Geoff Henderson was an IBM’er for 27 years, between 1973 and 2000, joining as a systems engineer and retiring as Region Director Finance Sector, EMEA. Before joining IBM Geoff worked for the Steel Company of Wales from 1960 to ’73, where he headed the team that developed the world’s first-real time shop floor reporting system in the steel industry.
His advice to anyone starting in the industry today is “Find a way of distinguishing yourself. Every time you meet someone, or whenever you apply for something, say or write something that’s different, about you. Make yourself stand out from the crowd. Take a position. Have an opinion.”
Geoff Henderson was born in Port Talbot in 1944. His father, a lucky survivor of WW2, was a Fitter/Turner and his mother taught at a school founded by her brother, until Geoff’s elder sister was born. His father died when he was just five years old and as a result the family, including a younger brother, had to live largely on his mother’s widow’s pension. When he was fourteen Geoff took a job delivering groceries by trade bicycle to help out, handing over his pay to his mother but keeping the tips. Geoff was a keen cyclist and member of the local cycling club which meant he was pretty efficient: he trebled the delivery round and (almost) trebled his tips. His other passion was reading, especially history.
Geoff enjoyed junior school thanks to an inspirational teacher called Tom Harrison and flew through the Eleven +, ranking second in the borough. His choice of grammar school was over-ridden by his mother, in cahoots with the education authority, in favour of the ‘family’ grammar school which had been attended by his mother, aunts & uncles from both sides of his family (most of whom went on to academic careers), local cousins and sister. It was not a good omen. Geoff was naturally good at art and maths but found the teaching of most other subjects tedious. He says: “I did well for the first two years but was getting bored, rebellious and disruptive. His third and fourth years were marked by truancy, generally disruptive behaviour, insubordination and cycling, including seeing delivering groceries as training. As a result, before the end of his fourth year, Geoff was asked to ‘leave’ the school. “I was tolerated as long as I was only out of respect for both my mother’s and father’s families.
The Steel Company of Wales
With little idea of what to do next, Geoff applied to become an apprentice at the Steel Company of Wales, the town’s major employer. Despite sailing through the selection process he was turned down and advised to stay at school and go on to university – ‘you’ll be bored here’. The same happened when he tried for the National Coal Board apprenticeship scheme. Eventually, a friend of the family who worked at the steel plant agreed, as a favour to Geoff’s mother, to get him enrolled on an accountancy training scheme.
Geoff says: “When I joined, it was the place to work, if not the only place to work. It was a terrific training scheme. It consisted of one day and one evening a week at the local college, and four days a week working in one of the departments in the works. Every three months you were moved to a different department. The objective was to produce accountants who understood how the place worked.” The company ethos, which Geoff says became apparent to him very early on, was “that this was an innovative place, management were clearly receptive to new ideas. Good ideas could travel, and poor ideas would be knocked down very, very, smartly.”
Through the scheme, Geoff increasingly learned how the plant worked, discovered that he really liked people and enjoyed it immensely. He adds: “Organisation and Methods was I think the fifth department I was placed in, and it was where I just blossomed. The principal objective was the improvement and management of data collection from the shop floor and ancillary departments. It was all about information flows, how to trap information moving around the system and how to trap it in a way that was easy for the people who were recording it, often under great pressure. The process designed had to fit as part of their everyday job and ensure that their output satisfied the needs of the users of the records
“Before my three months was up, user departments who were asking for work to be done, were also asking for me to do it. I just took to it like a duck to water. Systems analysis is just bliss really. You talk to people, ask them what they do, observe and listen carefully and you design a system that works for them and does the job.” His three month placement was extended, but he was being paid as a trainee, and until the age of twenty-one pay was based on age. Geoff was now also married and pay was becoming ever more important. He challenged his manager’s manager about not being paid the same as the other people in the department, but failed (‘rules are rules’) and decided as a result to leave the training scheme to join one of the process departments where pay was based on contribution, and he could more than double his salary.
The new role involved planning the processing of steel through the various stages in the cold rolling mill. He says: “I was really good at maximising the earnings of whichever crew I was working for. There were five or six different processes and the job was to make sure ‘yours’ had sufficient material such that they never had an unscheduled stop, and also, certain materials paid better than others. So, you were measured by the crew on your ability to ‘deliver the goods’. It was very competitive because you had multiple units competing with one another. I just found I was naturally good at it.”
After eighteen months however, Geoff found he was getting bored. Happily, it coincided with a decision by the company to start to install computer systems to collect information directly from the shop floor. No-one in the computer department had worked on the plant so some-one was needed who did. “Dozens of people applied, and I was lucky enough to get it. I flew through the aptitude and intelligence tests and the manager I had quarrelled with, and left, eighteen months earlier, now also head of the computer department, was gracious enough to offer me the job.”
Despite his total lack of formal qualifications Geoff attributes his success to inherited genes, the fact that he likes and is interested in people, that he’s able to spot smart and often different ways of doing and thinking about things, and that at heart he’s a simplifier, not the opposite.
Geoff doubled the size of the section of the IT department dedicated to shop-floor systems development when he joined, working alongside the chap who had designed the new punch card-based computer system to keep records of the movement of steel in the slab yard, and to help him install it. He explains: “A slab yard deals with pieces of steel that weigh on average ten to fifteen tons, they’re about fifteen feet long, four to six feet wide, a foot thick, and they all look pretty much the same, so it’s easy to lose track of which is which. It’s a very dirty, dangerous and hot place. But it’s absolutely critical.” Keeping track of the stock was the key reason for the system. In 1965, the solution was designed around producing a punch card every time one of these slabs was produced in one part of the plant and retaining that until the slab that it referred to was moved on to the next stage. The punch card became the input to the next stage. Remaining punch cards represented the stock.
The hardware used was the IBM 357 system, designed to operate in harsh environments.
The two of them worked together to implement the system and train the operators. He adds: “I learned a huge amount from that and one was how not to design a system, because this one was over-complicated.” The system had some hardware issues that could stop the plant and both were on call to fix these if they occurred, which he says usually occurred at around three o’clock in the morning; however, the experience taught him a great deal about labour relations and trade union attitudes. He also taught himself to code. He says: “I thought I had better teach myself programming. If I’m going to be writing program specs for people, I’d better understand how to do it myself and so I learned 1401 Autocoder and wrote a stock control routine. I ran it a couple of times to make sure that I knew what I was doing. It was the only bit of software I ever wrote.”
The computer department rented IBM mainframes including the IBM 1401 and an IBM 1410. Other departments used different machines; Geoff explains: “They were silo decisions. We had General Electric process control machines out on the plant, and those decisions were made by the Industrial Automation department. The Operational Research department had a Pegasus; one of only thirty-eight ever built. They ran a lot of mathematical models to help with the design and layout of the plant. We almost never had any dealings with them, or with the Industrial Automation people, they were different silos. The accounting systems ran on both Powers-Samas accounting machines and the IBM machines.
With the slab yard system working, attention shifted to solving the problems of keeping track of material in another part of the plant; the cold mill, where Geoff had spent his post-quarrel eighteen months.
In the middle of 1966, the department acquired two IBM 360 Model 40s. Geoff says: “This was a transformational step forward, not just in memory size, speed and direct access device capacity but also in the multi-programming capability, AND the fact it had telecommunications support.” Geoff’s proposal for the solution to the cold mill tracking problem was to put devices on the shop-floor and connect them directly in real-time to the 360. “It was a challenge, people liked new ideas. …we were up for it. I was given a free hand in the application design, and we had a fabulously talented group of systems programmers, to whom nothing seemed too big or too heavy.”
Having a fundamental understanding of what information needed to be captured Geoff set about designing the terminal for the cold mill. Elliott Automation had offered to build a terminal to his design; they also said that they could “mimic a channel-attached device on the 360 which will make for very high-speed transfer between the cold mill and the mainframe”. With a robust terminal built, Geoff set out designing the message formats and specifying the application handling procedures. The application programs formed one strand of development, the other strand was the systems software to handle the raw transactions and pass them on to these applications. Geoff adds: “This second strand was the key Our collective view was that Dl/1 (early IMS) was too heavy and CICS lacked restart/recovery, so we decided to build our own system based on IBM’s access methods BDAM and BTAM supplemented by BATS, and christened it STACA. It went live, very successfully, in January 1969, AND, for the record, STACA still forms the bedrock of the message handling system in use today, fifty years later.
Later in 1969, the industrial automation department announced that their new process control computer system was not going to be ready for the opening by the Queen, of a new multi-million pound steel plant, and Geoff was given six months to develop a data collection system, so that the plant could actually open and operate. He says: “I put together a new team of analysts; a PhD who had been a metallurgist in the steel plant together with another metallurgist; and I added a couple of programmers.
Geoff chose IBM hardware for the steel plant because they had by then developed a range of on-line hardware that was suitable for an industrial environment and was available within the critical six months deadline. Geoff adds: “I chose the IBM 1070 system and it worked a dream. We designed our own terminals and the keyboard to be used by the operators on the shop floor. We hit the date; the royal finger touched one of the keyboards and an IBM golf ball printer produced something like ‘British Steel welcomes Her Majesty the Queen.’ I don’t think she took the printout away but we should have had it framed. Once again we were heroes.”
In 1972, with all of the systems, including a brand new online order entry system delivering substantial benefits, Geoff ‘s next project was to extend the Cold Mill system through the final stages to product despatch. However, the dead hand of nationalisation crushed the ethos of innovation, bureaucracy had mushroomed, and instead, procrastination and inter-plant rivalry became the order of the day. Severe frustration set in and Geoff decided to leave. He applied to IBM, “because they employed the best people I’d ever met in the industry” and very happily, after some British Steel/IBM manoeuvring, they took him on.
Geoff joined in 1973 as a system engineer but after completing his training, immediately transferred into sales.. He says it was a completely different atmosphere, every-one seemed to be there for the same reason, pointing in the same direction. “It was a joy, less formal, less heavy-handed politicking – it seemed as though you flourished if you were good, and you didn’t if you weren’t. There was one challenge however, I’d not worn a white shirt since my schooldays, and IBM was the ultimate dark suit white shirt company. The then sales director told me very early on in my sales training I’d get nowhere wearing the shirts I did – bright colours with white collars – I shrugged and thought if I didn’t I’d go elsewhere ”
He didn’t need to; he progressed through sales and marketing. After a short stint (at their request) on the British Steel account, he grew Rolls-Royce Aero Engines from IBM UK’s eighth largest customer to fourth, a spot never previously held by other than a bank. He then ran a general territory in Nottingham, a stellar success of his team being the country’s largest ever EPOS win, A spell running the UK Engineering & Scientific team preceded his appointment as a Branch Manager in the West Midlands.
Three very successful sales years there led to his appointment as a regional manager in Customer Engineering – Geoff always thought of them as the ‘Cinderellas’ in IBM. They weren’t generally regarded as part of the mainstream sales business, but “I always regarded them as key members of my team, where-ever I was. They’re crucial to the company’s reputation in an account, they talk to the folks in the computer room, and pick up gen you might otherwise miss. I’d realised how important they were when I was an IBM customer”. His region performed well and after he’d done his bit to integrate them into the growing services business, as planned and agreed with senior country management, he returned to sales management in 1990, in the finance sector. His new branch became the first in the UK to break the £100m barrier. The manpower reductions of the early 1990s were a testing time in maintaining motivation and morale and it was again in late 1994 and early 1995. In 1995 he became UK Director Banking Sector and in 1996 Director Banking Sector of Region North EMEA. He retired in April 2000 as Director of Finance Sector, Region North EMEA, a $2.2bn business.
He says of his career: “I think I’m good with people and I also think I’m a pretty good judge in choosing the right people, and motivating them. Help people if they struggle, but if you both fail, don’t hang on. If you continue to employ a poor performer, your reputation, which is desperately important, will be tarnished. I don’t think I’m better than anybody else in the world, but I also don’t think there’s anybody in the world better than me. If you treat people the way you would like to be treated, it’s hard to go wrong.” He also adds that it’s important to treat people as individuals, happily, we’re all different, and not one size fits all.
Geoff cites Marshall Wood, the branch manager who took him on in the first place, in 1973, as one of his inspirations. He describes him as a very approachable character, not flamboyant but highly competent and unflappable. He adds: “Marshall was one of these understated men, very sincere, the sort of bloke you would trust with your life. The key thing I learnt from him was the walkabout.” Geoff describes how Marshall always took time to get out of his office to talk to people and to find out what was going on. He continues: “That always struck me as a very powerful thing to do and from the minute I became a manager in IBM, one of the first things I always did was to keep time free in my diary, at least an hour in the morning and an hour in the afternoon, to get out of my office to talk to people. You find out more about what’s going on, what they’re worrying about, what they’re working on and what’s more, people appreciate it.”
“My greatest success is my family. My greatest professional success is the steel company system. To be able to take that much responsibility when you are 22 or 23 years old, and, and drive it to success is wonderfully energising, and to be able to do it with my background proved that if you are determined, and you’ve got the capability, you can.”
“Today, I would advise getting the best qualifications you can up till you’re eighteen or so. I don’t think university is suited to everyone but I’m a firm believer too in technical apprenticeship. The employment marketplace is highly competitive – you’ve got to stand out from the crowd. Find a way of distinguishing yourself. Every time you meet someone, or whenever you apply for something, say or write something that’s different, about you. Make yourself stand out from the crowd. Take a position. Have an opinion. It doesn’t have to be the right one, but if you’re going to my customer, have an opinion.”
Sadly, the world has too many pale and colourless conformists.
Interviewed by: Tom Abram on the 5th September 2019 at Netalogue, Port Talbot, Wales
Transcribed by: Susan Hutton
Abstracted by: Lynda Feeley