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A Personal History of Systems and Computers: Part 9

Dan can be contacted at [email protected]

It's early in the year 1976 and I'm a few months into my new job in Jacksonville, Florida. During the 1960s and 1970s, Jacksonville was trying to become the southern hub of the insurance business. The Prudential had (and still has) its southern home office in Jacksonville, the Gulf Life Holding Company (my employer) was located in the Gulf Life building overlooking the St. Johns river, Peninsular Life Insurance Company had their own building on the other side of the St. Johns, Blue Cross of Florida had its home office in Jacksonville (and it still does), and the newest and tallest building in town was owned by an insurance company. As well as these major carriers, a number of smaller insurance companies who sold both life insurance and property and casualty insurance occupied small buildings or a few floors in one of the towers in Jacksonville.

I worked for Financial Computer Services (FCS), a wholly-owned subsidiary of Gulf Life Holding Company who also owned three or four life insurers, among them Gulf Life of Jacksonville. Gulf Life Holding embodied two of the main corporate themes of the 1970s: They were a holding company and they formed a computer subsidiary. The idea behind having a separate company for data processing, at least in our case, was that FCS would sell excess computer time and programming resources to some of the other companies in town. When I joined the company as the Director of Outside Services, it was my job to find these other companies and to sell them our services.

As I started to say, I was a few months into my job of finding and selling when my boss, none other than my friend Howard Arner, heard that Peninsular Life had hit a rough patch and was going to turn in their small IBM mainframe with the intention of renting computer time to run their systems. It was no surprise that FCS had several of the same systems in use for Gulf Life that Peninsular used to process their business. Although it wasn't as easy as it should have been, we ultimately signed a one-year contract with Peninsular. Once we began to convert them to our data center, we discovered a problem. It was a big problem. The FCS data center was in crisis and needed a new manager.

"Well," Howard said to me, "You got us into this mess. Do you have any ideas about getting us out of it?"

Howard wasn't really mad, just frustrated. He had been named the new President of FCS just a few months before he hired me. The company's former President, Director of Outside Services, and Data Center manager had all left the company at the same time and started their own company. They had taken a few smaller clients with them and they believed that others would follow. They also believed that the new management would not be able to solve the problems caused by their absence.

"Boss," I told him, "We need someone who understands the insurance business, someone who knows the systems, someone who will work well with the outside clients, and someone who will work hard."

"Dan, I've got just the right person," Howard replied.

And that's how, in 1976, I became the Data Center manager for Financial Computer Services.

The FCS data center was typical for a medium size installation of the time. There were three departments: key punch, computer operations, and output services. The key punch department employed about two dozen operators and a department supervisor. Of course, as appropriate for the 1970s, all of the employees of the key punch department were female. The key punch machines were in a separate room that had its own break area. The supervisor's desk was at the front of the room, facing the operators. During the year that I was the Data Center Manager, someone must have been filming a soap opera in that room. I couldn't count the number or arguments, divorces, marriages, and other assorted catastrophes that happened to those ladies. Through it all, the supervisor, Miss Brenda, kept the department running and kept the operator's punching. She neither needed nor received anything from me but my respect and admiration.

Like punching cards, an output service was something that would not survive the coming data processing revolution. When I was the manager, however, the output services department was essential because the primary output from the data center's two mainframes was paper. The paper was printed in stacks of continuous forms, it was printed in single part and printed in multi-part; the paper was turned into customer's bills and agent's commission statements, the paper was sent to executives and clerks alike; boxes and boxes of paper were printed by the IBM 1403 printer every day and sent to output services. The FCS data center had two 1403 model 7 printers and they had come a long way from the original 1403 printer that I had seen working with the 1401 mainframe. The hood of the model 7 opened with the push of a button and it printed faster and more quietly than the original 1403. The operator could now keep printing as fast as he could place boxes of paper on the printer's sprockets.

While the 1403 printers that produced the paper were in the data center luxuriating on raised floor, the machines that were used by output services to finish the product sat side-by-side in a small, windowless and dusty room. The half-dozen or so employees of the output services department were computer operators in waiting. By and large, they had associate degrees in computer operations and were just waiting for an opportunity to move into the data center with the printers that kept them so busy.

The machines used by output services have probably not been manufactured in this century. In the FCS output services room there were two decollators, two bursters, a MICR encoder for pre-authorized checks, and an inserter. The bursters and decollators were forms handling machines. The decollator separated the multiple layers of a pile of forms and stacked them separately while the burster separated the forms along a perforation. To get the idea, picture a pile of continuous form paper, five-feet high, sitting on a push cart delivered to the output services room. The pile of paper is so high because it consists of five parts. These are commission statements where one copy is sent to the insurance agent, one copy is sent to the agent's manager, and a third copy is delivered to the company's commission accounting department. Between the first and second copy of the statements and between the second and third copy is carbon paper. In all, five parts: statement-carbon-statement-carbon-statement.

An output services employee lugs the pile of paper from the hand cart to the decollating machine. Meticulously, each layer is separated (decollated) and five stacks are made from the original, single pile. The carbon paper is thrown away leaving the three copies of commission statements. Each stack is then taken to the burster. The burster, a disagreeably loud machine, POPS each sheet away from the sheet behind it and trims the edge of the continuous form. At the end of the process there are three stacks of separate sheets.

Of the many difficulties faced by an employee of the output services department, perhaps the most difficult, or so I thought, was the fact that the work was done primarily on third shift. The daily processing cycle started in the machine room around 7:00 each evening and by midnight, the printed output was piled high. It all had to decollated, burst, and delivered by 7:00 the next morning which meant that output services was busiest during the darkest of the night. What I didn't know until much later was that output services was a second job for most of the people that worked in it. When I discovered that fact, that most of the output service's staff worked elsewhere, it explained a lot.

I had been the Data Center Manager for no more than a month, seated in my new office in the data center, when I looked up and saw Bill standing at the office door. Bill was the one employee of output services that worked during the day. Invariably a job had to be rerun or the cycle ran late or some other evil had befallen the printing process and work had to be completed on the first shift. Bill was the one who would finish the work.

Once he caught my eye, Bill said, "There's a problem with your staff."

In 1976 I was 29 years old. Bill, on the other hand, was about 40 and looked like he was old enough to retire. I had heard the rumor that Bill had received a DUI while riding his bicycle home from the Town Tavern. Bill had yet to get over the 1960s.

"What's the problem, Bill?" I asked with honest curiosity.

"Your staff doesn't know current events," he told me.

Should I laugh or cry? I decided to laugh. "Well, what should we do?" I wondered.

"I'd like you to let me talk to them about what's going on in the world," Bill said with some intensity.

"Bill, if you will report to work 30 minutes early, you can talk to anyone else who comes along about anything that's on your mind," I told him.

"Will you pay overtime?" Bill asked.

"Are you NUTS?" I asked Bill.

To his credit, Bill tried but he was right. The staff just didn't care enough about current events.

The third department in the data center was computer operations. We'll talk about them and about converting to IBM's OS in Part 10.

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