I notched up twenty five years' service in early 2010 and thought I would recall a few note-worthy events that happened during this period. I have restricted my recollections to pre 1995; more recent events have been omitted to protect the guilty.

After an informal interview with Production Director Peter Davies, I began working at GEC Traction in Trafford Park in 1985. At that time, Traction also had sites at Preston, Bradford and Sheffield. My position was Operations Group Leader and the role was essentially to manage all IT operations in the Traction business at Manchester.

There was a DEC VAX 11/780 for engineering calculations and a multitude of DECmates - these were PC-like workstations that were incompatible with mostly anything non-DEC. They even had offset latches on the RJ plugs so that you had to buy DEC's special cables.

During 1985 the dreaded PC was introduced. In those days we bought IBM PCs from the IBM Shop in Manchester and connected them to an IBM typewriter that doubled as a printer - OK, OK, we couldn't afford anything else! Later we purchased PCs from Interface in Sale and UBS in Manchester and these were upgraded to be multi-user. They had a special card fitted that allowed up to two additional users to connect keyboards and monitors - three users with DisplayWrite running on a 512k 80286 PC! Of course, when the PC crashed, all three users would lose their work. The secretaries quickly figured out which keyboard sequences might cause a crash and it was common to hear "everyone save now, I'm about to hit left-hand-bracket D".

Things moved on and we introduced a new Computervision CAD system. Also installed was an IBM mainframe that was connected to the LAN using a rather temperamental third-party Ethernet controller from Knet - aka a Spartacus box. For any problems that arose, the immediate suspicion was the Spartacus box.

With CAD of course came Unix in the form of Sparc workstations, followed by supposed standards like Posix that were going to let all sorts of systems talk to each other. The general belief by management at the time was that if you needed to boost Unix application performance you simply plugged a new server into the network and it would find its peers, configure itself and then start contributing to the workload! This belief was enthusiastically promoted by the same person who misunderstood British Rail's data network plans and thought that data would be sent along the rails rather than cables along the trackside. That conversation went something like this. He who cannot be named asked "what happens when the data arrives at points?", I paused, then replied as straight-faced as possible, that "it would probably leak all over the sleepers but that TCP/IP was used to things like this and would retransmit the lost data". "Oh, well that's good" he said, sounding completely satisfied.

Stationery supplies were controlled tightly at Trafford Park and you couldn't have a new pencil unless you took along the old one to show that it was less than 3" long. This regime certainly yielded cost savings because staff would buy their own supplies rather than approach Stationery for something. This was brought to a head when a certain engineer asked for a new eraser. Not being able to produce the remains of the old one, he was rebuked and sent away. In seething mood, he booked a company pool car and drove the 70 mile round trip to Preston stationery store to obtain one from there instead.

There was, in the Computer Department, a part-time female member of staff (we shall call her Mrs H) who had a penchant of wearing knee-length leather boots. Unknown to Mrs H, this excited one or two of her male colleagues, but that story's not for here. It happened that Site Services were re-tiling the print room floor and had started one afternoon while Mrs H was not at work. The next morning she strode into the print room and before anyone could shout "look out", was immediately stuck to the industrial strength contact adhesive that had been laid and left to dry. She could only be extricated by lifting her out of her boots, which were left stuck to the floor for Site Services to sort out.

One area where females dominated was Electronic Data Preparation. Bill Morris was responsible for this area and his team was affectionately known as the William Morris Collection. Their job was to convert the paper records generated by finance into more paper records and then enter them into the Sovereign, a computer that looked like a desk and emulated an IBM RJE terminal. During the mid 1980's, the EDP office had to be moved but the issue was so sensitive and the negotiations so secret that Bill was referred to, in all correspondence, as Mr X. Unfortunately, the cat was let out of the bag when someone mentioned "Mr X and the Sovereign" which somewhat gave the game away.

A well-known character of the time was Dennis Shevelan. He was the one who politely informed GEC Computer Services that their mainframe security wasn't up to scratch. Being the self-styled experts in all things computing, GECCS pooh-poohed the suggestion so Dennis proceeded to print out the payroll system's salary data and posted it back to them. Security was immediately improved.

Dennis's desk was usually a bit of a tip, and generally resembled a pyramid of paperwork and yellowing copies of Computer Weekly and important departmental memoranda. It was, however, self-regulating in that additional material usually slid off into a strategically placed bin.

Shortly before the West Office Block was vacated and demolished, a new heating system was installed, comprising new piping and radiators to all five floors. This was to try to improve the office temperature, which was usually pretty cool because of the single-glazed metal-framed windows. Secondary double-glazing had already been fitted but the gap between the sliding panes howled in the wind and staff usually preferred to wrap up and leave the sliding panes open rather than be howled at. In certain weather conditions, you could play a reasonable tune by sliding one pane back and forth like a trombone.

In the mid-90s, outsourcing became the fashionable thing to do with many companies outsourcing non-core activities. This was also known as right-sizing as firms concentrated their efforts on their specific areas of expertise. However, right-sizing in the wrong hands occasionally turned into capsizing, as businesses struggled to bring back activities that they found they shouldn't have outsourced in the first place.

Traction had already argued successfully that an outsourcing bid from GECCS was inappropriate and would probably cause more problems than it solved. Traction's mainframe software was different to GECCS's and GECCS had few staff with the required knowledge. The suspicion was that GECCS would charge a shed load of money to relocate the system into a dusty corner of Stafford and then fail to support it. GECCS was then merged with other bits of Marconi under the EASAMS brand - an old name that expanded to Elliott Automation Space And Military Systems. However, while Traction was battling EASAMS at the front door, ATOS came around the back and let themselves in. The ATOS contract that had been written originally in French, was neither particularly comprehensive nor clear. It had been translated into even worse English and we took advantage of it where it suited us. In those days ATOS had little operational capacity in the UK and by the time the contract was signed for server and network services, ITNet had purchased EASAMS and the operational aspects of the ATOS contract were outsourced back to ITNet. And so it was that the company paid more for the same people doing the same job on the same systems in the same offices. If you're wondering what happened to the mainframe, the business did end up being charged a shed load of money to relocate it into a dusty corner of Stafford where GECCS then failed to support it.

One item worthy of note was the quality of the scrap at Trafford Park - it truly was outstanding. However, anything that you couldn't find in the skips could be made by the more-than-willing shop floor fitters. "Foreigners" always had priority over production work so a hand drawn sketch at 8am would be transformed into reality by 4pm.

There was an unwritten policy within IT Operations to never throw anything away - you can probably deduce that from looking under my desk today. We had storerooms across the site containing all sorts of equipment. Finally, it was mandated that we had to throw something away because the rental of H Aisle floor space was increasing to 6p/sq ft/week. A skip was duly ordered, delivered and placed on Canteen Road. The next morning we piled it high with obsolete and faulty equipment. At the end of lunch, employees passed it on the way back to the office and took things out until it was more or less empty, so in the afternoon we filled it again. Then we called the skip company to come and collect it quickly before people found out that the equipment they'd taken didn't work and tried to bring it back. In retrospect this was probably the first BOGOF offer on skips - two skip loads of waste disposed of for the price of one.

GEC Alsthom was formed in 1989 and one of the first things the French did was to see what the Brits were up to with the perceived intention of taking all the easy to do and/or profitable work back to France. However, they came unstuck with GEC Switchgear who had been manufacturing a particular item of equipment for many years. The assembly work seemed simple enough but the manufacturing costs were very high - comment pourrait ceci être? So the French took the drawings away, made the parts, bought in the fasteners and other components but could not assemble the equipment. It simply wouldn't fit together - at all. So, reluctantly, they came back to Switchgear to ask what they had done wrong. It turned out that Switchgear couldn't assemble the units either but had been filing, drilling and bending components to fit so that each unit was essentially customized (hence the cost).

A final recollection involved a frantic phone call one day from Preston to say that all their telecoms had failed - there were no data circuits or external telephones working. After checking our systems and then speaking with BT, the fault was traced to being definitely within the Preston site. After further investigation, it emerged that the new Preston Computer Manager had found a bundle of dirty cables festooned along his office wall and behind his radiator and had decided to do something about tidying it up with a pair of wire cutters. Enough said.

JST Lawrence, 2010