Pinning Richard Woodwards down for an interview is not easy. As an IT Site Support Engineer, he is almost perpetually out and about, visiting client workplaces, installing cables and datapoints, and moving all sorts of pieces of hardware around. When I met him, he had just returned from a long job in Covent Garden involving the installation of a new fryer for upmarket burger restaurant Shake Shack. ‘I wasn’t installing the fryer, but I had to move two computerised tills to make way for it when it was delivered, and then reinstall them afterwards. Of course this all had to be done after hours – so very late in the evening,’ he explained. ‘Everyone always forgets the infrastructure,’ he added, with something of a sigh.
He speaks with the voice of experience. Richard’s 40-year career traces the whole history of business computing, since he first answered an advertisement in the Oxford Mail for ‘a computer engineer with no experience’.
At the time, Richard knew nothing about computers, though he did have electronics experience thanks to a two-year apprenticeship learning how to service and repair TVs and radios. He remembers that the job was working for a software house which wrote bespoke packages for businesses and supplied them on 8-inch floppy disks.
‘At the time, a typical business would have one computer in the accounts department, connected to a dotmatrix printer’ he remembered. ‘It was theoretically a desktop, but it would take two people to lift it. All the different programs were stored on separate disks. You would choose the disk you wanted, put it in the machine, and it would boot up the program.’
Computers then started to get bigger, and Richard moved to a new job in the Milton Park trading estate where he started dealing with mainframes – large, rack-mounted computers with Ampex diskdrives.
All sorts of businesses were keen to take advantage of the benefits of computerisation, though it turned out to be quite a large step for some. Richard remembers particularly a tweed mill where all the administrative staff still worked at Victorian sloping desks. The computer had to be installed in a small room right at the top of the building – because it was the only place with a flat desk!
For the next 15 years or so, Richard worked for a number of different companies repairing mainframes, wordprocessors, boards, and all aspects of computer hardware. ‘We even used to repair keyboards, which today are just seen as cheap and disposable, not worth fixing,’ he said. By the early 1990s, though, the ‘writing was on the wall’ for repair centres, and IBM PCs heralded the next wave of development for business computing.
At this point, having been made redundant in 1991, Richard went back to college, thinking he never wanted to see a computer again. But a shortage of jobs meant that he got sucked in again, and this is where what we might call the ‘dark’ phase of his career began…
Perhaps it was something to do with the internet, with the looming Y2K issue, or perhaps just the realisation that computerisation was here to stay, but for a good ten years Richard was much in demand by all sorts of security services to help move, set up, or scrap computers.
He was asked to meet people at Motorway Services to discuss jobs. On one occasion he was asked to meet the client in a carpark in Newbury and they wanted to blindfold him before leading him to the interview location. One day he found himself alarmingly close to a nuclear reactor. On another he was working for the Ministry of Defence in a bunker built in an old granite quarry.
It was at the MoD, too, that he saw curtains being drawn across interesting-looking maps as he walked into the room, and where he saw three scrambler phones marked ‘The White House’, ’10 Downing Street’, and ‘The Kremlin’. At least the ‘missing floor’ in the Belfast HMRC office turned out to be the result of mislabelling in the lift!
After 2000 he continued to work as a contractor, until one contract turned into a five-year permanent job in-house. He was made redundant in 2008, moved to First Line, and the rest is history.
Looking back, Richard said he is most struck by how much has changed – but how fast we have got used to every change as it happened.
‘There was a time when printing out an order on a dotmatrix printer and taking it into the warehouse for picking counted as “automation”,’ he said. ‘Now you have robots making whole cars. I could sometimes spend two or three days on a client site fixing a computer system that had gone down, but it didn’t matter because people were still running most of the business on paper. Imagine how well that would go down these days! And we’ve gone from massive computers that would take up entire rooms to smartphones that are more powerful. It’s all so interesting. I’m going to be working with computers for as long as I can keep going and as long as First Line want me.’