Happy birthday to you

Happy Birthday to You!

Happy Birthday to You! (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If you saw a sign above the door of a shop announcing that the proprietor established the business in 1993, you would probably shrug your shoulders and say so what? After all, 20 years is not a long time for a shop in the scheme of things.

In technology terms though, 2 decades is an eternity. Although Apple and Microsoft can trace their roots back nearly 40 years, there are not many tech firms that can. Amazon, eBay, Google & Facebook were just a twinkle in someone’s eye 20 years ago.

This year, my employer celebrates their 20th birthday and after working for them for 13 years, I can’t help but feel a certain pride in the achievement. It hasn’t always been plain sailing. The world collectively held its breath after 9/11 which meant that sales of banking software (among other things) fell off a cliff. The latest banking crisis (followed by the sovereign debt crisis) also meant that banks were a bit preoccupied. Still, we have emerged from these crises and the future looks bright for Temenos.

When any tech company first sets out, they’re going to need some IT. Assuming they went for the state of the art, then their machines  would have been powered by Pentiums – probably with a 60 MHz clock speed. Windows NT came out in 1993 so perhaps that would be the operating system of choice. If they waited until the end of the year, Windows 3.11 (or Windows for Workgroups) might be an option.

If they wanted to do some research on the internet, they would have found it fairly barren with only 50 World Wide Web servers. Just about every page would have a cute “Under Construction” graphic and their browser of choice would probably have been Mosaic (the Granddaddy of Netscape Navigator).

If they wanted to stay in touch with each other whilst out on the road, they would need some mobile phones. They would be fairly chunky, have terrible battery life and be analogue in nature. The mobile operators were still building their networks so the chances of holding a complete conversation free of interference were fairly slim.

No-0ne had heard of Big Data – after all – we transmit more data round the internet in a single second than we did in the whole of 1993. If people talked about clouds, they were the white, fluffy sort that float around in the sky. The words “Service Oriented Architecture” had yet to be uttered by overpaid consultants.

Today – a startup company has unbelievable resources at their fingertips. The internet is chock full of useful information. Social media makes it easy to build a network and get your message out. Cloud means a startup can commission a sophisticated network of IT for no capital outlay. It has never been so easy to start a company. Unfortunately, your competition also have all these resources at their disposal.

Temenos had none of these resources at their disposal and yet they have grown from nothing to a half a billion dollar company. They employ 4,000 people of which I am one. Happy birthday Temenos. Here’s to many more.

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What do you want to be when you grow up?

When I Grow Up (Pussycat Dolls song)

When I Grow Up (Pussycat Dolls song) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

After I filled in the questionnaire, the computer considered my future. After a short pause, the printer chugged into life and rattled out line after line of career suggestions on green and white piano paper. Once the clattering came to a halt, the careers officer ripped off the two feet or so of suggested vocations. As he checked the printout to make sure it was OK, he asked me what I thought I wanted to do.

As a young child, it was obvious. I wanted to be a train driver first. Then I decided that I would have much more fun as an astronaut. No, maybe a scientist or a spy. As I went through school, I dismissed such fanciful ideas and came to terms with the fact that I had no clue what I wanted to do in the future.

I scanned down the piano paper at the list of jobs. I could not see any common thread connecting them. They looked like a random list of careers plucked from a hat. Some of the selections made sense and I noted with some amusement that most of the fanciful posts I’d whimsied about as a small boy were present and correct – with the notable exception of spy.

The careers officer said to think about which entries on the list appealed and told me there was an upcoming careers evening where I could find out more. I went home baffled. How do you decide what you would like to do from a list of things you’ve never experienced.

During careers evening, I wandered from booth to booth to see what they had to say. A GP told me all about his job. You study hard for seven years and then you get to sit behind a desk whilst sick people visit you. Hmmm – no thanks. Someone told me about a career in education, but I didn’t really want to stay at school even if I would be on the other side of the desk. The only job that floated my boat was on offer by the navy, ironically enough.

Their offering was a life on the ocean waves as an engineering artificer. During a five-year apprenticeship, you learned about maintaining all the military technology they had at their disposal and all while sailing around the world. It sounded adventurous. I often think about how different my life would be if I chose to take that apprenticeship.

So what do I want to be when I grow up?  I’ll let you know closer to the time.

My brief career in the games industry

The player-controlled laser cannon shoots the ...

The player-controlled laser cannon shoots the aliens as they descend to the bottom of the screen. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Every so often, the fair came to town. Some kids liked the scary rides. Some liked the games of skill and the bunco booths. For me, it was the amusement arcades that made my visit to the fair. I loved the synthesised music the arcade machines played. The stylised graphics (called sprites) on the phosphor screens that depicted both your character and the enemies intent on his destruction.

When home computers became affordable in the 80s, bedrooms all over the world were transformed into mini amusement arcades. Most successful games from the arcades were rewritten for the home computer format. The hardware in your home couldn’t hope to match the commercial machines, but they were recognisable imitations all the same. Somehow, the original games written for home computers were more far impressive than the arcade imitations.

I enjoyed playing those games on my trusty Sinclair Spectrum but after a while, my insatiable curiosity took over and I wanted to understand how to construct those games. Spurred on by TV programs of the time like Me and my Micro, I read the manuals that came with my computer. Before too long I had written a dozen or so programs.

Computer magazines in that time used to print listings of programs that you could type in. After several hours of laborious typing, you ended up with a lacklustre computer game. I spent time understanding how those programs worked. I tried changing things to see what happened. Sometimes I would end up with a broken program, but I always learned something.

Some women bloom when pregnant. My mum didn’t. I used to come in from school and ask dad what mum was like today. More often than not, the answer was “same as yesterday”, and I would go and shut myself in my bedroom with my computer. I spent hours programming. I spent even more time reading about programming. When I went to school, I used to talk to other kids about programming.

Eventually, I ended up with a half decent game. It was called “Political World. It was all about being Prime Minister. To win the game, you had to avoid riots, war breaking out and economic ruin, all at the same time as trying to keep your popularity high enough that you stood a chance of re-election. I showed it to all my friends, listened to their feedback and made small improvements.

I don’t think I was ever truly happy with it, but when the feedback turned from negative to positive, I decided to send it to one of the many games companies that had sprung up to ride the home computer wave. For a long time, I didn’t hear anything. Then, a letter landed on the doormat. I could see who it was from instantly by the logo on the envelope.

I eagerly ripped open the letter and scanned the contents. They had agreed to publish the game and wanted to talk to me about more work. Unfortunately, I had exams to pass, so I couldn’t take up their offer of further employment, but I was chuffed to bits.

Estimates vary about the value of the interactive entertainment industry today, with some saying that games have eclipsed the film industry. Whichever figure you look at, it is a huge industry. Today the games are much more sophisticated with a  cast of actors providing voices, artists providing gorgeous graphics and musicians providing more input than programmers.

In simpler times, for one tiny moment – I was part of that industry.

My brief career as a waiter

English: Spring pea soup, with creme fraiche g...

English: Spring pea soup, with creme fraiche galaxy. The recipe was pretty good, but not exceptional. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Governments all over the world are facing up to the economic realities of balancing the books. After a brief bout of teenage profligacy, I found myself in much the same fiscal boat. The obvious solution in my case was to get a part-time job. This was effective on two levels; firstly, whilst I was working, I was kept out of mischief and unable to spend money and secondly, I was also earning money at the same time.

I worked in a large pub restaurant just outside my home town as a barman. I thoroughly enjoyed it. I liked the social contact with the regular customers and revelled in the camaraderie of my fellow bar staff. To my surprise, I seemed to be good at it as well. For a while everyone was happy. My bank manager was happy that the overdraft was inching down, the one-legged owner of the bar was happy with my performance and I was happy doing the job.

One Summer’s evening, the one-legged man walked over to the bar and told us that several of the waitresses had phoned in sick. Not only that, but we were fully booked that evening. There was only one thing for it. One of the bar staff would have to take a shift on the waiting team. We drew straws.

I might be good at working behind a bar, but I’m useless at drawing straws, so a short while later, the Maitre D’ lectured me on what to do and what not to do. I tried to explain to him that I had the manual dexterity of an elephant wearing boxing gloves but he would have none of it.

My first table seemed to go OK, but it was only two covers. Lulled into a false sense of security about my skills as a waiter, the Maitre D’ assigned me to a larger table – four covers this time. I took their orders and when the very attractive lady in the pretty white dress ordered the pea soup, my heart sank. I’d already tried a dummy run in the kitchen with a tray full of bowls filled with water – it didn’t end well.

As the chef called service, I took my place at the serving hatch. Ever so carefully, I balanced the four starters on the tray. Making sure the tray was rock steady, I set off towards the table. I moved slowly, planning my route carefully so that I avoided any chance of a collision. Arriving at the table, I lifted the first starter and placed it on the table.

The tray lurched in an alarming fashion and the soup came very close to the rim of the bowl. I adjusted the tray, but unfortunately over compensated. Almost in slow motion, the bowl slid down the tray and over the small lip at the edge. Like a heat seeking missile, the bowl and its contents tumbled end over end before landing squarely in the attractive lady’s lap. Her pretty white dress was covered in bright, green soup.

With surprising swiftness, the one-legged man appeared and ushered me away from the table whilst the Maitre D’ appeared from nowhere and apologised profusely to the customers. Before too long, I was safely ensconced behind the bar once more. The one-legged man admonished me and told me that was the last time I would be a waiter. Silently – I agreed with him.

I caught sight of the woman leaving the restaurant later that night with her soup-stained dress. As she walked out, she smiled and blew me a kiss.

My short career as a soldier

Soldier On

Soldier On (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We had only just moved there. For the first few days it rained. I felt trapped inside the house, aching to play outside. I could only have been three years old and I drove my mum mad as I complained of boredom, hunger and about the rain. At last the rain stopped and I ventured outside into the garden. “Stay close to the house!” mum warned.

Before long, I noticed the shed. I had seen dad take stuff in and out and my curiosity was piqued. Prying open the door, I looked inside. An Aladdin’s Cave of tools, buckets, paints and old bits of wood lay haphazardly around the inside of the shed.

Some were covered in spiders’ webs. I steered clear – I don’t like those infernal creatures. One item stood out amongst the junk; a bright red paint pot which looked to me just like a soldier’s helmet. I tipped it over and put it on my head wrapping the handle round my chin like a strap. It felt very heavy and I struggled to keep my head upright.

I marched like a soldier into the kitchen to show mum, expecting her to be pleased. She screamed. The red paint had seeped down over my hair looking like blood. My dad grabbed me and began washing my hair using white spirits. They felt cold and stung my eyes.

I cried. I only ever wanted to be a soldier.

A special thing…

 

English: Untidy Desk

English: Untidy Desk (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It didn’t occur to me at the time, but when I walked into the Rose and Crown one Saturday afternoon clutching a thick tome all about Active Server Pages (ASPs), my life was to change yet again. The place was nearly empty save for two gentlemen sat on stools at the other end of the bar. I ordered a drink, opened up my book and started reading. Despite concentrating on the vagaries of Internet programming, I could not help but overhear snippets of their conversation. Apparently, they had been out on a company bash the night before and were a little the worse for wear.

Before too long, one of them looked over and enquired about my book – “What’s that – a computer book?” or something equally eloquent. After a few pleasantries were exchanged, the conversation turned to my professional life as they asked what I did for a living. Although I had enjoyed 6 excellent years at Pentyre, the work had started to dry up and I was intrigued when the two men started to talk about the company they worked for. Although their description of the company did not sound that exciting – what intrigued me was the passion they felt for their work.

I agreed to come along for an interview to find out more and a few days later, I was back in the Rose and Crown, the chosen venue. Arrayed in front of me was pretty much the entire company. As I sat there nervously, I was bombarded with questions from my would be colleagues. All of them shared the passion I had seen in the first two men. The company was called jBASE and had recently been acquired by another larger software house; Temenos (a Greek word meaning “a special thing”).

They liked me and I liked them and I readily accepted their offer of employment. Before too long, on my first day, I turned up at their offices. I had been given no directions, but managed to find my way to the top floor where I found a locked door. Before too long, someone else came along. Another recent joiner. Neither of us had the key, so we stood there chatting. Eventually, the door was unlocked and we were led into the office. The place was an absolute tip. There were computers everywhere. Some of them on people’s desks, some piled up haphazardly and a number of them atop a pool table which bowed disconcertedly under the strain.

There was not an inch of clear desk space in the building and I was led to my own cluttered desk. I was introduced to my new boss. I could barely see him behind piles of ageing computer manuals and printouts. As I logged into my machine – an email popped up. “Hi – my name’s Jason – I am sat opposite you!”. It was a sign of things to come as the only sounds in the office were the tapping of keyboards and the loud hum of fans straining to substitute for air conditioning.

Although it sounds dysfunctional – it was an amazing company to work for. In the early days we were an autonomous company, but as time went on we became assimilated into our parent company Temenos. Although Temenos was a larger company, they had much in common with jBASE. Passion was evident throughout the organisation. Being very entrepreneurial in nature, process and procedures have always lagged somewhat behind the relentless drive for growth. By any conventional measure, Temenos has been a phenomenally successful company and I have enjoyed working there immensely.

By far the most dynamic organisation I have worked for, Temenos is not for everyone. If you are looking for a job where you are told exactly what to do – you had better look elsewhere. If you want to become a force for transformation in the banking industry, look no further.

 

Beam me up Scotty!

 

Abstract icon of Enterprise NX-01 of Star Trek...

Abstract icon of Enterprise NX-01 of Star Trek Enterprise (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

After the big comfy armchair that was BP, my second employer “Pentyre” was more like a roller coaster. After the comfort of a blue chip company, I was brought down to Earth with a bump when I was summoned in to an all staff meeting the week after I joined. The entire company easily fitted into a small room. I was one of 7 software developers. The MD explained that a customer had reneged on a bill and the company was in real trouble. Some of the directors were going to forego salary for a couple of months and hopefully, everything was going to be OK. Had I made the mistake of my life ?

I very nearly ended up missing out on working at Pentyre altogether. I had already accepted a job with another company, but there was a recruitment consultant who just wouldn’t take no for an answer. He insisted I visit Pentyre to see what they had to offer. So after work one evening, I turned up outside their offices for an interview. First appearances weren’t too promising – a converted factory with a tatty sign outside. I was shown up the stairs into a demonstration suite. There were various devices around the place; pagers, phones, cameras, alarms, flashing lights.

I was interviewed by the MD himself. An unassuming middle aged man called Malcolm, impeccably dressed, short with wispy white hair. He gave me the potted history of the company, which didn’t take long. After a long career in IBM, he had taken his terms and used his severance money to start up the company. He then took me through a demonstration of what their software could do. It was a dazzling display as he made the various devices do their stuff with just a click with his mouse. The inner geek in me was hooked.

He then took me on a tour of the building. At the back of the building was an area that looked a bit like Q’s workshop out of the Bond movies. There were machines everywhere in various states of assembly. On the benches there were oscilloscopes and multimeters. Propped up against one wall was something called a protocol analyser. The last time I had heard of anything like it was during an episode of Star Trek. Dominating the middle of the room was a train set. I looked at Malcolm quizzically and he nonchalantly explained that the reason it was there was to test the train radio system they were developing for the London underground.

I was mesmerised. I simply had to work for this company. As we went back up the stairs to talk turkey, it was obvious I was hooked. Malcolm asked what it would take for me to go and work there. A brief exchange later, the deal was done. I started work there a few days later.

It was an amazing place to work. The nice thing about working as part of a small company is that every single person really makes a difference. Every few months or so, there was a new assignment – usually involving some brand new technology. My first job was all about pagers. Back then, if you had a large site, the only way to keep in touch with your workforce was to give them a pager. I also developed a building management system, some modelling software for a steelworks and CCTV systems for prisons and nuclear reactors.

My time at Pentyre taught me the power of small teams working together without constraints. The productivity was amazing. There was no demarcation; you sold, designed, built, tested, installed and supported every bit of software that went out the door. Not all the technology was all it was cracked up to be. We worked on a project to detect faces in crowds. I couldn’t get the face recognition software to recognise me standing perfectly still at less than two paces. Voice recognition was similarly inaccurate being unable to determine the difference between “Chicken Tikka Massala” and “Land Rover” even when spoken slowly and deliberately.

The technology failure that has tickled me to this day was DCOM. Launched with some fanfare, DCOM (or Distributed Component Object Model) was Microsoft’s attempt at a computing model for distributed computing. In order to test it, we set up two machines. On the first, we coded a simple button with the label “Sausage” which would then send a message to the second machine which would respond with the on screen message “sizzle”. It was the simplest test imaginable and we were used to getting such things working.

Even so, after a whole morning of messing about with various different settings, we simply couldn’t get it to work. Frustrated, we went off to lunch. When we returned – there was the “sizzle” message on the second machine – we obviously hadn’t left it long enough!

 

A big comfy armchair

Line art drawing of an armchair

Line art drawing of an armchair (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I once asked a candidate during an interview why he had chosen to leave a company like IBM after 18 years. He told me that the company was like a big comfy armchair and that he wanted to pull himself out of it into the wide world to see what’s out there. Having worked for BP, I understood the analogy perfectly. Like most schoolchildren, I underwent a week of work experience. The teacher who was organising who was going where asked me what I would like to do. I didn’t have a clue. My aspirations varied wildly according to my whims and I had no firm idea what I would like to try.

He came up with a few options which didn’t sound particularly exciting before offering “How about office work?” I gave in more out of boredom than conviction and before I knew it, as a tender 15 year old, I found myself in the reception of one of the world’s biggest oil companies. I quickly learned I was going to work in the mailing room. Because it was all new to me, I was fascinated. I enjoyed working with people and felt mightily important when the telex alarm went off and I had to run up to the third floor and deliver an urgent message.

When it came to the choice between staying on at school to study A levels or to go out into the big wide world, I was again stumped as to the right thing to do. So almost by default I found myself staying on. After a few weeks, it didn’t really feel like I had made the right choice and I found it harder and harder to find motivation. My mum could sense what I was thinking and suggested to me that I look for a job. I knew exactly where I wanted to work. I had enjoyed BP so much, I wrote an unsolicited letter to them, citing my recent work experience and expressing a strong desire to go back and work there.

When I was invited in for an interview, I was cock a hoop. When the letter came through offering me the job, I was at school. Someone passed on the message to ring my mum at home. When she told me about the job offer, I literally danced down the corridor. A passing teacher admonished me but it did nothing to dampen my fervour.

I have a lot to thank BP for. During the 8 years I was there, I progressed from the mail room through a brief stretch in a clerical role before moving into Information Technology. Not many employers would have sent someone to college for 6 years, let alone given them a day off each week to do so. I was well trained in every respect having attended residential courses on everything from creativity to interaction skills. The meals at BP were legendary. Every lunchtime, we were treated to a 3 course meal of restaurant quality food for the princely sum of 5p. There was even a bar on premises. A heavily subsidised sports and social club offered regular trips to the theatre as well as excursions overseas.

So if it was all so good – why did I leave? I can certainly relate to the big comfy sofa analogy. To a certain extent, when you work for a company like BP or IBM, you become a little bit institutionalised. But it was more than that. When I joined BP, there were about 300 people in the systems division. When I left, there were just over a tenth of that figure after all the outsourcing, not great if you wanted a career in information technology. But if I’m really honest – the main reason for my departure was boredom. If you are writing software, oil is not the most exciting subject you could choose.

Some aspects of it interested me, like the exploration side and the huge structures at refineries and oil terminals. If you are a sci-fi fan like me, it’s very hard to stop yourself imagining them covered in stormtroopers. But when it comes down to it, it’s all about pumping around petrochemicals, storing them and changing them into other petrochemicals. Accountants joke about actuaries being boring, but I would imagine that even actuaries are quite exciting compared to the project that finally finished me.

Statuary reports.

If those two words sound boring, I really haven’t managed to convey the sheer mind numbing, soul sucking mundanity of them. When my boos told me my next project was producing statuary reports, I asked him what they were. “No idea” he said, but the government says we have to have them. And there were a lot of them. I was going to spend the next year of my life writing them. After a couple of months, I decided I just couldn’t take any more. I began to look for another job.

Those were the heady days when you put your CV out one Friday morning and by the afternoon, you would have 5 interviews lined up. By the following Friday, you would have at least two job offers. When I handed in my letter of resignation, my boss told me not to be so hasty and that he would see what he could sort out. A few days later, he called me in and offered me a big pile of cash. But only if I finished the statuary reports.

My head hit the desk with a thump.