25 Stories About Work – Lost Productivity and Typing

I was recently on a plane doodling and thought of some funny / interesting stories from 25+ years of working and traveling. So I decided to write them up as short, random chapters of a non-book with the title of this post. Hope you enjoy them and / or find them interesting. Certainly the value will be at least equal to the marginal cost of the book (zero)…

Vermont, the early 1990s

When I was interviewing for my first job I had a chance to visit IBM in Burlington, Vermont. At the time IBM had a large contingent of workers and management staff at that location. On an unrelated note, IBM still has about 4000 workers in the state, and recently offered a company $1B TO TAKE THEM OFF THEIR HANDS. To confirm, they were willing to sell this business for negative one billion dollars (to quote Dr. Evil). And the sad thing is that the “buying” company wanted IBM to PAY THEM two billion, so they rejected the “offer”. Read about it here.

I had been on a plane maybe once or twice previously and was completely clueless about what to do. I packed my bags and took a cab to the hotel. In the morning, before my interview, I got into the shower and turned on the water. I did not think to check what the temperature was before I got into the shower and it happened to be set on a scalding level; I ended up falling back out of the shower, grabbing the curtain on the way down, and scattering the shower curtain rings throughout the bathroom. I wasn’t seriously hurt. To this day I always check the shower temperature while standing outside the shower stall (or tub) and I only go in when it is at an appropriate level.

The day started out on an ignominious note (with the shower incident) and the interviews were a disaster. I think we ended the day with a discussion that maybe someday I would at least utilize IBM equipment (they were primarily a manufacturing company at that time) since it seemed obvious that I wouldn’t get a job offer in Vermont.

What I remember most of all was the endless sea of desks. IBM had workers that manually calculated their managerial accounting reports and they sat in a giant room that seemed to go on for infinity. I don’t have a photo but in my head it looks something like this…

When people gnash their teeth over job losses for some reason they always bypass accountants. Managerial accounting work used to be done by hand, with hundreds of individuals using whatever computational tools were available (the accountants drove the use of the first mainframes and tabulating machines, for example) to create the reports that were used to manage our pre-internet economy. When I was at IBM I gazed out at the (modern looking) cube farm that did all of this (semi) manual work. Today, of course, these jobs are long gone.

My first job was in auditing. When we prepared annual reports for small governmental entities, we wrote up the financial statements BY HAND and took them over to the typing pool. The ladies (they were all women) would look to see if they could find the template from the prior year’s audit. If not, they would manually type the financial statements including all the notes and all the numbers (in column). They weren’t typewriters, but they were early generation computers that were sort of dumb terminals. At least they didn’t have to use white out.

When the reports came out, you had to manually check every word and every letter and every number on every page. It was very tedious. After the report was completed, you had to “page” through every copy when they produced them to make sure all the pages were bound together (it wasn’t as thorough, but it still took a while). You had to re-check every column and re-total them because this was long before the days of spreadsheets.

The typing pools were replaced by the time I left that audit firm and the administrative assistants on each floor, too. I remember when they fired all of the administrative assistants – that was a sad day because they were among the few constant people on a large floor when everyone was traveling and going from town to town.

Rarely do you hear anyone lamenting all of the lost jobs from accountants and typists doing manual work before computers were widespread but it was a bloodbath.

Cross posted at LITGM

8 thoughts on “25 Stories About Work – Lost Productivity and Typing”

  1. White collar people were happy when blue collar jobs were eliminated in massive numbers. It saved them money and the people being hurt meant nothing to them. When white collar jobs start to disappear suddenly yo have a purported national tragedy.

  2. Ah, Burlington. Satanism, Ben & Jerry’s and Bernie Sanders.

    I’m sure the locals officials (read New York arts community) were relieved that a tool of the military-industrial complex like IBM was run off. (actual locals having never recovered) and the facility is now a sustainable arts co-op.

    Seriously, these stories are great, please do continue.

  3. White collar people were happy when blue collar jobs were eliminated in massive numbers. It saved them money and the people being hurt meant nothing to them. When white collar jobs start to disappear suddenly yo have a purported national tragedy.

    Creative destruction. Nobody notices until his own job or those of people he knows gets destroyed. It’s not going to stop.

  4. Remember the old joke – was it Truman? – it’s a recession when your neighbor loses his job, but it’s a depression when you lose your job

  5. I had an audit client in the late 1970’s, in a very depressed smaller city in the Eastern US, they were a back office doing property management and related administrative functions for a NYC-based company with locations across the country. Their fixed asset accountant was a stubborn elderly gentleman who both refused to retire, and refused to use more current technologies than he was comfortable with. As a back office, nobody really pressed the point, and the many low-wage older ladies employed there were loyal to him.

    The old gent kept the depreciation schedules in a massive leather-bound book with columned pages, by hand in a really remarkable script, by fountain pen. It looked like some of the best, most attractive calligraphy you ever saw, all for the transient and seldom-referenced property records of a rapidly dying, old-line business. There was nothing remotely value-added about it, and when the first IBM and Compaq PC debuted a few years later, with the miracle of Visicalc and that upstart disruptor Lotus 123, it was clear that whole swaths of such clerical offices would no longer give meager employment to those rooms full of mostly unproductive people.

    Although that old man may have wished it were so, the world simply does not stand still.

  6. Gee, Carl. I always check the temperature of the water with my hand before I get in the show — even at home.

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