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Alan Hooker: Memoir

Alan Hooker’s reminiscences: here is what I remember of my time at LEO. Some of the dates area bit vague and might be suspect but then that describes me now! 

I’ve also included notes on my visit to New Zealand which you might find interesting. In 1963 it was like pre-war Britain and that scenario has gone forever now. 

I joined LEO in June 1958 at Elms House from the BBC and went through a six week LEO II training course, at the end of which I was thoroughly confused and questioning whether I had made another bad career choice. I was given a number of small maintenance jobs and utilities to work on then assigned to some major changes to LEO I programs. As I remember they were full of formed orders (Editor: orders created by the programmer by treating an instruction as if it was data held in store) as there was no B-line modification and my program errors frequently caused me to try to obey data. It was here that the penny dropped–the computer can try to obey data or do arithmetic on instructions, in memory they are both the same. Even so the Lyons bakeries were not brought a grinding halt and I emerged with the  beginnings of programming ability.I returned to LEO II work under Betty Cooper (Newman) to write the Lyons Ice Cream suite. For Betty I had to code in ink and she checked   of code. Any sheet of code she disapproved of was returned to me for rewriting (in ink). By the time the code got to Data Prep it was fit for testing. Another thing I remember about this suite was the correction to sales commission due to fluctuations in ambient temperature between this year and the corresponding  temperature last year. I therefore was required to code a routine which, inter alia calculated corrected sales as actual sales times a constant raised to the none integral power of the difference between the temperatures calculated to one position of decimals. This could be positive or negative.  Whilst I was sitting there with furrowed brow John Lewis helpfully told me to increase the temperatures by ten and divide the answer by 100. And so the calculations were done and so the commission was calculated and the salesmen found it incomprehensible! About this time Lector was introduced and the Xeronic printer installed in Elms House, so I worked on modifying the Teashops system to accommodate them, In 1960 I was assigned to help The Standard Triumph Motor Company (LE$O II/8) in Coventry develop their stock control system under the management of Arthur Payman.  Arthur had a Messerschmitt two seat/three wheeled bubble car in which we trundled up the M1 every Monday morning, and I returned by train at the end of the week. I think I worked on this project for about a year. 

I then moved to Hartree House to work for Doug Comish on the Persian Lamb Sales System for the Hudson’s Bay Company (Editor, Frank Land: a LEO II bureau job). This was the first time that I had acted as the front man doing requirements, design, coding, testing and delivery. Added to that the Powers Samas Samastronic printer was LEO’s first Alpha numeric printer and was a bit whimsical in behaviour. It struck me as a bit odd that Persian Lambskins grown in South West Africa should be auctioned in London by a company with a Canadian name. Very little went according to plan. The sale was originally going to be small with plenty of time between receipt of skins and the auction to sort out problems, and the manual system would be the backup. In the event, because of the African weather, lambing was late, the closing date for the sale was late and a quarter of a million skins had to be and processed. On the day of the sale, David Caminer, and the engineer (who brought his French Horn and played Till Eulenspiegel for us) and sundry volunteers worked through the night, sometimes with fingers in the dyke, and delivered the results in the morning. What is more, despite the complexities of the accounting, we balanced to the penny!

Shortly after this we did stock control and sales forecasting for Lightning Fasteners, a subsidiary of ICI and the major source of zip fasteners in the UK. This was interesting because it was an early commercial use of exponential smoothing of averages. Another stock control system we did was for the H.J. Heinz company, a just-in-time raw commodity scheduling system for their factory in Hayes. I don’t remember when LEO 3/1 was installed at Hartree House (Editor: 1967) but I was then put in charge of a number of programmers working  in Intercode and I also lectured on the LEO 3 Programming Course .My manager was Helen Jackson (Clark). People in the room I remember were Alan G Hooker, Jim Feeny, Tomas Maria Leonard Wizniewski, Rosemary Oakeshott, Diana Myra Loy Cooper (Didy); others whose names I don’t today recall but will probably remember tomorrow whilst forgetting these. I was then tasked with setting up a unit to write standard commercial programs. We managed to design a flow chart for updating serial files and a prototype data vet program, but the availability of random access discs and IBM’s initiative with CICS took the wind out of those sails and efforts were diverted to standard commercial routines.

I moved on to work for Ralph Land as a consultant, basically a Sales Support analyst. One Monday he said to me “How would you like to do a project in New Zealand for a couple of months?”. “When?” I  asked.” “Next Friday” replied Ralph. So four days later with a suitcase, passport and a round the world ticket I set off for Wellington, via Hong Kong and Sydney. I arrived in Wellington late Monday afternoon, was met by David Howard, the local General Manager and was driven straight to the office of English Electric LEO Computers to start work! A good job I had broken the journey in Sydney. The computer bureau was based on an EE KDF6, and offices were housed in a small square perhaps about half a mile from the harbour. I had been booked into a small hotel a few minutes’ walk from the offices, on the face of it very convenient, but in the event it turned out to be little different from a dingy boarding house with nowhere to work in the evening. When I complained about this the next day, the excuse was that there was large business convention in town and nothing better was available. I therefore went to the best hotel in town, the Grand, and booked a room for a month. After that I returned to the office to start preparing my Tender. The Company was hopelessly under resourced to bid for a distributed banking system, or to support such a system if the bid  was successful, but I was there to have a go. At the end of a week I had overwhelmed the typing resources (no word processors in those days). Then there was a break of a week while the commercial and other local aspects of the proposal were prepared, during which I was sent down to Christchurch in South Island to investigate the potential market for computer bureau business. I made a few appointments, but I felt the time was not ripe for a start-up bureau centre.

Returning to Wellington to submit the proposal to the Bank of New Zealand, I was offered the post of General Manager of South Island with a view to taking over from David Howard as Country Manager when his contract expired in a year’s time. Although tempted, I asked to consider my answer after returning to the UK and assessing the future there. I also took the opportunity to call in at the local office of Atlantic and Pacific Travel whose Managing Director was the brother of Ian Crawford, a LEO consultant and one of my Kingston flatmates. They kindly rerouted my return trip via Fiji, Tahiti, Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York, returning to Wellington. 

From Wellington I flew to Auckland to touch base with the local office of English Electric.  I had a great time in New Zealand but it was a technological backwater; looking back, I probably made the right decision from a career point of view. Once back in the UK I found it difficult to find a career niche so I left EELM to become the General Manager of Tyndall computers in Bristol in (I think) April 1965. Apart from acting as Director of the ICL Computer Users Conference, I had very little contact with ICL for the next few years. I joined Dataskil in 1979 as a Project Manager in PMS Reading under Ollie Smith and John Benbo, largely in a support role for other Project Managers and doing project Audits. One project I managed was to act as the General Sales Manager for Dataskil under George McLeman. Acting as line management of wheeler dealer salesmen and their was beyond my experience, and I was regarded with suspicion by the unit. However with a £30 million sales target and a year to achieve it we had to get on with it and we made the numbers. I Then returned to PMS. Several company reorganisations later I was the manager of the unit but the culture had changed and I resigned from the unit to manage the transition of the BAA data processing systems from Honeywell to ICL computers. It was a five year project, the largest project I had managed and when I took it over it was exactly two years behind schedule. Three years later we finished it on time and budget!  I then took early retirement.

Date : 2020

This exhibit has a reference ID of CH62988. Please quote this reference ID in any communication with the Centre for Computing History.

Alan Hooker: Memoir

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