From Burning Blue to Big Blue
It's hard to say how far Dad would have gone in the RAF if he'd stayed in. He was an exceptional pilot and a very competent officer with a lot of leadership ability, but he was also a South African and a bit of a maverick. In his era the British military was still undergoing the transformation from the rather class– and tradition-bound pre-war institution it had been to the top-notch modern force it is today, and his colonial roots might have hampered him.
But as it happened, the question never arose, because circumstances forced his hand; my mother, probably the only person he never succeeded in intimidating, was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia not long after I was born, and he opted to seek custody of me and become a single parent. This was quite a startling step for a man, particularly a military officer, to take in the mid-1960's; Dad, however, probably didn't even realise that he was doing anything unusual, as he was capable of being spectacularly oblivious to the prevailing social norms.
It meant that overseas and combat postings were out, and that he would have to fly a desk from then on. It didn't take him long to realise that, apart from affecting his chances of future promotion, this was also going to be very boring. The commercial computer industry was just getting going, and he decided to switch gears and retrain himself as a programmer.
So, in 1968, aged 44, he resigned his RAF commission and went on a programming course in Yorkshire, learning COBOL, RPG and IBM System/360 Assembler. After completing the course, he opted to return to South Africa with me.
He took to programming like a duck to water – and the more challenging a task was technically, the more he enjoyed it. He struggled a bit to find his first programming job in Cape Town, as many employers felt he was too old, and had to do clerical work for a few months, but at last he found an opening at Protea Assurance, writing complex actuarial applications, and he never looked back.
Although he worked on several mainframes of the period, including Burroughs and ICL machines, he quickly developed a passion for the best-of-breed IBM System/360 and System/370 mainframes, and after joining SCS, he worked on IBM systems until his retirement in 1989.
Where marvellous machines are concerned, I think his all-time great love probably remained the Handley Page Hastings – but it was a damned close-run thing, and like most people who have a lot of experience on IBM platforms, he remained a True Blue IBM bigot until his death. IBM technology is, quite simply, the best in the world, and once you've been exposed to it, nothing else ever quite comes up to scratch.
SCS was very much an IBM shop (and was eventually bought by IBM as part of an outsource deal). During Dad's tenure there, SCS occupied a floor in the old IBM Building in Wale Street, Cape Town, and he made many great friends at IBM. I started my IT career at SANLAM in 1990, but moved to IBM for two years in 1993, and so many of Dad's friends and colleagues became mine as well.
And yes, although it's 15 years since I last worked for them, I'm still a True Blue IBM bigot, and will be until I drop!