As IBM celebrates 50 years in New Zealand this month, its two longest serving employees, Ian Moreland and Elwyn Goldsbury, recalled some of the notable events of the past half-century.
Moreland joined IBM in 1963 as an engineer and is currently in charge of regulatory compliance standards for product safety. Goldsbury, who joined in 1967, also as an engineer, is an IT architect supporting the Westpac account.
For both, the introduction of the System 360 in the 1960s was an important milestone in computing in New Zealand.
“The 360 really kicked things off,” says Goldsbury. “With that came all the disciplines and the start of structured support, though we probably didn’t really recognise it at the time.
“Until then, you had to be fully trained on a machine to be able to fix it. With the 360 came a maintenance package and diagnostic programs.”
That was very important to IBM because it came at a time when the Japanese mainframe manufacturers were becoming very strong. Simply put, their hardware was better. IBM’s solution to competing with them was to introduce the diagnostics that enabled things to be fixed much more quickly.
But parts were still incredibly expensive, so much so that in the early days of Databank it wasn’t economic for IBM to hold component spares in both Wellington and Auckland. Moreland recalls that IBM had a twin-engine aircraft on permanent standby at Wellington airport, along with two pilots. A set of components was kept on the plane.
“If there was a problem at Databank in Auckland, there would be a flurry of phone calls,” he says. “The deal was that if a quick assessment showed replacement parts might be needed, the plane got in the air immediately. I was contacted and paged the pilot on stand-by and rang IBM in Australia.
“We tried for a two and a half hour service time. If it was subsequently found replacement parts weren’t needed, the plane was turned around.”
It’s an indication of the enormous price customers used to pay that IBM found it more economic to keep a plane on permanent standby.
Moreland says the world of Unix and Microsoft has not yet reached the same level of sophistication as the mainframe, which still has a longer meantime to failure.
Both he and Goldsbury were involved in the early days of Databank, which followed from the BNZ buying a 360.
“Databank was always at the leading edge in terms of hardware,” Moreland says. “It led to a cultural change and the high use of EFTPOS and concept sharing between the banks.
As an aside, another former IBMer, Jim McDonald, who went on to head up Amdahl in Australasia, once told Computerworld the idea for an organisation such as Databank was dreamed up on the back of a napkin over a few drinks at Wellington’s James Cook hotel.
For all its success there were some heart-stopping moments with the 360 such as when a manager at Watties managed to drop one off a forklift at a time when there was a nine month delivery window. A predecessor model, bought by Philips, was dropped by wharfies into the hold of the ship. Coincidentally, the wharfies were campaigning against labour-saving devices at the time.
Goldsbury says the other major event for him was the development of networks, the first of which was an early Air New Zealand reservations system which basically drove teleprinters.
“The 10/50 systems were part of the console of a 360,” he says.
“Our PC business didn’t really take off until the PC became a terminal on the mainframe. That led to the development of code that ran partially on the PC and grabbed data off the mainframe.”
When the PC was introduced, IBM encouraged staff to buy their own and develop a body of usable programs, some of which became commercialised. Moreland is still using one, developed in the 1980s as Personal Finance 2 and now called In Charge, to do his personal finances at home. “It’s totally adequate for my needs,” he says.
The pair have a legion of stories. They include the day Moreland was coming to work at the old IBM building on The Terrace in Wellington and found a customer standing outside at 8.30am. It was a real Wellington windy day and a particularly strong gust had caught the top sheet of a mainframe lineflow print-out, which promptly took off down the street. “We actually recovered it all,” he says.
During those early days there was a bad incident with a long-time Wellington music retailer, Charles Begg. The company was not an IBM customer, and used a bureau in Sydney instead. Someone deleted all the back-up records at the bureau and Charles Begg subsequently lost its debtors ledger. The company didn’t know who owed it money and went broke as a consequence.
Goldsbury recalls the introduction of the 3890 cheque reader at Databank. “It had about a five-minute failure life in its early days and, although it was only a 15 minute fix, we spent four to five months partially rebuilding it in the field. There were many sleepless nights but I bought myself a new car out of the overtime.”
The Auckland Savings Bank was the first bank in New Zealand to introduce realtime transaction processing using IBM terminals and magnetic-stripe cards, says Moreland. That was back in the 1960s.
Some technology hangs on. He says the National Bank recently discovered an old OS/2 machine in a storeroom that is still happily chugging away handling the delivery of Scottish pensions to New Zealand.
Moreland expects his workload to reduce in the future as Lenovo continues to take over the PC side of the business. “Beyond that who knows. It’s been a good life at IBM. You wouldn’t stick around otherwise.”
Goldsbury says he looks back on all the different things he’s done at IBM, each job following from skills learned in previous roles. “Nothing stays the same here,” he says.