Disruption Stories

Stories abound about ways in which the Internet has been a disruptor to business and the status quo.  Back in the early 90s I got to witness the carnage and bloodshed firsthand at the University of Tulsa.

As I said in the About…History is written by the victors, and the folks who were the high priests and priestesses of the mainframe at TU got swept away.

These were folks at TU who grew up professionally with the Honeywell CP-6 mainframe.  This was the system that I programmed with punch cards in the early 80s as an undergraduate.  Ten years later it had been upgraded and was now a Honeywell/Bull DP-6, and relocated from the Business Administration Hall to the basement of Zink Hall.  The punch card generator/reader was still there, now sitting in an empty room filled with DEC VT100 terminals.

Sidebar:  the original machine had been financed by TU by a BOND…the lore is that it was a 50-year bond, but CAN YOU IMAGINE?  A mainframe computer, financed as though it would be the only big tech purchase for one’s lifetime.  This is the same logic that prompted IBM President Thomas J. Watson to declare in the 1940s that the worldwide market for computers was 5 machines.  When the Honeywell/Bull exited the building in 1994-5, the University was still paying debt service on it.

The programmers, analysts, managers and directors who had dutifully toiled in the service of this machine were still there: many I recognized from my undergrad days.  This was their life’s work.

The rise of desktop computing in the mid to late 80s began to change all that, and many of the staff didn’t embrace the changes.  I remember one former analyst, Matt Nowatny, who held a foot in each camp.  In the new reality of supporting little machines in offices all over campus, he wouldn’t leave the building to come fix your problem until you bribed him.  Secretaries would call over and say “Tell Matt I’ve got brownies today,” which was his cue to come fix things.

The leadership then was firmly entrenched in supporting the Administrative systems of the University:  General Ledger, Grades, Financial Aid, etc.  If you were in a discipline that used technology (Computer Science or Engineering), you were supported and had been all along.  If you were perhaps a Nursing faculty, or Foreign Languages Professor, you were on your own.  There wasn’t much in the realm of Academic Computing support initially.

The democratization of technology, as clerical staff all over the campus nudged aside their typewriters, meant new ways of doing things.  The campus radio station, KWGS, when faced with budget cuts that would do away with their clerical support, bought Macintoshes for everyone and wired up an AppleTalk/LocalTalk network.  Director of Broadcast Services Frank Christel was one of the early adopters and evangelists — we often tag-teamed in training classes.

Ever hear this quote from John Perry Barlow at the Electronic Frontier Foundation?

“The Internet treats censorship as a malfunction and routes around it.”

That was what we were doing — the newly-founded Computer Resource Center, routing around the Computer Services department, which was not fully supporting these new microcomputers on campus and their connectivity to the Internet.

In another post I’ve written about how I spearheaded the widespread adoption of the Internet, initially in the form of email, then followed by Lynx, Gopher, NCSA Mosaic, and later Netscape to name a few.  Those changes were actively resisted by the Computer Services leadership:  Director Rick Priest and Associate Director Nadine Moyer.

Nadine was a 32-year-veteran of the University, and was the poster girl for the Resistance.  She seemed convinced that the new regime, led now by new Associate Provost for Computing & Information Resources Reed Davis, was moving entirely in the wrong direction.  So to either (a) get her out of the way, or (b) hope that she might drink the KoolAid, her office was moved.  Across the hall from me.  In the heart of the new regime.

She didn’t last long, before she retired with honors.  And I got her office chair.

Rick Priest was apparently ripe for reform — after sticking around awhile I hear he moved on to another higher education institution, and he reinvented himself: got his CCIE, learned the nuances of TCP/IP and the OSI layers.  He may even still be in the game, somewhere…

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