Forty-seven years after an IT shop is born

Imagine your boss comes to see you — he’s asking you and your co-workers to take an aptitude test. There’s a new internal business unit opening up, and the managers are sifting through their roster to see who might be qualified to staff it.

You agree, and take the test. You score well — so well, in fact, that you are more than qualified to take the new job. Interested? As unlikely as it seems, that’s how Fred Woffenden and Edward Hawkes made the jump from sales clerks to computer specialists while working at Northern Electric — the predecessor to Nortel in Montreal — more than 47 years ago.

Of course, Woffenden, who today lives in Markham, Ont., had no idea he would ever be referred to as an IT worker — the role to that point simply didn’t exist. “They called them IBM people,” he recalled.

As third on the list, Woffenden was actually the first person ever at the company to sign on to working with computers. “The first two guys were spooked out of it,” he said. “They didn’t know what it was either.”

“It” in this case was the RAMAC 305, the first ever-magnetic hard disk storage system. The size of two large refrigerators, the drives stored 5MB of data at a cost of $10,000 per MB. Each disk could hold up to 25,000 punch cards-worth of data.

Buying a computer was an unusual step for a company to take at the time, Woffenden noted. Northern Electric in Montreal came under the control of “aggressive” leaders who decided that as experimental (and expensive) as computerized processes were, the potential benefits were too good to pass up. Thus the RAMAC was ordered to help the company automate inventory control — to keep track of exactly what was sitting in the warehouse, particularly orders coming in from branches around Quebec.

Woffenden was joined by two other newly minted IT technicians and one manager to oversee them. They had exactly one year before the RAMAC arrived at their doorstep, time that would be used by IBM to train the new staff. Each of the members was tasked with writing two or three of the applications.

Hawkes, now retired and living in Lachine, Que., recalled IBM’s first piece of advice. “‘Here’s the manual — see what you can make of it.’” In the meantime, they waited for their IBM trainer to learn about the system itself.

But Hawkes said that time was well used. By June of 1951, they were invited to IBM’s Wall Street office to test the applications they’d written from scratch. Hawkes said IBM officials were worried, but were quickly shown that the neophyte IT staff had what it took.

“We tested (my invoice application). I found that I made two fair-sized errors, but I knew what it was right away,” Hawkes recalled. “That was a feather in our cap…We had never tried this before.”

They traveled to IBM’s offices throughout the U.S. in the subsequent months. “There was no equipment in Canada at the time, and we used to go to New York, Boston, Cleveland and Pittsburgh,” Woffenden said. He recalled one instance when an IBM technician took them to a RAMAC training room (keeping in mind the RAMAC needed constant air conditioning to keep the punch cards in working order, and was very sensitive to dust) — an old classroom filled with chalk dust and with no ventilation of any kind. “IBM, in those days, their offices weren’t as grandiose as they are today…they weren’t exactly making the money.”

Finally the big day came. “We received it on a Friday, loaded it (with apps) on the weekend and had it up and running on Monday,” Woffenden said.

And what about those two bugbears of IT projects — proving ROI and end user resistance? Woffenden said his team encountered both. “There was a lot of resistance,” he said. “We were these strange people, and only a handful of us knew anything about (computing).” But they were won over, and RAMAC paid off, chopping inventory costs.

Hawkes said the skeptical were won over in bits and pieces. He recalled one warehouse manager insisting that the RAMAC’s inventory calculations were wrong — that his trained eye told him there was enough stock of pipes (used to house cable) to supply all customer orders. “He said to me, ‘if you can prove there’s not enough stock, I’ll eat the pipes.’ We picked up all the orders waiting to be delivered and found out there wasn’t enough. So I said, ‘how do you like your pipe — with chili sauce?’”

Woffenden eventually became a consultant, but drifted back into the sales side of computing. Today he’s a sales rep for network services provider End to End in Markham, Ont. Hawkes stayed with Northern Electric another 18 years, when he retired.

Both remember their RAMAC days with fondness.

“It was quite an exciting time then,” Woffenden said.

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