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An IT Retrospective - 50 Years in the Business

By: Rich Loeber - November 2015

As of November 2015, I celebrated my fiftieth year in the information technology field. That thought has prompted me to think a lot about how I got started and the way things have changed over the years. This article will try to explore these five decades of progress from just one person's perspective.

I have absolutely no recollection of my first day on the job working in the IT field, but I clearly remember the second day. I started work on November 8, 1965, working in the computer room for the New York Central Railroad at 466 Lexington Avenue in Manhattan. November 9, my second day on the job, was the day of the Great New York Blackout of 1965. I remember having finished work and riding home on the train when it stopped about a mile short of my station in White Plains, New York, in the Westchester suburbs. In those days, it was not so unusual for the train to stop and the commuters just sat and waited for the train to start up again. Then, someone actually looked out the window and saw darkness where there should have been lights from dozens of houses. We all ended up getting off the train and hitching rides on the Bronx River Parkway after the conductor reported to us that the third rail was dead and they had no idea how long it would be out. It was quite a night and a memorable introduction to the idea of commuting and dealing with this aspect of a working life.

That first job, which I held for all of two months, was working as a clerk in the computer room. Since then, I've learned that we were providing an input/output control function; but everyone in the computer room referred to my work area simply as the "Idiot Table." There were four of us plus our supervisor, a featherbed union position given to an elderly former conductor who constantly smoked a cigar and, to my recollection, never spoke a word to any of us. Our job was to look through manually prepared records of train movements that had been mailed in to the computer room and then match them up with piles of computer printouts of train movements. Our job was to look for "missing trains." Missing in the sense that the computer did not know about the train movements even though they actually occurred in the real world.

It was my first real job after graduating high school and I was eager to do it well. I jumped into it and found that I had a talent for matching things up and tracking down the trains. I was so good, in fact, that my workmates took me aside and told me to slow down because I was a) making them look bad and b) cutting into their backlog of work. If I continued on the pace I had set, we'd get all caught up and there would be no possibility of overtime. Some of us might even get laid off, especially the new guy. I slowed down a bit, but I still wanted to impress, so when a job came up as a keypunch operator, I bid on it and won.

The railroad sent me to keypunch school at IBM for a whole week to learn how to operate the machine. Part of the class involved programming the keypunch machine and I found that to be the most interesting. After a week of training, they put me on the midnight shift working with three other guys, the railroad being essentially and all male club back then.

Our job had two facets. One was to take transaction rejections in the form of a stack of punched cards, and find/correct the errors so they could be reprocessed. The other was to listen to tape recorded telephone calls from small regional rail yards and prepare punch cards to process these train movements through the system. Again, I was good at this and my workmates were constantly after me to slow down and pace myself. During this time, I also learned how to operate the card sorter machine, the gang punch machine, and an aging (even then) IBM 407 computer that was programmed on a wiring board (an early version of RPG?). I remember that the printer on the 407 ran at the blistering speed of 50 lines per minute.

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