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A great time to be in IT

As someone once said; “The past is behind, learn from it. The future is ahead, prepare for it” so what have I learned from the past 40+ years of my IT career?

QA | 1 October 2012

As someone once said; “The past is behind, learn from it. The future is ahead, prepare for it” so what have I learned from the past 40+ years of my IT career?

I started in the late 1960's. Transistors had just about replaced valves, and mini-computers that could fit into just one ordinary room arrived. There was one, the PDP8i, which was as small as a suitcase! Virtual Memory breakthroughs for the Atlas machine showed promise and sophisticated operating systems were on the horizon. This was the height of the space race and computers were cool - it was an exciting time to be in IT (although it was call Data Processing back then).

I had to be at the heart of this, and in the 1970s that was Manchester. Following the George II batch processing system was George III, a mind-boggling advance, and the first paging system I saw, the short-lived George IV. This was the era of operating system initials with 'V' for Virtual: VMS, VME, and MVS. It also saw the birth of UNIX. Hardware advances were massive, core stores were out and semi-conductors were in: welcome to the age of the silicon chip. I briefly worked on the incredible CDC 7600, forerunner of the Cray supercomputers, which had a 60-bit word. Things were moving fast, it was a fantastic time to be in IT!

The early 1980s saw the growth of mini-computer companies like DEC, Prime, and Hewlett Packard, and a system known as the Apollo NCS. Apollo had the strange idea of a computer on every desk, a small local area network known as a "Domain", and a single process having multiple "threads" of execution. Weird. Around this time I first used UNIX and an oddball language known as C, not a patch on the ALGOL 68 derivative I was using every day. We also noted, in passing, an obscure software house called "micro-soft" hawking their version of UNIX known as Xenix, stirring-up trouble because someone had made their version of UNIX free. What became of them I wonder?

Miniaturisation and cheap consumer electronics lead to smaller and smaller machines, all incompatible of course. The industry craved the leadership and stability which only IBM could provide, and the IBM PC became the de-facto standard overnight. It killed-off many competitors, but Apple survived. Acorn almost died, but managed to get funding from people like Apple to produce their Acorn RISC Machine or ARM. Oak trees from Acorns?

With the rise of the PC and multiple UNIX flavours, it was clearly time to say farewell to mainframes, what a brilliant time to be in IT!

Things did not stop in the 1990s. The next generation of micro operating systems was to be dominated by IBMs OS/2, finally arealOS on a micro. Microsoft had different ideas though, and Windows NT was born. One of my UNIX colleagues saw NT and proclaimed "I have seen the future". We had entered the age of consumer computers, 32-bit desktop machines, finally. The 48-bit IBM AS400, the "VAX Killer" moved operating systems on to be object based. The first mass produced 64-bit machines arrived with the Alpha being DEC's answer to the AS400. Software development was changing fast, but the huge difference between the start and end of this decade was the growth of the internet - it was an amazing time to be in IT!

A new century and a new career in training. I had over thirty years of experience yet there was so much new stuff to learn! There were software techniques with Object Orientation going mainstream, developments such as .Net, and of course the rise of the Open Source movement. That spat that micro-soft had with AT&T and the University of California at Berkeley back in the 1980s meant that universities had to build their own operating systems, and the accidental outcome was Linux. I saw its growth from a curiosity to a heavyweight. The Linux snowball gave momentum to other Open Source projects, and some great languages, like Python. How lucky was I to be experiencing the changes? What a wonderful time to be in IT!

The current decade, and now we move to mobile computing, the next great sea-change. The old favourites are still underneath there, somewhere. Linux is the base of the software stack known as Android, Berkeley Software Distribution (BSD) UNIX somehow settled out-of-court, and is the foundation of Apple's iOS. Radically different Windows 8 is about to be released but the old OS/2 and Windows NT APIs are still lurking beneath the layers. But things are on the move, use of computers is changing (has changed) from the desktop to the pocket. Users are more savvy, as well as fickle. Companies that previously only had to impress corporate buyers now are selling to the public. Who will survive, where will multi-cores, gesture devices, and open source take us? What a great time to be in IT!

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