Personal geek history

My desk at work, circa 1994A piece of personal geek history: yesterday I had heard that a system I worked on when just out of uni in 1993 just finally got decommissioned.

Myself and my mate Brian got out of uni at the end of ’92, and looked for IT jobs. In early 1993 I landed a contract at a Big Company and Brian came on board too, and we wrote the first version of system “X”, using Visual Basic 2 (the application running on Windows 3.1), and a database backend using Netware SQL (virtually unheard-of now).

(It wasn’t really called “X”. It was a slightly-awkward backronym made up by the guy who thought of the whole idea in the shower, and who had managed to get us inexperienced graduates in to make it happen.)

The software was primarily used in a centre in Burwood, by several hundred users, many of whom had never used Windows and a mouse before. Being a small team, we were able to be very responsive to user feedback, and as well as being more productive, hopefully our user base enjoyed using the software, despite our garish screen designs.

It was an awesome sight walking around the centre watching hundreds of people using the screens I’d designed.

I do recall one funny moment one day when the power went out momentarily. Hundreds of PCs all rebooted at once, accompanied by a collective “ooooooh” from everyone in the place.

A less-funny moment was the day when one of the LAN administrators accidentally wiped the shared drive with all our source code… and then we discovered the most recent backup was several weeks old. This incident inspired Losing My Connection (sung to the tune of “Losing My Religion”.)

Later in 1993, or possibly the next year, the team was expanded and system got a re-write, which we unimaginatively called “X2″.

The re-write used Visual Basic 3 (still on Windows 3.1) with an Oracle database backend. We had some fun naming the Oracle server after computers from Red Dwarf — the main server was Holly, the dev server was Kryten, and the test/staging server was Hudzen.

I left the project towards the end of 1994. Brian left a little while afterwards. His experiences inspired an awfully funny superhero sproof called “ContractOr”, which exaggerated the different worlds of contractors and permanent staff for comic value. Alas most of it has been lost in the mists of time.

A permanent believes that…
Contractors are dangerous, mercenary, rogue coders who don’t take orders, make up their own rules and cause havoc for the fun of it. In addition they’ll happily switch to another job, regardless of the consequences, if they get a better offer. Oh, and obviously, they are vastly overpaid.

A contractor believes that…
A permanent employee is a lazy, unimaginative, shiftless, paperwork-following WIMP. They are only concerned with covering their arse and care nothing for improving work practices – only for making sure they don’t get blamed when things fail to happen YET AGAIN.

Brian went on to be one of the first employees of Sausage Software, who released the first major web page designer.

I did ask around about 10 years ago and was surprised that system “X” was still running. It sounded like it had undergone a re-write into Delphi, so I doubt by the end that there was any of our original code left. Perhaps only the name was still remaining from what we worked on. But it was still called “X2″.

Only this week did it apparently get decomissioned.

Given how fast technology moves, I’m still surprised the system lasted 18 years.

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9 thoughts on “Personal geek history

  1. Small & medium businesses (as well as the military) will run systems for as long as possible. I wrote a perpetual inventory/sales system for a small retailer back in 1984 (in dBASE III/Clipper) and then forgot all about it – until I got a phone call the week before Christmas, 1999, asking if it was Y2K compliant! It was, mostly, but realising that it wouldn’t handle GST I wrote a new version (Perl/MySQL on Linux). That was installed in June 2000 and is still running today (on the same hardware, too).

  2. I still use 1980s GWBASIC, and there is so much with my webmastery in which I could not survive without it.

    In fact, I am in my lunch break between creating a program in GWBASIC right now, and is designed to better track my progress in working within my websites.

    While there is a lot of which will constantly evolve such as HTML and CSS, there are still some ‘old faithfuls’ which I trust shall live on as is for many years to come.

  3. heh – I had a moment like that at $JOB-4 (around ’96-’97 or so iirc). I’d been asked to Do Something to drive three huge CRT displays in the foyer. Cue a spare box running Linux with three specific PCI video cards and a commercial X server capable of running them in multi-head mode, three samba print queues configured to convert each page to a full-page raster image and cycle them through the associated monitor … simple, effective, and it meant that the secretary could drive it with their preferred tool (PowerPoint in this case) – it was still running years after I left and I’d always get a thrill from going past that building and seeing it in operation. Sadly, around 10 years after it was commissioned, the PC power supply died and I think at that point they opted for something else …

  4. Considering how long the Vic State Government held onto Lotus Notes I am not surprised. No contract work at all right now.

    I have to stop finishing my work so quickly, I keep ending contracts early.

  5. Wow, Brian, I worked with him at Sausage Software, that’s a blast from the past. Great VB programmer. Last I saw him was at his wedding years ago before he headed off for the states. Would be interesting to see his thoughts about those times working on X.

  6. Takes me back… GWBasic, and I think the one after with a slightly GUI editor, QuickBasic. And Borland’s TurboPascal. And even Z80 assembly wasn’t bad…

    What did I do with all that? Laser power supplies, stepper motor controllers, voice synthesis…

    (Source code is probably all dead or decaying on 360k floppies)

  7. Hi Daniel, the reason that X2 was not decommissioned was because of it’s interface to the hardware (the ‘Dialler’).

    The code to drive the ‘Dialler’ was ‘difficult’ to migrate. Having been part of the team mapping the state changes and conditions, I can understand why.

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