Where I’ve Worked

My Computing Career

How I Got Started

Environment Canada – Ottawa/Hull

May – August 1973

Technology: Control Data CDC-6400 mainframe COBOL, converting from IBM 360/85 mainframe OS COBOL

How I Got There

The Trudeau government had created the Opportunities for Youth (OFY) program to give students Career-related experience, much of it by providing Federal Government departments with summer students paid by the Program not by the Department. A friend of a friend noticed an OFY ad in UBC’s student newspaper the previous Halowe’en, with the telephone interview in mid-January from a federal government recruiter. My COBOL and documentation skills were his big interest.

What I Did

I was assigned Gary Grove to document his COBOL programs that managed decades of Groundwater data from across the country. By the time I arrived, however, something more urgent had come up: converting all those programs to run on a completely different type of computer.

Why I Left

I wanted a little vacation, including visiting my grandparents in Kelowna, so I worked enough overtime to get paid for the rest of the Summer, and left on August 15th, having finished my conversion project well ahead of time.

Fond Memories

  • Surprised to learn of the imminent move into Place Vincente Massey in Hull, Quebec from the World War II Number 9 Temporary Building on Carlton in Ottawa. As one of the first groups to occupy the brand new building, which was one of the first federal government buildings in Hull, watched the rapid transition of the local services from catering to the local Francophone residents to Anglophone government workers.
  • Systems Dimensions Limited (SDL) and George Fierheller
  • Star Trek doors on the Data Centre at Energy, Mines and Resources, where the Control Data CDC-6400 mainframe computer was housed. Opened automatically when anyone approached and closed automatically behind you. Great for Computer Operators carrying a load of tapes or pushing a cart, but unthinkable only a few years later with the focus on Security.

Government of the Northwest Territories – Yellowknife

May – December 1974

Technology: IBM mainframe 370/125, recently converted from 360/20, running DOS/VSE with RPG II support, PL/I development, modify COBOL software package.

How I Got There

The NWT Government launched a nation-wide recruiting drive to fill three Computer Programmer positions. They timed it to coincide with university graduation, since fresh graduates were their best bet, when everyone else insisted on previous Computing experience. Three of us were selected based on all having had part-time or summer jobs in Computing, and our scores on technical questions asked during the interview held locally in Vancouver.

What I Did

The real shock for me was not Yellowknife, as I had worked in Trail and Prince Rupert previously, but the computer technical environment: how Director Jim France described it during the interview, and the initial work I was assigned. Jim’s “PL/I structured programming environment” was the future plan but, as the first of the new programmers to arrive, I was immediately assigned to clear up the huge backlog of Service Requests, all involving RPG II programs originally written for the smallest mainframe of that era, the System 360 Model 20. Admittedly, Jim had hinted there were some RPG programs, but I mistook that to mean the Report Generator within COBOL.

I was so disillusioned that I wrote the Dr. Hart Will, the UBC professor that I knew the best, and he wrote an encouraging reply suggesting a promising future given management’s willingness to change. Things soon got better mainly because I cleaned up the Service Request backlog so quickly. To the point where I was being groomed for Systems Programming, my career goal.

But, the Yellowknife Winter, which is in full swing by mid-September, really got to me, and I found a job in Edmonton by December.

Why I Left

The first snow that stays until Spring in Yellowknife falls by mid-September, so I started working overtime and moonlighting until I got ill, which made me realize that I had to move South.

Fond Memories

  • The best summer weather I have ever known, with Sun every day and temperatures never exceeding 75F
  • PL/I programming on an IBM 370/125 mainframe; Assembler, COBOL and a bit of FORTRAN were nice, too; RPG II not so much
  • Learning IBM mainframe Systems Programing from one of the best in the business, Bob Johnson, who left BC TEL because of his love of The North.

University of Alberta – Edmonton

January 1975 – May 1976

Technology: IBM Mainframe 360/67, upgraded to Amdahl 470 V6, running Michigan Terminal System (MTS) with FORTRAN, Assembler and SNOBOL4.

How I Got There

The University had created what may have been Canada’s first Help Desk, where Computer users could visit or phone without an appointment for free assistance.  Having used the same software at UBC, I was an ideal candidate to man and later manage Consulting as it was then known:  the term Help Desk was still a couple of years away.

What I Did

Teaching courses and writing manuals, writeups and newsletter articles was also part of the job; Writeups were 1-5 page how-to’s available for free from racks in the public area of the Data Centre.

Why I Left

My boss would not allow me to transfer to an open position he was advertising, so I submitted my resignation and applied for the open position. Returning from vacation, both my old and new jobs, and my boss, were gone. I was temporarily assigned to the Director, but miscommunication made it appear as if I was not needed.

Fond Memories

  • Realizing that I really did know a lot about MTS while on what was probably Canada’s first Computer Help Desk.
  • The Ship was a staff-only cafeteria in Lister Hall, decorated in a nautical theme.  Although run from the same kitchen as the student cafeteria, the food was excellent and very inexpensive.  Among its patrons, the standing joke was that it was the University’s apology for low wages.
  • SNOBOL 4 programming for a small project for the Chancellor’s office, since Ralph Griswold’s programming language had saved me from failing several UBC Computer Science courses.

Saskatchewan Technical Institute – Moose Jaw

May 1976 – April 1977

Technology: Digital Equipment (DEC) PDP 11/34, upgraded to 11/70 running RSTS/E with Basic Plus and some COBOL and FORTRAN.

How I Got There

When a Time-Sharing Coordinator position was advertised in the Edmonton Journal, I applied, having visited STI the previous June, while attending the CIPS National Conference. Ed Oldridge, who I knew in Yellowknife, also worked at STI.

What I Did

The position was responsible for relations with vendors and STI staff that used the computer systems. But I spent most my time programming.

Why I Left

Newly married, we moved to Moose Jaw for the lower Cost of Living, but soon realized that our expenses exceeded our income.

Fond Memories

  • Provided Digital Equipment (DEC) with a complete set of bug fixes for their DECAL computer-based training (CBT) software, allowing them to elevate DECAL to a fully supported software product.
  • Quickly developing a high level of expertise, despite it being my first use of a PDP/11 minicomputer running RSTS/E with Basic-Plus, FORTRAN and COBOL.

Workers’ Compensation Board Alberta – Edmonton

April 1977 – August 1978

Technology: IBM mainframe 370/138 running DOS/VS with COBOL and Assembler, VSAM and CICS, converted from a CDC 4300.

How I Got There

WCB was looking for experienced IBM mainframe systems programmers to support their move from a CDC mainframe to an IBM 370/135. And I was looking for more money than I was making, slowly going broke in Moose Jaw.

Newfoundlander Dennis Blackwood, from R. Angus in Edmonton and, previously, Zurich Life in Toronto, was the obvious choice for IBM DOS/VS Systems Programmer. Not wanting two Dennis Blackwoods, WCB saw in me, and my Technical Writing skills, a way to get the kind of well-documented computer systems they really wanted. And someone who was willing to use the COBOL programming language for some of the technical needs.

What I Did

My first major assignment was to write the Programming Standards for the rewrite of all the Batch (as opposed to On-Line) CDC computer programs for the IBM mainframe. I then wrote, in COBOL, the small number on-line programs from scratch, without seeing the original CDC version. My final major project was in Assembler, to provide COBOL with access to a VSAM Alternate Index, a feature not yet available from IBM.

Why I Left

The work was interesting but the work environment was hard on one’s self-confidence. While it is true that there is always room for improvement in any activity, it is hard when the only management feedback is criticism based on those improvements.

Fond Memories

  • Designing the VSAM files and indexes for the new Claims Management system, on the airplane ride home from an IBM CICS/VSAM training course
  • Helping the former CDC programmers debug their IBM mainframe COBOL programs
  • Astounding my boss with, first, a nearly bug-free on-line portion of the IBM mainframe version of the Assessment system and, second, keeping things running smoothly during Dennis Blackwood’s first vacation.
  • Getting to use Assembler, my favourite programming language, to develop a set of COBOL-callable
  • Janitors in Charge – someone dropped a piece of cake icing-down in their garbage can. During that era, every office worker had a large military green metal garbage can at their desk, and janitors were some of the better paid employees in an organization. A janitor complained and suddenly no one was allowed to eat their lunch at their desk.

Horne & Pitfield Foods – Edmonton

August – December 1978

Technology: Honeywell Level/6 distributed mini-computers running GCOS/6 with COBOL.

How I Got There

The job hunt focused on managing Application software, rather than Operating Systems, in the false belief that Applications were the only way to the top: CIO, as it known today.

Faced with a mass resignation of all their programming staff because of the replacement computer hardware selected, three of us were hired at the same time by a Vice President who believed in selecting the first three people he interviewed. Our actual positions were to be determined later.

What I Did

Honeywell was pioneering a Distributed Computing approach, with a mini-computer in each warehouse, to replace their punched card Batch small Honeywell mainframe. Everything was to be written from scratch, to bring the company into a modern on-line computer environment.

It quickly became apparent that I was into something new for me: the Honeywell-supplied software, including the operating system, could not be relied upon to run without frequent errors. Adding more memory to the Honeywell computers eliminated most errors, but no one knew that until after I left.

Why I Left

Afraid of failure, having never worked with unreliable manufacturer-supplied software before, I was convinced this was a Disaster Waiting to Happen. I did work with Honeywell and tried to convince senior management that the only way out was different hardware (i.e. – different model or brand of computer).

Fond Memories

  • Being right, even though I was overruled by my boss the Vice President of Finance: my Proof of Concept proposal seemed like redundant/duplicate effort to someone with an Accounting background, but it would have fleshed out the many Honeywell software bugs
  • Honeywell offices were located in a downtown building with rounded corners that gave panoramic views, on the NW corner of Jasper Avenue and 105 Street

Hardy Associates – Edmonton

December 1978 – August 1982

Technology: DEC PDP 11/70 running RSTE/E with Basic Plus 2.

How I Got There

Edmonton’s top Computer Recruiting firm, David Aplin and Associates, had got me in an interview with AGT (Alberta Government Telephones) to be Lead on new to them CICS on their IBM mainframes. Everyone wanted me until Senior Management looked closely at my resume and classified me as too likely to quit, given the number of previous positions on my resume.

While I was waiting to hear back from Mr. Aplin about AGT, I had had an interview with Hardy Associates. They wanted me very badly for my DEC PDP/11 RSTS/E experience, but I waited to hear about AGT.

What I Did

Beginning as a Programmer, I quickly became System Manager of the PDP 11/70, then manager of a staff that peaked at seven people, before moving into a Planning position that reported directly to the Vice President. Then the Oil Boom went bust and the company fell apart.

Click here for details on my first project at Hardy.

Why I Left

After the Oil Boom went bust, wages were cut by 30% and Hardy’s President was replaced, the layoffs began in earnest.

Fond Memories

  • Thinking outside the box to invent a Type-Ahead technology that made it affordable to use Full Duplex on a new public packet switching network, after Half Duplex (local echo) failed with word processing software like Word-11. Costs were less than half of dedicated lines from all company offices across Western Canada to the Edmonton Data Centre.
  • Designed my best Office ever: U-shaped workspace, inspired by radio control rooms, with desk, sidearm and long table, with fabulous window view of Downtown from the 13th floor of Weber Centre in South Edmonton
  • Discovered that I was Colour Blind in a way I had always wanted to be: after face-to-face interviews with three candidates, having one of my staff tell me how pleased he was that I had hired the Black candidate, and only then realizing that he was indeed Black.
  • Risked being Fired to right a Wrong against someone considered my Bitter Enemy, Tom. His Manager confided in me that he was going to lay off Tom as soon as he returned from his one month vacation. I told Tom before he left, so that he could make appropriate plans. He literally cried, not because he was being laid off, but because he wasn’t used to be treated that well by a perceived enemy.
  • Chose to Mind the Farm so my entire staff could go to Banff for the most important national conference for our type of computer.
  • A Going Away Lunch where I was told by my staff how much they wanted to come with me as I was their best boss ever.

ACCESS Alberta – Edmonton

August 1982 – May 1985

Technology: IBM mainframe 4300 running SSX/VSE with COBOL and Assembler, VSAM and CICS.

How I Got There

Radio was still inside me and I was a big CKUA listener, so I immediately applied when I saw a Career Ad to create a centralized Computing function at CKUA parent, ACCESS Alberta. Lots of “how would you decide?” questions in the interview, but my answers were all the same: Cost-Benefit Analysis.

What I Did

My first assignment was a Grand Plan to coordinate existing computing in use in many areas, as well as providing centralized computer services. Responsibilities also included word processing and telephone systems.

Why I Left

Although it had been my long-term career objective, I discovered that I was not cut out to be what is known today as a CIO, Chief Information Officer.

Fond Memories

  • Being back in Broadcasting: CKUA and Access TV.
  • Working with the two top Data Centre experts in Edmonton, one at IBM and the other independent, to build a Data Centre based on both Quality and Cost Consciousness.
  • Offered the large salary I asked for, even though the Oil Boom had just gone Bust.

Synerlogic – Edmonton

May 1985 – August 1987

Technology: Used AGT’s IBM mainframe (various) running MVS and VM/CMS with Assembler, TSO and CICS. And IBM PC running Version 1.1 of Microsoft Word and Ashton-Tate dBase III.

How I Got There

ACT/1 was Prototyping software that intrigued me while I was at ACCESS, and being part of a commercial software product had always been of interest, so an ad to support ACT/1 got my response. Instead, I was interviewed locally for contract programming work, but a second interview in Calgary offered me my dream position: complete responsibility, worldwide, for ACT/1.

What I Did

Replaced an expensive Support centre in Ottawa with two offices in my rural basement, and a dedicated line to AGT’s IBM mainframe Data Centre in Downtown Edmonton. Beginning with worldwide support for ACT/1, expanded to include Western Canada sales and support for Sterling Software products, of which Mark IV was the most popular.

Why I Left

The company’s Founder was ousted and the Software Division was dissolved by the new President. However, ACT/1 support was a big worry, so he happily gave me ACT/1. He failed to mention that I would be laid off as soon as the ownership transfer was complete.

Fond Memories

  • Supporting a million lines of IBM mainframe Assembler, my then-favourite programming language, with which ACT/1 was originally written.
  • Supporting, teaching and liking the Mark IV programming language after hating it for its similarity to RPG II.

Self-employed – Edmonton

April 1987 – July 2006

Technology: IBM mainframes running MVS and PCs running DOS/Windows.

Including full-time at AGT/TELUS from August 1996-September 1999.

How I Got There

To take over ownership of ACT/1 from Synerlogic, I created a new Corporation, Certified Software Specialists Ltd., later renamed Adiant Corporation. A few months later, I was laid off from Synerlogic.

What I Did

While looking for full-time employment, I began writing for Mainframe Journal, eventually taking over the Inside IBM and new products columns, as well as writing full length articles, including a long series on ISPF, considered by many a new approach by IBM to create more user-friendly mainframe software.

Y2K gave me the opportunity for a full-time contract with AGT/TELUS for three years, supporting software scheduled for eventual replacement.

Why I Left

Working full-time and on-call at WCB left me so little spare time that my self-employed income was exceeded by my corporate tax preparation costs. I stopped writing my last monthly computer column, Inside IBM, at that point.

Fond Memories

  • Enterprise Journal Cover Article, co-written with friends at ED TEL and IBM
  • Mainframe retrospective article for the 100th issue of Enterprise Journal

Edmonton Telephones – Edmonton

January 1988 – April 1989

Technology: IBM mainframes running MVS and VM/CMS with COBOL and Assembler.

How I Got There

To supplement the revenue from ACT/1 Support, a full-time job was the most secure solution. The City of Edmonton centralized Computing provided all IBM mainframe technical support, on-site at the Edmonton Telephones’ Main Wire Centre in Downtown Edmonton.

What I Did

Hired to support all network software and hardware connected to the IBM mainframes, I was soon doing research to help my boss in his Planning work. When the person who supported VM and IMS left, I also took over VM support.

Why I Left

My interest in creating my own mainframe systems software product was so great that the offer of a contract to build one for someone else was too much to resist. Especially for Sterling Software, which was then one of the largest software companies in the world. Requiring my full-time attention, I realized it meant leaving ED TEL.

Fond Memories

  • The Data Centre was a modern technology museum with most major computer manufacturers represented, a result of management choosing computer systems one Application at a time, with no thoughts to sharing Hardware or Data.
  • The building had 22.5 foot storeys which caused Crane companies to come up short, literally, when selecting an appropriate crane to reach a given floor. Loading Doors on each floor opened mid-air in the alley, which made for very scary experiences in the winter, as the humid Data Centre air created ice on the floor near the Loading Door.

Workers’ Compensation Board Alberta – Edmonton

March 2003 – January 2007

Technology: IBM mainframe zSeries with z/OS running COBOL, Assembler, DB2 and CICS, plus some Microsoft Windows desktop and servers.

How I Got There

The Branch Manager who originally interviewed me at Synerlogic was now running his own Computer Consulting and Recruiting firm, and was looking for mainframe systems programmers for WCB. The manager who hired me remembered me from AGT.

What I Did

Despite a quarter century passing since I left WCB, my position was the same: IBM mainframe Systems Programmer, in a cubicle not far from where I had worked previously. No more punch cards, and a different Operating System,

Why I Left

Hospitalized for Stress in 1995, I knew the symptoms, so I retired in 2007.

Fond Memories

  • Part of the team installing the first T-Rex IBM mainframe in Western Canada.
  • Celebrating the 25th anniversary of the IBM mainframe’s original installation, including finding and redistributing the original multi-page technical details I had written 25 years before.