Graham Jones (Surrey, British Columbia, IT Pro)
Graham Jones emailed me the other day asking to share his experiences after coming to the realization that it's been 40 years since he finished his Engineering degree. 40 years is a long time and during that time he has amassed some interesting experiences. I jumped at the chance and this is the first in a series of posts on his experiences over the years.
A few days ago (May 25th) I suddenly realized that it had been 40 years since I graduated from the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology (UMIST – pronounced “you mist”) with a degree in Chemical Engineering. This set me thinking about all of the changes that I have seen in the computing world over that time and the many different things that I have worked on. Every single position that I have had has involved computers in some form, in part because I made it my business to look for the opportunities; in some cases in something of a pioneering cause. I thought that I would relate my experiences and at the same time hope that it would illustrate some of the changes in computing over the last 40 years, at least as I have experienced them.
As a young, “wet behind the ears” engineer I went to work in one of the process plant design departments of a very large company called Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI) in the UK. In those days ICI was second only to DuPont as a worldwide chemical company and employed 125K people in the UK alone. Although I had dabbled in a very limited way at University (paper tape input using a language called Atlas Autocode) I wasn’t really familiar with using computers to solve engineering problems. To set the scene I should explain a little about where computing is relevant in Chemical Engineering. First of all the name Chemical Engineering is a little misleading. It is really about the physical properties of materials and applied physics. Sure, there is some chemistry involved but only in so far as it relates to the ways that it can be used to produce higher value products or dispose of by-products for environmental reasons. Today the term Process Engineering is often used and that is really more descriptive.
I have always had a “there must be a better way” attitude and computers have been a great tool to help me follow that maxim. My first opportunity to apply this approach was when I was asked to design a new process plant based on minimal data from the research department. Although ICI was a large and progressive company practically no use was being made of computers to assist in engineering calculations at that time. Besides computing was the “domain” of the commercial end of the business and that territory was very closely guarded as you will see. Designing process plants requires vast amounts of calculations many of which are iterative in nature. The other challenge was that there is no one unique solution. There are many possible solutions depending upon the starting assumptions and the commercial viability could vary from profit to loss depending upon those assumptions. In other words commercial optimization was a real challenge. Since all calculations were being done by hand using a mechanical calculator (turning the crank sure made for a sore wrist at the end of the day) only 2 or perhaps 3 options could be considered realistically. It wasn’t total guesswork. Obviously experience was a guide as to what to consider.
“There had to be a better way!”. So I set about teaching myself Fortran (66 in those days) and developing a mathematical model where I could change the main process variables at will. Unfortunately I was up against a tight time schedule and the Project Manager was breathing fire for results; ones that he could see that is and not some Fortran program that was proving difficult to debug (remember I was a computer “rookie” at the time) . I think that he also liked to frighten “rookie” engineers J. Fortunately I had a very progressive boss who kept him at bay. In the end the biggest challenge was getting computing time on a “commercial” mainframe machine (IBM 360). Remember I told you that it was very closely guarded. The charges for technical work were made so high as to discourage it. My boss gave me the “green light” and I managed to spend his entire annual computing budget in 1 week, which kind of even freaked him out. Nonetheless he stood by me and I finally got it working. Very proudly I went to a project meeting where the PM was now about to get me canned and I presented a series of graphs (plotted from the computer results) showing the profit sensitivity to various process parameters. There was a “deathly” silence followed by “wow, we didn’t know that you could do this!”. My very first JIT experience! Thus began the computing revolution in that design department. I am sad to say that the “commercial” guys were still very resistant (their hardware don’t you know!) and it took quite a few years for that to change. More about that in part 2.
Graham Jones is the president of VANTUG going on 5 years now. He is passionate about the user group community in Canada and offers assistance to both newly formed user groups as well as those that have been in operation for years. He is also organized Vancouver Techfest and is the founder of IT Volunteering two ambitious projects that change both the IT community and the public community for the positive.