25 Stories About Work – New Technology and Productivity

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)…

The USA, early 1990s to mid 2010s

Oftentimes I can remember clearly the first time I was exposed to new technology. Unfortunately these stories don’t have “light bulbs” going off in my head like in a cartoon; it usually involves me being befuddled and trying to determine why this technology is innovative or even useful.

In the early to mid 1990s I was at a client in Reno, Nevada when the manager on our engagement showed me their “calendar” application. This application let you set up meetings with other employees, or show if you were going to be out of office or unavailable. The interface was very simple (like a mainframe “green screen”) and I kind of stared at it for a while. Why can’t you just call around and set up a meeting at a particular time, I wondered aloud. However, we were consultants, so while we worked all day (and into the night), the client’s staff were forced to attend meetings during most waking hours. It still seemed like overkill to me to have a giant system just to set up meetings, however. Obviously history has proven me wrong and calendar applications are the “killer app” of the modern productivity suite.

At around that same time I was at a client in Cincinnati, Ohio when another consultant showed me a PDF document format. He explained (very patiently, in hindsight) that if you created a PDF and then had a viewer application it would work on every kind of computer, whether or not they had the software that you created the document in. I was confused. Didn’t everyone have Microsoft office? Couldn’t they just open it in word? Once again I missed the big picture.

Email was around for a while but it didn’t catch on fire in our profession (consulting). A lot of this was due to the fact that we spent our days at the client site and the client (where we did most of our work) was on a different email system from our consulting company’s email system. Thus the most useful email wasn’t your firm email, it was the client’s email, because this would let you know when meetings were occurring and get important data from the client’s directly (although we usually used shared drives). I do remember my sense of accomplishments when I sent my first marketing email to a known client in the mid to late 1990s… I was waiting like that kid in “A Christmas Story” who wanted his secret decoder package from Ovaltine for a response to my meticulously crafted email… and of course it never came because I was late to the party and the potential customer had already gotten used to be inundated with marketing email (and ignored it).

One time we were volunteering in the 1990s for a CPA firm doing taxes for the poor, and there was an older guy next to me. He did not seem technically savvy at all. Somehow we were exchanging emails and his email was something like TOM@AOL.COM (it wasn’t Tom, but a common name like that) and I looked at him, astonished – he must have been one of the first to join AOL to snag an email handle like that. At around the same time another co-worker bought up a midwest state like ILLINOIS.COM (it wasn’t Illinois) and the rumor was that he sold it for $1M.

While it sounds insane today we used to spend a lot of time hooking our vendor PCs right into the corporate networks. We would just plug in to the jacks and work with their technology (network) guys and get access to what’s on the network. There weren’t any controls that stopped you from doing this, and it was a great productivity tool (we could print, share files, use their internet connection, etc…). Nowadays this is usually accomplished with a “guest” wifi network, although you still can’t print or share files this way.

One of the other consultants used Compuserve to pay their bills, since we were on the road most of the year. I watched him one time and it was quite a laborious process, but early technology adopters are often fierce and motivated to complete efforts like this that promise short term time costs but long term gains. It is this desire to fix and transform that often motivates the best engineers and programmers. Today almost every bill is paid online.

I remember the first time I used a computer to do a seat assignment on a Delta airline flight; we were in and out of Cincinnati which was a big Delta hub so I was one of their best customers. They used to give you double miles if you booked a seat via their web application (through your PC, of course, this is long before mobile internet tools). The fact that you could choose something dynamic like this was an amazing feat of technology at the time, and a big time savings from booking travel via phone. Now you are penalized for NOT booking online.

Cross posted at LITGM

6 thoughts on “25 Stories About Work – New Technology and Productivity”

  1. Back in the 90s I had the idea of getting a web site – wbco.com. In 5 years I got maybe 5 inquiries – so I made the mistake of letting the domain name lapse.

    Next thing I know some porn company grabs it and of course all my business cars say wbco.com

    Last I heard a radio station in Ohio has it – where it will probably stay.

  2. I was at Dartmouth when the web address thing was going on. I remember reading about a guy who claimed IBM.COM and several others that had not occurred to me. I had used subscription services to do searches on the national library of medicine, then the American College of Surgeons made it a member benefit, then it was free.

  3. In the early nineties I was living in Australia but supervising work in Britain. The time gap was marvellous: I’d receive an e-mail (or whatever we then called it) in the morning, have all day to turn it over in my mind, and then return suggestions and instructions before I went home. At the other end they’d absorb my missive, do a day’s work, and type up a description for me. Being obliged to type it up worked well; people got into the habit of reflecting on what the lessons of the day were, including me.

    But a decade earlier my wife had had endless trouble trying to run programs on a computer in Edinburgh from her desk in Cambridge. As usual, advances in IT had been overhyped: the speed with which improvements were introduced and became reliable had been exaggerated. Still, they arrived in the end.

    From the late 80s I miss Lotus 123.

  4. In the late 80’s we replaced our DEC PDP-11 16-bit computer / RACAL based CAD tools with UNIX based tools that ran on Apollo or Sun multitasking workstations. It was like going from coal to nuclear power.

    We used to fly mag tapes of data to other divisions around the country. For smaller data transfers we would use a modem, RS-232 and a bit of software called Kermit. Sometime around ’91 or ’92 I used our newly installed internet connection to transfer a large design database across the country in under an hour. No errors. I was astounded.

    Around 1995 I used a web browser, MOSAIC, for the first time at work. I knew something fundamental was changing. I could not foresee something like Amazon.com or iPhones existing a relatively short time later.

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