Hardware, Software, and “Magic”: Women in IT

This is Part 2 of an interview with my sister Cathy Amis Griffith who worked for Burroughs Business Machines in the 1970s.  Part 1, “Tooting Your Own Horn From Alabama in the Middle of the Night,” can be found here.

I’ve been reading about women in the IT industry industry and what you might call “geek circles” who express an opinion in public and get a huge vicious backlash. Do you think that the culture has changed that much or that it’s because the Internet gives people a sense of anonymity?

I think that’s certainly part of it, and…there wasn’t a big enough group who knew more than I did. I was the person, like I said, I taught the damn hotline. There absolutely was not a single other living person in the country who knew more about that software package than I did. So nobody could really argue with me after a certain point, because I knew it inside and out and I knew how to “bit-fiddle”…go in and change hexadecimals to fix problems in data files so they wouldn’t have to re-key hundreds of bullshit. The salesmen, who were the people who could have argued, wouldn’t dare do it because they didn’t know more than me. Another tech might, but that just didn’t happen…it didn’t happen to me. There were a few that were kind of cocky, you might say. But I had my own territory and most people were glad to see me. They didn’t give me any crap.

One of the theories I’ve put forth is that there weren’t enough women for people to feel threatened.

Exactly. Exactly…first off, you were either one of two things, and sometimes you were both. You were either good-looking or you were smart, and some of us were good-looking and smart. To do the job I had, you had to be smart, you had to be. To be a salesman in that industry, you had to be good-looking. And I don’t mean…I was not a model, but in 1982 I wore hundred dollar suits and silk blouses and high heels to work. I was corporate looking with a little Southern charm, and it worked. I was engaging, looked people in the eye, had a firm handshake…all that salesy stuff. I knew what to look for…here’s the benefits and there’s the objections and that’s what I’m going to work on, all that. But I also understood how it worked, and I understood their business. So I had all of it. There was nobody to argue with me. Now the rub came when a salesman told a customer that it would do something it wouldn’t do, and it would make them mad, but I would say, “Oh, wait a minute, I think you need to check that.” I didn’t want to embarrass the salesman in front of his customer, but I wasn’t going to let him promise them something that wasn’t going to happen either, because I was the one who was going to have to make it work. I had to protect myself that way, because the customer would say, “Will it do thus and such?” and the salesman would say, “Oh, yeah!” and I would have to say, “Now wait a minute, how do you mean to do that?” I made a few unhappy because the truth was it absolutely would not do what they wanted to tell the customer it would do. But I wasn’t competing with them.

There was a guy who was a tech at Burroughs, David, and we were great friends. He was very techy-looking, soft-spoken, slender guy, wore glasses. But he would talk about the hardware, how fast it would run, then I would talk about how the software worked, what they could do and couldn’t do, and how it all fit together, because it all interfaced with the general ledger and that was a big deal.

What would you tell a woman trying to get into the IT industry now? I know you have been out of it for a while.

I think so much more of it done remotely that it’s kind of a totally different ball game. I don’t even know what kind of sales reps they have now. When I was working on computers, this was pre-PC. The smallest computer I worked on was as big as a desk, and some of them would fill up a room. There’s two things in computers, there’s the system, and I knew a proprietary operating system that Burrough’s had called MCP, the Master Control Program. Like in Tron. [laughs] That movie came out when I was working for Burroughs. Then there’s the application, and that’s really the key, if you learn the operating system and if you learn any kind of way to write programs, and that’s totally changed. Not too many people write in COBOL any more. But you have to understand the business that you’re into, like accounting or my late husband worked with utility companies and he had meter reading programs, that was a specific application. In my opinion the key to successful technology installation is putting those things together, you’ve got to have an operating system that’s user friendly, you’ve got to have hardware that’s reliable, and then you’ve got to have application software that fits the job you want to do. My job at that time was making sure that what we had was a fit for that customer, and then making it work, and I don’t think that’s that different. I think if you’re going to be developing software, you’ve got to learn the techy stuff, but you’ve got to learn the application. Even in education right now, we’ve got some software that I use as a Special Ed teacher and it’s so cumbersome and it makes me crazy. I was a systems analyst, I know what bulky software is. Why do I have to scroll to the bottom of the page and click three times? That’s bullshit. I ought to be able to type it in and let it go. The technology is so way beyond that bullshit. The only reason we’re using it is because it’s frickin’ free, and that’s the truth. I think now, learn whatever the current system stuff is, whatever the current programming language is, and find a specific industry, application, business, something, that you can get into and understand and then you can develop your own stuff if that’s what you want to do. But you’ve got to learn that business I think to be successful.

I think that’s what is missing with a lot of people.

Yes, it was way back then and it still is. The reason we were as successful as we were was that whoever wrote this original package, and it was general accounting and wholesale distribution, understood how it worked. I took accounting classes at night. I didn’t know anything about accounting, I had majored in mental retardation. But because I wanted to do this, I went and took accounting, just so I understood it. As I worked with different companies, I figured out how the payables and receivables and invoicing and inventory, how it all fit together and back to the general ledger and because I understood that, I understood the ramifications when somebody was having problems: “My inventory program is messed up, therefore the value of my company isn’t going to look right if I don’t get this straightened out.” I think understanding the business that you’re working in is really important, and it’s not something you can do overnight either. We had all these acronyms, MCP, CBMS was the Commercial Business Management System, that was the accounting package. MCS was the Message Control System, the networking software that we used. Originally we had a computer and would key on it and it went right into it, and then we started setting up terminals and the MCS would send information back and forth. And then, then it got even more wonderful, because not only could you wire a whole building…you could do it over the telephone line. I thought, “Oh God, that’s MFM if I ever heard of it!” Did I tell you about the MFM? Not to say that salesmen are not intelligent, but…sometimes I’d go off to some school and come back and start telling them about it, and they’d come in with their shiny shoes and new suits and shiny new machines and they’d start asking me questions like they had some vague idea what I was talking about, and one day I just said, “Well, what really pulls this all together is the MFM. MFM, that’s what makes this work. See, I’ve got three stations over here, and you can key it in and it will update the inventory over here and you just run this little program at the end of the day and you can print it out over here with the MFM” yadda yadda, and at the end of this long spiel one of them finally asked, “So, what’s MFM?” and I said, “Motherfucking magic.”