The march of technology

My first view of London was a freezing, foggy sky through the windows of a train that had just emerged from under the city-sized concrete warren that is Heathrow airport. This was October 1986, just weeks before Computerworld hits the desks of IT managers in New Zealand for the first time.

My first view of London was a freezing, foggy sky through the windows of a train that had just emerged from under the city-sized concrete warren that is Heathrow airport.

This was October 1986, just weeks before Computerworld hits the desks of IT managers in New Zealand for the first time.

You could say we were both heading out on a journey into the unknown, finding our way in a tough and competitive world. But if you did you would be a sentimental old fool. Sure, I was a slip of the cynic I am today (in more than one sense of the word), but you will remember that this was in the years before the stockmarket crash, when the shackles were being thrown off Muldoon's command-style economy. There was a sense of optimism in the air.

I had seen some of the bureaucratic nonsense first-hand. Between leaving school and setting off on my medium-sized OE, I had worked a couple of years in a bank.

The currency had been floated but we still had to fill out coloured forms for the Reserve Bank -- that resembled nothing if not Monopoly Get-Out-Of-Jail-Free cards -- for every few hundred dollars that customers took out of the country. All the trading banks sent their cheques and what-not to Databank to be processed centrally, after they had been balanced up and batched. (Many a night did we stay on trying to find the cock-up.)

Other than that the banking system here seemed relatively advanced, especially when compared to the UK. Branches were linked to some degree, which was a boon to those that worked in the city. They could cash cheques at other branches, something that didn't seem to be allowed in the UK. Every lunchtime in London was an exercise in queuing, to deposit money, cash a cheque, make an enquiry. Even opening an account was a major exercise requiring references from long-term customers, as if being able to write cheques in pounds sterling was a massive privilege. Perhaps they thought it was. Cash machines were beginning to sprout around the place, but I don't recall being able to use one from another bank or building society.

Several merchant banks took a chance on me, employing me to do tasks that were so demanding that they've been completely deleted from my long-term memory. I know, though, that they involved either doing things with large numbers of pieces of paper or crossing numbers off long sheets of printed paper for one reason or another. I do remember being so bored I chose to leave early on lots of occasions despite the lighter pay slip.

Technology was very apparent in the world's financial capital, but it seemed to be used without rhyme or reason. While banks often taped every conversation, presumably just in case there was a dispute over some million-dollar deal, the cheque processing system was antiquated. Cheques that came through the system were processed according to where they came from: those from London took one day to clear, outside of London two days, Scotland three. The poor Irish had to wait most of a week to get access to their money.

But if the use of technology sometimes lagged the antipodes, the approach to working and to workers didn't. Forget the 60-hour week; it barely reached 40. We had a hugely subsidised cafe, a pub in the building and a view of the Thames. What price progress?

Broatch is Computerworld's deputy editor. Send email Mark Broatch. Send letters for publication to Computerworld Letters.

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