“The number of things we did in those early years, and the level of ambition, was incredible. One of the things John Simmons always said was that if you were going to do something new, it had to make a difference, and it could only make a difference if your level of ambition was high.”
Frank Land was born in Berlin in 1928, one of identical twin boys. His mother was a university-educated artist from Vienna and his father ran the air compressor and car lifting equipment manufacturers that supplied garages in Germany and abroad including Britain. He was also a partner in the family business providing Berlin’s gas street lighting; they invented remote lighting, so that is could be switched on and off from a single location.
The Land family was one of many Jewish families in Berlin integrated in mainstream society and the idea of pogroms never occurred to them. They were affluent enough to remain comfortable through Germany’s economic difficulties, but Hitler changed all that and as things got steadily worse, Frank’s father was forced to sell his business for a pittance. When one of Frank’s uncles was sent to Dachau, despite having previously been awarded the Iron Cross for his services in WW1, it was clear the family could not stay in Germany.
Frank’s father’s business had a branch in London, so he applied for visas to leave Germany and the family arrived in England in April 1939. After war was declared in September 1939, Frank’s father was interned on the Isle of Man because he was regarded as an enemy alien under regulation 18B. Frank’s mother had to look after herself during the Blitz. Frank and his brother only stayed with her for the first few months until the war started and then he and his brother were evacuated with their whole school to Bedmond, a village near Abbots Langley in Hertfordshire.
Because the children were close to London, they could cycle to see their mother, but she had a difficult time; she was bombed out twice and survived. She managed to make a living making handbags from felt, and later dolls’ clothes. Once Frank’s father was released, he bought a shell company and established the East Surrey Engineering Company, which expanded on the dolls’ clothing manufacture and they made a success of it becoming suppliers to the Woolworth chain of high street shops.
For a brief time, prior to evacuation, Frank attended Essendene Elementary School in Kilburn before the whole school was re-located in the village hall in Abbots Langley. Their teacher at the school was considerate to the Land twins and ensured that they were fully included in the class. She assigned a boy called John Wilson to look after them, to help them with their English. This boy was quite an influence on Frank but, despite his best efforts, he has not been able to get back in touch with him, because the name is so common.
When Frank and his brother reached the end of their elementary school education at 14, they were told to leave school. The headmaster advised their parents that the best occupation for them would be to join the Post Office as messenger boys and work their way up. The boys’ mother had other ideas. When the boys returned to London she went round the various schools, talked to headmasters, and finally got them into what was then Willesden County Grammar School.
At first, the boys were put into the B stream in the year below, but were quickly moved up and they thrived and went on to sixth form, then university.
Together with his brother, Frank applied to the London School of Economics (LSE), sat the scholarship exam but wasn’t awarded the scholarship. He applied for deferment, but didn’t get it; but discovered when preparing for call-up that he wasn’t eligible to join National Service due to the gap in his father’s nationalisation. However, when the LSE looked through their records and noticed how close Frank and his brother had been to getting the scholarship they decided to take them on. Frank and his brother Ralph graduated with a degree in International Trade and Transport from LSE in 1950. He then joined the Economics Research Division and started working for a PhD, but in late 1951, bored by an unhappily chosen PhD topic applied for and was offered a post as clerk in the statistics office of J Lyons, the premier food and catering company in the UK. Before leaving the LSE Research Division Frank spent much time in the Statistical Machine room where he met a fellow Research Assistant, Ailsa Dicken, teamed up with her and subsequently married her. Ailsa stayed at the LSE and is now an Emeritus Professor in Operational Research.
Lyons to LEO
Frank’s first employment bore little relation to anything he had studied at LSE; he admits he may have been naïve about what working in a real business would be like. He worked as a clerk doing the accounts for some of Lyons’ businesses and his work was on a time-and-motion study basis. He soon realised he could easily do a week’s work in three days and so could the rest of his team, but everyone eked their work out to take the full week. Frank’s brother joined the company about 18 months after Frank as a management trainee in the office responsible for operating the Lyons teashops.
The management of Lyons had started the Lyons Electronic Office (LEO) by building their own computer and decided to recruit people in-house to join the LEO team. They set a week-long aptitude test with homework, which Frank found challenging. He managed to struggle through the course with assistance from a colleague from the LSE that he was living with; she was a research assistant and a sound mathematician and with her help Frank completed the course to be taken on to the LEO project.
At the time nothing like LEO existed. Lyons needed to define the knowledge, skills, behaviours, and characteristics they thought potential candidates needed. In the 1920s, Lyons was already recruiting high-calibre people. One of these was John Simmons, a first-class mathematician from Cambridge, whose brief was to reinvent Lyons’ business and keep it up-to-date. He was innovative; he set up the Systems Research Office in the early 1930s, to focus on being as smart as they possibly could. No other business had anything like that at the time. Simmons took many of his scientific management ideas from Frederick Winslow Taylor, but he also developed new ways of improving the efficiency of the business, and providing the management with the information they needed. Thanks to him, every Friday the Lyons’ managers got feedback on what had happened in the previous five days. For this era, it was phenomenal to have a management information system with such a short cadence cycle and Frank Land, before joining the LEO team, was a part of this: preparing the information in the statistics office that was going into the ‘white book’ that went to the management.
The main thing his team was looking at was how well actual production corresponded to the production plans, the sales plans, and to the standards that came from ‘scientific management’ approach pioneered by Frederick Winslow Taylor. There was a standard costing system and a planning system, and one of Frank’s main tasks was to compare any variances and analyse why they occurred. Lyons had an incredibly smart business with little fat on it and Simmons’ people were always looking for ways of reducing the fat.
In 1947, Simmons sent two senior managers of his team, Raymond Thompson and Oliver Standingford to the States to see what new business ideas had cropped up during the war. They saw little that was better than what Lyons had, but they came across the first electronic computers. Thompson saw the potential of computers, which were used purely for technical calculations at the time, for solving some of Lyons’ problems: handling simple calculations that involved a huge amount of data on low-value activities. Traditional methods using pen and paper couldn’t cope with it; punch cards didn’t allow enough flexibility; computers seemed to bridge the gap.
Subsequently, Lyons then started looking for people who had a logical, systematic approach to things.; not only mathematicians, but anyone with logical skills. It was not dissimilar to the early days of Bletchley, where they didn’t just recruit cryptographers, but people who had the range of skills and imagination which could help to understand what an enemy might devise.
Frank Land didn’t so much choose a career in information technology as fall into it and create his career from it. There was no formal training or knowledge transfer at that stage; Frank describes it as being more like an apprenticeship in the early years. He belonged to the second generation of apprentices; four or five people preceded him and they were his mentors. Frank’s mentor was Derek Hemy, one of the people behind the Emidec in the 1960s. Frank says Hemy, “was probably the best programmer I have ever known, have ever seen”.
The Lyons computing machine was a massive investment, and the management knew this new process had to be done properly and meticulously. Before anyone could use the machine, they had to be 100% certain their program would work. Each program was checked by a second person and signed off before it could go on the machine. It was Frank’s job to check the programs that Hemy wrote, which was a huge learning experience and he quickly became a mentor for the next generation. “The number of things we did in those early years, and the level of ambition, was incredible.” One of Simmons’ principles was that if you were going to do something new, it had to make a difference, and it could only make a difference if your level of ambition was high.
Frank’s first major management job was taking responsibility for the computer application controlling all the tea that Lyons purchased. Lyons had their own tea plantations; and they bought at tea auctions on Mincing Lane, and they had bonded warehouses. LEO had to keep control of each chest of each type of tea, and the tea then had to be blended to taste and cost. The Lyons expert tea tasters had to choose the teas, which the computer could not do, and the computer had to keep track of where all the individual tea chests were, their value, and their movements, from bonded warehouse to factory, to packaging and sales. Supply chain management on the tiny computer he was using was not straightforward.
Frank was headhunted by the consultancy CEIR (later Scicon) and offered a major job. Lyons persuaded him to stay, but his head had been turned. When Frank’s wife was offered an academic sabbatical at the University of Wisconsin, Frank was also offered a place, but much to Frank’s disappointment, the management at Lyons turned down his request for a sabbatical. In the end the Wisconsin plans fell through owing to Ailsa’s mother’s poor health, but Frank felt less committed to Lyons and LEO.
In the late 1960s, when the National Computing Centre (NCC), decided that information systems ought to be studied in greater depth at UK universities the NCC offered two grants of £30,000 each to Imperial College, London and the LSE. At the time, Gordon Foster was a statistics professor at LSE (Frank discovered much later that Foster had worked at Bletchley) and saw the potential of information systems for business and had supervised what was probably the first PhD in the field. Foster applied for the grant and Frank met all Foster’s requirements.
The grant was limited, so Frank was appointed as a senior fellow in management in the Statistics Department for 50% of his time to fulfil the NCC grant brief and ran the LSE’s computer services department for other 50% of the time. Once Frank had got the Computer Services department up and running, it became successful. There were two computing platforms in use at that time: the IBM 1440, for local work, and the main computer was the University of London computer, which later became an Atlas and later still, a CDC machine.
The department’s first breakthrough was when the Civil Service College sent their top people for the new systems analysis diploma introduced by Frank, and then a master’s degree. This was a risky for the Civil Service, as once they had been trained at LSE, many of the people on this scheme got jobs elsewhere.
Frank moved into full-time academia and became a lecturer, a senior lecturer, and then professor. He set up a successful PhD programme, attracting academics from both here and the US. Later, Frank chaired the Business Information Specialist Group for the British Computing Society and worked on the business side of the curriculum but he says he was more closely involved with the International Federation for Information Processing (IFIP), where he became chair of working group 8.2 concerned with the relationship between an organisation and its computer systems, which allowed him to meet many other academics from all over the world.
The discipline of IT has not been a straightforward fit within the culture of LSE as some held the view that it was a mathematical subject, so they insisted on enrolling mathematicians, while Frank looked for different candidates because he didn’t see maths as the be-all-and-end-all of computer services.
Frank worked closely with Gordon Foster until he left LSE to go to Trinity College, Dublin. Foster was replaced by Sandy Douglas, who had completed a PhD in computing at Cambridge, a very early example of AI. Douglas later became Professor of Computing at Leeds, where he set up the first proper computer services at any British university. Douglas became Frank’s line manager at LSE and, although the two men had different mindsets, they worked well together and Frank says he owe him a great deal, in terms of his own career progression.
In 1982, Frank was promoted to a chair at LSE. He talks about his good colleague, Rudy Hirschheim, senior professor in Information Systems (IS) in the US who went up for tenure at LSE but was rejected by a committee of the academic board on the basis that he had written too much for it to be o high quality. As a result Frank resigned from LSE and shortly afterwards was offered a job as Professor of Information Management at the London Business School. On completion of his contract at the Business School Frank retired but returned to the LSE, as a visiting professor, and then as emeritus Professor
LEO Computer Society
Since Frank retired, he has been involved with the history of LEO and acting as Chair of the history committee of the the LEO Computer Society. It had started out as a reunion social gathering, but David Caminer wanted to commemorate LEO more and set up the LEO Foundation and wrote a book together with Frank, John Aris, and Peter Hermon, first called User-Driven Innovation: the Story of Leo, and then The Incredible Story of Leo for the American edition, published by McGraw-Hill.
The publications funded further historical research into LEO. After 50 years of LEO, there was a major conference at the Guildhall, with prominent people, academics and business entrepreneurs and so on invited. When David Caminer died in 2008, the LEO Foundation merged into the LEO Computer Society, and took on the new role of looking at LEO history so it was much more than a social club. Frank became chair of their history subcommittee and has been active on it ever since, compiling a comprehensive compendium of references to LEO, LEOPEDIA including outlines of LEO personnel’s oral histories
David Caminer was probably Frank’s biggest influence. Caminer was head of the programming group at Lyons and was instrumental in ensuring that the software programming was correct. He made sure that programmers wrote properly, and that everything was properly documented. If Frank or any of the programmers wrote something and Caminer couldn’t understand it, or thought the people it was intended for would not understand it, he’d throw it out. This meant that Frank learned quickly, although with a degree of trepidation. Caminer was regarded as a hard boss, but those who worked with him appreciated how much they learned from him.
When asked if there’s anything he would have done differently, Frank mentions the arrogance of LEO people in general. Frank recollects that arrogance was reflected in the way LEO people felt they could devise better ways of using a computer than either their clients or competitors. But that arrogance could be resented and perhaps at times backfired on the LEO advance. On the other hand, he expresses great pride in his conviction that he could create a better design for an NCR computer than the NCR people. He mentions that when LEO was taken over by English Electric the LEO notion that their role was to improve a client’s system clashed with the English Electric emphasis on making a sale however that was achieved.
Frank is concerned that while we are learning now about the dark side of IT, businesses have not recognised how it might just as easily affect information systems. He warns that those likely to exploit technology are often one step ahead of its creators, because designers are not taught to check for flaws or potential areas where exploitation might occur. Frank thinks we ought to consider studying criminal behaviour as part of studying information systems in order to anticipate how exploitation might happen.
Innovation requires a certain amount of experiment, because of the uncertainty. One of the lessons Frank says he learned from his early LEO days at Lyons was that if you are going to do something new, you had better make sure that you know what you are doing, and what the effect is.
One of his ongoing concerns is the gap between academia and practice and particularly with regard to the semantics of computing; academia keeps creating specialisms and each specialism develops its own language, so that if a practitioner were to address a room of academics on certain fundamental principles in information systems, most people in the room would not understand what they were talking about.
Frank says that there are lessons to be learned from the German way of teaching, where academia exists to help the practitioner; this doesn’t happen to the same extent in the British and American systems. In his department at LSE, they search for underpinning theory, but Frank says it’s important to do it in a way where you see dramatic results.
Interviewed by: Paul Jagger on the 22nd May 2018 at the WCIT Hall
Transcribed by: Susan Hutton
Abstracted by: Paul Jagger