My computer Bio


I think my first experience of a computer was in 1975 playing pong for hours on end on an arcade machine while on holiday in Torremolinos, Spain at the tender age of 10. It must have cost my mom a fortune in pesatas!

But I think I inherited the gene from my mom who  loves gadgets. Shes 71 now and still plays on her Nintendo DS and Playstation. She bought me one of those all in one games consoles when I was about 12, I was addicted to the thing.

A few years later when I was about 14, one of my chosen subjects at secondary school was computing - which I was very excited about! We had one RM 380Z computer for the whole school. I seem to remember that the class wasn't that popular for some reason, but then I always was a trendsetter... or maybe just a nerd ;)

It was the one subject I really excelled at. We started by using a schools programming language called CESIL and progressed onto BASIC and Assembler. At the time we had to write our program onto a sheet of paper, then the teacher would enter it into the computer and print out the results. All very exciting!


Around this time, microcomputers were becoming more popular. There was a spin off program from BBC Tomorrows World called the Computer Programme - which I watched religiously. I really wanted a BBC Micro! But £300 was a lot of money in 1981.

My mom then spotted adverts for the Sinclair ZX81 which was about £70 - a lot cheaper than the BBC Micro. After much discussion, my mom bought me one - I had my first computer!

Its difficult to describe how pleased I was to be able to program my own computer. I learnt an awful lot. Saving and loading programs to a cassette tape was a bit of a nightmare though. It was very slow and heartbreaking when a tape broke and all your hard work was lost.

It displayed in monochrome and had a whopping 1kb of RAM. The first game I programmed from scratch was a spaceship landing program with gravity, similar to Lunar Lander.

I dropped out of school early and didn't take any exams. I wasn't a big fan of school, I found it boring and was always having time off. I much preferred to study on my own and spent a lot of time at Birmingham Central Library reading reference books. In hindsight, it wasn't a clever thing to do. But luckily for me, computers were taking over the world! ;)

I spent a few months in different jobs - working in an off licence, cleaning cars at a local garage, glass collecting at the Lazy Fox with me mates, working in a narrowboat yard (which I really enjoyed), went on a YTS training scheme to be a builder but the instructor said I was rubbish (I'm infamous for my lack of DIY skills) and finally working as a librarian at the Birmingham and Midland Institute.

It was around this time that my mom, bless her, found a computer course in the local paper at Bournville College of FE . It was similar to the YTS, I was to be paid £30 a week for attending and would get a BTEC NC at the end of it. When I got to the college for the interview, my heart sunk... There were literally hundreds of people wanting to be on the course and I didn't have any qualifications... But it turned out that everyone was to take tests on the day. Narrowing down and down after each test. It was like a nerdy version of the X Factor!! Until we finally got a one-one interview at the end. My fingers were firmly crossed for days until I got the letter that I was successful!!! Woohooo!!! Thanks to mom, it changed my career...

We learnt loads, programming in COBOL and BASIC, systems analysis, business stuff, communications, history, logic, statistics etc. We had access to our own PC's - yey! I seem to remember them being Apricots, but I could be wrong... The best bits were the placements though. My first placement was as a computer operator for Stats (MR). They used ICL mini computers, ICL 2900 series I seem to remember, to process statistics 24 hours, 7 days a week. We worked a continental shift system, 3 days, 3 nights, 3 off. The office was right over one of Birminghams top night clubs at the time - The Pavillion (corner of Smallbrook Queensway and Hurst Street) - so the night shifts provided a lot of entertainment from our windows. The job was fun too, running jobs as we called it, changing tapes and very heavy disk drums (you can see them in the photo), loading punch cards, checking the very loud! line printers. I made some good friends and am still in touch 28 years later...

Around this time I, or more likely my mom, bought me a ZX Spectrum - the upgrade to the ZX81. What was great about this was that it was in colour and it had a better keyboard. I can't remember what happened to the ZX81 though, I wish I had kept it... And I think my mate Tom still has my ZX Spectrum. I'll have to ask him for it one of the days...

My second placement which later turned into a full time job, was again as an operator for the Ideal Benefit Society in Moseley. This was on the ICL 2900 series too. I remember one day mistyping a command at the console which shut down the whole thing. I wasn't very popular that day... I did learn a bit of programming too, a commercial language called Filetab which was great fun.

1983 - Iceland

Iceland 1983
I also had the travelling bug and after reading "Work your way around the world" - I had the bright idea of giving up my job and travelling to Iceland to work on a fishing trawler. Everyone thought I was mad... I probably was... I didn't plan it very well, I had just turned 18 and arrived in freezing temperatures in the middle of March. I also had my passport confiscated because I couldn't prove I had enough money to live (I should have got a work permit) and was suitably terrified by the local police in leather jackets. They let me stay though but despite my best efforts, I couldn't actually find any work. So toured the country for a couple of weeks and got a flight back. I was in tears when I saw the green grass of Scotland - what a plonker! I had a brief spell in Birmingham then went to Newquay in Cornwall to hide in embarrassment... The job centre offered me a job where my computer skills could be used - working in an amusment arcade run by Bernard Mannings brother... harumph... But I did have a great summer, sun, sea and surf... And got to see a lot of my Aunty Jo and Cousin Tim. I sort of got sacked because they wanted a cleaner... It was a boring job anyway, so I spent the next few months travelling around Europe on a Eurorail card.

1984 - dBase

8 inch floppy
I came back to Brum for the winter with the plan of earning some dosh to do more travelling. But my first temping job ended up to be quite lucrative. I started as an operator... again... I was getting a bit bored of operating now. But I got chatty with David Harrison, the Finance Director at Supra Chemicals and Paints. He discovered my talent for programming. I started off programming complex Lotus 1-2-3 formulas for financial reports. This was all on the CP/M operating system on a DEC mini computer. I was then introduced to dBase II. They had bought it but never used it and asked me to have a look at what it could do. I loved it! I developed loads of systems for them and had great fun. Another turning point in my career. I was now self employed as a programmer - earning loads of a money at the time. This was also around the time of the mainstream introduction of the PC too. So we moved from the DEC on to PCs and I took over installing and supporting all the PC's across company.

I caught Val (my future wife) playing Larry the Loungesuit Lizard on my Amstrad PC
I had a bit of a break from Supra and worked for another company called Welconstruct. I mainly combined dBase II, Supercalc and PC support on Apricot PCs. I'm still friends with a couple of lovely ladies from the accounts department and one of their friends later became my wife :) Supra wanted me back and the work for Welconstruct had reduced, so I struck a deal and worked part time for both of them which was ideal for me.

With the money I was earning I was able to buy my very own PC for £499 - An Amstrad PC 1512 - dual 5 1/4 inch floppy, black and white screen and a whopping 512k of RAM. I later upgraded to a 40mb hard disk - woohoo!!

I had another career break and decided to become a courier for some bizarre reason. Underpaid and overworked! But I did become very quick and asked for by name... I finally came to my senses and took up a contract in Scotland installing software at GP practices across Scotland. Some practices had unix, some had PC's and because of the distances covered, we had to make sure they which one they had. One day I was speaking to a lovely receptionist in Auchtermuchty, I asked her what type of computer she had and she replied "Oh, an electric one..." I was working away a lot and missed Val :( So started looking for a permanent job closer to home and got a great job at Metsys Systems in Oldbury

1990's - Clipper

Metsys was a great opportunity. A small software / support company developing applications for in house (part of the Metsec Group) and external customers. We had a mixed bag of developers:
  • C programmers - working on a tube delivery system, although after moving offices, one of the tubes was over my desk with a shopping basket underneath for "testing". The basket was supposed to collect the pod, but it regularly bounced out of the basket straight onto my keyboard - oh how we laughed.... It got moved....
  • Pascal programmers - working on a fancy telemetry system - I can't remember the specifics but I think it monitored the signals for either the railway or the underground.
  • Dataease programmers - working on a system for metal finishers. I really wasn't a fan of Dataease, but after initially being roped into Dataease development, I escaped and continued to work with Clipper.
  • Support, marketing and training team
  • And then the xBase programmers
    I originally joined to help develop a system in dBase IV, but we discovered it wasn't ideal - it wouldn't save new records on a network...  So we moved onto Clipper, a compiler for xBase. Probably my favourite programming language of all time with PHP a close second...

    Clipper was an easy language to learn but could be as complex as you liked. The main advantage was that it compiled a single exe(cutable). This allowed us to distribute our systems without the need of the dBase system - the resulting programs were much faster, a doddle to install (file copy) and protected our valuable source code. The tools of the day were a linker called blinker which was super fast, great compression and... blinked ;) A super text editor called Brief developed by..... Underware... I can still remember the keyboard shortcuts - F8 to compile... And many commercial libraries were also available for graphics, printing, networking, etc. (Funcky, Novlib, Crystal Reports, Flexfile)

    USE Customer SHARED NEW
    @  1, 0 SAY "CustNum" GET Customer->CustNum PICT "999999" VALID Customer->CustNum > 0
    @  3, 0 SAY "Contact" GET Customer->Contact VALID !empty(Customer->Contact)
    @  4, 0 SAY "Address" GET Customer->Address

    Bit of clipper code - this opens the Customer table, shared because its on a network, clears the screen, then displays and allows the user to edit the fields directly - although in practice these would have been variables - The PICT was an entry format, so "9" would only allow a number. VALID was a validation test.

    The name originated from a team of developers based in Nantucket (Also the name of the company) hence Clipper - I love boats :) We started with Clipper Summer 87, what a great name! Then moved onto Clipper 5 which introduced objects, code blocks, static/local variables, constants and the ability to use other database formats - the preference being Foxpro tables and indexes for their speed. Clipper 5 was bought by Computer Associates who later released a windows version of Clipper called Visual Objects  - it was a huge disappointment and most Clipper developers had already moved onto other visual languages like Delphi, Lotus Notes and VB.

    Clipper was hugely popular during the 90's - even with the release of visual languages for Windows 3.1, 95, 98, NT and XP - I was still supporting and developing Clipper code up to 2003. Not surprising really because it allowed very rapid development of database applications, a very fast user interface and was very reliable.

    Metsys was a great place to work at - especially being part of a development team and bouncing ideas all over the place - we had a great team of developers and I have some great friends from those days. My most notable system was MetSpex - a practice management system for retail opticians - it was a success and later developed into See2020.

    But after 3 years, I wanted experience working for a larger organisation, so made the mistake of moving to an international transport company. I think I was hoodwinked at the interview, because the development team were quite poor compared to Metsys. Also for some reason we had 2 managers: a condescending graduate who played solitaire all day and never spoke to anyone - and the other was a very immature chap who was promoted, got a company car then learnt to drive, within a week lost his licence for drink driving and expected his team to be his chauffeur.... I think I lasted 4 weeks...

    Fortunately, I had previously applied for a job at Birmingham City Housing Department and I got the job! Yey! Birmingham City Housing was the largest housing organisation in the UK with over 110,000 properties. It had a very professional team of developers and was part of a large IT department - we were called the library because we were all so quite writing code.  I mainly developed using Clipper but also used SQL with Oracle and DB2 and went onto Borland Delphi. We also dabbled in Dataease, Quicksilver, Lotus Notes and Filetab. At the time Lotus Notes developers were being paid a fortune - I can see why though, the language was awful.

    My best project was the Section 82 system - There is a little known housing law called Section 82 that basically allows tenants to sue the landlord if repairs are not met within a certain period. Previously there was a very small team assigned to this until a law was passed that solicitors were able to.. well... solicit work. The housing department was bombarded with requests from solicitors acting on the behalf of tenants. So much so that the small team couldn't cope with the demand so the council was losing 10's of millions of pounds in compensation - most of it going into the solicitors pockets.... It became a huge problem and a large part of the housing budget - taxpayers and tenants money... So it was necessary to developer a system, very quickly! First to manage the complaints, then to monitor them and eventually enabled them to use a paperless system, transferring cases onto a laptop to be taken to court - all with Clipper. It highlighted just how unscrupulous solicitors are with some big name companies claiming for properties and tenants that didn't even exist.... The team started to win more cases than lose them and eventually gained complete control - a big up yours to the solicitors.

    I had 3 great years there, made a lot of friends, but I really needed a bigger income and reluctantly decided to move on. First to a small Oracle development company, nice bunch of people but the pace was far too slow for me... Then went back to contracting and I landed a great contract for the distribution part of The Burton Group. It was a temporary contract which eventually lasted 8 years...

    To be continued...