What we miss about MIS: Old-school ideas that weren't so bad

Back before the age of the PC, men in computer science -- and they were almost always men -- wearing white shirts, ties and pocket protectors spent their days punching data requests onto cards.

This was the highly specialized, highly centralized computing environment of the day, centered on machines like the IBM System/360, launched in 1964. The System/360 was programmed with punch cards (formally called Hollerith cards, named for Herman Hollerith, who invented them in 1887 for use in census tabulating and started a company that would lead to the formation of IBM).

The cards, which measured 7-3/8 by 3-1/4 in., the size of a dollar bill before 1929, were processed by machines that could support up to 8MB of internal memory (though in practice, such large amounts were almost unthinkable) and another 7.2MB of external storage, via 16-in. disk platters.

On such machines was built the entire hierarchy of MIS -- management information systems. Today, both machine and management style look Neolithic. Storage space, processing speeds and data volume have expanded far beyond what few in the 1960s could have begun to imagine, and the stove-piped, glass-towered, heads-down MIS departments of old have given way to decentralized, service-oriented, business-focused IT organizations.

Few of us, if any, want to return to days spent feeding punch cards into a room-size computer, and yet some elements of the MIS culture were sweet indeed. Here are a few good things we wouldn't mind revisiting.

Programming -- and debugging -- were simpler

"You could teach just about anything you needed to know in two weeks," says Julian Horwich, who in 1964 graduated from Northwestern University and went to work as a systems engineer for RCA, then an IBM rival. Horwich jumped to Abbott Labs in 1966 to work in MIS, and in 1976 actually set up the computing department at American Critical Care, a division of American Hospital Supply.

In 1984, Horwich founded CAMP IT Conferences (then known as the Chicago Association for Microcomputer Professionals) to support the early PC revolutionaries struggling against the prevailing mainframe mind-set of MIS departments.

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What, if anything, do you miss about MIS?

Horwich liked that it was easier to learn how to program in the early days -- simpler systems and infrastructure meant that skills were easier to master. The trade-off was that you couldn't get as much done, says Horwich, who holds no love in his heart for punch cards.

"If you missed one chad, one column in what you were key-punching, the whole program could bomb," he recalls. "I prefer [today's] instant turnaround." (See "Old-school programming techniques you probably don't miss" for more annoyances from the early days.)

After a program bombed, or crashed, the printer "had a very distinctive sound," recalls Dennis O'Connor, who started in IT in 1965, operating a Honeywell 400 with eight tape drives for Blue Cross of Virginia.

"It was a particular print sound it made when it did a core dump" -- the computer printing out the entire contents of its memory. "A programmer, or someone who knew assembler language, had to go through the registers and see exactly where the code failed," O'Connor says.

O'Connor, who at 71 still works in IT as a computer analyst/programmer for the city of Alexandria, Va., liked having that feedback, which made it easier to find the problem.

Today, in the client/server world that sits way up above the machine, "we don't really know what's gone wrong; we've got to puzzle it out," says O'Connor, though he notes that he misses little else about programming back in the day.

At its core, he says, the job hasn't changed that radically. "The concepts and things that I learned back then are still applicable today. No matter how fancy they get with the programs and the languages and everything, [programming] still requires the same logic and attention to detail it always has."

Cobol was king

No matter what their title or education, almost all programmers knew Cobol, as close to a lingua franca as computing has ever had.

"I miss the commonality, that you could find people easily trained or trainable," says George Hanrahan, now CIO/IS director at the Spokane Transit Authority. Hanrahan started out in 1973, programming IBM 360s, 370s and 1130s, as well as RCA Specter 7s and CDC 6600 minicomputers.

Hanrahan says he thinks today's programmers lack some of the skills that came from having to devise all aspects of a program. Modern software is too off-the-shelf, he contends, forcing software designers rely on code created by others rather than writing it all themselves. To be sure, using canned software is faster, cheaper and often better than writing code yourself, he acknowledges, but it sometimes makes it harder to meet the exact needs of the business.

What's more, IT is missing "the creative cycle of [programming]. Sometimes you learned a lot from that," Hanrahan says. "You miss a lot of the knowledge that you gained along the way. When you design the object, you know how to use it, and when you're abstracted away from that, you don't have a clue."

Old pros like Hanrahan and Horwich say there is a downside to empowered users who have mastered Excel macros, database queries or the workings of their latest smartphone app -- they can lose respect for the difficulties of having to actually program in the old-school sense of the word.

"I prefer having users who are knowledgeable," says Horwich, "but the one downside to it is some of the users think computing is all like Excel. They wonder why it should it take 'so long' to actually program something."

Less connectivity meant less stress

Back in the day, if a floppy disk got infected (a rare occurrence to begin with), it spread through an office slowly, one person at a time, rather than hitting networks of networks simultaneously.

"We didn't have to worry about viruses and worms and rootkits and that sort of thing," recalls Mike Klaus, information systems manager for the city of Kearney, Neb.

Fewer security woes meant less stress for MIS employees. One reason why security was less of an issue was the limitation of machines of the day, Klaus says. While computers were useful, most organizations could continue to function even if the computer went down.

Now "we've become so dependent on technology that we can't do anything without it," he says. "Even in the small city I work for, you can't pay your utility bill, you can't repair a street, you can't dispatch a police officer without the technology in place."

Klaus notes that recently the system for the jail went down, which meant no one could be booked or released, creating a pressure-cooker atmosphere for IT until the system was fixed.

On the other hand, he says, in the good old days, a police officer who pulled someone over couldn't use a program to match a picture of a driver to photos of criminals with outstanding warrants as they can now.

Techies socialized, at least a little

The sheer lack of stress is what Robert S. Ayr misses about MIS. "The environment was a lot of fun," he says. Ayr, now manager of production services at health care company VHA Inc. in Irving, Texas, started in IT in 1976 as a computer operator trainee working on an IBM 360/40.

"You had five or six printers going, you were hanging tapes, you were changing disk drives," he says. "It was a very active pace, [but] you were controlling this environment."

One thing users don't miss

The simplified, controlled MIS organizational structure that some techies look back on fondly drove other employees nearly crazy.

"Everything was centralized. Users did what you told them to because they had no place else to go, and if it took two weeks to run a report, deal with it," says Leslie Fiering, who started out as an IT worker charged with exploring PCs at a large New York media company and is now a research vice president at Gartner Inc.

"It was, 'If you want a change, put [the request] in; there's a six-month backlog,' and you got away with it. The data center folks were God, and everybody else was either a priest or a supplicant."

The mainframe was also a social hub at some companies. Employees from other departments would wander into the mainframe room, which might be the only space in the company with air conditioning. "People would come by and say, 'I want to cool off,' so you'd say, 'OK, just go over there,' " Ayr recalls.

Of course, today that would probably trigger security alerts. But then, "you didn't have all that tight security; it made things a little bit different," says Ayr. In fact, companies wanted to show off their mainframes -- they put them in rooms with glass windows to make them more visible.

When computers were less connected, people interacted more, the Klaus adds. "When you had the old sneakernets, you actually got to talk to people, as opposed to now, when I send somebody an e-mail." He thinks new ideas don't arise as naturally via e-mail as they did when people talked.

IT types dressed up, sort of

The city of Alexandria's O'Connor confesses to a view that might be unpopular among today's geeked-out workforce -- he misses the dress code of yore, which used to be at minimum slacks and a tie, or a sport coat and a tie.

O'Connor still wears slacks and a dress shirt to the office, but he's in the minority. "My peers run around in jeans or casual wear. I used to get on them, saying, 'You just come in from working in the fields?' " O'Connor believes that dressing like businesspeople would make IT people think of themselves more like businesspeople.

What's old becomes new again

There's only so much room for nostalgia, given the incredible advances made over the past 40 years in technology and its application.

The spread of knowledge has led to sophisticated uses of technology and boosted productivity remarkably. Widespread computer literacy has helped integrate IT into businesses in a way that would have been difficult to imagine in the 1960s.

Even so, veterans from that time often feel like some aspects from those days are starting to return. "People talk about this 'new' VMware," says Ayr. "I'm like, what's so different from being a virtual machine on the IBM 370?"

Hanrahan says he used to have a clue about everything -- hardware, software, networks -- but as systems became more complex, having specialists in each area came into vogue. Now, having an understanding of the whole environment is becoming important again, he contends. "You can't afford to hire somebody who just takes care of your network. We specialized, and now we're going back to generalists, unless you're in the Web world."

"There's somewhat of a recentralization in terms of security and making support easier," says Horwich. "Cloud computing is really exactly like using a server in a time-sharing way," he notes, pointing out that virtual machines and clustering have also returned. "What's gone around has come back around, just in a little different flavor."

In the end, some things in IT never change -- including the ever-imminent death of the mainframe. Horwich remembers a sly question he used to pose at CAMP conferences. "I'd ask, 'How many people think the mainframe is dead?' No hands would go up. Then I'd ask, 'How many people think the last mainframe will disappear about the time when the Cubs win the World Series?' And a lot of hands would go up.

"And here we are," says Horwich, "still waiting for both."

Frequent contributor Michael Fitzgerald is a 2011 Nieman Journalism Fellow at Harvard University.

This story, "What we miss about MIS: Old-school ideas that weren't so bad" was originally published by Computerworld.

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