When the computer sowed terror at work

Posted on February 27, 2022



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A continuation of La Traversée du Siècle, a story from the 1950s onwards, inspired by the personal memories of Yves Montaigne, keen on economics and politics from a young age.
It evokes the arrival of the fearsome computer in the family business SME in France, at the end of the 1960s.

We are in May 1968 in Châtellerault, a medium-sized rural town.

Only public companies went on strike and there are no demonstrations. The only inconvenience comes from the end of supply to service stations and does not affect our company, which has its own stock of petroleum products.

Bring money to survive

So my career is almost following its normal course. Today’s problem is more money than ever: it returns chronically poorly, and even worse when the post office fails.

The only graduate of the company, which at that time employed about 300 employees, my job was mainly finance insofar as our interlocutors in this field were mostly alumni: therefore, it is up to me to clear this puzzle of lack of money. in the boxes. ..

The analysis is simple: the company has 100,000 customers Including many individuals, highly geographically dispersed.

Moreover, they often benefit from the indulgence of local executives, “branch managers,” paid according to sales rather than receipts.

To make matters worse, the bills themselves take a long time.

Our company, which is overseen by automatic monitors, harshly mocks outside regulatory advisors.” Who charge a lot of money to know what others know, but don’t come up with a solution In other words, they will see our nonsense and tell the director everything.

So it is up to me!

She graduated in 1964 from the Ecole Centrale in Paris. We didn’t talk about computers, the word was unknown. On the other hand, we learned electronics and thus had an idea of ​​how quickly what at the time was a series of LEDs and capacitors, and thus huge objects, could be processed.

In addition, office machines with punch cards and some electrical mechanisms gave an idea of ​​the path to follow.

Threatened access to a world of ideologues

I tell myself then that we shouldn’t be the only ones in our profession with this problem.

In fact, I ended up having to do with a competitor, but nonetheless a friend: coal, which was still very present in the energy field at that time, and for more than a century gave birth to the kind of company whose members often met.

These friends will get a very modern machine: “ a 3rd generation computer I began to speak of it inwardly: it is a cry, with a mixture of ignorance and fear: the machine is necessarily inhuman and will stumble.

I managed to convince the chief accountant to accompany me to this fellow. Before, convinced that I would come back cure my madness.

When I say “chief accountant,” neither he nor his staff had any training in this area: their knowledge, carefully kept in secrecy, was a heap of “advice” collected at random from conversations.

Their fear was that they would meet a “real accountant” who would reveal the limits of their skills.

We have to go back to the professional context of a time when no management training was available to non-Bachelors, mostly at the time.

HEC was part of a very private world, inaccessible and little known. And then, in 1960s France, a trading company, it was not very well seen.

How many times have you heard: I have three children, two are gifted to study and must pass the post office competition, but I have problems with the third, will you take it in your work? “.

This is why I have often had to hide my technical or accounting knowledge that I acquired at Centrale and Sciences-po, so as not to offend them.

Useful trip

In short, here we are on our way to the unknown and ready to face the devil. My companion said to me “I’d rather drive. We have Massif Central to go, I’ve settled down well with a few Pineau des Charentes glasses and am ready to ride for several hours non-stop.” It is a reflection of the times: driving a car is a way to show that you are in control of the situation.

To show me what he knows about computers, he alludes to his recent conversations with his colleague Dupont, this rival’s chief accountant, who would have shown him the futility of the machine.

We arrived and were very well received. We discover Forme d’Ambert wines and local wines. My companion appreciates him and makes him known.

But right away, there is no Dupont. ” How is he doing ? An awkward silence, then. How, you don’t know… he committed suicide the day after the decision to buy the computer “.The atmosphere is doubly burdened with news and a hunt for the flagrant offense of our chief accountant.

We get to the office when the machine” Delivered. Enter through the window. ” Look how small it is Our fellow fans say, Just a big fridge In fact it was only this ‘central unit’, because a large room was needed to accommodate not only this ‘refrigerator’ but also magnetic stripe storage cabinets, large express printers and all related equipment. It was nonetheless a major advance compared to the larger 2nd generation fixtures. .= (See History of computers on Wikipedia)

Remember that today’s smallest mobile phones process infinitely more data per second from this large refrigerator.

Explanations follow and I am quickly convinced by the interest of the equipment provided: We are almost immediately history of each customer, Whether there were 10,000 or 100,000 of them. You can print all agency customer records, or just output one.

Limit still the same: since we cannot place such wonders everywhere, they must be housed in the main office and this centralization of course is very upsetting in agencies …

Another miracle: the device keeps the data in a corner that can be used by accounting, so the latter is well prepared.

Hence the concern of poor Dupont who, rightly, imagined that the machine would soon do much more than “set up” the calculations. In fact, we know today that the role of the chief accountant is more important than ever, and that it is essential employees who are under threat.

Now we have to learn

I’m convinced, but I can’t be satisfied with this certification and my little knowledge of electronics. I have to train myself.

IBM gets to know the future customer and engages me in training sessions for their sales staff. At the time, these merchants were responsible for selling more or less sophisticated card machines, so there was something concrete to see.

But computers are “black boxes”. You can’t see what’s going on inside, or even understand it (except for the rare engineers at the manufacturer). How do we understand then? The unfortunate shopkeepers were sweating profusely and couldn’t follow the interior engineers’ explanations…

For once, my initial training as an engineer was very useful to me and I came back as a good coach.

Then explain…

I bypassed the very difficult constitution of the IT team, because it was clear that there was no one in the local labor market and the creation of internal programs, since there were no ready-made programs for this new material.

Agency employees used their time at headquarters to turn around to the mysterious rooms where the programmers raged: “ All those people who work without seeing results “,” If they get there one day, you will see that they will come and make us angry “.

It must be said that the interface at that time was a precursor to the hateful “MS DOS”, all in an icon, without the “desktop” or “icons”, the graphical interface that Apple invented in the 80s. Thus, the programmers were completely unable to show anything legible when we passed through their desk.

The programs are over, and the training of their users continues. Programmers weren’t capable of that back then… and many computer scientists still are to this day!

It was necessary, and always seemed necessary, to pass by someone who knew how to distance himself from technique. Only the head of this small service could do this, and he began to wander through agencies where he was not always well received!

Little by little, we got used to seeing countless PTT (Public Service) trucks arrive and leave. Post and telecommunications. France Telecom and La Poste were born only in 1988 and 1991, respectively.): the data arrived, the billing was left to the high-speed printers.

It took years to get used to: The computer erred again “,” I prefer to keep carrying my little cards in parallel »…not to mention the suddenly updated tricks, such as discrepancies between stocks and bills that show we ‘forgot’ to bill friends!

But the human race is adaptable in the end.

A few years later, we were the third French company to operate an international treasury by computer…by connecting to the only known server at the time, deep in the United States. Replace oil with coal. The oil crisis of 1974 greatly increased the amount of money that had to be raised and paid. Without computers we would not survive!

How not to paint today in parallel with Fear of robots And artificial intelligence? Although history teaches us that all technical improvements have raised the standard of living and the standard of employment, this is not the general general feeling.

As much as the American was raised learning that he would have to change jobs and move many times in his life, it seems pretty daunting to the French. We remember the revolution of boats that smashed new looms… and which nonetheless made clothing affordable.

on the web

cross the centurythe story from the 1950s onwards, is inspired by the personal memories of Yves Montaigne, keen on politics from an early age.

If you missed previous episodes:
#1 – From Korea to Vietnam (1951-54): Geopolitics from my childhood perspective
#2 – Algeria, Hungary, and the Suez Canal: 1954-56, everything is complicated!
#3 – School, Germans and English in the 1950s
#4 – Disastrous rulers and Algerian affairs put an end to the Fourth Republic
#5 – USSR, 1964: Incredible Journey
#6 – 1963 The American Francophone
#7 – Desert
#8 Adventure in Laos (1974-1984)
#9 Chirac (1967-1995)
#10 – President Senghor, French and African
11- Romania, behind the Berlin Wall
#12 – Middle East circa 1980
#13 – Entrepreneurship in the Middle East: The disaster hardly averted
#14 – The Disappearance of the Ancient Civilizations of the Near East
#15 – My Korea

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