Information Technology Pioneers: Birth of Digital
In the 60’s Fifth US Army Headquarters was located near Hyde Park in Chicago
at 51st and Lake Shore Drive with information technology operations at the Data Processing Service Center at 1819 West Pershing
Road in a building then known as the Quartermaster Building. Data processing at this facility used Electronic Accounting Machine
(EAM) 80 column punch card based methodology that morphed into the 32K magnetic tape based large computer (32K; yes
kilobytes!) mainframe digital data processing world using a new software tool called COBOL (Common Business Oriented Language).
Eighty-five-year-old Rear Admiral Grace Murray Hopper who dedicated her life to the Navy passed away in 1992 on New Year’s
Day; the pioneer computer programmer co-inventor of COBOL was known as the Grand Lady of Software, Amazing Grace and Grandma
COBOL. She'll be remembered for her now famous sayings, one of which is "It's easier to ask forgiveness than it is to
Computer programmers including myself were her ‘love children’ because
this simplified language facilitated design, development, and implementation. Army personnel and accounting applications were
converted from punch cards to COBOL mimicking basically the same “standard” EAM procedures until the Fifth Army
Command Operation Budget (COB) was fully automated in 1965. This system was a veritable case study of accounting application
development, data collection, procedural documentation, user interfacing, and technical implementation.
was fortunate and honored to have been the de facto leader of the multi-ethnic task force that accomplished this Information
Technology milestone. COB has been renamed, upgraded and implemented across numerous business systems. The current iteration
and various other acronyms evolved from efforts of the mostly unheralded team of enlisted men and Department of Army civilian
personnel commitment to the project and to each other.
The acceptable error rate, warp speed technology and ‘quicker,
faster is better’ mentality of contemporary systems would be well advised to adopt the principles of the meticulous
‘ancients’. These pioneering implementers had an acceptable error rate as well; it was zero ---- the credo being
“GIGO - garbage in, garbage out”.
There were three commanding officers during the administrative duties of my tour of duty
in the Army; two articulate West Point trained CO’s and a rugged highly decorated combat CO. The common denominator
being the philosophy that “personal abilities notwithstanding, the best leaders are those that can bring out the best
under their command”. This and the abilities to sell, to teach, and to mentor are invaluable attributes.
During a Data Processing Section meeting, I was the lone dissenting voice to the query by the Service Center’s
commanding officer, “if everyone was in accord that the Fifth Army Command Operating Budget (COB) would require 9 to
12 months to be automated?”; the position taken by the acting director and two assistants. After I made some caustic
criticism of the methodology presented. The CO then asked me to step outside for a “private word”. This was a
reprise of a contentious activity that had occurred too many times for my part.
He admonished, “we were prepared
to package this requirement, and mark it ‘insufficient time to comply’ since the Budget must be done by the end
of the fiscal year in six months. The units will begin their manual procedures in a month. So was it stupidity, arrogance,
or an ill advised sense of humor that made you take such a position. I have seen your work and you are far from stupid, but
you do have an abundance of the other qualities that I mentioned.” “So Specialist Hill what have you got?”
I replied, “Nothing definitive other than the notes I took during the meeting; Sir.” The end of
my enlistment was approaching and I was undecided as to whether I would extend and become an officer, take a lucrative civil
service position, or enter the private sector.
He proceeded after several expletives, “I have a policy
that you should be aware of, which is ---- if you criticize a plan, you should have an alternate method of approach or explicit
details of the inadequacy to the proposition.” “I am going to adjourn this meeting until tomorrow; be prepared
to give YOUR plan”.
There were comments; derisive, jocular, and supportive by cadre, then soldiers did
what soldiers do ---- establish a secret betting pool as to whether I would get “shot down”. When the odds dropped
from a high of 20 to 1 against to a low of 4 to 1; I discreetly placed a $20.00 bet through an intermediary and publicly placed
a ‘reluctant’ one dollar wager. The odds went up and settled in at 12 to 1; an old gamblers adage applies, “The
big possums walk late”.
After some words of encouragement, the current requirements were
given to me by the executive secretary, who had been very supportive. She had also postponed the meeting until after
the weekend, ‘due to some possible scheduling conflicts’ In other words she had bought me some more time.
I then outlined the methodology to be used. Four months, six work day weeks with 10-14 hour days later, the
development phase was completed. Implementation went down to the wire due to submission of data from some traditionally slow
The success of this project can be measured by the number of spin-offs, endless
humorous anecdotes and individuals who subsequently claimed authorship; thereby affirming that “victory has many fathers,
but defeat is an orphan”. The reality ---- a team worked to its potential and an individual replaced a lot of arrogance
with a little humility.
The greatest tribute, honor or award that I have ever received was the day the Budget Review Committee stated the
automated procedures and reports were balanced and correct to the penny. (One section with an over meticulous head always
submitted and kept records to the exact penny.) This assemblage representing sections from the entire 14 or so Midwestern
States Fifth Army area had convened in Chicago to thoroughly examine and critique these “so-called” computer generated
reports. The per diem and bonus/overtime pay had no bearing on coming to the bright lights of the Big City.
A loud New Year’s Eve type cheer erupted and a group of soldiers and civilian participants on the project came
to my desk where I was now a Department of Army Civilian (DAC) at approximately 20 Hundred (2000 or 8:00 PM) to hoist me to
their shoulders to give me a “coach’s ride” to the elevator before proceeding to a neighborhood waterhole
shouting my name all the way. The impending change of technical methodology was symbolized by a large Army truck parked
in the rear being loaded with boxes of used punch cards as a Lieutenant followed by an MP entered the building carrying
a single box with twelve magnetic tape reels encased in plastic containers. The data storage potential of the box of
magnetic tapes exceeded the capacity of the truck filled with boxes of punch cards.
arrived at the bar, I was hoisted atop the bar as the gathering yelled for a speech, which I accommodated with in part with
expletives deleted. “It was said that it could not or would not be done. A betting pool was established, I even made
a dollar.” ---- There was a roar of derisive laughter. “But they were right, I could not pull it off.” ----
More derisive laughter. “But (a series of names associated with the project beginning with the CO, administrative, technical
and support cadre) could!” “WE ALL DID IT” “This joint claims it has the coldest beer
in Chicago, LET’S GET SOME OF IT! ”
The Army issued a directive that all subsequent systems development would utilize COBOL and
conversion of legacy EAM punch card systems would begin as soon as feasible. As the Colonel would say “That means
yesterday or right away, whichever is sooner“. The processing speed and throughput increases were obvious as demonstrations
revealed card processing procedures that would have taken hours or days could be accomplished within the same shift.
The Digital Era was born, someone just had to remove the embryo from the womb.
On the day of my exit interview a year later when I would officially
resign from government service in all capacities, the Colonel and I had a private conversation where we were both misty eyed
and frequently looked away to compose ourselves. The Colonel was staring at the statistical Morning Reports containing the
mounting Vietnam casualties. The reports also contained the names of replacements being called to active duty; ten were
from sections in the administrative building. He glanced up saying as I entered, “Give me a battalion of men and
some company commanders like you and I could clean up this fracas in 30 days.” He chuckled slightly then added,
“That might scare the Hell out of the Viet Cong, but, even the U S Army is not ready for a bunch of (expletive) hot
dogs like you.” Thanked me for my service in the Army and for “having a ‘pair’ big enough”
to challenge the budget system originally prepared to be declined; stating that he was being “handed a snow job by those
(expletive) computer eggheads”. Then admitted that the harsh critical language he had used towards me was;
(1) to bring me down off my “high horse”,
(2) to get the best out of me because he felt that success had
been coming too easy. We both had to laugh after that statement, but I understood, which was
(3) learn to be detail inclusive, but simple in directions ---- reasoning
“If I could convince and explain to a stubborn old war horse like him, a proposition must have merit”.
The KISS system PHD: Keep it simple, stupid; modified by professional, humane, determined. Never overwhelm
someone with a task they lack the acuity to perform Start with a menial confidence building task and “coach them up”
to more difficult activities.
I have used these psychological tactics in subsequent business
matters; but substituted deprecating humor in place of harsh admonitions.