‘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 Chris Lovelock, aged 81, from Melbourne in Victoria.
How did you get started in IT?
I left school in Brisbane at age 17 with a matric pass in nine subjects and had no idea what I wanted to do. I took on a job as a cadet salesman, stayed in that job for three-and-a-half years and hated every minute of it.
I eventually found my way to a fairly mundane but reasonably satisfying clerical job with BP. That was a job I (sort of) enjoyed, but there wasn't a lot of future in it.
About six months after I started, the company circularised a notice to staff saying that they were planning on putting a computer into their head office in Melbourne and intended to appoint twelve computer programmers.
I knew absolutely nothing about computers but I put in my application.
They had 360-odd applications throughout Australia and of those, they narrowed it down to 35 and sent all of us on a programming course in Sydney.
They had on order a General Electric 225 computer and the course was in General Assembly Program (GAP).
At the end of the three-and-a-half-week course, which was run by a representative of General Electric, they managed to narrow the 35 people who had done the course down to a total of 12, of which I was not one.
I was told I had missed out partly because I had only been with BP for six months and they didn’t know very much about me.
They said that I would be put on the emergency list and I said, “that’s fine, it’s better than nothing”, but I didn’t hold out much hope.
After about six months, my boss called me in to ask how soon I could be ready to go to Melbourne.
I said, “Well, I’m going out with my girlfriend tonight but would tomorrow be okay?”
Soon I was in Melbourne, not as a computer programmer, but as their senior computer operator. It wasn’t quite what I wanted, but it was a foot in the door.
What year was this?
And the job of senior computer operator – what did that entail?
It involved putting punched cards into a card reader and loading tapes onto the tape decks – all data storage in those days was done on 2400-foot, reel-to-reel half-inch magnetic tapes.
You set up the tapes, the card reader, and the printer, and go from one job to the next until all the jobs were done.
It was important and required a certain amount of thinking, the ability to have one job run into another, smoothly changing tapes – that's an important job, and it was very responsible, but there was little future in it.
I really wanted to get into programming.
What was it about programming that interested you so much?
Well, it was fairly mercenary – the programmers were paid a lot more money than I was.
My boss knew where I wanted to go but said he couldn't afford to lose me from where I was, which was flattering, but not otherwise satisfactory.
I applied for a job as a trainee programmer with AV Jennings. They had a Honeywell 200 on order and no staff to operate it.
In those days, programmers were not exactly available off the shelf, so they were prepared to send me on a programming course.
The language of the Honeywell was EasyCoder, an assembly language which was different to the language I'd done a course for previously.
I think the Honeywell course was about two weeks long and afterwards I called myself a programmer.
What kind of programming did you do back then?
The vast majority of programming was in what I call commercial applications. Fairly mundane things like a debtor’s ledger, stock-control, inventory, that sort of thing.
The programming really involved ascertaining what was required as an end result and seeing what there was available to achieve that result, then flowcharting the logic of the individual programs and translating those flowcharts into the assembly language.
What were the other progammers like?
The people I worked with at AV Jennings were much the same as myself. They had never written a program before in their life. There were two other blokes – about the same age as me, maybe a couple of years younger.
We helped one another, it was a fairly cooperative sort of thing.
We were amateurs at the job and I shudder to think of some of the silly ways we managed to muddle through.
Where did you go after AV Jennings?
I had about three or four other jobs, mostly in the computer service bureau environment, before I became self-employed.
From AV Jennings I went to Cox Brothers – at one stage they owned 140 retail stores throughout Australia.
Then I was at another organisation, Data Centre (which subsequently became ADAPS) where I was doing the same work, commercial applications with basically paper tape input.
How did you end up being self-employed?
I became self-employed because another company sacked me. They had sent me to America on a pretence so I could bring home some software from their head office – effectively they asked me to steal this software.
It was McCormack and Dodge software, one of the earlier ERP-type systems.
I was employed by a subsidiary of the American head office which could have bought the software themselves but they didn’t want to pay the money.
So, they asked me to bring home a tape that contained the source code.
When did this happen?
They had sent me over there under a different pretext, to do some training for a Data General minicomputer. The company had a Fujitsu mainframe computer, which in those days was called FACOM and they also had this Data General minicomputer.
I spent a bit of time in a little town called Bowling Green, Ohio, learning about the system there because I was supporting it from a programming point of view back here.
But when I got back to Australia and told them I wasn’t prepared to get this software, that I was not happy about being asked to steal something on their behalf, that didn’t enhance my future with the organisation.
At least you did the right thing.
I have no doubt about that at all. When I got back I had a discussion with my immediate superior and he said, “Well, Chris, if you were me, what would you do?”
And I said, “If I were you, I'd sack me.”
And he said, “Well, I'll have a think about that.”
He called me into his office after lunch and said “Chris, I've decided to take your advice. Give me your car keys and here's the money for a taxi home.”
I walked out of that place and I felt as if a big weight had been lifted off my shoulders.
You spent more than 20 years working for yourself. How did you continue to adapt and keep up with the technology as it changed?
I did a little bit of reading, a little study, and I guess I tended to learn on the job but I eventually fell behind.
I always did the job that was required of me and I never charged my customers for time spent learning, even though I may not have been as productive as I subsequently became.
Professionalism to me means doing your job to the best of your ability and always making sure your ability is good enough to do the job. And if you cannot do the job, say so.