Friday, May 06, 2005

The Extinct Species of Computer Operator:

Until some time in the early 1970’s, almost all computer systems were mainframes that required a special profession: “Computer Operator.” To this day there are specialized large systems that require special operators, but the operators from the late 1950’s to about 1975 were a unique breed: Requiring no more than a high school diploma (if that), a little smarts and the ability to do many rote activities reliably, this profession allowed many young people, post office mail carriers and other drudge workers to move quickly into a world of prestige and undreamed-of modest wealth.
The typical mainframe computer room was full of equipment that was easy to operate until it (rarely!) failed, but could easily be destroyed through mishandling. Consequently it was essential to keep the users of computers out of the computer room, and let the trained operators run them. In great demand, operators were paid somewhat less than programmers.
There were always elaborate procedures to enable users to submit their software “jobs” and, hours later, get their output. (Interacting directly with a computer program was almost unheard of.)
I remember one mail carrier who quit the post office because he had some initiative, eventually managing a whole staff of computer operators and doing quite well. I remember Tony, who suddenly found he and his wife could afford to build a custom home. When the builder balked at finishing agreed-upon changes, he told Tony, “I’m not going to do it and there’s nothing you can do about it.” Tony replied, “I’m only seventeen years old so my signature on the contract’s not binding, I’m not going to pay you another cent.” The builder finished the house Tony’s way.
When the Cape Canaveral Space Center opened, its computer room, in a fine government gesture, included mainframes from all the current major manufacturers. Each manufacturer contributed one of their finest operators to run this operation. IBM, generally paying high wages to avoid any impetus for its staff to unionize, was concerned about what would happen when these operators from the different manufacturers compared notes. I’m told that the IBM operator went into that room with the highest salary, because IBM had raised its computer operator payscale world-wide the month before.

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