market hadn't quite recovered from the dot.com crash yet. Even at the most junior level, you could tell that something toxic was going on, when everybody hated the place, and each other, right up to partner level.

They ended up making a loss, which if you know something of the professional services firm's business model, is a startlingly impressive feat.


Theres a surprising number of such companies still out there. They havn't been weeded out because they occupy national or even global niches which nobody can be bothered taking over, and in many instances the larger companies which could do the taking over have fallen into bureacratic old age or the hands of the accountants. When the latter happens, all innovation stops, whereas in my limited experience, in the former you can still do some innovation by means of networking and speaking nicely to the right people.

Of course I can't say too much about my current employers right now.


I have a similar story, from Montreal, where I was called in for an interview with a Very Large Simulator Company. The fellow guided me through the physical plant (and a right warren of stairs going to doors set halfway up a wall and back down it was) so I could oooh and aaah at the nifty cockpits on bouncing stilts.

Near the end he showed me what I'd be working on.
"It looks like a VME card."
"Actually, we've developed our own bus."
"Hmm. No problem writing Unix drivers, then?"
"We also have our own operating system."
"I understand GL is a decent graphics interface."
"And our graphics language as well."
"Are you working with anything a bit more... industry standard?"

The interview ended shortly thereafter. They didn't call back. 'Twas a good thing, because I later learned the VLSC tended to hire engineers for a project then throw them out when it was done, with little to show on their resumes save two or three years of working on peculiar proprietary systems.


Yes, "tatty" describes exactly the workplace I saw during a job interview I had about eight years ago for research post at a physics department at an Australian university. I arrived on time and found that everyone already left for lunch. A passing postgraduate student kindly pointed me to the refectory where I was introduced to the people who would interview me. I was given fifteen minutes to have my lunch.

The interview was held in the student common room in an
area that was made "private" by several shower curtains hanging from poles. There were six interviewers to which I was introduced to just three. The first thing I was told was that the job would not be permanent, but would only last one year. Then I was asked to talk about my research which I did. While I was doing this, one person mysteriously left and was replaced by another. Another started passing notes across the table where we all were sitting.

When the interview ended and the shower curtains were moved aside, I saw that there were five people listening in. One was even shameless enough to ask me to clarify a statement I made during the interview.

Then afternoon tea was served, slices of cakes were being offered for 10 cents each. I offered to pay but was told that I was entitled to one free slice since I was a guest. After we had tea, I was amazed to find that my host was collecting the throw away plastic forks and plates for re-use. She was putting them in a dishwasher and said that to save money they would only use cold water.

She got a student to show me the several large empty rooms which would house the lab equipment. I never did hear back from these people and found out later that the group was disbanded. My only regret was not telling them that they were a bunch of idiots.


i saw the "retrain from scratch" thing from a different angle. I graduated in 1989 with a shiny Joint Honours Maths & Physics degree -- and with one exception, every single employer who showed even a vague interest in interviewing me was looking for numerate graduates to retrain as a programmer. My attitude to this was that if I'd wanted to be a computer scientist, I'd have done a computer science degree. It probably showed, because the first and only job offer I got was from the one exception, who weren't sure exactly what round hole they would put me in after a year's training and assessment, but were damned sure it was going to be in the general category "materials scientist, sub-class heavy industry".

I occasionally think that my long-term career prospects might have been better with the "retrain as programmer" option, but they'd have probably been even better if I'd done as I was told in first year and followed the chemistry track instead...


Charlie @19
"These trailing-edge, dead-end employers aren't so common nowadays -- market forces tend to weed them out, eventually"

My current client is a big player in the insurance market and, whilst they aren't *quite* as dinosaurish as the catalogue company you describe, they aren't so very far off. The insurance biz is surprisingly backwards IT-wise compared to other bits of the financial sector - especially the London market.



Katie @17
Absolutely! In mid '95 I bailed out of a stable but dull PC support/training/IT-dogsbody job with a mining company and moved to a small software house. Oh. My. God. The half-page letter of offer for the job had 3 spelling errors and was signed by the owner/MD. I was there 4 months, 2 days, and 7 hours :) They could have put "Tatty" in big letters under their logo - it would have been an honest description of their approach. And they looked genuinely shocked and confused when I resigned. They didn't understand how broken they were. Inexplicably, they are still in business 14 years later although they have contracted down to servicing one market sector rather than the three or four they where in my time. Maybe they finally got it together.

I left there for here, safe in the Tertiary Education world, got skilled (eventually) in Oracle and will probably be here ever more.

Thanks for the insights Charlie - it's interesting to see the different roads people have traveled to get to where you meet.


@ 20 ..
My wife (who uses her original name) worked for the firm you call HH .....
You are SO right about the toxic relationships.
She was very lucky to be able to leave, whilst using lawyers to screw them for a payout (I obviously cannot give details) given that they were, by that time shafting their own professional financial staff at work.

What gets me it that this sort of stupidity is so obviously counter-productive (like my experience as told in # 15) and yet firms STILL do it.



Jules JOnes #24 - maybe chemistry would be better for a few years, but now? Forget it. As someone with a chemistry degree, more recent than yourself, I can assure you that despite the propaganda there aren't that many jobs out there for people with chemistry degrees.


FrancisT @ 5 - I thought for a moment that comment was one of mine! Yes, giving APL processes the highest possible priority (and then some) did produce some interesting results.

The IBM shop where I worked in 1984 was looking backward, forward and sideways technologically speaking - you could code on-screen, or you could code on coding sheets and get them typed up by Data Entry if you preferred (and quite a lot of people did). I divided my time between MANTIS (funky interpretive screen-based 4GL) and DE/RPG (written on *special* coding sheets, to run on what we laughingly called a mini (twin 8" floppies, no hard drive)). IBM hadn't tried pushing PCs on them yet - the only rule about micros was that they were banned.

Quite a different world, really.


Hmmmm, I'm a bit frightened by how familiar all the "tatty" sounds from my recent experiences at $NEW_ZEALAND_TERTIARY_INSTITUTION...


Hey, Charles, whe you see another enterprise-wide transition to something other than Oracle, please let me know: that'll be rad news. FUCK LARRY ELLISON!


Winkhorst: I am no Larry Ellison fan either ... but if you were going spend 999 years in hell coding a DBMS for Satan, which would you pick: COBOL or ORACLE?


Hey, COBOL might be grotty, but at least it does what it says on the tin. Half my job seems to be finding the (many) places where the Oracle docs do not at all conform to reality.

I was particularly impressed by one recent one, with a high-speed in-memory database they were pushing hard at us. On big-endian 64-bit systems, SELECT 2 INTO :foo FROM DUAL would return, um, 8589934592, and so on up the byteswapped heck.

(Nice testing, guys. And yes, problems this severe turn up *all the damn time*. I bet one of the reasons that simulator company reinvented every wheel they could was simply because simulation of things like aviation systems imposes harsh constraints on things like latencies, and non-specialist third-party stuff simply doesn't guarantee that. At least if they wrote it themselves they knew what it did and could fix bugs in it.)