Forty Years in Computing

Forty Years in Computing


If I may, I would like to share with you some thoughts that come to mind as I celebrate the fortieth anniversary of the start of my formal training in Computer Science at Brunel University, West London in October 1976.

I was a precocious young man and had by then already mastered the art of computer programming. Firstly on a Sinclair Scientific calculator costing £19.60 which you had to assemble yourself. And secondly on a 110 bits per second teletypewriter link into the British Built ICL 1903 computer at Liverpool University. This enabled me to program up in the BASIC computer language my fourth form GCE physics ‘O’ level project.

My first paid employment (at a salary of £1,100 per annum) started the following summer at Refuge Assurance Company PLC in Manchester. Sitting silently within the carefully laid out rows of green beige and mahogany desks in the computer department, my job was to write a computer program to check the life assurance premiums being paid weekly and monthly by the hundreds of thousands of people assured by the company.

The program was a simple table look up affair – Read in the clients name, age, sex, date of birth and insurance product code, and then look up in a set of tables the correct monthly or weekly premium they should be paying. The output was an exception report of the people who appeared to be paying the wrong premium.

This project would be very easy to do in a spreadsheet today and take perhaps a week at most to code up and make work. It took much longer in those days – several months – as the programs were coded up by hand in pencil on 80 column 24 row green code books. We were using the COBOL programming language. The programs were sent for typing whence they were turned into punched cards and printouts on a 3 day turnaround. The programs were then separately compiled and run by unseen men and women working in remote separate locked fireproof computer rooms. My computer was a Honeywell 61/60 which had 8,192 bytes of silicon memory and twin 300 megabyte disk drives, each 30cm in diameter with about 12 plattens. The computer was about the size of two office desks.

My project was successful as numerous significant errors were found in the premiums that some clients were paying. These errors were corrected and yours truly awarded a pay rise of two hundred pounds per annum. And so I learnt from the very beginning of my career forty years ago the value of testing, testing and more testing.

Dare I say it, nothing very much has changed, and the importance of running and validating test cases within our end-user computing spreadsheet outputs, seems as relevant as ever.

Grenville Croll
Spreadsheet Risks Expert

Spreadsheet Safe 
Syllabus Learning Points: Run and validate test cases, with typical and extreme values for all calculations.

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