In the 60’s Fifth US Army Headquarters was located near Hyde Park in Chicago at 51st and Lake Shore Drive with information technology operations at the Data Processing Service Center at 1819 West Pershing Road in a building then known as the Quartermaster Building. Data processing at this facility used Electronic Accounting Machine (EAM) 80 column punch card based methodology that morphed into the magnetic tape based large computer (32K; yes kilobytes!) mainframe world using a new software tool called COBOL (Common Business Oriented Language). Eighty-five-year-old Rear Admiral Grace Murray Hopper who dedicated her life to the Navy passed away in 1992 on New Year’s Day; the pioneer Computer Programmer co-inventor of COBOL was known as the Grand Lady of Software, Amazing Grace and Grandma COBOL. She’ll be remembered for her now famous sayings, one of which is “It’s easier to ask forgiveness than it is to get permission.”
Computer programmers including myself were her ‘love children’ because this simplified language facilitated design, development, and implementation. Army personnel and accounting applications were converted from punch cards to COBOL mimicking basically the same “standard” EAM procedures until the Fifth Army Command Operation Budget (COB) was fully automated in 1965. This system was a veritable case study of accounting application development, data collection, procedural documentation, user interfacing, and technical implementation.
I was fortunate and honored to have led the task force that accomplished this Information Technology milestone. COB has been renamed, upgraded and implemented across numerous business systems. The current iteration and various other acronyms evolved from efforts of the mostly unheralded team of enlisted men and Department of Army civilian personnel commitment to the project and to each other.
The acceptable error rate, warp speed technology and ‘quicker, faster is better’ mentality of contemporary systems would be well advised to adopt the principles of the ‘ancients’. These pioneering implementers had an acceptable error rate as well; it was zero.
There were three commanding officers during the administrative duties of my tour of duty in the Army; two articulate West Point trained CO’s and a rugged highly decorated combat CO. The common denominator being the philosophy that “personal abilities notwithstanding, the best leaders are those that can bring out the best under their command”. This and the abilities to sell, to teach, and to mentor are invaluable attributes.
During a Data Processing Section meeting, I was the lone dissenting voice to the query by the Service Center’s commanding officer, “if everyone was in accord that the Fifth Army Command Operating Budget (COB) would require 9 to 12 months to be automated?”; the position taken by the acting director and his assistants. After I made some caustic criticism of the methodology presented. The CO then asked me to step outside for a “private word”.
He admonished, “we were prepared to package this requirement, and mark it ‘insufficient time to comply’ since the Budget must be done by the end of the fiscal year in six months. The units will begin their manual procedures in a month. So was it stupidity, arrogance, or an ill advised sense of humor that made you take such a position. I have seen your work and you are far from stupid, but you do have an abundance of the other qualities that I mentioned.” “So Specialist Hill what have you got?” the end of my enlistment was approaching and I was undecided as to whether I would extend and become an officer, take a lucrative civil service position, or enter the private sector.
I replied, “Nothing definitive other than the notes I took during the meeting; Sir.”
He proceeded after several expletives, “I have a policy that you should be aware of, which is —- if you criticize a plan, you should have an alternate method of approach or explicit details of the inadequacy to the proposition.” “I am going to adjourn this meeting until tomorrow; be prepared to give YOUR plan”.
There were comments (derisive, jocular, and supportive) by cadre, and soldiers did what soldiers do —- establish a secret betting pool as to whether I would get “shot down”. When the odds dropped from a high of 20 to 1 against to a low of 4 to 1; I discreetly placed a $20.00 bet through an intermediary and publicly placed a ‘reluctant’ one dollar wager. The odds went up and settled in at 12 to 1; an old gamblers adage applies, “The big possums walk late”.
After some words of encouragement and the current requirements were given to me by the executive secretary I outlined the methodology to be used. Four months, six work day weeks with 10-14 hour days later the development phase was completed. Implementation went down to the wire due to submission of data from some traditionally slow reporting units. The success of this project can be measured by the number of spin-offs and individuals who subsequently claimed authorship; victory has many fathers, but defeat is an orphan. The reality —- a team worked to its potential and an individual replaced a lot of arrogance with a little humility.