Mike's Single Life

Mike was living with his parents in their Evanston apartment, a situation no one wanted.   He needed a job, because he planned to save money and return to school.   Unskilled and inexperienced at most jobs, Mike went to an employment agency.   Even in 1960, jobs were hard to get for men in his position, and the only one he found was working in a stockroom for a company located in the famed Merchandise Mart (the largest commercial building in the world).   The reason he got that job was his "experience" working for his father in the Copeland House mail order venture (he knew how to pack and ship).  

The company was Field Enterprises Educational Corporation (FEEC), publishers of World Book Encyclopedia and Childcraft.   Mike knew little about the company, other than having used both products while growing up.   He showed up dressed (a little too) well.   The work was "blue collar", and he didn't exactly fit in with fellow workers who were from southern and western Chicago suburbs.

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The Copelands' Evanston apartment

Mike packed boxes of encyclopedias and stacked them onto pallets for shipment.   (Fact: The Merchandise Mart has its own ZIP code, 60654, largely because of the amount of mail FEEC sent and received.)   The work was hard.

After several months, Mike was given a different duty there: delivering incoming packages throughout the company.   FEEC received enormous amounts of incoming mail (office supplies, books and periodicals, research materials, etc.), and there was a lot to deliver to various departments.   It was a full time job in itself, and perhaps should have been handled by the Mail room - but the size and weight of many of the packages were too much for the girls who worked there.

He likes to think he got this assignment because of his education or demeanor, but however this change happened, it was life-changing...and unexpected.

One of the departments Mike often delivered to was a mysterious department called "Systems", where (only) men wore suits and "programmed the computers".   Incoming boxes were usually large and from IBM (an equally mysterious company back then).   FEEC had a large controlled-environment computer room, which housed 2 enormous computers, machinery foreign to most of the 1400+ employees of the company.

He delivered (boxes of large computer tapes, "IBM cards", printer paper and the like) there, as well.   Soon Mike knew all the managers in both departments.

Then Fate really stepped in: the managers in the Systems (programming) department asked Mike if he'd like to transfer there and take a clerking job there.   They needed a file clerk to handle their rapidly increasing work load.

This was an easy decision, because it would get him out of the unpleasant stockroom and its heavy work and allow him to work in a much better environment.   Since Mike rode the train to work from Evanston, the opportunity to dress a little better was a plus.   His career took more unexpected turns after that, as computer programming needs for FEEC grew suddenly: he was given a chance to get into an entirely new career within the business.

For a few months Mike was indeed working as a "clerk" in this department: he filed stuff and ran errands.   Some of these "errands" meant going with programmers to locations where FEEC was renting time on their computers - because FEEC was exceeding the capacity of their 2 computers.   It was a common practice for companies with IBM computers would share and trade resources, and some other firms in downtown Chicago had extra capacity they could sell.   Mike would haul boxes of punched cards and magnetic tapes to these sites (usually at night) and help the FEEC programmers run and test new applications they were developing.   He learned a lot of what the company's "data processing" tasks were, as well as what they produced.

This was great experience, of course, in an industry altogether unknown to Mike.   After several weeks of this, his boss asked him to take the so-called "IBM Programmer's Test", which at the time was the standard benchmark for determining programming aptitude.   Incredibly, Mike passed it (given that he had no background or interest in such things as logic and problem solving), and the department "promoted" him to Programmer.   He started at $65/week, which in 1960 to him seemed a lot.

There were no formal education programs (or text books) for computer programming in those days, because it was very much a "virgin field" that was done mostly by mathematicians and scientists.   Business programming was done by in-house (men, always) who rose up from "tab shops" 1 where most data processing was done with punched cards, not computers and magnetic tapes.   FEEC was somewhat of a leader in computer data processing in those days, because they had enormous amounts of data to process and "tab shop" capabilities were insufficient.   The System department there was "leading edge" (although few knew it).

FEEC needed more computing power than they owned (IBM was quite willing to sell them more equipment, but deliveries and installations took many months), and Mike was told to "learn to program" by himself...using only reference manuals.   Again, somehow this stuff "clicked" for him, and his first program assembled and ran the first time (an unusual feat in those days).   Mike had fallen into an exciting and challenging career, quite by accident and/or luck, and when he was a full-time programmer was told he was probably the youngest computer programmer...anywhere.   (Back then, anyone doing this sort of work was at least a college graduate or better...)

With one new system after another, with newer and faster computers being used, Mike and his fellow programmers helped FEEC grow.   The company sold thousands of sets of encyclopedias each month, and most were paid for by small monthly installments that were mailed in and processed by many of the FEEC employees who worked there.   It was a huge manual effort to receive/open/record these payments and much of this kind of work was planned for their computers.

One major new application they designed and implemented was named "Check Writing"; it was a process that not only read and processed the incoming MICR information on the payment checks, but also produced and printed the commission checks for the thousands of part-time contracted sales people (mostly teachers and librarians around the country).   There were many programs in just this one application, and Mike was given a major role in its design and implementation.   Today this would seem to be a simple, conventional application most any company would have, but in the early 1960s equipment and concepts for this work was just being developed - primarily for large banks.   It was quite remarkable for a non-financial company to do this work on computers.   And this sort of company growth gave Mike a chance in this field.

For reasons Mike doesn't recall, he was given special "development and analysis" duties, as well.   These involved analyzing the capabilities of their computers (there were 7 by that time) and determining how best to replace them.   The volume of work continued to exceed FEEC's systems, and the company's computers were aging badly.   Mike was part of a small team tasked to learn what (newer) computers were available and whether they could do the needed work - with growth in mind, as well.

IBM supplied all the company's computers, so they were approached first to see what they could offer.   This process required a lot of technical study, as well as travel to places where such equipment was being used...and some special travel to learn and study operating systems and programming languages about which FEEC had no experience.   There were finance people at FEEC who evaluated the costs, but Mike's team did the technical evaluation work.

IBM had recently changed their pricing model to something call "unbundled".   That meant that every item of the sales contract had individual pricing: you paid separate monthly charges for software, compilers, and services, instead of a single "bundled" monthly cost for the system.   This meant that, while the cost of the equipment seemed low, the total cost of what a customer could be (and usually was) much higher than they had been paying.   Part of the evaluation process FEEC had to use was to determine what "pieces" of hardware, software, and services they really needed.   Other computer vendors, such as GE, NCR, UNIVAC, etc. continued to use the old "bundled" model, and it made comparing to IBM's difficult.

The team was not "married" to IBM, although it was clear that continuing with IBM wouldn't be a mistake.   It was going to cost a lot more to upgrade with them, though.   Mike's team sought out other vendors to see what, if anything, could do FEEC's work.   They knew that there would be a substantial conversion and learning cost to switch, and that had to be factored into the overall costs.   Also, a vendor's growth and stability required study, because in those days IBM controlled over 80% of the computer business and some of the other companies might not survive.

This extended analysis meant a lot of travel for Mike, to visit vendors and talk to their customers.   Mike did a lot of flying those days, all over the country and many times to places he could choose.   Thus, he was able to travel to Cedar Rapids once, where Jan still lived, and Seattle, where he visited Karen and her husband.   Funny how life works out...

1. Early computing work was done on "tabulating machines", with punched cards and paper tape as storage media. The equipment area was usually called "tab shop".

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Last Updated: February 17, 2018