Boreal

Shooting the Messenger

5 - High on the Job

The machine looked vaguely familiar. That's it! It was one of those big electronic calculators that I had used for some statistical calculations at Simon Fraser.

But it wasn't. This machine had a huge memory, 15 thousand bytes (15K), a full keyboard, a printer, a big old-style reel-to-reel tape drive and an attached 300 bytes per second modem. WOW. It even had an accessory called a floppy disk drive — whatever that was for?

Hewlett Packard called the HP-9825 a "Programmable Calculator" with "Computer-Like Capabilities." The calculator label was for marketing purposes only. According to Hewlett Packard: "The US Department of Defense procurement regulations (and some company regulations) made it a lot easier to get approval to purchase a calculator than a computer."

The HP-9825 was an early personal computer. If Hewlett Packard had marketed it as such, today we might remember the HP PC and not the IBM PC as the first personal computer embraced by business and government thereby igniting what has become known as the personal computer revolution.

Hewlett-Packard sold the six thousand dollars HP-9825 to the Government Telecommunication Agency (GTA) with the manufacturer’s assurances that the machine could easily be programmed, by just about anyone who could read, to perform some of the more mundane and repetitive calculations and print invoices. Something the communications engineer on staff should have been able to do.

The GTA was an agency of The Department of Communications (Communications Canada). The GTA was responsible for billing and collecting from other government departments the cost of leased telephone lines (trunk lines). It calculated the amount to be paid by departments based on the number of calls made, their duration and so on. Billing was a completely manual operation.

When I joined the agency this equipment had been unpacked and stored in a separate closed office but had not be been put to use more than a year after its delivery.

Next to the HP-9825 was a bunch of User’s Guides, some in their original wrappers. During my lunch hour, after work and when there was nothing else to do I would withdraw to the computer room to read the complete set of manuals that came with the machine. Like I said before, I was funny that way.

I read the manual that told me how to get started, pressed the ON switch. I read the manual that explained how to program the equipment using Hewlett Packard's version of the BASIC programming language to create applications.

I read all the manuals.

To make sure I understood the programming process correctly I signed up for computer programming courses at Ottawa’s other university, Carleton.

I discovered I had a knack for computer languages. I even managed to get the HP-9825 to communicate, via its primitive modem, with Carleton's mainframe computer thereby eliminating the need to go to the university for some of my programming assignments.

Before my term came to an end I was able to demonstrate a prototype billing application. Again, my term was extended and I was allowed to work on completing the system during regular working hours.

Loops within loops, within loops... and my still tenuous grasp of binary arithmetic were causing me a problem. The total amount shown owing on larger invoices was out by a few cents. I only had a few days to fix the problem or it would be another round of manual calculations and typing of the hundreds of invoices sent out at the end of another accounting period.

My boss was aware of my difficulties and decided to send me on a course offered by Hewlett Packard in — of all places — Detroit.

I would solve the problem in time, but my boss was still convinced that I should take the course. He probably was right. Before he had a chance to tell me his secretary jumped the gun.

She was so excited for me. She was so happy, standing in front of my desk that Friday afternoon, telling me that she had just finished typing a requisition for a cheque to cover my expenses. I was going to Detroit. I would be told on Monday, so she asked me to keep quiet until then.

I did not tell anybody. The communications engineer, whose office was in front of my workstation must have overheard. He almost ran over the secretary as he rushed down the corridor where the boss had his office.

On Monday, my boss called me into his office. It was not to tell me I was going to Detroit. The trip was off. Instead, he was making me a permanent employee for the good job I had done. He had come to the conclusion that someone with an engineering background was best suited to operate the HP-9825. Helping him arrive at this conclusion was the communications engineer who had recommended an acquaintance from his university days for the job. The new guy would be joining us shortly and would I mind showing him how the billing system worked.

It was a tossup as to who felt worse after hearing that piece of bad news me or the poor secretary who had jumped the gun. I told her not to feel bad, it was okay.

The new guy was not only a friend of the communications engineer, but had dropped out of engineering school.

They were not just good friends; they were pot-addicted friends. They invited me to join them after the afternoon coffee break to share a joint. I declined. There was a place and a time for everything and smoking pot at work was not one of them.

They would return from their pot break giggling like school-girls. People who took the elevators at the end of the day wondered out loud where that marijuana smell came from.

When it finally sank in that I had lost out on a wonderful opportunity because of Cheech and Chong, I no longer felt comfortable in their company or with what they were doing.

The new guy thought it was cool to grow pot in a government planter next to his desk. He would complain about the people who maintained these planters and kept yanking out his sprouting marijuana plants thinking they were weeds, even after he left notes for them not to do so.

It was time to leave.

I had only been a permanent employee for a few months when I learned that the newly created Energy Supply Allocation Board was looking for a junior financial analyst.

Not only was the position two grades above my current classification but being involved in a government attempt to manage and allocate energy supplies in peacetime spelled excitement and possibilities.

There was a catch. It was a one year term assignment — permanent employees need not apply. There was only one thing to do. I quit!

Later on, I would learn that Terry, one of the two young mothers — the other being Janice — who worked with me left the GTA, her husband and children to go partying with the new guy during Mardi Gras celebrations in New Orleans.