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My First 15 Years

The then new IBM System/3 (announced September 15,1969) in our machine room: 16-Kb RAM memory of ferrite magnets, a maximum of 4 2.5Mb disk drives, and small 96-column cards replacing the larger 80-column cards (below).

96-column card and 80-column card

Technical Writer

In 1969 the IBM World Trade Corporation had set up in Milan an international Program Development Center (PDC) to produce 5 customisable accounting applications (Pre-Planned Applications) written in RPGII for the IBM System/3, first in a location at Bastioni di Porta Nuova then on the ground floor and basement in via Tonale:

  1. Billing
  2. Stock Control
  3. General Accounting
  4. Accounts Receivable
IBM locations at Bastioni di Porta Nuova
and via Tonale, Milan

As well as:

  • A mammoth program in Assembler, called Control Program, having the task of turning out 'custom-tailored' versions of the above accounting applications for each customer, based on their answers to questionnaires later punched and processed.

At right my US boss, Publications Manager Paula Coughlin - of clear Irish descent - in a photo taken at my wedding reception.

Incidentally, the open space arrangement of our Center was another total novelty.

A linguistic/cultural curiosity: I discovered then that a desk front panel was called "modesty panel" in the USA, since it concealed the lower feminine limbs.


Another cultural curiosity was represented by the sudden sprouting of beards and moustaches on the faces of many foreign colleagues - a fad that I hastened to follow in 1970 and maintained for the next 26 years.

This was due to the fact that in many countries IBM frowned on facial hair on its field personnel. The most curious case, however, was that of our Japanese colleague for a different reason: the outlandish colour combinations of his dress style. When we managed to come up with a sufficiently tactful question, he explained that IBM Japan's dress code was very strict: mandatory black jacket, trousers and tie on a white shirt - being free from it abroad had unleashed a total colour anarchy .

I felt secure enough to get married
in August, 1969

Initially I was entrusted with writing the manuals in support of the General Accounting e Accounts Receivable applications, then only the latter after other writers - one from South Africa and another from Great Britain - joined our merry group.

IBM's application development was a process minutely covered by a massive manual called the Orange Book - from the colour of the covers of its binder.

It included an Alpha Test phase, i.e. a 'conceptual' test based exclusively on written documentation, to be performed by a totally indepedent unit which would emit lists of errors and warnings with varying levels of severity.

In our case, the testing unit was located at the IBM Deutschland Lab in Böblingen. Here in May, 1969 I witnessed a few other cultural curiosities:

IBM Research, Böblingen,
Baden-Württemberg, Germany
  • Our German colleagues addressed each other formally, using the respectful Herr or Frau+family name and Sie rather than the informal Du (the equivalent of You).
  • At 4:45 PM, when we Italians had just warmed up in our technical discussions, they recommended us to return to our hotel, not because they feared a dialectical defeat but since at 5:00 PM sharp EVERY German would promptly leave for home, creating a traffic jam at the exit of the internal parking lot.

A successful Alpha Test would be followed by the subsequent phases of product announcement, development and a Beta Test before its market release.

Our first Alpha Test in Germany was unsuccessful owing to conceptual problems in our Control Program, but exceptionally we were allowed the chance of repeating it a few months later in Italy, at our Vimercate plant. This was unsuccessful too, for the same reasons. Incidentally, this ambitious application strategy was never repeated in the future, presumably because too complex to implement.

In the meantime, I was sent in October, 1970 to an international 2-week course for Technical Writers. The event was sponsored by IBM France's La Gaude Lab: the only hotel that they could find in the area with some 15 rooms and a meeting room available was the Hotel Majestic on the Croisette, the second best hotel in Cannes. My expense account for the event was DOUBLE the amount of my then monthly salary, reimbursed without batting an eyelid.

The main lesson from that course was that our manuals needed not be a long sequel of drab text pages and that a few figures/illustrations could make them more readable and less tedious . To be fair, at the time we did not have the graphic tools that became available years later, and artwork could only be prepared by internal or external draughtsmen. Our manuals were then prepared as CRC (Camera-Ready Copy) sent outside for offset printing.

Hotel Majestic, Cannes,
Côte d'Azur

Anyway, at the end of 1970 the IBM World Trade Corporation decided to 'freeze' our Center for a year, with the idea of giving it another misssion later on. Foreign personnel was sent back to their home countries, Italians were reassigned to other units - except for a minority sent to residencies abroad with the intent of forming a new nucleus for our future tasks.

Technical Writer/Editor

So it happened that I was offered, and eagerly accepted, a residency of 6 months in a sister unit in London and another one, again for 6 months, in San José, California - a rare opportunity at that time since foreign assignments were normally for 2-3 years.

In January, 1971 I went to London to see my new environment and find a centrally located apartment, since my intended work location was is in Wigmore Street, just north of Oxford Street in the same block of the Selfridges department store.

Eventually I found a modern, furnished 2-room flat at Collingwood House in Clipstone Street 8-10, W1 near the GPO Tower, a half-hour's walk from my office, and rented it - parking facilities at reasonable prices were very scarce in Central London, convincing me to leave my little Fiat 500 in Italy.

IBM UK Ltd. location in Wigmore Street - Map of Central London (A: my flat) Selfridges in Oxford Street
Collingwood House in Clipstone Street and GPO Tower (background) - Oxford Street in December, near Oxford Circus (background).

I was assigned as writer to a group developing a Cost Accounting application.

A month later, I was told that my California residency had been cancelled. A pity, however a year in London was not bad after all, I was getting used to it again after having spent 2 weeks there 10 years earlier, for an event called the International Youth Science Fortnight.

Another month later I was told that my home unit, which financed my residency, had been dissolved. From a free reasource I would therefore become an expense for IBM UK, so they changed my job (no longer a single application but several, this time as both Writer and Editor), my manager and my work location - now in Croydon, 20 Km to the south and a half-hour by train from Victoria Station.

IBM UK Ltd., 17 Addiscombe Road, Croydon, Surrey

Logistically, a decided step back. Anyway, with stubborn determination I managed to overcome this obstacle, too.

I took the opportunity of residing in England to fly over to Edinburgh, rent a car and tour the whole coast of Scotland - 2,500 Km over a week at the end of August, with a weather mercifully mostly fair.

I had wrangled some better conditions for my foreign assignment: besides a higher housing allowance, 3 paid return trips home rather than the usual 1 per year, in consideration of my 3 yearly University exam sessions.

Back for my autumn exams, I hastened to our Personnel Dept. to learn what would be of me upon my return to IBM Italy, since my peculiar line of work was viable only in a now extinct environment. I was told not to worry, I would be retrained as a Systems Engineer in one of the regularly scheduled Basic SE Courses. When informed of this, my British boss asked me to stay a further year with them and take the course there at Hursley, a fine compliment all considered, since I would not be productive for half my time in the UK. I thanked him for his gracious offer but declined, since I intended to straighten out as soon as possible my career in Italy.

IBM Research, Hursley House,
Hursley Park, Winchester, Hants

In January, 1972 I was back at our Personnel Dept. asking when/where my retraining course would start.

They looked at me in some surprise, saying that those courses were no longer on schedule because IBM Italy had stopped any new hirings. What of me, then? After some hesitations, I was assigned to our Translations Department as an editor, having firmly refused resuming any translator's activity.

Trainee Systems Engineer

Fortunately, this unrewarding experience lasted only 1 year. In January, 1973 a new course was started, lasting only 2 months, to retrain various internal 'wrecks' lying about the company. Incidentally, this short duration made me think that the main purpose of this type of course was not so much imparting IT knowledge but rather forming a proper IBM mentality, which in our particular case was considered as already acquired.

Trainees of the 1973 Basic SE Course (left) at the IBM Education Center, Villa La Tassinara (right), Rivoltella del Garda

Systems Engineer (SE)

At the end of the course, I was assigned for a couple of years to Milan B's CATA (Centro Assistenza Tecnico-Applicativa) in via Fara, supporting Milan provincial customers with an IBM System/3 or the newer, smaller IBM System/32.

As a Systems Engineer, my official mission was assisting customers' application development activities, but oftentimes it consisted - unofficially - in writing RPGII programs for them, since their competence was limited.

The IBM System/32 - Location of CATA in via Fara, Milan

Marketing Editor

In mid 1975 I was assigned to an international marketing support group in Segrate, consisting of 3 centers:

  • BSSC: Basic Systems Support Center (IBM Systems/34-38)
  • MABSC: Maritime Systems Support Center (IBM Maritime Bridge System/7)
  • SBSSC: Sensor-based Systems Support Center (IBM System/7)

These Centers were financed by IBM's major European countries (Germany, UK, France, Italy), but were mostly used the IBMs of smaller countries.

IBM's HQ in Segrate
The IBM System/7 was a process computer used in strange industrial applications, like managing navigation and load balancing in supertankers through a bridge-installed console featuring a radar repeater (MABSC), or air-conditioning in Moët & Chandon's cave cellars for ageing champagne (SBSSC), to cite a few examples.

Initially my task consisted in writing the SBSSC newsletters, then also in revising those produced by all 3 centers.

The IBM System/7 - IBM 5090 Bridge Console

At that time IBM was involved in a myriad of anti-trust court actions, which meant for me the pleasant need of frequent trips to Paris in order to get clearance from the Legal Office of our European Headquarters (EHQ), located in Cité du Rétiro, rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, before they could be distributed albeit internally, so that our plaintiffs would obtain no further legal fuel for their complaints.

Cité du Rétiro, Paris, 8me arrondissment

I had perfected a smooth routine: flight from Milan at about 2:30 PM, arrival at my Paris hotel (usually the Lotti) at about 5:00 PM, dinner, a nice concert at the Olympia or elsewhere, the following morning at 8:30 AM a stroll and a café serré along rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré to our EHQ, an hour's work, then back to the hotel to close my suitcase and pay the bill. The rest of the day: visits to museums or exhibitions until return flight time, at about 9 PM .

Hotel Lotti, rue de Castiglione 7

In July, 1977 I took the opportunity of a seminar in Helsinki, at the Hotel Kalastajatorppa (Fisherman's Hut), to rent a car for a couple of days and tour 1,000 Km of Carelia, the Finnish region of lakes and woods bordering the then URSS.

At the time, Finland's nervous awareness of their heavy neighbours was very much in evidence when, miles before reaching a lake with shores in both countries, one would see at the roadside giant placards in various languages warning that stopping, using binoculars and cameras, etc. etc. was absolutely forbidden there and entailed heavy fines.

Trainee Sales Representative

3 years later I was ready for a more challenging career change: in 1978 I was back at Rivoltella del Garda for another Basic Course, this time of 2 weeks, for Sales Representatives.

Sales Representative (SR)

Thus it came to pass that I became for 4 years an IBM Sales Representative in Milan North Branch Office, located in via Viviani. Our Division handled customers with medium/small systems and received different labels over the years. I recall one: Divisione Informatica di Base (DIB), the Italian equivalent of the corporate General Systems Division.

Location of Milan's DIB Branch Offices in via Viviani

In 1979-1981 I was a new-account salesman, in 1979 teamed up with another SR on a territory in the NE part of the province (pink and yellow areas on the map at right), then on my own in 1980-1981 (yellow area).

In 1982, an account salesman with a portfolio also including all the local-authority customers of our Branch Office.

My sales territory, 1979-1981 (yellow)

In 1979-1982 the hardware in my sales 'catalogue' included these systems:

IBM System/38, IBM System/34, IBM Series/1, IBM 3740 Data Entry System, IBM 5520 Administrative System

As well as the precursors of the IBM Personal Computer:

IBM 5100 Portable Computer, IBM 5110 Computing System, IBM 5120 Computing System, IBM System/23 Datamaster

The IBM Personal Computer made its debut in August, 1981. IBM had observed these strange creatures on the market for a whole year, before deciding to enter the arena after making in its Boca Raton Lab some strategic choices:

  • Engine (microprocessor): Intel rather than Texas Instruments or Motorola.
  • Fuel (operating system): DOS rather than CP/M or UCSD.

This last choice made the fortune of "someone" and was eventually lethal to IBM in this market.

The IBM 5150,
better known as
the IBM Personal Computer,
then simply as IBM PC.
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