You want to do what?
Enjoying 40 Years in IT
You want to do what? I’ve lost count of the number of times that question has crossed my mind over the past 40 year career in the IT industry… just before making a start on working out how to achieve the near impossible. From designing new networks for challenging requirements or troubleshooting very large and complex networks with no diagrams, documentation or configuration records with the condition that there must be no down time.
On one occasion while working off-shore on an oil and gas platform I was told that if the installation I had just completed and was about to commission didn’t work, lives would be at risk and the production of an entire oil and gas field would halt. In a very calm and collected voice I was told if production were to be halted I would be personally responsible and would have to explain to the Minister for energy! I accepted this responsibility with a smile. Does that make me reckless?
”That is inconceivable today when equipment tends to have a lifespan somewhere between 18 months and seven years.”
It doesn’t seem that long ago when I was driving around in a yellow Post Office Telecommunications van, adorned with Busby posters. I saw a model of one of these vans a month or so ago and a colleague said to me. “You should write a blog article saying you knew someone that drove a van like that”. And I said “Yes I should and I do know someone. It’s me, I drove a van like that.”
Over the past 40 years I have been involved in many technologies that were ground breaking in their day. Some evolved into our modern day communications systems while others fell by the wayside. The first telephone exchanges I worked on mainly comprised Strowger electromechanical step by step two-motion selectors – some were over 30 years old when I worked on them. That is inconceivable today when equipment tends to have a lifespan somewhere between 18 months and seven years. But back then I remember being told on more than one occasion, “…you mark my words, data networks have no future.” and “…why do we need high speed (2400bps) data transfer?”, and that was from the ‘experts’, some of them by bosses! Interestingly, I recently visited the Information Age Gallery in the Science Museum in London. I was amazed at how much of the technology featured in the gallery I had worked on over the past 40 years. I am thankful security didn’t stop me leaving as they may have thought I was one of the exhibits.
”So, back to the original question, am I reckless…”
I consider myself lucky to have been involved in such an exciting industry that is constantly changing and constantly pushing the boundaries. Even with this high rate of change many of the principles remain the same, they just run significantly faster. And on this point, when the first high speed modems became available they were really pushing the boundaries of the available line capacity with 9600bps modems typically operating at 7200bps as they were more likely to operate and were more reliable at that speed. A pair of good quality modems would set you back about one pound (GBP) per bit per second so around £10,000 for a pair capable of delivering up to 9600bps but only operating at 7200bps. And, each modem comprised a chassis with around 10 to 15 circuit boards and were so heavy it required two people to rack mount them. In fact, the 48kbps modem required an entire cabinet and used the same bandwidth as 12 voice channels. This made networks infinitely less reliable than they are now. The modems needed to be nursed – constantly fine-tuned and coaxed into delivering to their capabilities. Network management back then really was network management.
So, back to the original question, am I reckless for getting involved in so many critical networks and cutting-edge technologies, and taking full responsibility for my actions? No. Did I commission the oil and gas field safety system? Yes – but as that position was only made clear to me as I was about to commission the installation I postponed the ‘go live’. I then flew 110 miles back to the beach to dispatch more spares (which had to go by ship taking 6 weeks) and returned to commission the system without a hitch and without losing sleep knowing I had a contingency plan. Managing risk and safely implementing new solutions into working environments with minimal disruption is what I trained and qualified for. A major part of my job as an engineer is to manage and contain risk.
”I never, ever take that responsibility lightly and my colleagues and I built Astro on that solid foundation.”
Today I believe every network is critical. I don’t believe the inherent reliability of modern network equipment has made the engineers role any less demanding as this reliability has increased dependency on our networks. Thirty years ago, we were as forgiving of our data network as we are now with the mobile phone network. Now our business systems and data (the crown jewels) could be hosted anywhere – in the next room, on another floor in your building, in another site your organisation owns, in a hosted environment or in the Cloud. Without a reliable network – whether that is wired, wireless, LAN, WAN or VPN – your data will just be somewhere else and you will not be able to get to it. As network and telecommunications engineers we must always consider the fact that the organisation, jobs and ultimately people’s livelihoods – and sometimes lives – depend on us. I never, ever take that responsibility lightly and my colleagues and I built Astro on that solid foundation.