April 12, 2013

I read Reddit pretty often, but even I missed this AskReddit thread titled, "Older Redditors, what were offices like before computers and the internet became mainstream?" It's too bad, because I have a morbid curiosity about a time period that I can only assume was a grim dystopia.

Luckily, PopSci's editorial team didn't miss it, and this morning I found their writeup about it. They called out particularly interesting respondents to the thread, including this window into application development at an insurance company in the 1970s from user "aRoseBy:"

I was working … as a COBOL programmer in a big insurance company, writing billing and accounting programs. I would write lines of code on coding sheets: these were pages of graph paper, twice as wide as long. I would write a program and drop the coding sheets in the inbox in the keypunch room. The keypunch girls (yes, all young women) would copy the program, one line at a time, to a stack of IBM cards. The cards were bound up in a rubber band, labelled, and put in a tray to be brought in the computer room.

The computer ran 24 hours a day, 5 days a week. There was always a computer operator in the room. He would load cards to be read into memory (programs and data), put 12-inch tapes on the tape drives for input and output, fit paper in the printers (big continuous sheets with a line of holes on the edges), and separate reports after printing. If I was lucky, there was a little time between jobs, and he could quickly load a couple of our test programs, and run them.

At best, I might get a chance to have a program I was developing run three times a day. (It runs, I get compile errors, I fix the obvious errors, three hours later it's run again, get execution errors...) If the operator had a busy day, I might not get my program run until the overnight shift.

Think about what that was like. Now, we're used to compiling and running a program in seconds, not hours (or overnight). This motivated us to do very careful desk checking. You looked over your work slowly, again and again, before submitting it.

I wonder how many I&T readers recall similar experiences, or have other stories from a time before PCs ruled the roost in IT organizations. Please feel free to share those in our comment section.

Nathan Golia is senior editor of Insurance & Technology. He joined the publication in 2010 as associate editor and covers all aspects of the nexus between insurance and information technology, including mobility, ...