Richard e Hill - a Writer's Journal

IT Pioneers - Q & A

Selected opinions from a seeking mind

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Information Technology Pioneers: Birth of Digital Data Processing


In the 60’s Fifth US Army Headquarters was located near Hyde Park in Chicago at 51st and Lake Shore Drive with information technology operations at the Data Processing Service Center at 1819 West Pershing Road in a building then known as the Quartermaster Building. Data processing at this facility used Electronic Accounting Machine (EAM) 80 column punch card based methodology that morphed into the 32K magnetic tape based  large computer (32K; yes kilobytes!) mainframe digital data processing world using a new software tool called COBOL (Common Business Oriented Language). Eighty-five-year-old Rear Admiral Grace Murray Hopper who dedicated her life to the Navy passed away in 1992 on New Year’s Day; the pioneer computer programmer co-inventor of COBOL was known as the Grand Lady of Software, Amazing Grace and Grandma COBOL. She'll be remembered for her now famous sayings, one of which is "It's easier to ask forgiveness than it is to get permission."


Computer programmers including myself were her ‘love children’ because this simplified language facilitated design, development, and implementation. Army personnel and accounting applications were converted from punch cards to COBOL mimicking basically the same “standard” EAM procedures until the Fifth Army Command Operation Budget (COB) was fully automated in 1965. This system was a veritable case study of accounting application development, data collection, procedural documentation, user interfacing, and technical implementation.

  

I was fortunate and honored to have been the de facto leader of  the multi-ethnic task force that accomplished this Information Technology milestone. COB has been renamed, upgraded and implemented across numerous business systems. The current iteration and various other acronyms evolved from efforts of the mostly unheralded team of enlisted men and Department of Army civilian personnel commitment to the project and to each other.

 

The acceptable error rate, warp speed technology and ‘quicker, faster is better’ mentality of contemporary systems would be well advised to adopt the principles of the meticulous ‘ancients’. These pioneering implementers had an acceptable error rate as well; it was zero ---- the credo being “GIGO - garbage in, garbage out”.



There were three commanding officers during the administrative duties of my tour of duty in the Army; two articulate West Point trained CO’s and a rugged highly decorated combat CO. The common denominator being the philosophy that “personal abilities notwithstanding, the best leaders are those that can bring out the best under their command”. This and the abilities to sell, to teach, and to mentor are invaluable attributes.

 

During a Data Processing Section meeting, I was the lone dissenting voice to the query by the Service Center’s commanding officer, “if everyone was in accord that the Fifth Army Command Operating Budget (COB) would require 9 to 12 months to be automated?”; the position taken by the acting director and two assistants. After I made some caustic criticism of the methodology presented. The CO then asked me to step outside for a “private word”. This was a reprise of a contentious activity that had occurred too many times for my part.

 

He admonished, “we were prepared to package this requirement, and mark it ‘insufficient time to comply’ since the Budget must be done by the end of the fiscal year in six months. The units will begin their manual procedures in a month. So was it stupidity, arrogance, or an ill advised sense of humor that made you take such a position. I have seen your work and you are far from stupid, but you do have an abundance of the other qualities that I mentioned.” “So Specialist Hill what have you got?”


I replied, “Nothing definitive other than the notes I took during the meeting; Sir.”  The end of my enlistment was approaching and I was undecided as to whether I would extend and become an officer, take a lucrative civil service position, or enter the private sector.  

 

He proceeded after several expletives, “I have a policy that you should be aware of, which is ---- if you criticize a plan, you should have an alternate method of approach or explicit details of the inadequacy to the proposition.” “I am going to adjourn this meeting until tomorrow; be prepared to give YOUR plan”.

 

There were comments; derisive, jocular, and supportive by cadre, then soldiers did what soldiers do ---- establish a secret betting pool as to whether I would get “shot down”. When the odds dropped from a high of 20 to 1 against to a low of 4 to 1; I discreetly placed a $20.00 bet through an intermediary and publicly placed a ‘reluctant’ one dollar wager. The odds went up and settled in at 12 to 1; an old gamblers adage applies, “The big possums walk late”.

  

After some words of encouragement, the current requirements were given to me by the executive secretary, who had been very supportive.  She had also postponed the meeting until after the weekend, ‘due to some possible scheduling conflicts’  In other words she had bought me some more time.


I then outlined the methodology to be used.  Four months, six work day weeks with 10-14 hour days later, the development phase was completed. Implementation went down to the wire due to submission of data from some traditionally slow reporting units.


The success of this project can be measured by the number of spin-offs, endless humorous anecdotes and individuals who subsequently claimed authorship; thereby affirming that “victory has many fathers, but defeat is an orphan”. The reality ---- a team worked to its potential and an individual replaced a lot of arrogance with a little humility. 

 

 

The greatest tribute, honor or award that I have ever received was the day the Budget Review Committee stated the automated procedures and reports were balanced and correct to the penny. (One section with an over meticulous head always submitted and kept records to the exact penny.)  This assemblage representing sections from the entire 14 or so Midwestern States Fifth Army area had convened in Chicago to thoroughly examine and critique these “so-called” computer generated reports.  The per diem and bonus/overtime pay had no bearing on coming to the bright lights of the Big City.


A loud New Year’s Eve type cheer erupted and a group of soldiers and civilian participants on the project came to my desk where I was now a Department of Army Civilian (DAC) at approximately 20 Hundred (2000 or 8:00 PM) to hoist me to their shoulders to give me a “coach’s ride” to the elevator before proceeding to a neighborhood waterhole shouting my name all the way.  The impending change of technical methodology was symbolized by a large Army truck parked in the rear being loaded with boxes of  used punch cards as a Lieutenant followed by an MP entered the building carrying a single box with twelve magnetic tape reels encased in plastic containers.  The data storage potential of the box of magnetic tapes exceeded the capacity of the truck filled with boxes of punch cards.


When we arrived at the bar, I was hoisted atop the bar as the gathering yelled for a speech, which I accommodated with in part with expletives deleted. “It was said that it could not or would not be done. A betting pool was established, I even made a dollar.” ---- There was a roar of derisive laughter. “But they were right, I could not pull it off.” ---- More derisive laughter. “But (a series of names associated with the project beginning with the CO, administrative, technical and support cadre)  could!”  “WE ALL DID IT” “This joint claims it has the coldest beer in Chicago, LET’S GET SOME OF IT! ”



The Army issued a directive that all subsequent systems development would utilize COBOL and conversion of legacy EAM punch card systems would begin as soon as feasible.  As the Colonel would say “That means yesterday or right away, whichever is sooner“.  The processing speed and throughput increases were obvious as demonstrations revealed card processing procedures that would have taken hours or days could be accomplished within the same shift.  


The Digital Era was born, someone just had to remove the embryo from the womb.



On the day of my exit interview a year later when I would officially resign from government service in all capacities, the Colonel and I had a private conversation where we were both misty eyed and frequently looked away to compose ourselves. The Colonel was staring at the statistical Morning Reports containing the mounting Vietnam casualties.  The reports also contained the names of replacements being called to active duty; ten were from sections in the administrative building.  He glanced up saying as I entered, “Give me a battalion of men and some company commanders like you and I could clean up this fracas in 30 days.”  He chuckled slightly then added, “That might scare the Hell out of the Viet Cong, but, even the U S Army is not ready for a bunch of (expletive) hot dogs like you.”  Thanked me for my service in the Army and for “having a ‘pair’ big enough” to challenge the budget system originally prepared to be declined; stating that he was being “handed a snow job by those (expletive) computer eggheads”.  Then admitted that the harsh critical language he had used towards me was;

(1) to bring me down off my “high horse”, 

(2) to get the best out of me because he felt that success had been coming too easy.  We both had to laugh after that statement, but I understood, which was 

(3) learn to be detail inclusive, but simple in directions ----  reasoning “If I could convince and explain to a stubborn old war horse like him, a proposition must have  merit”.


The KISS system PHD: Keep it simple, stupid; modified by professional, humane, determined.  Never overwhelm someone with a task they lack the acuity to perform Start with a menial confidence building task and “coach them up” to more difficult activities.


I have used these psychological tactics in subsequent business matters; but substituted deprecating humor in place of harsh admonitions.

 

  

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QUESTIONS & ANSWERS

We Get Mail     Q  & A

A. re: Depression ---I have depression ---I myself went threw it and got myself out of it after over two years of hard and lonely work with a world of darkness for me,and without any medication that was prescribed for me. I exercised and changed my eating habits. I at times still seem to want to drift back into it and I just take a walk and start to write down my thoughts of what ever might be in my mind at the time and I drift out of it. I am sorry for all the people in the past that told me they had a depression,and I told them how week minded they were as this was not a sickness well that shows how uneducated I was on the problem,but I now can see how people take there life's while they are in a deep depression,and I thank my God I pulled myself threw this bad time of my life with Life as I had all those thoughts going threw it also.

Managing  Depression a.k.a. the Dark One has been and is a perpetual work in process. My aversion to prescription medications has been arguably and justifiably questioned, but that’s the way I chose to deal with the Dark One even when this illness reached so called “clinical” levels. Presently I suffer no more ‘low moments’ than anyone not afflicted. The dark thoughts and mood swings are infrequent. Being a loner is a manageable negative turned positive as I avoid people and situations that are in and of themselves depressing.

 

B. re: Barack Obama: You called it early, more than a year ago; what made you so sure?

Followed the money. The vast fund raising and organization of the campaign made this an “easy” call. Only rich people with agenda give money and don’t necessarily vote where their money flowed. Due to the limits imposed by the Obama Campaign, large contributions were few; therefore a lot of middle class and poor people built the cash pool. These people do vote where their money went.

C. ---- “No, thanks. I’m lactose intolerant.” ---- That was over four months ago and I am still laughing; you are a funny man. ---- Saw the inauguration and heard the poet; YAWN, some minutes of my life that I will never get back. I have a yard ($100.00) for anybody that can recite a line from that poem without reading a reprint. ---- Your poem, ‘The Dream and the Torch” was compelling. Poetry is a gift and your calling even though I think you will be a big time novelist when you get some product out.  

 On a sweltering day a fellow USA/MX frequent border crosser “twisted my arm” to have a quick brew before continuing my walk to the border in TJ (Mexico lagers i.e. Modelo Negra and Bohemia are among personal favorites). We went into one of the many nude dancing clubs/bars. A 44 DDDD cup dancer approached us and invited me to “taste” her ample cleavage. I said ---- (see C. above). As for “product” (have to be careful with that term around the drug filled border), I will have a glass encased framed pictorial version of the poem in distribution next week. Some promotional “freebies” will be available on a limited basis. I have some follow-up to do regarding “submissions and queries” of completed novels.

 If you have been laughing for four months; you have some more serious problems. (RIM SHOT!)

 D. The way you blogged and pitched Obama and as wired as you are when you want to be, I am surprised you did not attend the Inauguration ---- What’s up?

Son and daughter went to Convention and Inauguration (son is a Democratic delegate). The Inauguration, though historical was anti-climatic to me. I voted, encouraged others to vote, became familiar with the issues and discussed/debated same, exposed hoaxes/rumors, and as you know generated many missives in support of Barack Obama. Therefore I sat back and enjoyed (and dealt with more pressing personal issues including my Mexico exit strategy).

E. Is your ‘player handle’ still Xjugador? Saw your handle on Sportsbetting.com (an international online gaming site) in the weekly NFL picks. You still have the touch. Isn’t online betting illegal in USA?

Yes my handle is Xjugador (gaming ID/pseudonym). I don’t live in the USA; so gambling online would be legal. Before you ask ---- you may live ‘abroad’ and still vote in national elections. There are “free non-wagering games and contests” on Sporstbetting.com as well; I of course would never do anything illegal. By the way, what were you doing at the Sporstbetting.com site?

F. ---- Commentary/Blog on your WebSite is slightly different from the eMail; why?

The online is better redacted and some of my comments have been assessed as too “edgy” for general Internet circulation.

G. Well Mr. International, what do you think about Beyonce? Do you personally know anyone that fine?

She has reached “single moniker” cult status and is an absolutely gorgeous woman. Her singing has improved and is good, though not spectacular; over-rated as a dancer. Her rendition of the Etta James classic, “At Last” was comparable in arrangement only. Since beauty is subjective, I have known/know women “that fine” including my 5’ 11” (one time Halle Berry look alike) daughter. Just look around you, there is no shortage of beautiful women.

H. ---- I think now that Obama is President, Blacks do not believe they will go to jail. What do you think?

I think you are full of shit.

I.  ---- Say what you will, but the USA has not suffered a foreign terrorist attack in seven years. We are safe under Bush; who was a good, well liked President. Some economists feel that the recession has been the result of a 25 year decline and therefore is as much a Dem problem as a GOP problem. I’m bracing myself because you sound like someone with Tourette’s syndrome on steroids when you are challenged. 

The USA did not suffer a foreign terrorist attack in eight years under Clinton. What is or is not a foreign terrorist attack is a matter of debate i.e. the “unsolved” arsons countrywide, the government building fire in Chicago that killed six for example. Safety is subjective, but Bush “well-liked and good”? Try the lowest approval rating in history for starters and as for ‘good’; even the majority of Republicans disagree with this assessment.  Welcome, you are finally a minority. 25 year decline ---- Republicans have controlled the White House for 20 of the previous 28 years. The lone Democrat, Clinton had a surplus. The Tourette's with foul language you reference is a Hollywood creation; percentage wise, very few afflicted with Tourette’s have this symptom.  I am a soft spoken congenial person; so go f--- yourself. (Just kidding, always enjoy hearing from you and debating/discussing issues. You at least have an opinion instead of repeating or forwarding someone else’s comments. Tourette’s on steroids; GOOD ONE! RIM SHOT!) 

 J. ---- How did Obama possibly win? Where did my Republican Party go wrong?

Just my opinion, but the Republican’s had conceded the nomination/election to Hillary Clinton. So someone to take one for the team was the order of business, the aging McCain was a natural choice. With the greatest living political strategist, David Axelrod putting together the paradigm for future campaigns, the Democrats won a well earned victory.

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