The Mainframe Adventure - Cincom

Cincom Systems

I had an interview with a division of Cincom Systems, a company based around a database called TOTAL, who sold a manufacturing system. They felt that they needed better technical backup for their new on-line module (available for CICS and Cincom's own TP monitor, Environ-1), and I was it. Starting salary was something like £8,600, in January 1981. It seemed like a dream at the time, to be offered a job that I felt I might be able to aspire to in a couple more years, if I was lucky. Two days after starting, I was on a plane to Lyon to meet the Director of Development for the Manufacturing Division, two of his developers (John Duckworth, Naomi Debodisco, and Virgil Gaines), and the first customer for the on-line version of MRPS, Ciba-Geigy.

I found that we were flying around Europe to install systems, only rarely in the UK. That led me to France, Switzerland, Germany, Italy and Finland. Eighteen months later, the developers in Cincinnati were supposedly finishing off a VAX version. I was commissioned to go in and spend two weeks beta testing, which I did. At the end of it I had so annoyed John Duckworth that he let me take a full tape backup of their development system. On the last night, I went to his birthday party, with a flight out to New York scheduled for about six am. I decided it wasn't worth going back to the hotel to sleep, and left the party at four am. That was the closest I have come, so far, to throwing up on a flight. Back in London, it took two weeks at a VAX bureau to make an installation kit out of it, ready to take to a new customer in the UK. We had that running and supported it; the US team didn't release that version for close to another year. I learned how to send flame mail by Telex.

The heart of MRPS was the MRP (materials requirements planning, and various other words that fit the letters) theory of manufacturing. It was the precursor to JIT (Just In Time), and worked in the same way. When you knew what your sales orders were, a big computer run could work out what manufacturing orders were needed to fill them, and what stocks had to be bought to start work, and when.

This MRP run had to be done often, ideally every day, and we had one big program that ran overnight to do all of these calculations. One of our VAX users, Tektronix in Guernsey, had upgraded to the biggest and fastest VAX available (an 11/780), and the daily run was still taking 36 hours. I had to go out there to see what could be done. Tuning their database very carefully, and tuning their VAX, got the run down to just over 30 hours, and then to about 24 hours. Which wasn't quite good enough. So I started to rewrite the algorithm that scanned orders, and parsed the bill of materials; that got the run down to about ten hours. I then looked at the typical structure of their data, and added in some special options that would work better, if the data was structured like theirs. In the end, the run was down to somewhere between two and four hours.

Cincom then decided to integrate the Manufacturing Division with their main business. By that time, I was reporting to the European Director for Mfg, and responsible for European support. The net result was that my boss found himself unemployed, and I was reporting to an incompetent jerk who resented me (unfortunately, I can't see why he did :-). I hung around for a few months feeling less and less comfortable. The Manager of the UK Technical Support group wanted me to work for him as his second-in-command, but I wasn't sure about that; and I was sure that I wasn't going to stay working for this guy much longer. When I looked back a couple of years ago, the UK Technical Support Manager was still there in the same job, so it was just as well I didn't end up there.

Around that time I had flown out to Rome to help out a customer there; the Italian territory was run by an agent based in Turin, so it was all arranged via the International Licensee group, which was based in Monaco. They asked if I wouldn't mind dropping in to see them on my way back to the UK, so I fixed up my flights to suit. They were living the English expat lifestyle, buying the Daily Mail at a newsagent that had English papers, and trying to save for a retirement to the UK eventually. It was a warm September day, so we had lunch at a pizzeria on the front. On the way back to the airport the possible options were explained to me; I was earning £12,000 at the time, and they were talking about £20,000 tax-free. Very tempting. So I called up my ex-boss, who was working for a company called UCC, consisting largely of ex-Cincom people (as did many of the major IBM software companies at the time).

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