The time: the mid-eighties. The place: Edinburgh, Scotland. But unlike Hot Chocolate’s song of around that time ‘It started with a kiss’, my first foray into the world of IT was more a case of ‘It started with a bad case of RAM wobble’.
This unfortunate predicament came about whilst attempting to input the BASIC code for ‘Marvin the Paranoid Android’ program copied line by line from a computer magazine. The offending computer concerned was one of Sir Clive Sinclair’s ZX81’s (with a 16k RAM expansion pack). As a 6’4” policeman with large hands, tapping the tiny membrane keys was an interesting exercise in the Zen art of patience. I resolved the RAM wobble by securing the ZX81 to a small piece of pine shelf and affixing the expansion pack with copious amounts of electrician's tape – nothing that wasn’t meant to would ever move again. This initial baptism led to a lifelong involvement with computers, both personal and work related.
From the personal computer, I progressed, like most people, as and when new and more interesting machines became available and finances permitted. A picture of an Amstrad 464 home computer on the front of a computer magazine, set me off again. My wife, fed up with my whinging, bought it for me one Christmas. This was followed by Amstrad's successor, the 6128 with a 3” disk drive. No more long waits while the screeching tape recorder ambled its way through the cassette to eventually permit the program to appear on the screen. Then up the ladder of AMSTRAD evolution. My two sons (with seven years’ age difference) were brought up on ‘Fruity Frank’ and ‘Space Quest’ type games. Their vocabulary and spelling skills were enhanced by having to type in commands, with frequent shouts coming from their room on how to spell a particular word.
My induction into the wider world of computers came when, as a police officer, I was on mobile patrol. I was tasked to go post-haste to the headquarters and collect a printout from ‘Computer Services Branch (CSB)’. This was a challenge, as I was unaware we had a CSB. Through sheer detective ability, I located said department on the third floor of our Force HQ. I walked in through a small inconspicuous door and was smitten. Here was a giant glass room with a raised floor, positively pressurised to keep out ‘stuff’, sticky pads to walk on and secure access badge-only entry system. Through the glass, I could see banks of large plate-sized mag tapes spinning in their drives, large washing machine-shaped platten disk drive machines and giant metal wardrobe-sized computers. Lights flashing and blinking everywhere. That was it. I had to find out more.
After completing my task, I returned to the CSB and hung around outside until I could question one of the operators. I learned that they were interviewing for new computer operators, and, unfortunately, it was that day. I knew the wheels of my police force ground slowly and applications would have had to be in weeks ago. Never one to be put off, I sucked in a breath and marched into the CSB Inspector's office. (Luckily, I’d been in the military police for 10 years prior to joining the civilian police, and was that bit older and had well-honed powers of persuasion.) After much to-ing and fro-ing with the inspector he relented and said they could add me to the interview list if I had my Chief’s blessing, which, long story short, I received; I think he felt a little beholden to me as I had won the Baton of Honour at the national police college, which allowed him to attend and be up on the podium.
So back to panda patrol… after to a vehicle accident on a busy road, a bus-load of disadvantaged children were running around the main highway in a state of panic. Whilst calling up reinforcements to round them up and ferry them to their ultimate destination, I received a call to attend at HQ for said interview. I had to decline due to the seriousness of the task, but they delayed the interview until I was released.
As I recall, they interviewed about 30 applicants for three or four positions, and I was one of the lucky ones to be chosen. I was honest in my answers, admitting to no computing experience, but the job application stated none was needed as they would give training.
So began my first IT job. I trained and was proficient in operating a Honeywell Bull DPS 9000 and DPS 6000 mainframe computers. I remained in that job for about seven years and had to plead to be released back ‘on to the street’ for promotion purposes. The difficulty was that they had decided to ‘civilianise’ the branch, and they needed me to train the new operators. I was involved in some major events during that time, from a back-room perspective. The Lockerbie air disaster required us to run computer jobs night and day to allow the investigation teams access to the latest data. For the Robert Black murders, by a notorious child killer both north and south of the border, our DPS 6000 (H.O.L.M.E.S computer) was Honeywell Bull and the English police H.O.L.M.E.S machine was McDonnell Douglas and they were incompatible. We had to run special programs to load their data and convert it to be read in ours.
I arrived for work one afternoon (back shift) and noticed a gaggle of programmers and engineers gathered around the H.O.L.M.E.S terminal. Spurious code was forming lines on the green screen with no-one touching the keyboard, and every now and again someone would offer some translation for what they saw.
As with many scenarios in life, stepping back and seeing the bigger picture can often elicit favourable results. I excused myself and pushed through and picking up the keyboard I emptied out the water that had collected in it from the faulty dripping air condition unit on the wall beside it. (Talk about monkeys and typewriters). Many events, both successful and disastrous occurred during my time there, from rubbing the magnetic tape with a swiss army knife handle on the last reel (probably 10th) of data input to get the job to complete when it kept repeatedly erroring on the tape drive. Having spent many hours studying for my promotion exams, I was a little edgy and found it difficult to just relax, so I translated a BASIC police pension predictions program into FORTRAN and tried it out on the mainframe. Not a good idea. Despite having 200 per cent dual memory (probably less than a smartphone) I hogged all the timeshare memory every time I ran the program. I could only torture the programmers for so long before I had to confess. To give them their due, they tweaked my program to allow it to play fair with the resources.
My career in the police weaved in and out of the IT environment. I was promoted to sergeant and seconded to central service, the Scottish Criminal Record Office (SCRO) in Glasgow as a duty sergeant. On completion of my three-year tour of duty covering some significant events, I returned to normal policing.
My next IT involvement was with the development and roll-out of the Integrated Scottish Criminal Justice System (ISCJIS) This was quite a significant system, it is a joint initiative by the major criminal justice agencies in Scotland to connect all relevant agencies electronically, allowing for the input of data to flow through to the agencies involved in the justice system, reducing the need to re-key data. This involved transferring text delimited files to the disparate systems of each agency using an agreed format. Easier said than done! ‘Herding cats’ comes to mind. It was a ‘chewing gum and string’ solution that worked with a significant amount of data quality work done in the early years. This took me through the rest of my police career with a brief interlude back working the streets as a sergeant.
I returned to SCRO as an Inspector and continued my involvement with ISCJIS, continuing up the ladder and seconded to the Scottish Executive Justice Department, where I remained until I retired from the force.
I then emigrated to New Zealand and following a brief interlude working for a Serious Fraud Unit of an NGO; I moved into the world of the foreign intelligence service and the 5 Eyes in the Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB), New Zealand’s equivalent of the UK’s GCHQ. My involvement in things IT-related continued and I worked there until my retirement in 2016. The spooky (no pun intended) thing was I started my IT career in the CSB and ended it, in the GCSB. Unfortunately, the curtain must remain drawn on the latter period of my career for another 10 years.