Exactly how did a teenage computer geek go……
“…..and here’s where IT all started….. ” My journey in roughly 2000 words.
Around the same time as British engineer and computer scientist, Sir Timothy Berners-Lee, perfects his invention (the World Wide Web), and Nelson Mandela was freed, I left school at the age of 16 and started my career in IT as a VDU operator performing data entry duties for what at the time was a major credit card business – in fact, probably one of the first major players on the scene. Having learned data entry processing, I wanted to understand more about how IT systems and the business model intersected. I worked my way through data processing into a department called IMPAC which handled VAX/VMS batch processing within a data warehouse. This was one of my first forays into this sector, and with what at the time seemed bleeding edge with hundreds of 42u racks everywhere playing host to a myriad of equipment that compared to today’s equivalent looked like something like ASCI Blue, I was hooked – I wanted to know more. After various helpdesk jobs with local businesses, I quickly realised that if I wanted to really progress in my career, I needed to head into the city. I started with a telecommunications firm in 1995, who at the time were still using Novell NetWare.
My particular role here was initially a service desk technician working shift patterns supporting field engineers. I enjoyed the role, but it wasn’t enough to sustain my ambitions. Eventually, an internal position within MIS on the helpdesk was advertised on the notice board (well, this was 1995). I applied, and much to my surprise, got the job. Excited by this new opportunity, I began the process of studying and understanding the inner workings of Novell. At the time, this was the accepted platform for most businesses, and was touted as the norm. After around 6 months, Windows NT 3.51 arrived in the scene, and it was almost as though somebody had split the atom – the technology world began to change.
Our firm became an early adopter of Windows NT and began the planning process to migrate away from Novell to Microsoft. Given that these were effectively two competitor platforms, there wasn’t originally a way to link these two together so they could exchange information. Early implementations of NWLink and Gateway Services for NetWare from Microsoft went some way to bridging this gap, but we constantly experienced issues with frame types (yes, the original 802) and severed connections. This formed the basis of the migration path from NetWare to Microsoft, and it’s one I’ll never forget. It’s a story for another time, but was a huge learning curve for me – and one where I also mastered the art of sleeping in the office.
After 2 years, the telecoms industry began to see significant changes. With large swathes of what were previously non-competition telecoms areas of the city being either acquired by larger firms thanks to a change in OFTEL regulations, the writing was on the wall. After a short period of time, the MIS department began scaling back, and I learned that I was one who was “on the list”. Not wanting my career in IT to end here, I began looking for other opportunities. After what seemed to be a brief search, I was offered a job at trading firm in helpdesk support. This was the start of my finance experience – and my first taste of what a trading floor support function was like. This firm also used Windows NT 3.51 and Windows 95 (yes, I know) as the chosen desktop. Interestingly, there wasn’t a sniff of Novell in sight anywhere, but there were still plenty of Windows for Workgroup 3.1 machines. Looking at today’s standards of 64 bit, it’s hard to comprehend how we ever coped with 16 bit systems. Part of my new position meant that I gained exposure to both a finance arena, and Windows NT4 – the “new kid on the block”. Having used NT for several years, I became a self styled guru and was able to offer support to those being weaned off Windows 95, and teach them vital new skills – essentially, the most fundamental change being the concept of the CTRL + ALT + DELETE sequence just to login.
I began studying Windows NT4 server, and also gained exposure to networking – something I seemed to be able to digest easily, quickly mastering concepts and overall design which then gave me the ability and confidence to start asking questions around why the network was structured in this way, and how could it be made more efficient. Not an easy task when you consider that when I commenced this role, we were using NetBUI with a legacy 16 bit TCP stack designed to communicate with Windows 3.1 – which was using IPX. TCP/IP wasn’t the default network protocol either, with small networks making use of BNC connected machines (great until somebody powered their machine off and broke the chain) with the larger entities using Madge and Banyan Vines (I bet there aren’t many people who remember these as standards) with the additional cost of TCP/IP added (believe it or not, this wasn’t free) until the protocol became mainstream, forming the underlying foundations of the internet as we know it today. Working in trading was an eye opener. Not only did you need to “know your shit” in order to respond to an issue quickly, you also needed to learn how to assess a situation and think on your feet. The difference between making and losing a million depended not only on the technology, but also the support behind it.
Having survived the mentality and attitude of traders with all the tact of a 12 gauge shotgun at close range, I began learning the inner workings of the firm. Working closely with operations, compliance, deals desk, finance, and traders themselves gave me the experience I needed to finally take the helm in late 1999 as IT Manager.
Having successfully seen off Y2K (a hugely overstated exercise), and several other projects, my tenure lasted until 2003. The firm was losing money, and quickly became a sinking ship. I was informed that redundancy was on the cards for me, and watched helplessly as all my work over the years was taken down and transferred to Switzerland. To make matters worse, I waited for 18 months to be made redundant. Imagine coming into the office everyday with absolutely nothing to do – I can tell you first hand that this is absolutely soul destroying. Rather than actively look for a new position, I took a gamble. I began teaching myself new skills – Exchange, Cisco, Windows Server, and literally everything else I could get my hands on. I read books. I completed mock exams. I went and sat exams – as much as I could within the time period I had left. Finally, in April 2003, the lights went out on this particular career.
Getting another job wasn’t the easy ride I expected. This was 2003 and the employment market had taken a nosedive. After 12 different job interviews, I finally was offered the position of network manager at a manufacturing and distribution firm. The upside ? It was much closer to home, meaning more family time. The downside ? The job market wasn’t the only thing taking a nosedive – my salary dramatically bombed too as a result of the current climate. Being ever cautious, I had always planned for a rainy day. My redundancy settlement saw my family and I through some turbulent times, but after around a year, things started to improve. My salary increased to a reasonable level, and we as a firm began snapping up smaller businesses, increasing our market presence, and climbing up the dominance ladder.
As much as I enjoyed working at this company, I was equally shocked at the state of the network and associated infrastructure. The PC’s were all at least 9 years old, the servers were Compaq Proliant 1500R (the first version too), they were still using single loader tapes for backup, had a checkpoint firewall based on Windows 2000, and were using a Frame Relay with a shadow VPC. Some of these machines were in such a state that the cases were not even fitted properly – a health and safety issue in its own right. Bearing in mind that this firm’s business was sugar distribution, the factory floor was even worse. I found one PC that was coated in so much sugar it could have easily been mistaken as an electronic Toffee Apple.
For a cash rich organisation, whatever budget (if any) the firm had allocated to IT wasn’t anywhere near enough. I spent a good portion of my time repairing failed PC’s – using the spares from previous machines that had failed. It wasn’t until we began an M & A process of acquiring other companies that IT were suddenly given a realistic budget figure and were tasked with bringing the technology and associated infrastructure into line with today’s date. It took a year to complete the upgrade – we were a team of 2 so getting things done quickly whilst still trying to support users wasn’t a simple exercise. We ditched the frame relay, put critical infrastructure into a central data centre, replaced user machines, and retired those ageing servers.
However, with all ladders, hence forth snakes – our firm was acquired by a surprisingly small group who had a large amount of cash and were looking to form a much larger entity within the food industry. It dawned on us why we were given the budget and the upgrade request in the first place – it was to make the company more attractive to sell. Once again, the writing was on the wall. People started leaving (through redundancy or free will), and an independent HR consultant suddenly arrived out of nowhere to assist with the office closure. My name was once more on the list. In December 2005, I began looking for another job.
Oddly enough, I had parked the search for a new role until after the Christmas period. I came to the conclusion that most firms would be winding down operations until the new year. Based on this, I wasn’t actively looking, but stumbled on a random job posting for an Assistant IT Manager. I liked the look of the role and decided to apply for it. Thinking no more of it, I continued the day as normal. I received a phone call around an hour later asking for me to attend an interview. Having met with the IT Manager and the SEO, I was offered the role. I couldn’t believe it – everything happened so quickly. I tendered my resignation at the manufacturing firm, and rather irritatingly, the FD there attempted to retain me promising all sorts of changes and promotions. I asked him if he was able to guarantee his own job. Surprised by my bluntness, he responded with “No, I can’t. I have no idea what’s happening”.
I left the firm in January 2006 and began a whole new chapter. The start date of this new role is still etched into my memory. Perhaps it’s because I’m actually still employed by the same firm 11 years down the line. I’ve seen a lot of changes. I started as a helpdesk / network manager / assistant manager (really a jack of all trades in a small team), and am now Head of Information Technology with 6 staff members. I’ve never seen myself as the type of Manager who gives orders and watches the team buckle under the strain. No. I get stuck in at all times to keep the load evenly spread. Thanks to my experience gained over the years, I’m able to do so. And so, at the pinnacle of my career, I’ve decided to give something back to the industry sector I fell in love with all those years ago. Head over to the blog page to learn all about how to survive in IT Operations Management. Ask questions – I won’t bite.