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Greg Wojtan: My Days with LEO

At the beginning of October 1963, aged 25, I went to the Milk Marketing Board to do an aptitude test for a job as a LEO computer programmer, thinking that it might be more interesting than selling brushes for Kleen-E-Ze, which had been my job since leaving Edinburgh University that year without a degree but with lots of flower power.

There were some 120 of us programmer aspirants who, like me responded to the Times job ad placed by the Milk Marketing Board, but only 2 of us would be hired that day to programme their LEO III (Editor, Frank Land: MMB not on list of LEO III owners).  I came in 3rd in terms of the aptitude test, so the lady running the show suggested I nip down to Earl’s Court where there was an Office Efficiency exhibition and where the LEO computer was being shown. Maybe, with my good results LEO would hire me, she said.

So I did that and a nice LEO lady at the exhibition fixed me up for an appointment the following Monday, in Hartree House with the then LEO Programming Manager, at the time; one Bernard Pierce.

When I sat down with Bernard he didn’t say anything for about 7 minutes until I asked whether one of us should say something, and asked if it should be me.

He stopped doodling and asked me; ”if you have a cup of tea and a cup of milk of the same volume as the tea, and you take a spoon of milk and mix it into the tea, then take a spoon of the tea & milk mixture and mix it into the cup holding only milk, will the tea cup have more milk in it than the milk cup have tea? Or what? Justify your answer”.

Hang on, I thought – I’ve already done and passed my aptitude test! But there was no messing with Bernard. So I thought a bit more, gave him the correct answer and was hired to start at LEO the following Monday.
A couple of weeks later English Electric appeared and ‘fused’ with us, but I stayed on working on LEO for several years. 

So, after learning Intercode and CLEO, I was a sort of accolyte to real programmers for several months before I was sent out to  my first solo job at Shell (Editor, Frank Land: Shell Mex & BP) in Hemel Hampstead. My task was to use the Shell LEO to find out whether there was any sense in Shell running their Green Shield stamp schemes. In hindsight, the job wasn’t all that difficult, but I did have several panic attacks, especially as it was my first project – when the word project in the world of computers had not yet been invented. Anyway I delivered on time, rushing the results on the final day on my scooter to Shell Mex & BP’s  headquarters in the Strand. The results incidentally were that Green Shield stamps did boost Shell sales, but only for some 6 or 7 weeks after the scheme was introduced.

In 1965 I worked at Hartree House again, on stuff that really stretched my brain axons to breaking point. This was because I was working with a bright wire called Gordon Scarrot from the Ferranti stable. He taught me Zipf’s law, which I used for years after to detect monopolistic practices, and masses of other esoteric stuff. E.g how to debug radix problems using machine code directly  on the machine: Sort of open brain surgery on the poor LEO.  Gordon was surely one of the geniuses that got attracted to LEO like a magnet. I did
odd jobs for him - him Mentor, me Apprentice. One worthwhile one I remember was to produce a ready reckoner to estimate the duration of sort programmes  run on different Mag. Tape configurations. (I think our first 6.5MB LEO discs only appeared a year or two later, essentially solving the data sorting problem. Meanwhile we used painful and unpredictable tape sorting).

As I was finishing the reckoner I got to know Ralph Land. Ralph it was who thought it would be a good idea to give me something useful to do. This turned out to be a payroll system for the several thousand employees of the NHKG, Steelworks in Ostrava, Czechoslovakia (Editor: LEO III/41). At the same Mike Carrington (died in the UK in 1967) had to volunteer to do a stock control system for NHKG. We had a year for each job and both managed our assignments OK. (One problem I had that sticks in my mind to this day, was that the payroll programme had to deal with a lady employee of NHKG who was paying for an elephant in instalments to an Indian Maharajah that she had been married to, but had run away from).

How I got to that first East European LEO job in December 1965 is written up in Hilary’s compendium of Leo reminiscenses (Editor, Frank Land: LEO Remembered).

After Czecho, I got moved to Poland to do a monstrous stock control system for all the steelworks  in Silesia, for an oufit called HPMOA on a Leo 360. At the time I and my fledgling new family lived just down the road from Katowice in Chorzow – the dirtiest town in Europe! On an average day 80 tons of dust were deposited on Chorzow from the skies and my daughter spent her early childhood in dark grey nappies.

The office was in Katowice, but I and the 4 Polish computer specialists assigned to me to produce this system had to fit into a room measuring 15 sq.m.

To enable me to work with them we rearranged the desks so that we could take off the room door every morning and place it between 2 desks, thus creating 5 workplaces in the room. It is amazing what you can do if you are a pioneer, and determined to finish your job and get back home.

Well, I finished each successive job, but I never got home, not till around 1971.

Meanwhile, I really did have a great time, learned a lot and made lots of LEO friends which I remember vividly to this day. Ralph of course, Fred Lamond and his cat, Braz Lovegrove, Tony Zak, Frank Skinner, Zvi Herzenstein to name but a few, and many others from English Electric/ LEO/ Marconi as well.

When there was no more work on LEO, and back in the UK I worked from Queen’s House, Euston where I switched to the 2900 Series but more and more as Project Manager.  From there I did a system study for Morgan Grenfell and what I thought was a brilliant proposal for the British Library books’ catalogue system using CAFS (Editor, Frank Land: Invented by the aforementioned Gordon Scarrott). I never understood why we didn’t win that business.

Shortly after I joined the PMI group of Project Managers and helped to write several proceduręs for the 5 volume ICL Black Book which eventually became the Prompt methodology and then the Prince PM methodology and its derivatives. The Prince methodology was adopted by HM. Civil Service as the standard for the UK Government IT Projects.

PM is what I have done for the rest of my life, including some interesting projects for IBM where I worked for 8 years in Warsaw.

My last project I finished some 5 years ago. Now I do self-study of ancient history, which is as fascinating as the history of LEO. 

Date : 2021

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This exhibit has a reference ID of CH62995. Please quote this reference ID in any communication with the Centre for Computing History.

Greg Wojtan: My Days with LEO

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