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Typical ’80s IT: Good idea leads to additional duties, without extra training or pay, and a nuked payroll system

Who, Me? Banish those Monday blues with a recollection of IT-related foolishness in The Register’s Who, Me? feature.
Today’s tale comes from a reader Regomised as “Tom” and concerns events that took place back in the early ’80s, when The Empire Strikes Back still ruled the roost and Raiders of The Lost Ark was creeping into cinemas.
Tom had just left university and was working for a manufacturing company in England. The lucky boy initially spent his time knee-deep in ICL Cobol, adding columns to reports and updating the name and phone number of accounts receivable staff to ensure they printed correctly. Thrilling stuff and, naturally, everything was hard-coded.
“My first career high point,” he told us, “was after being asked to change the name and phone number again, I suggested that the hard-coded name and phone number be taken out of the program and the same information be put on a parameter card.”
“This,” he said modestly, “went well.”
“For the benefit of the excessively young,” he added, “a parameter card was a virtual 80-character punch card that was stored in the JCL (Job Control Language) before the program call. Hey presto, no more code changes when people change!”

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In IT, no good deed goes unpunished and sure enough, Tom soon found himself with additional duties (“I don’t remember any training or pay increase”) and was tasked with supporting the company’s payroll system after his predecessor departed for pastures new and likely more profitable.
Time passed, and Tom received a new version of the payroll system to install. It arrived in the form of magnetic tape containing new source code. “The code was organised into libraries so it was all very modern,” he told us.
Installation was simple. Copy the contents to the source code library, compile it, run some tests, and Bob’s your uncle.
The test failed.
What had actually happened was that the process to copy the tape to the library had skipped files of the same name, meaning Tom now had an unholy mix of old and new code. “Oh joy!” he said.
It wasn’t a problem. There were weekly backups. All Tom had to do was restore the borked files and all would be well.
That failed too. “My day was not improving,” he recalled.
In a masterstroke of connected thinking, the old tape backup units had just been replaced by more capable units. More capable in every way except, er, being able to read tapes written by the previous devices. The operations team hadn’t thought to check.
“We were in a real hole,” said Tom. He had single-handedly broken the payroll system. The only solution was to pay staff the same as the week before. “This was all very embarrassing for the IT department and me in particular.”
By the time the following week rolled around, Tom had updated the copy utility, recompiled the new code, run the test and hurrah! A working payroll system once again!
All the same, he, his boss, and a bigwig were sent to the main factory to put on a show of solidarity in front of a workforce suspicious of what payroll-related wheeze IT might have in store for them that week. Fortunately, there were no problems (at least “no problems attributable to the IT department…”)
It was asked why Tom did not take a fresh backup before the fateful copy. “I had to admit that if I had, this problem would not have happened.” However, remember what we said about training? It was also clear that he was a little too junior to be undertaking such workforce-upsetting tasks.
Tom therefore escaped with a mild slap on the wrist and the bigwig moved on. “I do suspect that his meeting with the operations manager was more fractious,” he understated once again.
Tom is now retired, a long career in IT behind him but, thanks to this trauma, we imagine that he is still the most hygienic of souls when it comes to backing stuff up.
Is there anyone who has never had the bowel-loosening sensation that arises from the discovery that a backup was not all you hoped it might be? Or is your data protection halo shining bright? Share your story with an email to Who, Me? ®

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