Minicomputing Testimonies

Vic Saunders entered the computing world as a programmer, switched into sales and later moved to management. This career path led him from the mainframes of the 1960s through a 1970s bureau service to the minicomputers that evolved into enterprise systems in the 1980s.

As one of the early recruits to Digital Equipment’s sales organisation in Dublin, Vic represented the computer maker at a time when it outshone all the other vendors in the Irish systems trade.

Back to the 1969-82 timeline

Aer Lingus employees could avail of low-cost and free flights when I worked at the airline’s computer department in the 1960s, but it was hard to find free days when we could take advantage of these perks. Programmers like me didn’t have easy access to the airline’s mainframe computer during the day, so we often tested our software on the system after six o’clock. I worked long hours at night, saved up my time off and travelled to somewhere different in Europe as often as I could.

My first encounter with computing was in London. I had left school after the Leaving Cert and went to England after a short spell in a solicitor’s office in Dublin. While working in a British Rail ticket office, I replied to an Aer Lingus advertisement in the Irish Times. The airline wanted someone for its London reservations office in Regent Street and I got the job.

The best decision that I ever made was to sign up for a night course in Assembler programming at a private training company off Regent Street. This course was not connected with my day job at Aer Lingus and I spent money that I didn’t have on it. By the end, however, I understood the basics of computing.

Aer Lingus acquired two IBM 1440s in 1964 – one to hold passenger data and the other to run financial applications – and built a computer centre to house them at Dublin airport. The company already had a core group of programmers and systems analysts, but needed to grow its computing staff. It therefore held aptitude tests among its employees and selected some for retraining as junior programmers. My experience with Assembler may have helped me to score well enough on the test to become one of those trainees. The others included Kevin Jones (who subsequently introduced Oracle to Ireland), John Holmes (who led Cara Software in later years), Jim McEvoy and Brian Pelow.

I joined the revenue side of Aer Lingus computing, writing programs based on analysts’ specifications. The fundamental systems were already in place, so the junior programmers worked on maintenance, upgrades and add-ons – bits of multiple applications rather than major development projects. Everything was written in Autocoder.

Brendan Scully was the manager in charge of financial applications. Ollie Mooney oversaw the reservations system. Liam Grimes was responsible for processing operations. The senior software guys included Brian Ennis, Terry Doyle, Tom Wall, Peter Airedale, Declan Kiely and Pat O’Malley. Roy Johnston was the flight and personnel scheduling wizard at the airline and Eamonn Giblin was like an in-house consultant who was called in whenever something went wrong. He flitted between the two 1440s.

Software testing was a really slow and arduous process. I was a steady programmer but some of the others knew much more than me about Autocoder. Whenever I needed a bit of assistance, it was always there. Everyone in the software group was fairly young. We helped each other a lot and often went for a pint together. Kealy’s on the Swords Road was our pub.

I returned to London in 1968. A job agency set up interviews for me in eight companies there over two days. All of those companies offered to pay my travel costs, because there were very few people available with real computer experience.

The Evans Outsizes chain of clothing stores was one of the companies. I became an analyst-programmer and the second in command at its computer installation in Kensington High Street. Evans, which was soon acquired by Burton Group, had a Univac 9300 – a 32-bit machine with tape drives instead of disks. We used Assembler for programming.

Evans ran a stock control system based on Kimball tags and a mail order application. We had a special machine that read those tags, which were made of cardboard and contained punched holes. Whenever the shops sold a garment, they removed the tag and sent it to us for processing.

My next move was in 1974 when a consultant who was close to Univac asked whether I would be interested in returning to Ireland. He introduced me to Eddie French, an accountant in Dublin, who was one of the founders of Riomhaire Teoranta. This start-up, which had already obtained state funding, aimed to compete against bureau operators that were selling data processing services into Ireland from locations in other countries. It was building a facility at Furbo in the Connemara Gaeltacht to house a Univac 1106 mainframe, as well as opening offices in Dublin and Manchester.

I joined Riomhaire’s Dublin office in Harcourt Street as customer service and communications manager. Sales manager Derek MacHugh was also based there.

Riomhaire used Datacom as its trading name. This title referred to the way that it offered remote access to the Univac 1106 over telephone lines. The company installed a punched card reader and printer on each customer’s premises. I was responsible for supporting this equipment and the online connections.

Payroll was the primary application, but most of the customers asked the bureau to run additional software, usually written in Cobol. Univac had developed good applications, including scientific software, that its partners were entitled to sell. Riomhaire offered these to organisations such as the Meteorological Service.

I joined the company in the expectation that its online style of bureau service was going to become something big, but the computer industry was moving in other directions. Riomhaire attracted about half a dozen customers, including RTE, Tara Mines and An Foras Forbartha. The Manchester office sold a timetabling service to schools in England.

Texas-based University Computing Company (UCC) acquired Riomhaire in July 1976. UCC was another bureau service with Univac mainframes and had been our principal competitor. The new owner shut the Harcourt Street office and we moved into its premises in Dun Laoghaire. I did not like the set-up there. Day-to-day operations continued as before, but we had merged into a much bigger organisation.

Derek MacHugh joined Digital Equipment after UCC brought Riomhaire and I followed him there in 1978. The company took me on as a sales engineer – my first job in sales after a succession of technical roles. I had never seen myself becoming a salesperson, but found that I enjoyed the job. Training courses helped me to make the transition. In fact, I never knew a company that trained its staff so much.

There were about fifteen people in Digital’s Dublin office in 1978 – three or four in a sales group and the others divided between engineering services and software support. I worked with Pat O’Sullivan, Frank Brennan, John Gray, Finbarr Power, Frank Waters and Brian O’Mahony. Liam Foran was in charge of customer services and Gerry Tierney was one of the engineers.

Digital started on the ground floor of Park House on North Circular Road, then took over the whole of the second floor. By 1986 there were 40 to 50 people in the office and we had occupied two of the upper floors.

Digital was producing very good hardware and its partners were offering an increasing variety of applications software. Some of the bureau services, indeed, had become Digital OEMs, installing the company’s computers inside customer organisations. With the power of our PDP-11 machines, you could do pretty much everything at a reasonable price.

Digital’s activities centred on its PDP-8 and PDP-11 systems when I joined and the OEMs were a big part of the business. Most of them brought in financial applications from the US or UK and adapted them for Irish customers. Cara, ICS Computing and Mentec were the big three.

Mentec also supplied real-time applications to manufacturers, using a central PDP-11 to talk with PDP-8s on the factory floor. The company did a fair bit of work on PDP-8s in the US, especially in Massachusetts. Its founder, Mike Peirce, came from an academic background and had good contacts in the production facilities. Applied Management Systems, which was led by Matt Crotty, also worked on the PDP-8.

ICS Computing, which was headquartered in Belfast and also ran an office in Dublin, sold its own accounting package on both sides of the border. Tom Winter was the managing director while David Laird, Gordon Bell and Nelson Miller were senior managers. ICS was one of my big accounts and I found that they were tough negotiators.

A second tier of OEMs included GC McKeown, Online Computing, which was founded by Denis McMahon, and Datasystems, headed by Paul Murphy.

Digital introduced the new VAX generation of computers during my first year with the company. Its VMS operating system was a programmers’ dream, because it was so reliable and easy to test software on. When Cobol became available on the VAX the conversion process for PDP-11 users with Cobol applications was simple. We never had problems getting them up and running. We were very hard to beat.

One of my early sales was a DECSYSTEM 2020 mainframe for IAWS. Golden Vale also bought one of those machines and later migrated to the VAX. The company ran bespoke software developed by GC McKeown as well as a number of packages. McKeown’s Alan Lee, who was based in Limerick, supported the Golden Vale installation.

By the early 1980s the customer base had gone through the roof, driven by a combination of the OEM business and more direct sales to large organisations. There were hundreds of PDPs and dozens of VAXes in Ireland then. We were very hard to beat. None of the other vendors had the same combination that Digital had.

Data processing became a lot more manageable – not only because the hardware was more reliable but also because users could do more with the software. In contrast with the mainframes that I had worked on in the past, it was now possible for six to ten people to handle a big system. The typical OEM customer, meanwhile. was running accounts and payroll with just a DP manager and one other person. The OEMs did everything else for them.

I ended up as the manager of all Digital’s non-government business in Ireland. This entailed regular contact with the largest customers – people like Brendan Murphy at AnCO, Frank Curtin at CIE, Gerry McEvoy at Golden Vale and Dennis Jennings at UCD.

Several Aer Lingus people had now moved into CIE, which developed its own transaction processing software for the PDP-11 and later transferred it to the VAX. Aer Lingus had provided a great foundation for computer careers in the 1970s and former employees could now be found in many of the large installations.

We took our Irish customers to America quite a bit, introducing them to Digital sites like Merrimack, New Hampshire and Marlborough, Massachusetts. These visits gave them access to the product designers. The information exchange with the US was a two way street. Digital’s system developers asked customers like AnCO and CIE to try out new things and provide feedback. For example, where AnCO installed the first VAX model – the 11/780 – to run its Cobol applications, Digital engineers in Boston supported the conversion project.

I moved to Digital Equipment UK for my last four years with the company, based in its Reading office and working with more OEMs. I returned to Ireland in 1990 after Oki Electric asked me to set up a subsidiary in Tallaght for its telecoms equipment and ‘intelligent printing’ technology.

As an Oki manager, I not only spent time in Japan, but also travelled widely around Europe, returning to a lot of the places that I had visited when I was a junior programmer at Aer Lingus. I stayed with the Japanese corporation until I retired in 2007.

Digital had not only given me a rounded knowledge of the IT business in Ireland, but also taught me what it took to be a managing director. My Digital experience enabled me to hire good people for Oki. In addition to selling its products in Ireland, we had the autonomy to build a successful service business for printers, PCs and minicomputers. No one else in Oki Europe did that.

Practical experience is very hard to beat.

Last edit: November 2021

© Vic Saunders 2021