A Terrible Man
The guy I was supposed to be liasing with for Manchester had a terrible reputation. He was an Irishman, he drank a lot, he told rude jokes, and he was blunt, very blunt. He joked about people that he had crossed swords with in business and destroyed. In short he had the reputation of being a monster. It was deserved. So the only thing to do was to have him on my side – I asked him for a job. I called him O’Hooligan, so I suppose I will stick to that – if he ever reads this he’ll recognise himself (and laugh).
O’Hooligan’s boss, and divisional manager, was an older man who led by calm confidence, a complete opposite, and I liked them both enormously. We had many good lunches in the local pub together, discussing the problems and politics – a good deal of politics I was to discover.
When ICL had bought the ailing American computer company, Singer, it had inherited Singer’s flagship small computer System 10. This was designed to be easy to use as a departmental business machine. Physically about the size of a two-draw filing cabinet, it could do all those accountancy-type chores that computers were used for in the late 1970’s, and do them cheaper than using a mainframe. Developing it had broken Singer, I suspect, as R&D costs in the IT industry tend to do this unless you win world market dominance.
O’Hooligan was just finishing up the development of a stop-gap replacement for the existing System 10’s, the System 10-120, and he had done it to budget and on-time. His own people loved him, even though he drove them hard.
The division had, at the same time been developing, under a young American manager, a new System-10 compatible machine, System 29, and O’Hooligan had the job of getting it into factory production.
Testing System 29
My proposal was to get the same test equipment we had been deploying overseas for Spares Division into the Factory. This way the same test software could be used both at manufacture and in the field. There was a considerable, multi-million pound, benefit to be had here if we could get it right.
System 29 was going to be marketed world wide, and particularly in the US market where System-10 was very strong.
I flew back to Phoenix to negotiate buying test equipment that was compatible with the Spares Division kit, but built for the factory. Then back to recruit a team to write the tests. Then to the States again to buy a Simulator (nothing in-house if we could get it in the market.)
Here was a political problem! The problem was that we were a computer company, but the only Simulator we could find that did what we needed was American and only ran on competitor Digital Equipment Corp’s VAX computer. So buy a Vax! Not so fast – buy a competitors computer to design our competitive product? – just hold on there! In the end the answer is simple – use Economics. By buying the Vax we got to market a year earlier than using the in-house solution – that meant millions in revenues. Bear in mind that most of our components were bought in dollars, so earning dollars in the USA to buy the components took out major currency risks from the whole of ICL’s business too. We bought the Vax, and the American simulator.
I did that job and others that came along in the same vein for a couple of years. Eventually O’Hooligan left the division to become ICL’s Chief Scientist and run the company’s Advanced Research unit. It was big step up for him, and had a political line to it too – he wanted to be a Professor and be recognised in the academic community, and he knew how to do it too.
After some months, he asked me if I’d like a complete change of scene, and offered me a job managing his Human Factors Lab.