Revolutions However Known

Systems, Process, and the English Major

In 1968, armed with a seemingly “useless” English degree, I was swept up and away into communication, computer, and information revolutions that since have rocked the world, and are still rocking it at full throttle. In “the Revolution (however known), I served as foot soldier, as mercenary, and led troops into battle as a program director, project manager, and team leader. This is how it happened.

By 1968, demand had spiked for people who could program and manage computer systems and telecom networks, information technology (IT) industries so new that there wasn’t yet an education infrastructure to supply them with trained workers. IT organizations had to grow their own first generation of programmer analysts.

Supply and demand intersected this story at a Bell telephone company that trained this “English major” (EM) first as a network manager and then as a computer programmer analyst. The EM learned a new language—assembly code—a cryptic 2nd generation language for programming third generation computers. Those huge amazing machines could do (or seem to do) multiple things at the same time. They read and wrote large volumes of data on magnetic tape drives as big as refrigerators and disk drives the size of washing machines. He wrote his first programs on cardboard punched cards—one card per instruction.

Within five years–the English major thought things had come nearly full circle. Now he typed code on a TV-like display terminal, writing in a 3rd generation “procedural” language—COBOL—that was essentially structured English. Another computer program translated “high level” Cobol into the “assembly code” he’d first learned to write so that the computer could execute it. That was a programming language revolution—from machine code to English—and a system/IT revolution—software compiled translation from English into machine code. These were early fruits of “the Revolution” that was changing—everything.

Over the next seven years, the English Major surfed the revolutionary waves across various emerging technologies—timeshare networks (computer time not condos), parallel programming with multi-tasking, and minicomputers. He ended the 70s with a sabbatical year and an extended meditation retreat to an ashram in India. “On the cushion,” he experienced new insights—that “everything is a verb”—a process; that every system is an attempt to control some process; that every process (or system) is actually a sub-process—and that includes computer programming, himself, and his mind. In fact, his mind seemed to have a lot in common with software.

That sabbatical was excellent priming for two simultaneous appointments—one full time as a lead analyst at Harvard University’s Office of Information Technology and one part-time as course designer and instructor at a post-graduate systems training school.

Mornings, he would try to teach liberal arts graduates (EM newbies) to think like computers in structured, logical, and relational terms.

The rest of the day, across the river at Harvard, he researched and prototyped new fruits of the Revolution: microcomputer systems, relational databases, structured development methodologies, 4th generation—non-procedural—programming languages, and expert systems—a step toward AI. He worked on a “virtual machine” in a networked system environment that extended off campus into something called The Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET) that turned out to be a precursor to our Internet.

At night, as he planned the next morning’s lectures, the EM would reflect and ruminate upon the explosive progress of the new technologies that were inundating the culture—and his own mind. He saw human software process lagging far behind technology. He tried to render all this in relevant terms and concepts he could use to teach. One student observed, “You’re not just teaching us to program computers; you’re teaching us how to think—about everything!” He saw the graphs of revolutionary change accelerating, converging and veering toward the vertical and told his students (in 1983) that he could almost imagine how things might change until some time in the 90s. Beyond that, in the new millennium, he said, “It’ll be science-fiction.” He was right about that and here we are “in that future”—supercomputers, pocket computers, smart phones, and the World Wide Web.

Bursting with ideas, the English Major set out as a systems samurai consultant for ten years to apply some of what he’d learned at Harvard and in teaching. He used his 4th generation programming and relational database expertise to lead RAD (rapid application development) projects. The projects included systems that assisted AT&T through divestiture of its Bell-system companies; a metadata-driven COBOL code generator; a computer-assisted budgeting process for a Federal Reserve Bank; and a system for translating and migrating 4th generation programming code between Unix and IBM VM operating environments. The unifying theme in his work was visualizing software development as a process and automating or at least computer-assisting that process.

Software process and software process improvement was his sole focus in the final decade of the English Major’s IT career. He let technology—the “what” of IT—rocket past and beyond him while he focused on the “how.” He hadn’t given up on computer-generated software but realized its ultimate fulfillment lay with rapidly evolving AI.

Meanwhile, he saw an IT industry beset and burdened with development and support of an ever-growing inventory of human-programmed systems. He became intrigued with software process as a means to “program the programmers and software managers.”  

The English Major became an expert in the Software Engineering Institute’s Capability Maturity Model (CMMI) and the Six Sigma Black Belt process for quantitative process-improvement. He spearheaded one IT department within his global-financial-services employer in its rapid evolution to CMM Level 5, the highest capability maturity rating—the first American group in the finance sector to earn that distinction. His “reward” was the disbandment of that elite department and his own early retirement—and that’s a story for another post.

Dispirited and unwilling to return to corporate IT trench warfare, the English Major pursued a second career in writing and video production, where he still employs some “software” process best practices to improve productivity and quality assurance in digital media management and production. A process is a process. Making a movie—even developing a screenplay— share much common process with developing a software product—they are all Intellectual Properties (IP)—and they all benefit from some of the same best practices.

He’s never stopped thinking and journaling about systems and process, not the technology so much as the social science, psychology, and philosophy—and the diverse opportunities and potential benefits of “process thinking” both inside and outside the IT industry. He still reflects and ruminates on systems and process at night, and still dreams about adventures and misadventures in his IT career.

Now, the English Major has embarked on a third career—“coming home” to write about what he’s learned—as a blogger, copywriter, and author. He intends to focus on the human side of the software process more than the technology. The English Major plans to keep it simple and hopes to entertain, inform, and even inspire readers within and outside IT.

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