What we miss about MIS: 5 old-school ideas that weren't so bad

Nobody wants to go back to punch-card programming, but some other old tech practices could stand a revival. Cobol, anyone?

Back before the age of the PC, men in computer science -- and they were almost always men -- wearing white shirts, ties and pocket protectors spent their days punching data requests onto cards.

IBM System/360

This was the highly specialized, highly centralized computing environment of the day, centered on machines like the IBM System/360, launched in 1964. The System/360 was programmed with punch cards (formally called Hollerith cards, named for Herman Hollerith, who invented them in 1887 for use in census tabulating and started a company that would lead to the formation of IBM).

The cards, which measured 7-3/8 by 3-1/4 in., the size of a dollar bill before 1929, were processed by machines that could support up to 8MB of internal memory (though in practice, such large amounts were almost unthinkable) and another 7.2MB of external storage, via 16-in. disk platters.

On such machines was built the entire hierarchy of MIS -- management information systems. Today, both machine and management style look Neolithic. Storage space, processing speeds and data volume have expanded far beyond what few in the 1960s could have begun to imagine, and the stove-piped, glass-towered, heads-down MIS departments of old have given way to decentralized, service-oriented, business-focused IT organizations.

Few of us, if any, want to return to days spent feeding punch cards into a room-size computer, and yet some elements of the MIS culture were sweet indeed. Here are a few good things we wouldn't mind revisiting.

Programming -- and debugging -- were simpler

"You could teach just about anything you needed to know in two weeks," says Julian Horwich, who in 1964 graduated from Northwestern University and went to work as a systems engineer for RCA, then an IBM rival. Horwich jumped to Abbott Labs in 1966 to work in MIS, and in 1976 actually set up the computing department at American Critical Care, a division of American Hospital Supply.

In 1984, Horwich founded CAMP IT Conferences (then known as the Chicago Association for Microcomputer Professionals) to support the early PC revolutionaries struggling against the prevailing mainframe mind-set of MIS departments.

Horwich liked that it was easier to learn how to program in the early days -- simpler systems and infrastructure meant that skills were easier to master. The trade-off was that you couldn't get as much done, says Horwich, who holds no love in his heart for punch cards.

"If you missed one chad, one column in what you were key-punching, the whole program could bomb," he recalls. "I prefer [today's] instant turnaround." (See "Old-school programming techniques you probably don't miss" for more annoyances from the early days.)

After a program bombed, or crashed, the printer "had a very distinctive sound," recalls Dennis O'Connor, who started in IT in 1965, operating a Honeywell 400 with eight tape drives for Blue Cross of Virginia.

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