‘Back in My Day’ is a new 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 Graham McEachran, aged 80, from Perth, WA.
Why don't you start off by telling us about when you started in the IT profession. What year was that?
I guess you could date it to 1965, which is my first year out of university.
What did you study?
Mathematics and statistics. I'd had some sort of trivial contact at Sydney University with SILLIAC, which was a pioneer computer back then.
But when I joined Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI) in 1965 and got involved in what was then called operations research, which was really the use of mathematical methods to help run things better, then I started using a Ferranti Sirius. This was a scientific computer which had very limited storage, so you actually had to put in both the program and the data to get it to go. And all the input and output was via five-channel paper tape, so it was pretty primitive really.
How big were those computers? Did they take up the whole room?
Yeah, it did take up a hell of a lot of space. The cabinet would have been about six foot high by maybe eight foot long by three foot deep.
Considering how little capability it had, that was quite big. They didn't have computer chips in those days, instead they were full of glass valves which gave you your on or off value of 1 or 0.
The processors were so slow that you often had to put it all in, program plus data, just before you went home and hope that it would finish overnight, praying for no power outage or machine malfunction.
Back then it was a very exciting time because everything was new and there weren't many people in the industry so you found yourself mixing with some other great names. I knew John Makepeace Bennett and Barry de Ferranti. They are very special memories.
So, how long did you work for ICI?
Well, I was working at their Botany site in Sydney which was actually the most complex chemical site in the world, in terms of the number of different plants they had and the number of different sorts of things those plants used as raw materials or produced as outputs.
I was there for three years, during which we built an enormous linear programming model of the operation for day-to-day management of it in an optimal way.
I think there were half a million variables from 300,000 equations. Of course, we couldn't find an optimal solution for that on Sirius but we used to go down to Sydney University and use their KDF 9, which was a British computer made, I think, by ICL [International Computers Limited]. It was sitting in there alongside SILLIAC then.
The model we created remained in use for about 30 years at least.
Then ICI sent me to the UK and then back to Melbourne and it was really in Melbourne that I started getting more involved in what you might call DP [data processing].
But then I went to [mining company] Alcoa in WA around 1971. I had never had any IT capability before and I was initially an operations researcher, but after a while that morphed into being their first IT person.
One of the first of its kind.
Yeah. We quickly worked out that we wanted to be an IBM shop and I built a department of about 100 people.
We did some pretty ground-breaking stuff. We built a SAP-like ERP [enterprise resource planning system], long before SAP existed. It was a fully integrated module for sharing data. Doing all sorts of things like financials, HR, payroll, procurement, supply, cataloguing, stock control, maintenance, maintenance planning. All that stuff was integrated.
It was a very interesting time. They were a great company to work for because they had a culture where they employed good young people and gave them the money to go and do things.
Were you given a bit of freedom then to explore and figure out how the technology worked and what it could be used for?
We were very careful about planning things and doing things properly. When we built the ERP, for example, it was all subject databases. We made it so you stored data in only one place, and you shared it with all the modules, and everything was in third normal form, all that sort of stuff.
We planned all that really, really carefully and chose strategic DB/DC [database/data communications] products that we figured would last a long time – and they did.
That system lasted for about 20 years before the company finally replaced it with Oracle.
You were running one of the first IT departments in Perth – it's got to be hard to recruit for jobs that didn’t previously exist. How did you get people to work for you? Where did they come from?
Well, they were a mixture. I recruited some good senior experienced people who were all from the Eastern states. A couple of them I'd worked with at ICI and some others came from organisations like Honeywell.
But we we did some other things as well. We gave professional people working in other areas of Alcoa – accounting folk or laboratory scientists – an opportunity to transfer to IT and provide them with the education and training to do that.
And we took a lot of new grads in and progressed them. So, it was a mixture of experienced folk, developing in-house or existing employees, and developing new grads.
That almost sounds similar to what's being encouraged a lot nowadays – skilling people up and looking inside a business to get the necessary skills.
We were very lucky, really. We got a whole cohort – about half a dozen – of really good, experienced people from South Africa who really knew that ERP, IBM, DB/DC world. That helped a lot.
You did have to fight some prejudices, though. One of these South African guys was probably the best IBM DB/DC systems programmer in Australia, which meant that he worked very peripatetic hours; if you're a systems programmer, you’ve got to be there when the problem’s there.
I'd get accosted by a works manager saying, ‘do you know that I saw David coming in at lunchtime today’ and I'd say, ‘yeah, you didn't see him going home at four in the morning, did you?’
Were there a lot of women in IT back when you started?
When I joined, Alcoa had a sort of class system that was measured by how frequently you were paid: blue collar workers were paid weekly, clerical staff were paid fortnightly, and professional staff were paid monthly.
When I joined, there was only one female monthly staff member who was the actually the boss's PA. I hired the next 30 or 40 women, I reckon. I didn't hire them for any sense of gender equality, I hired them for the very best of all possible reasons – because they were the best candidates who presented for the jobs. But I must say this for Alcoa, right from the start way back then in the 70s they were on exactly the same pay scale as the guys were, there was no differentiation.
You mentioned consulting – are you still working now?
Yes, I do a little bit of consulting, aged 80.
Probably over a year I average maybe a day a week, mainly in the area of government procurement, and that that keeps my brain active. I like to think it keeps Mr Alzheimer away.
As far as IT is concerned, I've got to confess that I'm terribly, terribly out of date.
While I understand in principle where the technology's gone, the detail of it is way beyond me.
Things have changed enormously.
When I first left university, access to a computer was limited so you still did lots of things like statistical analysis on calculating machines.
At university we used hand-cranked mechanical ones. In those days it cost about £1500 and it was the size of a TV set and you had to push it around on a trolley.
Today, that same capability is in a calculator the size of a credit card that costs about $10.
The world has changed enormously.
Do you have any advice for people who are in the early parts of their IT careers?
Nobody would build an ERP of their own today – you would go and buy SAP or Oracle or something else.
So if you want to be a real IT pro, then I guess these days you've got to go and work for the Oracles, the SAPs, the Microsofts or the very big companies like the banks that still run their own in-house IT rather than being out on the cloud.
I suppose the second thing is to not forget that you're there to support the business, to help the business run better and cheaper. You're not there to be the best IT guru in the world. You're there to support whatever business your employer is in.
And I suppose the third thing would be to try and work out where the technology is going, and have the courage to embrace it early rather than wait for it to take off.
IT has come in waves. If you get on the wave early you can ride it for a long way and get a good return on your investment.
If you don't embrace it 'til it's nearly finished and the next one's about to arrive, well, then you don't get good bang for your buck.