Jim's Career with
English Electric/British Aerospace

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When I joined English Electric Company Ltd. I originally obtained the exalted position of graduate apprentice engineer on the strength of having included some study of electronics as part of my degree course. For the first two months I worked in the company's electronics laboratory, designing, building and testing a specialised oscillator (this, of course, was in the days of thermionic valves; transistors were still in the research laboratory and integrated circuits had not even been thought of).

My apprenticeship then took me through various departments, including teaching me how to use such things as precision milling machines, grinders, lathes, etc. (no numerical or computer controlled machines then), the general theory being that I and others like me would spend an average of 3 months in each of a number of different departments for 4 days per week over a two year period, and then settle more or less permanently into one of them. The fifth working day each week was spent at the local technical college (now itself graduated into Luton University) studying electrical engineering.

At the end of the two year apprenticeship I ended up in what was called the Systems Department. The "systems" concerned were anti-aircraft guided weapon systems. The department's functions were to analyse the expected performance of a basic missile design, leading to design improvements before anything was made, and also to supervise the design and testing of the eventual design, including analysis of telemetry and other results of the tests. The job, so far as I was concerned, was mainly applied maths, particularly control system theory, for which purpose I attended further short courses to first learn the subject and then keep up to date with developments.

Another department provided two quite different services to both ourselves and to the aerodynamicists. A few of these others were high flying mathematicians who specialised in finding solutions to the more obscure and difficult mathematical problems which arose from time to time. The remainder consisted of a large room filled with young girls operating electromechanical calculators, with which they followed detailed instructions leading to the numerical solution of difficult sets of differential equations, and similar problems.

Then the company brought in the very latest technology to take on some of this tedious computation - they bought (from another division of what was still English Electric Ltd.) a COMPUTER!! This remarkable device (known as DEUCE), popularly called an electronic brain, could when suitably programmed do in a matter of a few hours the work a girl would need several days to complete (and a modern PC would complete before you had your finger clear of the enter button). A brief description of this machine is provided for those who may be interested on my DEUCE page.

Such was my introduction to computing in 1960, at first as a mere user, but then illicitly writing my own programs (learning the language from some course notes brought back by an official programmer from his training course). In this way I remained for some years a user with the ability to write my own programs, and so, unlike many of my colleagues, get them in use before they became outdated.

This division of the company had started in Luton, but following the local council's refusal to allow expansion, a second facility had opened on another site 12 miles away in Stevenage. In 1962, following the loss of two major contracts in rapid succession, the Luton site was closed and our entire department, as well as the DEUCE computer and the analogue computer (see brief note below) and their associated staff, was transferred to Stevenage.

Eventually, in 1965, the company decided to change its approach to the whole subject of computer use. Commercial use of such machines was becoming established and so were specialised computer departments to develop accounting and other such systems. The second generation machines were at their peak, especially for the kind of mathematical and engineering design work we were doing, and the third generation was just coming onto the market. A new Management Services department was set up, by taking over our beloved English Electric DEUCE, the huge room full of punched card machinery being used by the accountants and a large analogue machine also used by ourselves (that's another story - programming with a combination of plug boards and a soldering iron was different!).

The first, urgent, task of the new department was to transfer the existing accounting system from the extremely expensive rented punched card machines to a small Honeywell 200, without redesigning the basic system. We were now in the realms of ferrite core RAM, programming in octal, even an assembler language to use. The department was desperate for programmers to carry out this rush job; I had proven ability as a programmer, and wanted to get into the new department, but to join the small operational research section being set up, so we did a bargain - for 6 months I would program the (temporary) Honeywell system, following which I would make the move I wanted.

The first part worked fine, and despite the weird documentation of the old accounting system we got it working more or less on time. The second part of the move didn't work out quite as planned, however. The operational research section was intended to consist of myself working for the former head of the mathematicians/DEUCE computing/electromechanical calculators department. She was a formidable, brilliant mathematician who unfortunately had a poor relationship with the head of the new Management Services department. The result of this was that just before the two of us were scheduled to attend a 3 week course at Birmingham University to learn all about it, she left the company in a huff, leaving me to be the whole section, which I did for about two years (with the help of a couple of new maths graduates for the second year).

After that operational research took second place to systems analysis, and I found myself leading a series of projects to develop systems for various parts of the company (if you want more details, click here (last updated 8th February 1997). It was inevitable that eventually I would find myself dealing with the Accounts department again.

In most departments I found either that the local jargon was simple and easy to get used to, or, in the Engineering area, I was already reasonably familiar with it. Accounts was different. Computer people (including me) spoke one language, accountants quite another, with insufficient English in common to permit any chance of acceptable systems being developed. Another case where inter-departmental relationships were at rock bottom. The only solution I could see, which a few of my colleagues shared, was to learn the accountants language, so for the next three years I spent 2 or 3 evenings a week at Luton College on an accountancy course, and, since I was learning the material, felt I might as well take the exams as well. Hence the letters FCMA after my name, although the final stage of acquiring the qualification required practical experience, so eventually, in December 1979, I switched departments.

Although at the end of the day the computer department still had nobody who could speak "accountantese", at least the accountants had someone reasonably fluent and knowledgeable in both languages. A sort of accounting systems department already existed to attempt to liaise with the computer people, so I naturally gravitated there, although to extend my relevant experience I had a spell as a Principal Management Accountant, in charge of a small team supervising the finances of a number of multi-million pound R&D contracts.

Eventually, after many mergers and company reorganisations, British Aerospace Dynamics Group, of which we were now a part, set up a group-wide Financial Systems organisation, with direct responsibility for Financial Systems departments at each site around the country. One hole in this was that there was no such department at the Hatfield site, just a few miles down the motorway south of Stevenage, so I was sent there to set up such a department (by poaching suitable accountants from among the existing staff there) and then to run it.

This I did for just about two years, at which time an edict from on high said that the Hatfield site was to be closed, and I was moved back to Stevenage, but took the opportunity which then presented itself to leave the company.


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