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A Personal History of Systems and Computers: Part 6

Dan can be contacted at [email protected].

In the spring of 1969, an ECPI franchise opened in Harrisburg. The Electronic Computer Programming Institute was formed to train programmers for lucrative assignments in the computer industry. Since I was the Chief of Programming for the Civil Service Commission of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, I was recruited to be a part-time instructor. The local franchise owner thought that his students would be impressed with my title and would, perhaps, believe that a job in government awaited those who graduated. I turned 22 in May of 1969. I was bored, needed the extra money, and decided that I would spend two nights a week and all day Saturday teaching computer programming.

At ECPI, a student began his study by learning how to wire boards for unit record equipment. The school's machine room had a sorter, an interpreter, and an old accounting machine. My recollection is that there were at least two textbooks to be completed, wiring diagrams to be accomplished, cards to be punched, all followed by the obligatory final problem. We moved from board wiring to flowcharting and COBOL programming. I think that the process took 12 weeks. I was paid about $35 or $40 each week and I accepted my check without shame. I was able to get one of my students a job with a local company and ECPI's placement office sent other students on interviews.

Although there was more than a little exaggeration of the windfall that a student might expect after graduation, ECPI filled a need. At the time, a computer science major at Penn State enrolled in the Math-Science department and was educated to be an electrical engineer. The Civil Service Commission didn't need electrical engineers, we needed business programmers.

As spring became summer, in June 1969, IBM announced that it would unbundle. Looking at those words it may be hard to appreciate the impact that IBM's announcement had on the data processing industry. Before unbundling, when a company leased an IBM machine, that company received software and systems engineering services at no additional cost. After unbundling, those same companies would receive certain software like operating systems and utilities without charge, but customer systems and programs, and the training and support that went with them, would be provided for a fee.

I remember reading about the announcement in Computerworld, then a new magazine. The speculation was that IBM was up to no good. The prevailing wisdom was that it was just a way to increase revenues (as if IBM should be above such shenanigans). The fact that the Department of Justice was pursuing an anti-trust case against IBM was often overlooked. No matter the reason, unbundling was about to send me to Texas.

During the summer of 1969, I received a phone call from someone named Charley Barnaby. Speaking with a Texas twang, he said that he had been told that I knew 1401 Autocoder and he wondered if I would be interested in listening to a job offer. Charley and his partner Chuck Anglin had just merged their small software company with another to form United Systems International. USI was a member of the United group of insurance companies. I did know Autocoder, I told him, and I was ready to listen to his offer.

At my interview, conducted in downtown Harrisburg at a neighborhood bar, Charley told me about the insurance business. In 1962, he explained, IBM had designed and written an Autocoder system to process life insurance policies. IBM reasoned that life insurance companies were big, rich, paper-intensive, and in need of automation. IBM also wanted to showcase the potential of the 1401 so they created what became known as '62 CFO (Consolidated Functions Ordinary). The system was beta tested in 1963 when Charley was an actuary for one of the beta life insurance companies. The CFO system was a success and by the time that Charley told me these stories in 1969, over two dozen companies were using it. Chuck and Charley had started their business to provide peripheral systems for CFO and they were in Harrisburg because they had just made a sale to a local insurance company. Of course, to be compatible with CFO, their systems were written in Autocoder. With the great unbundling, Charley concluded, the sky was the limit.

I accepted their offer to relocate to Dallas. On the appointed day, I went to the Harrisburg airport for my first commercial flight. USI had provided me with a one-way, first-class ticket to Big "D" and off I went. After landing at Love field, I took a taxi downtown to the luxury Adolphus hotel. I checked in, went to my room and picked up the phone to call my family and let them know that I had arrived safely.

"Operator," I said, "I'd like to place a long distance call."

"Yessir," she answered, "do you want to make a toe call?"

I shook my head. It was a long trip.

"Ma'am," I tried again, "I'd like to call Harrisburg, Pennsylvania."

"Yessir," she said with a hint of frustration, "that's a toe call."

I was in another world.

"Would you please spell toe?" I asked.

"That's T-O-L-L toe," she shouted.

Thus started my few months in Texas.

The unpleasant surprises continued the next day when I reported to work at 1025 Elm Street. Charley hadn't yet arrived but Chuck took me to the office of Spec Bradley. Spec was the administrative head of the company while Charley handled new products and Chuck managed software development. Spec asked how I liked the Adolphus and, without waiting for an answer, told me that I could stay at the Adolphus for three days. After that, I was on my own.

I went from Spec's office to a meeting with Ann Marie Ankenbrook. Ann Marie gave me a copy of a life insurance policy, a stack of 1401 program listings, and left me on my own to learn about insurance data processing.

Things got better after 5:00. I went to my first, daily get together at the bar behind the office. Chuck and Charley were there as was Jack Ross, a former mathematics instructor from the University of Arkansas who was writing one of the new sub-systems. Before long, Jack's wife joined us and when Ann Marie arrived it became obvious that Charley and Ann Marie were a couple. I was a beer drinker and Charley insisted that beer drinkers should drink free. Charley asked about my first day and I explained that I would soon be homeless and that I needed more than a little help learning their systems. Charley laughed. He spoke to Ann Marie and they agreed to provide more extensive training. I was, nonetheless, forced to move to another hotel at the end of my third day in Dallas.

I lived in Dallas for no more than six months and USI, as a separate entity, didn't last much longer. With the downturn of the early seventies, USI merged with Cybertek where Chuck and Spec continued in senior positions. Charley became a consultant. During the time that I was at USI, I learned something about the insurance business, CFO, and USI's systems. A family emergency forced me to return to Harrisburg and I went to work for the life insurance company that had purchased USI's systems. From that first day in Dallas, however, until the end of my corporate career in 1999, I worked for life insurance companies.

Although I lost touch with Charley and Ann Marie, I remember reading that they had married, lived in New York City for a few years, and then returned to Texas. When Charley became a member of the Society of Actuaries, he was the youngest to ever have done so. He was a visionary. He also possessed the biggest heart of anyone that I ever met in the business. He died about 10 years ago and I regret that I never renewed our acquaintance.

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