Changes in IT over the years

Alice Glendenning takes a nostalgic look back at IT developments over the past 20 years
On Thursday 12 May 2016

Project manager Alice Glendinning takes a nostalgic look back at changes to IT from a sytems development perspective over the past 20 odd years. Young people prepare to be amazed!

It’s well over 20 years since I started out as a trainee programmer  and there have been a lot of changes in the world of technology over the years. This is my experience of some of those changes and where we are now.  

The first code I ever learnt was COBOL (Common Business Oriented Language) and yes it is still around - a quick count on found 14 jobs advertised for COBOL developers. The languages used at Spearline are Python, PHP, the relatively new framework CakePHP (See my colleague Brian Mullins Blog on CakePHP), nodejs and  javascript. In the early days there was no switching of applications as you coded on a “dumb terminal” which accessed the mainframe.  The terminals  had no storage or memory of their own and they consisted of a computer screen and a keyboard. The screen was character based so all you saw was characters on a black background, no graphics, no photos, no icons.  Screens  were great big heavy things with most of the bulk in the back with a CRT (cathode ray tube) and the screen size was small displaying  only 640 x 860 pixels.

If a program failed (eg in assembler code) I had to search through a data dump of hexadecimal numbers looking to see what was in the contents of the fields at the time of the fail.  To do this I needed to know things like where the dynamic storage was held - I think register 8 (R8) from memory but open to correction. I had a conversion table to convert hexadecimal and binary to decimal.

Now I know printing can be a hassle with the occasional paper jam but spare a thought for those of us printing in the 1990s when I started my career in IT. In order to print code, which was often done, you created a print job which was placed on a print queue. There were job priorities on the queue and I was fairly far down the list of priorities so it could take some considerable time before I ever got to see my print. There was a print room where the print servers and printers lived and a print engineer who serviced them. Printing was onto green and white striped  continuous perforated paper and at the end of the print you were handed a huge wad of paper that you more than likely did not want any more. I also remember the printers being extremely noisy.  You could only print characters and in monochrome. Printers were the size of a desk and they broke down a lot - ‘call the engineer’!










On a smaller scale one piece of hardware which hasn’t changed much over time is the mouse. Of course it didn’t exist to start with - I think I first put my hand on one in the mid nineties. The original mouse, unlike today, had a little ball in the base which rotated as you pushed the mouse around on your (actual) desktop. In the early days we didn’t even have mousepads. Of course over time the little ball picked up dirt and fluff from your desk and it became dirty and sticky. Frequently in offices you would hear colleagues sighing or swearing as the mouse began to malfunction because it wasn’t rolling smoothly or sticking entirely. This was where maintenance came in.  This  involved  washing the mouse  trackball with soap and water to remove the dust and dirt which caused the mouse to get sticky. Mice have moved on from trackballs to lasers and LEDs, but the premise is the same—the computer records both the distance and speed at which the mouse travels and turns that information into binary code that allows it to plot the display screen.

When Windows 95 operating system came along this was a whole new learning curve from character based screens and keyboards to GUI screens with a mouse and keyboard. I was not happy with the double click of the mouse on an icon, it was difficult to get the hang of how quickly you had to do it - if you were too slow you could spend your time moving the icon about the screen instead of opening the application.

A big change came for me in the database model which  changed from hierarchical  to relational databases.  I was amazed at the simplicity of rows and columns in the first Oracle database where I learnt to write SQL queries and the simple language of select, insert, update and delete something which has not changed. Up to this point I had used IDMS and Total databases. My memory of Total is very vague and in fact I can’t find a single reference when I search for it - maybe I imagined it! IDMS is a network database management system and from memory not easy at all to use, unlike a relational database, when it comes to retrieving and manipulating data. At Spearline we are using a relational database model with MySQL - the database itself is MariaDB (see my colleague Satish Barot’s Blog on MariaDB).

Now, imagine life without emails - to some this would be Utopia. Before the internet existed, ‘email’ could only be used to send messages to various users of the same computer. The operator would send out a message to all the “dumb terminals” and it usually related to the shutdown of the system or similar. General information being communicated to staff came through either meetings or memos which were printed and delivered to each employees desk.  When the ability to email through the internet became available it was often used to send through lists of jokes - rather like using social media to look at pictures of cute kittens.  The early days of internet involved disconnecting your landline while you used the internet through the phone line and a modem and of course no mobiles so that made support calls difficult.

The next big step was into the cloud.  Much talked about probably and not very well understood.  Many services are hosted in the cloud so instead of downloading applications we can run them online - hmmm somehow it feels like are we back to “dumb terminals”?  But of course far more sophisticated than that.  One of the things that  the cloud  means to me is that instead of companies having a room full of servers and all the headaches associated with them, those servers are hosted somewhere else and someone else has the headaches.  Here at Spearline the cloud allows us to have many servers dotted around the world, some physical, some virtual. This guarantees uptime and enables us to offer excellent SLAs.

So what is the future and how will it affect us at work? When Bill Gates predicted a computer on every desk and every home I was one of the ones who laughed and said, “Not likely”. I was not alone in thinking that at the time and you have to remember how incredibly expensive and underpowered computers were back then.  So I thought I would have a look and see what he might be predicting now and his latest prediction is this - “Within the next 15 years—and especially if young people get involved—I expect the world will discover a clean energy breakthrough that will save our planet and power our world.” I was expecting something more connected to technology of the systems type but of course if correct this would be great news. As we are working on our company’s sustainability here at Spearline maybe this is a more appropriate future to look at rather than my expectation of working beside robots.