From code-breaker to Compaq watcher

How does one make the transition from government spook to IT analyst? Ask Terry Shannon, the Boston-based author of newsletter Shannon Knows Compaq, who 30 years ago was sitting on a Laotian mountaintop cracking code for Uncle Sam.

How does one make the transition from government spook to IT analyst? Ask Terry Shannon, the Boston-based author of newsletter Shannon Knows Compaq, who 30 years ago was sitting on a Laotian mountaintop cracking code for Uncle Sam.

In 1972, the then 20-year-old had just ended a two-and-a-half-year tour of duty as a signal and intelligence analyst with the US Army Security Agency stationed in Vietnam. Having dabbled in codebreaking and "more arcane things which to this day remain classified" he found himself back in civilian life pondering the question of "where to from here?" The answer "VAX systems administrator" should have been obvious, but stints working as an ice-cream packer, programmer, house painter, volunteer firefighter and combustion control technician came first.

By 1982 he was a design draughtsman for Galson Technical Services in Syracuse, New York but, sensing economic recession and redundancy were in the air, convinced the firm to retain his services as systems manager for a newly purchased Digital VAX 11/750.

All was going well when his boss noticed that a mystery system account was consuming a few milliseconds of the VAX's precious time and demanded Shannon find out who or what was responsible. A call to the Digital support centre in Colorado revealed that the lost milliseconds were attributable to some deliberate sleight of hand in the VMS operating system - a system account was being created and used to house a process whose job was to ensure that the operating system wouldn't crash as a result of trying to do two things at exactly the same time.

"I thought this was a pretty slick piece of work so I wrote the info up for my boss who by this time wasn't interested," says Shannon. He decided to forward the write-up to DEC Professional magazine and was rewarded with a cheque. "I became a published author. When I discovered that people would actually pay me money for writing, I capitalised on the fact and the rest is history."

He went on to write for Digital Review Magazine, ran IDC's DEC Advisory Service until 1991 and is the author of Introduction to VAX/VMS and Migration and Interoperability Between OpenVMS and Unix.

In 1993 he co-founded New Hampshire-based technology assessment firm Illuminata and went independent in 1995 after starting the newsletter Shannon Knows DEC (now Shannon knows Compaq) in 1994 - which he stresses is not authorised, affiliated with or endorsed by Compaq.

He regularly travels the world presenting to Compaq users and recently braved minus-zero temperatures in Queenstown to talk to Compaq New Zealand customers, partners and staff. While he devotes 75% of his time to monitoring and analysing Compaq, he ensures the rest is spent on non-Compaq research.

"I do enough to ensure I'm not looking at Compaq through blinders. Tunnel vision does not contribute to good analysis."

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