Cath's Computing

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A recent visitor to the museum was interested in our succession of stories from male long-term computer programmers, so she thought we might like to hear her story. It's a good one and a great role model for today's prospective female computer scientists. Thank you, Cath!

Cath writes:

My first encounter with a computer was in 1980. I was attending an interview at Nottingham University to study mathematics. In the room where we were asked to wait were a few VDUs connected to a PDP 11/70 that allowed guest access to a demo program. This intrigued me. I successfully gained a place and as part of my first year took a programming course in Algol 68, working on the campus water-cooled ICL mainframe. That year, the maths department announced the introduction of several named degrees, one of which was Mathematics with Computing, which I decided to work towards. It involved courses in C-programming, compilers, operating systems, computer architecture and language theory, many of which were being presented for the first time. I pride myself that I was the first woman to graduate this course with honours in 1983.

My first job after graduation was with a small company in Milton Keynes where I maintained a hotel reservation system written in C and cross-compiled to run on the company's own micro computer. This was of course in the very early days of the IBM PC and the market for micro computers was wide open. Sadly, the company ran into financial difficulties and folded 11 months later. It did enable me to meet my husband though, one of the electronic engineers.

I next joined a company which manufactured fork lift trucks. Here I was programming mainly in PL/1 and Cobol but also in a 4th generation language called Gener/ol. I was also introduced to DL/1 hierarchical databases. The company owned and operated its own IBM mainframe. This job enabled me to gain experience in many functional areas such as MRP planning, sales, product costing, accounts, purchasing, spare parts and servicing. The software was an eclectic mix of bought-in and home-grown systems and our user base was close at hand. The firm was purchased by a German company in 1994 and they were already heavily committed to running SAP. Since it was clear that mainframe programmers would not be needed long term, I left in 1997.

My next and current job was with a global distribution company with headquarters is in California. The IT department was mainly in the east and west coast of the USA, but as they were expanding in Europe, they had decided to start a satellite group in Milton Keynes. Programming was again in Cobol on an IBM mainframe and I was assigned to support the supply chain systems including order fulfilment and inventory control. The company was in a period of rapid expansion in both Europe and Asia Pacific and this afforded a great many opportunities to travel. I have been fortunate to work in most countries in western Europe and also in USA, India, Australia and the Philippines. This job also expanded my skills to include DB/2 and latterly to specialise in the installation of print servers to generate the internal and customer-facing documents required by our warehouses, using initially software generating PCL5 and more recently Postscript.

As was common around 2005, the company saw outsourcing as the way forward and shrank its in-house development team. I fortunately survived this and was one of a number tasked with knowledge transfer to the first of two outsourcing partners in India. More recently this has started to be reversed and we have employed teams in India and the Philippines who perform the majority of the development. My focus is now on mentoring and maintaining quality, although I do still manage to code.

The system focus has moved to more distributed platforms with systems written in C, Java and more recently .NET. However, the core ERP systems remain on the mainframe.

During my time with this company I decided to expand my knowledge of computing through study with the Open University to gain a postgraduate certificate in Computing for Commerce and Industry. Courses included project management, object-oriented design, Java programming, database design and data security. Although I have not used all of these skills professionally, it has given me insight which enables me to work successfully with other teams.

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