‘Back in My Day’ is an Information Age series profiling some of our older ACS members and Information Age readers speaking about their early days in IT.
This week, we speak with Alexander Attard, aged 55, from Melbourne, Victoria.
How did you first get involved with the tech sector?
It was pretty much as soon as I left high school, in 1986. We were fortunate, we had a fairly advanced tech department in our high school and our principal was pretty connected. There was a computer lab and I was taught programming in high school.
My first job was working at CIG Medishield. They had a medical division in Tullamarine. They were warehousing everything, from little bottles to heart and lung machines, and I was a junior computer operator. My job was babysitting Honeywell mainframes. I did nothing more than to rip up reports that were printed overnight and put them into internal envelopes, showing sales figures from the previous day.
We were using 2,400-foot tape for backups, and disk drives were these big mega-four platter disks. The disk drive that you pulled out of the Honeywell was probably the size of an oven. It was massive stuff. There weren’t even modems back then, it was still all very new.
Then we bought this machine and it could have sat it in the corner by itself and it did everything the Honeywell did. Technology was starting to shrink and to get faster.
Then I got a computer programming job for a software company in South Melbourne, in a building across the road from Crown.
We were writing storage distribution manufacturing accounts payable-type software on an American computer called a QANTEL It was running a compiled Business Basic. I was young, worked cheap and lucky enough to get on the job training.
Did you always know you wanted to get involved with tech?
Yes – I prepared to get into tech so much that I even took typing classes in high school. For many classes I was the only boy in the class, able to type 60 words per minute. I’ve got my dad to thank for that – when I was a teenager living at home, dad said ‘if you’re going to get into computers, they’ve got keyboards so you need to learn how to type’.
What was it like working in the tech sector back then?
It was the early days of IT, back then it was pre-Windows. It was all green screens and dumb terminals and a lot of printed reports. I had a feeling we were on the precipice of something.
Where did your career take you next?
I went from computer operating to programming to becoming an analyst programmer. That was for another software company that wrote freight forwarding, accounts payable, storage and distribution software. We were writing software on IBM RISC 6000 hardware.
These were smaller, faster, could do everything the Honeywell could and then some, and fit into the boot of your car. The Honeywell mainframe needed a whole room, air conditioners, air humidifiers and had to run 24/7.
Then I took the next step to where I have been my whole career, into the world of ecommerce or electronic data interchange [EDI]. The company said they do EDI and I had no idea what that was. Then the penny dropped – we took data from one computer system and gave it to another computer system so nobody had to key anything in. To me back then as a programmer writing software so people could sit behind a keyboard and type stuff in, that made sense to me. Now we were doing something with this data, it wasn’t just printed reports.
Then modems became mainstream. Every office I walked into had modems on the desks.
From there I got my next big break. I had an ambition in high school – I don’t know how or why but I always idolised America.
They had NASA, they had big tech, it was the era of the first Space Shuttle launch. I always wanted to work for an American company one day. I ended up working for AT&T.
Unbeknownst to me they had an EDI company then – AT&T Easylink. They came into Australia and brought over a company called Paxus.
We were doing the same thing with EDI – transferring data from freight forwarders to shipping companies and Australian Customs.
The industry started to evolve, now PCs had become mainstream and I had a PC.
I was fortunate enough to be there in the early days where we were selling internet technology. I found myself for a period doing both jobs – internet and EDI.
This was around the time when the US government was getting very sensitive about companies getting very big. US Congress went after Microsoft and got them to shrink and spin off, and they did the same thing to AT&T. It sold off its PC arm, telephone arm and its EDI arm.
Back then in Melbourne, the big internet player that everyone knew about was Connect.com. They bought EasyLink, and after having been there for four-a-half years, I jumped ship during the transition to Connect.com.
I was still in EDI and ecommerce, and I ended up working for a North American company - a Canadian company called Descartes System Group doing EDI on an international level.
It was a real spin, I was travelling all over the world, implementing and supporting the Germans, South Koreans, Singaporeans, Chinese in Hong Kong and the Americans. It was a ride I will never forget and that I am extremely grateful for.
Then we were right in the hype of the internet bubble, the NASDAQ was going insane – anything related to the internet, people were just throwing money at it. It was great fun.
What do you love about working in tech?
I love working in a vendor space because it gives me access to so many different industries. There are companies I’ve seen that I didn’t even know they did this, I didn’t know this industry exists. It gives you a broad spectrum of different types of businesses. I like that because it’s educational, you get to learn about different industry sectors and understand how they relate to other industry sectors. It’s fantastic. I couldn’t see myself working for one employer doing the same work behind a desk.
Did you have to keep training to stay up to date during your career?
Yes – I’m fortunate enough that the industry I’m in doesn’t change too much. But you have to train yourself by reading literature, during and after business hours. I’m very fortunate that I’ve been able to do both at my leisure in my career.
Do you have any advice for people looking to work in the tech sector?
The biggest thing I’ve struggled with is that what we do is intangible. When someone asks me what I sell – well, I sell a service that you can’t touch or feel, and I can’t demonstrate it to you.
The advice I would give somebody is to find something you’re passionate about. The IT sector these days is so big, there are so many different aspects of the IT industry.
Find something that spurs you on and brings a smile to your face. If you don’t have fun with it, don’t do it.
It’s not worth it just to say you “work in IT”. Big deal – go find something you do enjoy.