PAFEC – August 1991

I’m still looking for the photographs of the Warwick University Rent Strike of 1983. I’ve not managed to find them yet, as it involves going through a cabinet in a cupboard in my younger daughter’s bedroom to find them, which first of all involves tunneling through the masses of teenage detritus she keeps in what we laughingly term a bedroom. You can rarely see the bed (or the floor.)

But I did find these photographs, which are interesting historical documents in their own right. (OK, they’re interesting to me, and me only, probably.) They show the middle office of the 2nd floor of what was PAFEC’s Stapleford premises at 39 Nottingham Road in August 1991. At that time, I was the Product Services Manager and was in the process of building a team from the remnants of three others involved in porting the company’s software, as well as having been given the publications department.

One of the goals we wanted to achieve was to introduce more professionalism into what the company was doing. One means of  making sure this happened involved getting the Support Services Division (which my team was part of) through an ISO9001 audit against TickIT. As part of working through this, we realised (pretty quickly!) that we needed to be far, far better in how we organised our working environment. The first photograph shows the scale of the task we faced. The team covered the whole of the 2nd floor – so we had two other offices that didn’t look too dissimilar to this one.

PAFEC Product Services Office - August 1991

Key to photograph

  1. Back of two Sun ‘shoeboxes’ – at this point in time, they would have contained either 70 or 140 Mbyte SCSI disks and one of them would have had a cartridge tape unit.
  2. A PAFEC DOGS menu card – though probably for one of the options, like DOGS NC, from a superficial view of the colours used on it.
  3. Uncontrolled media – probably containing DOGS source and object code. You can also see piles of it in the open cabinet behind my desk. Part of the process of getting through the audit was to eliminate most of this from the offices (and keep it in a fire safe in the computer rooms in Strelley and Stapleford, where it belonged.)
  4. Our Sun SparcStation 1 workstation.
  5. Our Harris MCX workstation.
  6. The console for the Data General mini computer we had in the office, running the now long defunct AOS/VS operating system.
  7. A Tektronix graphics terminal – probably a 4111.
  8. A Prime PT200 terminal, connected to the customer support database and contact management system.
  9. Boxes containing various revisions of SunOS 2.x, 3.x and 4.x for Sun 3 and Sparcstation hardware.
  10. The back of one of the Sun 3/50 workstations we had in the office. Out of picture to the left would have been our second 3/50, a diskless 3/110, a Sun 386i and a Whitechapel MG-1.

The other offices would have had a number of Apollo workstations (DN3000s  and earlier models), Vaxstations, DECstations, an IBM PC RT (6150) and a HP9000/400 workstation. A range of graphics terminals (Tektronix, Sigma, Westward, Datapath)  would have been capable of working through a Gandalf switch with the “heavy lifting” minicomputers in the machine rooms at Stapleford and Strelley, including Prime, Vax, Data General, HP, Norsk Data, Bull and Harris.

The second photograph shows my desk (you can just about see it in the background of the first photograph) after we’d finished our clear-out. Neat and tidy – with not a piece of uncontrolled and unlabeled media in sight.

PAFEC Product Services Office - My desk, August 1991

We got through the audit later on that year, first time. The quality of the processes we were following improved beyond all recognition and we started to deliver software, not in jiffy bags, but in the type of packaging that the rest of the industry was capable of doing. Which meant that we started to get the right software to our customers, first time, rather than second, third or fourth time. Quality went up, costs went down and the company (after the false hopes we had for the 3D CAD market were past) started to recover with our later diversification into electronic document management software.

CITP – I might be nearly there!

CITP Application Status
CITP Application Status

I had my online CITP interview yesterday morning with two very friendly assessors. Now all I need is the result! Whatever, it was an enjoyable experience from my side, even though the conferencing software played up and we ended up resorting to a telephone conference for audio (and the video never did work for one of the assessors.) It also ate my presentation somewhere towards the end of the hour … but we’d finished with it by then anyway. Maybe the BCS should try Netviewer instead – it seems to operate flawlessly at work for us.

If it’s anything like the previous stages, it could take a while before I hear back as to whether I can finally call myself a Chartered IT Professional. So, if all’s gone well, the next target has to be fellowship!

CITP – the final reckoning approaches

Having started the process of attempting to get my CITP professional qualification last October, I’ve now finally got a date from the BCS for the last stage. My CV has been reviewed, I bashed my way through the breadth of knowledge test at the start of January and now my online interview with the assessors is arranged for March 4th. Provided I manage to get through that I’m all done. Well, at least for another 5 years … when if I want to maintain the qualification I have to go through it all over again…

On another computing-related note, the importance of having good and recent backups has been brought home to me tonight as the disk on our main home computer has failed. The current draft of TMA01 for DD303 and my notes on chapter 4 are lying on it, inaccessible, as I was working on them last night and didn’t back them up afterwards. Fortunately, I have earlier versions (and a printout of both) so I haven’t lost too much work. And I may not have lost anything at all. If I can get myself a suitable cable tomorrow then I should be able to repair the drive. It’s a Seagate 7200.11 Barracuda with faulty firmware – which I had no idea was faulty until it was too late!

The repair process looks like a lot of fun. Even if you’re not technically inclined and unlike me don’t have a dead drive to repair, this video is amazing! That will be me, tomorrow evening…

Update 26-02-2010:The disk is all repaired now, after the purchase of a DKU-5 cable from the Eagle Market in Derby. Full marks for customer service to the stallholder (Fone Fun Ltd.) who went out of his way to retrieve the cable from a stock he had elsewhere. If anyone else is going to attempt the same repair, then this article is also useful.

DD303 – Week 3: playing about with E-Prime

I got started on TMA01 today and after figuring out what it was all about (I hope), worked my way through the assignment booklet sections on using E-Prime. I thought it seemed remarkably straightforward and it’s nice that we get 40% of our marks on this first TMA simply for producing a working experiment with decent instructions!

It probably took me a couple of hours to create something I was happy with and understood, so I’ve now got plenty of time left for writing the experiment up this week. That’s good, because it means I’m on track time-wise and I know that there are two or three weeks and weekends coming up in February where I won’t be able to spend much, if any, time on the course.

The assignment booklet compares E-Prime to Microsoft Visual Basic programming and I can see that they look and feel very similar. Even the code that the software produces looks very ‘Basic-like’, but I’m not about to start hacking it! It almost makes me misty-eyed for the times when I used to write and debug computer programs for a living.

Now all I need to do is to stop myself from finding some Fortran code to have a play with and get on with writing the assignment up! Happy days …

CITP application – two stages down, one to go

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I took my CITP ‘breadth of knowledge’ test last week. I’ve had the official email through tonight confirming that I managed to get enough marks to pass. Hurrah! Just the presentation and interview to go and I get a nice new shiny post-nominal to go with my BSc and MBCS.

I can’t say anything about the breadth of knowledge test itself as you have to sign a non-disclosure agreement before you take it, but for anyone else looking at doing this, make sure you do the mock test beforehand (and look very closely at the sections where you don’t score well. ) The mock paper is definitely a very good indication of the style and focus (but not the content, obviously) of the questions that were asked. Unsurprisingly, I found some questions far easier than others and it seems to be a reasonable test of what it sets out to test.

Whether or not it is a good ‘breadth of knowledge’ test for a ‘computing’ professional is another matter which has been discussed ad-nauseum in other forums. If the assessors ask for my opinion on this during the interview I’ll gladly tell them what I think!

As I’ve nominated my specialist subject for the presentation/interview to be ‘sales and marketing’, the BCS have told me it may be a little while longer before I complete the third and final stage of the process due to the (lack of) availability of assessors in that area. I’m quite happy for that to be the case – after all, I’ve procrastinated for more than 20 years about taking this particular step in my career anyway.

Not having the equivalent of a ‘chartered engineer’ qualification has never been a problem in my career. I think this says a lot about the challenges that the BCS and its 70,000 members (like me) face in promoting the value of “Chartered IT Professional” status to employers and the general public alike.

Nice idea, questionable implementation

There’s a nice idea on the homepage of the Derby City Council website at the moment, with a poll to name two of the new sections of the inner ring road. However, the implementation of the poll seems to be somewhat flawed. Here’s a screenshot taken after I’d voted for my choice this lunchtime (click the image to see it full size):

Derby City Council Homepage, 4/1/2010
Derby City Council Homepage, 4/1/2010

If we are to believe the figures (which I don’t), 96% of respondents (just over 24,000 votes) favour Lara Croft Way, with all the other choices scoring 2% or less (50-400 votes each.) A quick bit of investigation work shows that the poll allows you to vote as many times as you wish from the same computer and has no safeguards against an automated script voting multiple times.

Much as I understand the affection for which some residents of the city have for Lara Croft, this looks like a seriously flawed exercise to me. I’ve dropped the council a note …

The arrival of the DD303 course materials

The DD303 course materials arrived yesterday afternoon as I was trying to manfully fight off man-flu (and failing.) As the character who used to turn into the incredible hulk on a Saturday teatime many years ago used to say: “You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry poorly.” Well, parts of me were definitely a hideous shade of green yesterday, but I didn’t suddenly grow the muscles to compensate, unfortunately.

The somewhat unexpected arrival of the books did take my mind off things for a little while and DD303 looks like a very different kind of course to ED209, that’s for sure. Far more scientific in tone and lots of statistics too. The main course textbook is very heavy (perhaps I will start to develop incredible hulk style muscles just by carrying it around) and is surrounded by all sorts of other books, guides and disks of assorted software. Welcome back, SPSS – I think. Each TMA seems to have its own booklet, rather than just a couple of pages in the assessment guide. I’m not sure if that’s a good thing at the moment, but I hope that it is – having more information to work with is usually helpful when doing TMAs.

I’ve spent some of today looking at the first couple of chapters in the main textbook and learnt one very valuable thing. That I’m going to have to wear my reading glasses while I’m studying this time around. The text is densely packed and also seems smaller than that in both the ED209 and DSE212 textbooks. My arms just simply aren’t long enough for me to be able to hold the book at a distance away from me that would let me read it in comfort without them.

I’ve just installed the SPSS and E-Prime software, though E-Prime wouldn’t let me register it. This is presumably because the course hasn’t officially started yet, so my OU identifier won’t be recognised as being valid. But, at least the stuff installs ok so that’s one less thing to worry about in the new year.

I’m going to try to get properly started on DD303 in early January as I really need to concentrate on going through the 33 page syllabus for my CITP breadth of knowledge test and making sure I can remember enough to pass it. I did take the mock test that the BCS thoughtfully provide on their website and got through it – but only just. Time to go brush up on ITIL, TOGAF, ADM and ADC and all those other lovely acronyms the world of computing and IT is so fond of.

ED209 – Week 19 (Honest)

After the slog that was TMA04, I’m now no longer ahead of the course schedule, but actually working to it. So, this really is week 19!

I’ve managed to read chapter 2 this weekend and I’ve a couple of long train journeys during the week, so I’m hoping to get my notes written up during them. It’s Derby -> Cardiff -> Derby tomorrow and then a return trip to London on Wednesday/Thursday for the Gartner SOA & Application Development and integration summit.

Much of what’s in this week’s text seems pretty much like common sense – children learn the meaning of a number of words before they start speaking, at first, they understand more than they can say, they listen to the shape and rhythm of the sounds that others make as a way to achieving their initial understanding … that sort of stuff. I guess the trick will be learning what the individual studies are that back these common sense ideas up.

I got quite interested in the idea of the vocabulary spurt and in particular the finding that neural networks (connectionist models) trained to recognise words show a similar development trajectory. If I get a chance this week I’m going to look up some of the research on this in the OU library. A quick internet search has shown up quite a number of interesting looking papers, that may have some relevance to the day job as well.

I’m also going to be having a look at the options for TMA05 this week. I’m going to be on holiday when the assignment is due, so it’s one of two choices: get it sorted before going away or asking my tutor for an extension. I’d prefer to complete it before my holiday if I can, so I may have to do some of the coming weeks out of order to make that possible.

There’s been lots of talk on the OU forums as to whether or not people like the course we’re studying; I haven’t really made my mind up yet. I think I’m enjoying it, but it’s certainly a lot of work compared to DSE212 and I really don’t like the idea of the seen question for the exam. Somehow, that seems to heap a bit more pressure on as surely more is going to be expected than for the unseen questions. It’s almost like having a seventh TMA to do, which you then have to memorise and then regurgitate.

TMAs should be TMAs, and exams should be exams in my view. This strange combination of the two for one of the examination questions is just, well, strange.

New toy

I have a new toy that’s arrived for me today. It’s a 1982 Sinclair ZX Spectrum computer that I got off eBay for a few pounds. Needless to say, TMA03 is probably going to take a back seat for a few evenings until I’ve had a chance to play with it.

I’ve definitely decided to go with option 2 for TMA03 and spent some time on the train back from London this evening working out how to answer it. I think I’ll be brave and try to argue that the evidence for sibling and peer relationships influencing development is very limited; sitting as I am over 3 weeks away from the submission deadline I feel quite confident I can do it!

Given the amount of work ED209 is turning into, and on the basis that the two level 3 courses I’ve yet to do will have a far bigger impact on my overall diploma grade, then why shouldn’t I have a bit of fun? There’s still 3 more TMAs to go after this one and even if 3 goes horribly wrong there’s still plenty of marks to be had from 4,5 and 6.

See, I’ve just talked myself into it!

So farewell then, Sun Microsystems?

I was intrigued to hear the news today that IBM is rumoured to be in talks to take over Sun Microsystems. In one form or another, culminating in working for them for a short time last year, Sun has been a constant presence throughout my professional career. One of my very first tasks at PAFEC was to upgrade the port of our DOGS CAD system on SunOS 1.6 running on a Sun2 workstation(*). I also remember getting our first SparcStation 1, which ultimately signalled victory in the war between Sun and Apollo, with Apollo falling into the arms of Hewlett Packard in 1989. More recently of course, the Sun Software AG DIS has been remarkably successful for both Software AG and Sun in helping us to win business around the Government Gateway.

Regardless of whether the takeover happens, I wish all of my former colleagues at Sun all the best for the future. Sun has played, and continues to play a unique role with respect to innovation in the computer industry and it’s vital for the health of the sector that this continues, regardless of the ultimate owner.

(*) The Sun2 workstation in this picture is on the left. The right hand workstation is an ICL PERQ and, if I’m not very much mistaken, the black workstation in the middle is the ill-fated British designed and built Whitechapel MG-1. Getting a pen plotter driver to work on the MG-1 was the very first task I did for PAFEC after graduating from University in 1985!