Recently my friend and colleague Claudia “Scottie” Knott was inducted into the DLA Hall of Fame. This got me thinking about where she and I were in our careers when we met in the early 1980s. As everyone knows, the Department of Defense has always been an information technology leader and was an early participant in the development of the Internet. Leveraging the ability to make information, communications, and transactions available on a broad scale has had a positive impact on DOD business processes. I’m happy to say that Scottie and I were a part of that evolution at DLA and had big dreams for leveraging technology to support business processes—what we now call eBusiness. Today I’ll give you a look at this evolution up until the time of the Internet. Next week, we’ll continue the discussion with the significant innovations brought about in the post-Internet age.
Life before Big Data: Pre-Internet Times
Originally, data processing was accomplished on a local level. If two organizations needed to share data, they hand delivered or mailed completed forms to each other. Data had to be manually entered at each location where a computer would then process it to produce the desired effect (e.g., create paychecks, release stock from a warehouse, or bill a customer). Besides the duplicate labor, the margin for error was increased each time the data had to pass through another pair of hands to be processed. Punched cards were a great innovation. With punched cards, the margin of error was reduced because one computer could punch the card and the next computer could read the card, successfully preserving the information for data processing. This translated into measurable savings. But they had to be kept in a specific order for the computer to read the cards properly (think major disaster if a box was dropped) and they still had to be mailed (think slow, not to mention possibly damaged or lost). Even magnetic tape had to be mailed if another computer elsewhere needed the data to perform its job.
The next innovation for DOD was AUTODIN, the AUTOmatic DIgital Network. AUTODIN eliminated the mail and made worldwide data sharing a reality. Originally AUTODIN ran on second generation computers that used semiconductors instead of vacuum tubes. These computers occupied a large amount of space and required a LOT of air conditioning. (Read more about that here.) What was practically miraculous about AUTODIN was that it made point-to-point transaction processing a reality. It was Electronic Data Interchange before the term was coined. DOD was stepping up its eBusiness game as early as the 1960s, when AUTODIN first went live.
AUTODIN solved the problem of transferring massive amounts of data in less than 24 hours between two computer systems that were far apart, but the language of AUTODIN was bound by 80 card columns. The precise position of a letter, number, or blank in those 80 spaces communicated enough information to convey—in the case of a requisition for supplies, for example—what was needed, who needed it, how much of it was needed, where it was to be sent, and who would pay for it. In order to accomplish this, an intricate series of codes was developed so that one or a few characters could convey a lot of information. Think about your 140 character limit on Twitter for a moment! In order to communicate via AUTODIN you needed a big manual with formats, codes, and dictionaries, so it was not very accessible; if you didn’t need to work with it, it wasn’t worth learning.
“Dumb terminals” were the next big advancement where regular workers could send inquiries to their local mainframe to get the latest, as of last night’s cycle, information about a contract, an account, the quantity of stock on hand, or a personnel status. These terminals were shared, often among a hundred people or so. And competition for a seat at one could be fierce. While these tools brought the power of computing closer to individual workers, there was still a long way to go to get to eBusiness.
When the first personal computers (we actually said the whole thing at first, not just “PC”), showed up in the office, they went into a room that could be locked at night. There was one (1) per Division. We could create graphs and print them right on the transparencies. It was very exciting. If the boss wanted to change it, you just printed a new one! We used patterns in the bars and pie sections and symbols on the data points for line graphs because we didn’t have color printers at the time.
In the 1980s there was a lot of local creativity going on throughout DOD. People saw new technology, like PCs, and came up with some pretty creative ways to use it. Scottie Knott impressed us all with leveraging downloaded mainframe data into a PC word processor to produce action sheets for contract administrators. I don’t think that little program—what we might call an app today—was mentioned in the write up for her Hall of Fame citation. Nonetheless, PCs allowed us to move from writing elaborate requests for programming, to ordering a download we could manipulate on a PC ourselves. The power of computing moved one step closer to the people doing the work and eBusiness was beginning.
I also worked with Scottie on the DLA Pre-Award Contracting System (DPACS). The objective of this system was to eliminate mainframe paper output by delivering it electronically to the desktops of the buyers. Programs, not yet apps, assisted the buyers in tracking workload, creating and distributing documents, recording activity and results, and finalizing procurement actions. You have to understand that this was truly a novel concept. It was met with a lot of skepticism and the budgeteers were having a very hard time with the expense of putting a PC on everyone’s desk. This was a client-server application which meant a lot of downloading and uploading to get and send data to the mainframe, but we could actually see the drop in paper consumption and, as the learning curve was overcome, an increase in productivity. While the mainframe remained the backbone and was updated only every 24 hours, client server activity could happen in real time—another ground breaker for eBusiness.
Next week we will discuss all of the changes that we experienced in the post-Internet age. So what about you? Do you remember punched cards and magnetic tape? What’s your favorite technology throwback? Add your comments below.