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Oral-History:Mary Coombs

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Revision as of 18:17, 11 June 2012

Contents

About Mary Coombs

Mary Coombs was born in 1929 and was raised outside of London, United Kingdom. Although she had excelled in mathematics at school, she did not particularly like the subject, and so she studied French and history at London University. After graduating, Coombs spent a year teaching English in Lausanne, Switzerland. When she returned home in 1952, she joined J. Lyons & Co., then one of the United Kingdom’s top catering and food manufacturing companies. There she worked for the next several years on LEO, the first computer used for commercial business applications. In order to meet the needs of her handicapped daughter, Coombs started programming for the firm part-time from home, doing so until 1969. Unable to find a similar opportunity in computing at that time, Coombs became a primary school teacher. She later worked in the water treatment industry, until her retirement in 1993.

In this interview, Coombs discusses her educational and work history. Here she covers her early work experiences in computing and her later jobs outside the field. She speaks at length about her work on LEO. As one of the first programmers of commercial business applications, Coombs offers a unique perspective on the development of computing. In addition to her own efforts to balance work and family, she also discusses the general status of women in computing.

About the Interview

MARY COOMBS: An Interview Conducted by Janet Abbate for the IEEE History Center, 25 September 2001.

Interview #584 for the IEEE History Center, The Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers, Inc.

Copyright Statement

This manuscript is being made available for research purposes only. All literary rights in the manuscript, including the right to publish, are reserved to the IEEE History Center. No part of the manuscript may be quoted for publication without the written permission of the Director of IEEE History Center.

Request for permission to quote for publication should be addressed to the IEEE History Center Oral History Program, 39 Union Street, New Brunswick, NJ 08901-8538 USA. It should include identification of the specific passages to be quoted, anticipated use of the passages, and identification of the user.

It is recommended that this oral history be cited as follows:

Mary Coombs, an oral history conducted in 2001 by Janet Abbate, IEEE History Center, New Brunswick, NJ, USA.


Interview

INTERVIEW: Mary Coombs
INTERVIEWER: Janet Abbate
DATE: 25 September 2001
PLACE: Coombs' home in High Wycombe, United Kingdom

[Notes courtesy of interviewer Janet Abbate]

Background and Education

Abbate:

This is an interview with Mary Coombs on September 25th, 2001. To start at the beginning: Can you tell me when you were born and where you grew up?

Coombs:

I was born in 1929, in February—in the middle of a gasman’s strike and a very cold winter, my mother tells me—in London. We lived in Essex for the first nearly eight years of my life, and then we moved to the Richmond area, in Surrey.

I was educated privately, and I went to London University in 1948 and read French, with history as a subsidiary subject. Nothing to do with computers, or maths, or anything like that—but maths had been my best subject at school, although I didn’t like it particularly.

Abbate:

But it was easy for you?

Coombs:

But it was easy for me, yes.

When I finished at university, I went and worked in Switzerland, in Lausanne for a year, teaching English on a part-time basis. This was part of a government exchange, a Ministry of Education exchange project. I thoroughly enjoyed that; it was my first experience of being away from home, and I really enjoyed it thoroughly.

Abbate:

So you were teaching ...

Coombs:

I was teaching secondary school children English—because I was there to improve my French and their English. [laughs]

Abbate:

Let me go back a little bit. When you say you were educated privately, what kind of school was that?

Coombs:

The first three years of my education were in Essex, at a Dominican convent school. Then we moved further into London: it was the Richmond area, but it was Barnes: actually, I think it’s probably part of the district or borough of Richmond now, but it wasn’t then; it’s just on the Surrey side of Hammersmith Bridge. And I went to the Preparatory School for St. Paul’s Girls’ School until just before the war, when I went to Putney High School, which is another well-known school, but not of quite such high class as St. Paul’s. I was evacuated—the school was evacuated—to Caversham, near Reading, to the premises of Queen Anne’s School, which is a private girls’ boarding school; and we had one or two of their boarding houses, and we had some old premises of theirs where we had our classrooms. We had the use of their playing fields, which were absolutely superb. Then the school went back to London, because there were no more raids; but then the air raids started again, and so my father sent us to a little boarding school not all that far from here, about ten miles from where I live now on the outskirts of High Wycombe. I was there till the end of the war, and then I went to St. Paul’s Girls’ School for the last three years of my schooling.

Abbate:

So they were all girls’ schools?

Coombs:

So they were all girls’ schools; yes. There was almost no co-ed education in England at that time, except in some of the elementary schools.

Abbate:

What did your parents do for a living?

Coombs:

My father was a doctor. My mother met him while working in the Appeals Department of the London Hospital, (now called the Royal London Hospital) which is where he trained; but I don’t think she did any paid work once she started a family—she gave it up to have children. During the war, she helped at the school where we were; she found herself somewhere to live down in Marlow which is halfway between here and where I was at school.

Abbate:

Do you have brothers and sisters?

Coombs:

I’ve got a sister who’s three years younger than me. She became a microbiologist and a bacteriologist.

Abbate:

Did your parents encourage you to have a career?

Coombs:

Oh, my father thought it was absolutely essential that a girl had a career! The only thing was that he was a fairly domineering sort of man, and he was very sure what you couldn’t be. I wouldn’t have minded being a nurse: but no, I couldn’t be a nurse, I’d have to be a doctor, as far as he was concerned—that sort of thing. I wanted to teach five- to seven-year-olds, but to do that you went to a college of education, you didn’t go to a university first (that’s only a post-war development, really); and I was bright enough to go to university, so: “You will go to university, my girl!” [laughs] That’s the sort of person he was. Otherwise, he was really a very nice man; he was very popular with his patients. He worked in industry, which is how I came to work for the firm that I did. He was a general practitioner when I was small, but he had an old war wound from the First World War. He’d had a lot of very poor surgery in hospital while he was still wearing Army “Blues” (clothes worn by servicemen who were hospitalized) and this made him determined to further his education and become a doctor; but he had osteomyelitis in his bad leg, and so he was in and out of hospital in the ‘30s, and he found that he couldn’t really cope with general practitionering—particularly going out for night calls in poorly lighted circumstances, tripping over things, getting a new abscess in his leg, and that sort of thing. So he became one of the first industrial medical officers, and he went to work at J. Lyons, from which LEO developed. Of course with the advent of antibiotics his health greatly improved.

Getting a Job at J. Lyons & Co.

Abbate:

So you got your first job at Lyons?

Coombs:

So I got my first job at Lyons, as a holiday job, before I went to Switzerland. Between doing my degree, and going to Switzerland, I worked there for seven or eight weeks, in the offices. When I came back from Switzerland: I’d had a holiday after term ended, and I’d come back, and there were no suitable teaching vacancies near home. My father wanted me, having been away for year, to live at home; and being a dutiful daughter, I said yes. [laughs] And so I went and got a temporary job, back in the same office that I’d worked in the previous summer holidays.

Abbate:

So the first time you worked there was . . . ?

Coombs:

July ‘51; and then I went there, to the same office, in July ‘52—or August ‘52, I suppose. Then I accepted an offer to be a management trainee and moved to a different office.

Abbate:

What had you been doing there?

Coombs:

Oh, they were sorting old ice cream invoices covering a lengthy period. I think they were trying really to get some system into what was happening, and to find out about sales trends and everything else. This was before Lyons had a market research department, or anything like that. They were a very well-organized company; they were very much in the forefront of developments on the technology front, really—which was how they came to think about the electronic computer.

Abbate:

They wanted to train you for management. How did that come about? Was that your idea, or did they come to you?

Coombs:

I’m really not sure. It’s a long time ago, don’t forget! We’re talking about 49 years ago. Well, there always were people who were employed as Management Trainees, and new ones came in every year.

Joining the LEO Department

Abbate:

It wasn’t unusual to have women in that position?

Coombs:

I don’t know that there were very many of us. Certainly when the opportunity came to work for LEO, I was the only woman who was chosen to go on the so-called “LEO Appreciation Course.” Frank was one of the men.

But I had other opportunities. I was also offered the opportunity as a Management Trainee to join the new Market Research Department. I don’t think I fancied that. I wasn’t very good with people in those days, and if it meant interviewing and things like that, I don’t think it would have been the thing for me.

Abbate:

How did you hear about LEO?

Coombs:

Oh, I think there was a notice came around, or it was read out, or something like that, saying they wanted some people who would like to find out about it. Now, I already knew all about LEO, because my father used to play bridge with a group of senior managers from the company. They included the head of the Ice Cream Department, whose son was an undergraduate at Cambridge. His son was working with the LEO team during his college vacations, so it was a subject of conversation when they played bridge. If they were somebody short, my mother didn’t like playing bridge, and I used to make up the four for them. (When we were evacuated during the war, everyone in my house over the age of eight had been taught to play!)

Abbate:

Wow!

Coombs:

So I was always interested in this! I really was. So I jumped at the opportunity to go on the Appreciation Course.

Abbate:

Had you ever seen a computer before?

Coombs:

I don’t think there were any to see, really! [laughs]

Abbate:

The EDSAC, maybe.

Coombs:

Well, the EDSAC, maybe; but I mean that wasn’t—that was being finished with the help of the Lyons team anyhow, wasn’t it? And with the help of their money, and some of their personnel.

I can’t remember whether we had to do a little paper. I think perhaps we had a little paper to do before we got accepted to go on this course: a whole sheet of little problems to work out. I mean, I didn’t even play chess in those days, and it was always popularly thought in early days that if you were good at chess, you’d make a good programmer.

Abbate:

I’ve never heard that.

Coombs:

No? But that’s what they used to say in the ‘50s! You didn’t need a lot of mathematical knowledge; it was mathematical ability—it was dealing with logic—that was important.

I wish I could lay my hands on a copy of this question paper, because it was really quite interesting. I’m not good at throwing things away, so I think it must exist somewhere, probably up in the loft, in an old box or trunk or something. I’ve not seen it for some years now, but otherwise it would have been jolly useful. They would like it for the LEO museum stuff, because I don’t think anybody else had got one; so I hope one day I might find it.

Abbate:

So they gave you a little aptitude test?

Coombs:

We had a little aptitude test. Well, it was quite a big aptitude test, but it wasn’t terribly difficult if you knew how to think fairly logically.

Abbate:

What was the course like?

Coombs:

I think we spent four days on the course, and we learned some fairly simple things. This is why I can’t remember whether the aptitude test was after the course or before the course; if I could remember what its content was, it would be easier to put it in the right context, but I can’t. But they were questions with logical answers, and we heard or learnt about how the computer worked and things like that. And then I went away and got on with my job for another few months, and I was invited to join the team. I was the first of the people who’d been on it who was invited. Frank Land joined a few months later.

Abbate:

And this would be fifty ... ?

Coombs:

‘53, I suppose. It must have been in ‘53. I don’t know; I’d have to link together ... If you’ve spoken to Frank, you may have got some information from him on the subject.

Abbate:

Yes, I can get more of the dates.

Coombs:

You’ve got the User-Driven Innovation book, I presume, because there’s quite a lot in that.[1]

Abbate:

So, were they teaching you binary arithmetic?

Coombs:

Oh, yes! You had to learn binary arithmetic. That was quite an eye-opener. It was quite some time before teaching bases in arithmetic was common in schools—or even that it existed at all in schools! You never stopped to think—I mean, pounds, shillings, and pence: it’s after all working in a very mixed sort of base system, and one did that automatically. And the imperial weights and measures, of course, were all mixed base systems. I can remember at the beginning of the war, when we were children, going out in the woods to pick up acorns for pigs to eat—you know, during the war you fed your animals on whatever you could get hold of, and we used to fill bushel baskets with acorns. I’m not sure what a bushel is now, but in those days, you had to memorize all these things, in order to do your arithmetic.

Abbate:

Did you use flow charts?

Coombs:

Yes, we did a lot of flow-charting; although as the years went on, we obviously developed different symbols and different ways of doing them that were clearer. But yes, from the very beginning you used a flow chart. And from the very beginning, it was emphasized how important it was to know what the customer wanted.

Abbate:

And how was that achieved?

Coombs:

Well, by talking to the people you were doing the job for, to make sure that you got all the facts right about what information they needed.

Abbate:

Was everyone on the LEO team also interacting with the customers? These are internal customers in the company, right?

Coombs:

To start with these were internal customers. No, not everybody; but as you developed your career, then obviously you got more responsibility and had more opportunity to deal with management or supervisors of the departments that you were working for.

Working on the LEO Computers

Abbate:

What kinds of things were you working on at first?

Coombs:

The first thing I had anything much to do with was the Lyons payroll. And then, once we’d got that out of the way and working—well, almost any non-scientific application that needed a programmer! And really, everything we did was so incredibly fast in those days! Modem computers may be much faster, but they don’t work as quickly.

Abbate:

You mean the programs actually ran more quickly?

Coombs:

Well, if you have only got 2K of memory for everything—your data, your instructions, your housekeeping routines, and everything—every instruction you put in has to work for itself. You had, first of all, the fact that you needed to get it all in, and secondly, you had the fact that you wanted to make it as quick as possible because you wanted to sell the idea. We used to spend hours trying to save a single instruction, or a fraction of a second on something—a thousandth of a second on something, even. It was quite incredible! I mean, the time that I took, before we started the formal interview, going upstairs, booting up my computer, and using the scanner to copy that piece of paper seems extremely long, when you think that we used to do payroll over something like six seconds per employee, or something like that. And that included calculating income tax from scratch!

Abbate:

Let’s see, so that’s 600 an hour. How many employees—order of magnitude—did you have?

Coombs:

I’ve no idea. I can’t remember. I should think seven or eight hundred to start with, and then more as it went on. I mean, it all depended: we never had anything to do with management payroll, in those days, but it would have been all the basic employee stuff in the factories.

Abbate:

So they could have done the whole thing in less than two hours.

Coombs:

That was the idea—except that computers broke down, being valve-oriented.

Abbate:

Well, how reliable were they? Was that a constant problem?

Coombs:

Well, they had routines they went through every morning, testing the circuits (which I think there’s quite a lot about in that User-Driven Innovation book), and we were also called upon quite frequently to help them find out what was wrong. You had to work out where in this 2K store a particular bit was stored—the bit that was going wrong—and how you could work a loop of the instructions so that you could keep going on round and round this loop while they tapped every valve to find out which was the valve that was actually faulty; because often the fault was just intermittent. We had huge numbers of check routines, within the scope of the 2K store: check routines built in to try and guard against errors, like totaling things up in two different ways so you could compare the totals, rather on the old cross-balancing system. And you had to find room for that as well as everything else.

Abbate:

So that was a constant concern ...

Coombs:

That was a constant concern, yes.

Abbate:

... to check the machine, in addition to running your program.

Coombs:

Yes.

Abbate:

So, you would have been in close contact with the engineers?

Coombs:

The engineers, yes.

Abbate:

Was the computing group physically located together? In adjacent rooms or something?

Coombs:

The computers were in one huge room, and we programmers were in an adjacent room except when we were working with the engineers or preparing data for input. The racks—the valve racks—were built on top of the mercury delay tubes, which of course were an integral part of it, because you’ve got to slow it down from the speed of light to the speed of sound. And then the peripheral equipment was in the other half of the room: your printers and things. At the point that I went there, they were experimenting with magnetic tape, but they couldn’t get the reliability they wanted, and so then they chucked it out—well, it sat there for a long time, while they wondered what to do; and they brought in punch-card machinery for printing—we had the data on punch cards then; and then the current data still was going in on teleprinter tape.

Abbate:

Did you run the programs yourselves, or were there operators?

Coombs:

Well, to start with, we ran the programs ourselves—or the more senior members did, and the rest of us hung around and watched. And of course, the computer was being used a lot at night for scientific work, so that they got a bit of money to help with financing the whole operation.

Abbate:

Did you ever work at night?

Coombs:

Evenings, yes; frequently. Oh, yes. We did an enormous amount of overtime in the first few years. And there were girls who stayed all night. I declined to stay all night, but I can remember Diane Bray did—that’s Diane who became Diane Lewis. I stayed there till half-past-two, I think, one morning, and I was frequently there ‘til eleven o’clock at night.

Abbate:

And was that so you could get time free on the computer?

Coombs:

It was just pressure of work, a lot of the time. Some of the time it was because you could get hold of the computer if you waited long enough; but at the other times, it was because you were too busy not to do the overtime. We got a free meal in the managers’ mess, which was always a good meal, and an opportunity to meet a few other people from the company.

We worked in various different locations. The original LEO I was in the administration block at Cadby Hall, but LEO II was in the office block where I had worked in the Stats Office at the time when I first joined LEO. Then I worked up in the bureau at Hartree House; that was LEO 11/5 and Hartree House was the LEO name for that part of the Whiteley’s Building in Queensway that we rented.

I was there when the Duke of Edinburgh came to see us. They redecorated the programming room, especially. We had about five teams of programmers by then. I can’t tell you what year it was, but it must have been about 1962. We had the room decorated specially because he was coming. The whole room layout was changed around, so that the supervisors of the groups—which included me—were where he was going to walk—and when he came into the room, the only people he talked to were the people who were right where the supervisors would normally have been sitting! [both laugh] So he went always to the most junior people to have a bit of conversation.

Abbate:

Was that on purpose, or just an accident?

Coombs:

Oh no, I should think it was on purpose!

Abbate:

Why was he visiting?

Coombs:

Well, it was a conducted tour. I mean, his wife—way back before she was Queen— had been round to see the factories and everything; it was the done thing for members of royalty to come and view what was happening in certain spheres. And this was an up-and-coming sphere by then; I mean, we had got five or six computers working by then. We’d been selling some to places like Stewart’s and Lloyd’s and so on. And of course, J. Lyons held several Royal Warrants both for manufactured goods and for catering services.

Abbate:

So you really had something there to show off, at that point.

Coombs:

Well, that was the theory of it, yes.

Abbate:

Were you running programs for them to see?

Coombs:

If we were, and I’m sure we were, then it would be different people who demonstrated them, because by then we had operating teams.

Abbate:

So at that point, you would write a program and someone else would actually run it on the machine?

Working for the Training Department

Coombs:

Probably, I’m not sure. It’s very difficult to remember. It was a busy time for me, because we got married—I met my husband when he joined the department in ‘54, and we got married in ‘55. He had moved out of the LEO Department by then and had gone to the Accounts Office. We bought a house—not here; about ten miles from here, actually—in ‘60, and we had a daughter in ‘61, who turned out to be a seriously handicapped child; which is really why I’m not still in computers—otherwise I would have been in computers, I suppose, till I retired—because eventually I had child-minding problems, and I gave up going to London and worked part-time from home for the Training Department. So I wasn’t as involved, really, once I’d had the baby, although I still worked pretty well full-time until the end of 1963.

Abbate:

During the ‘60s, you were working at home ...

Coombs:

From 1963 till 1969, I was working for what was, by then, International Computers, I suppose. I don’t remember when they changed their name, but we’d been taken over. The Training Department was based in a country mansion, —somewhere not all that far from here—writing manuals, organizing courses, and things like that, so I got involved in editing manuals. But as I say, they didn’t keep me busy enough, really, though at one time I was asked to run a programming course in Basic for a group of physically handicapped adults in residential care and a single young offender from a local institution. This was a very rewarding project and both the young offender and one of the more severely handicapped adults both found employment as a result of the course.

Abbate:

What sort of languages were they using at that point? I guess it was some kind of assembler when you started.

Coombs:

Well, when we started, we were using, to all intents and purposes, machine code, that is to say one written instruction was equivalent to one machine code instruction. In fact, however, there was a relative address structure built in to our coding. You could call it a primitive assembly code! This applied to LEO I. LEO II, had a proper assembler caller INTERCODE which permitted the use of Macros. . LEO III, had in addition to INTERCODE, the high level language CLEO and as its operating system the MASTER routine.. It would have been John Gosden’s team which developed this software. Have you met John Gosden? No. You’ve heard of him, I presume. Have you?

Abbate:

I haven’t, actually.

Coombs:

Oh! Well, he’s retired now, because he’s got Parkinson’s; but though he went to the States relatively early on, he was responsible prior to that for the development of the LEO III software, with his team. I had the opportunity to join them, but by then I was getting on well with customers, and enjoying that sort of work, and I didn’t really want to be sidetracked. In retrospect, I think it might have been a mistake; but it’s very difficult to make decisions, isn’t it?

Abbate:

Well, it’s easier in hindsight to know.

Coombs:

Yes! [laughs]

Abbate:

So you were working with the customers?

Coombs:

I was working with customers, yes.

Abbate:

In terms of requirements for programs? Or training?

Coombs:

Requirements for programs. Training we were all involved in, because they had these courses, and you might lecture on a course. You would certainly supervise one of the trainees on the course and go through their work with them and any exercises they had to do for homework, and so on. You might even have to put them up though I’m not suggesting there was any coercion involved here!

Abbate:

Really?

Coombs:

[laughs] Yes! One of Steve Shirley’s lieutenants at FI (Now Dame Steve Shirley — she started Freelance Programmers quite early on, and really kickstarted the Careers from Home movement. I had long known of her existence because she lived relatively close to me and like me had a handicapped child.) for many years was somebody who originally worked for the consortium of local authorities in Southeast London, which included Greenwich; and she came to be trained as part of the Greenwich team, and she lived with us while she did her training. That was Margaret Bushnell, later known as Sally Bushnell.

On Being a Woman on the Programming Team

Abbate:

Were there a lot of women in the programming team?

Coombs:

Not originally, no. To start with, there was just me; and then David Caminer’s secretary, who was somebody I had been at St Paul’s with, became a junior programmer; and one of the other office staff, Kate Keen, became a junior programmer. They weren’t graduates, either of them; they’d both been in work since they left school. Then we started engaging graduates, like for instance Diane Bray, and—oh gosh, I’m terrible for names! Jenny, who became Jenny McLeman —I can’t think what her maiden name was; and Pat Cooper, who became Pat Bray, and then became Pat Fantl. You must have heard of Leo Fantl.

Abbate:

Yes, yes.

Coombs:

They were some of the early people; and then, I suppose, Helen Clarke was one of the next. She became Helen Jackson.

Abbate:

Did you ever feel that as a woman, you didn’t….. Did you feel that you did have the same opportunities for training and advancement at LEO?

Coombs:

“No” is the straight answer to that! [laughs] There were two things. Management Trainees joined at Supervisory Grade, F1. But different salary scales existed for each of the sexes. The net result of this is that when equal pay was introduced in the early 60s it was done by raising the men’s grades so that their actual current salary matched the salaries of the women’s scale. Now quite early on one of the women programmers was promoted to management.—and I never quite worked out why, because although she was good, I couldn’t see that she was that much better than me. I think it’s just her face fitted better, perhaps; or it was because Lyons by then was getting very anti-nepotism in any form. The point was that Lyons was always a family firm. All the senior management were members of the Salmons or Glucksteins—all of whom had been trained from the very bottom; I mean, they’d had a really thorough training going up— but although there were graduates who were not only not family, but not Jewish [who] were directors of the company by the time I joined it, there were singularly few in really senior positions. I mean, T. R. Thompson and J. R. M. Simmons were two examples that really stuck out as being people who had come in entirely through merit. I think they were both Senior Wranglers with top first-class degrees in maths. (Mathematics students at Cambridge University who passed the final exams (called the Tripos) for the Bachelor’s degree were termed “Wranglers,” and the highest-ranking student earned the title “Senior Wrangler”.) I mean, there were a few others, but there were almost no Directors, when I joined the company, who were not also members of either the Salmon or the Gluckstein family—or the Joseph family, who were related, the third one. And, I think at a given point they changed their policy and thought they needed to be seen to be open; and my father had a senior position within the company himself, and I think that maybe I wasn’t too favored for that reason. [pause] Suddenly I’d be sidetracked to help somebody else out that was in trouble; and I think I was one of those rather willing people who did what was expected of me, rather than pushing myself forward.

Abbate:

Was that true, do you think, of the women in general?

Coombs:

Well, I don’t know. You see, I got married and went on working, even when I had a child. Diane got married within the department and didn’t go on working once she had a child; Jenny, the same. Joan Hyam got married—I think she’d left the company by then, though, because she went to Israel, she ended up living in Israel and working for Weizmann (a very well-known politician, I think) as his secretary. But she spent a lot of time in India, because she was—I was going to say Indian-Jewish; I don’t know that you can actually be Indian-Jewish, but she was very dark-skinned and also very obviously Jewish—and her family had come to the U.K. from some part of India, and she did live for several years with her husband in India, so she got out of computing altogether. And, Kate Keen I really don’t know what happened to Kate. She was still there when I left. But by and large, the non-graduate women tended to be very junior programmers; I don’t know of any of them going a long way. And of the ones in my generation, I can only think of the one who made management.

[RECORDING PAUSES]

Balancing Work and Family

Abbate:

Let me see. So after you had children—How many children did you have?

Coombs:

We had one of our own, and then we adopted three. Our daughter died when she was six; by then we’d already adopted one, and we adopted another two.

Abbate:

So you had your hands full.

Coombs:

Yes, yes.

Abbate:

But you were working more or less full-time from home?

Coombs:

No, I was doing about twenty hours a week from home. That was up till the end of 1969, and I think they decided at the end of ‘69 that they couldn’t employ me any more unless I could go back to the office.

By then I’d got three children, I suppose—no, two, because our daughter died in 1968. We’d adopted one boy by then, and we adopted one boy the following year, and a girl in 1971, —She’s in America.

Abbate:

How did you approach trying to balance your work and your family responsibilities?

Coombs:

Well, it was just paperwork—it was just sitting down, reading things, and commenting on them—so that wasn’t very difficult to do at all.

Abbate:

So you could fit that in.

Coombs:

Yes. [pause] And if I’d had a chance of staying with Steve Shirley, then I would have gone on doing programming, I’m sure!

Abbate:

When was your little interlude with Fl?

Coombs:

Well, at the beginning of 1970. Because she was advertising for more people to work at home, which would have suited me down to the ground; it was just that she was advertising with a view to this huge hospital design project, which in the end fell through.

Abbate:

She had pretty much just started her business [at that time].

Coombs:

No, she’d been going for some time by then, actually. I can’t tell you how long, but hers was certainly a name that I was well familiar with.— Coincidentally my best friend and her husband also lived in Chesham. He was a consultant who was working for the Ministry of Health already and knew that the project was going to go phut. This would have been the start of computer-aided design, and we spent an agreeable few weeks visiting research projects at places like Imperial College to assess the possibilities of plotters and document readers, etc.

Abbate:

So that seemed like an opportunity to do some work from home.

Coombs:

Yes.

Abbate:

And when that project didn’t work out, were there other …….?

Coombs:

No, I took three years off. But my husband told me I was hell to live with, so I then went into teaching!

Abbate:

[laughs]

Coombs:

He’s quite right, actually. If I’ve got all the time in the world, I’d do absolutely nothing with it, because I am frightened of having nothing left to do! [laughs] Do you know what I mean?

Abbate:

Yes.

Abbate:

So you went back to teaching.

Late Work Experience outside of Computing

Coombs:

So I went into primary school teaching. I taught for nearly two years in the local, very high-class girls’ preparatory school—a private school, in other words. Then I had one term in the state school for the educationally subnormal—severely subnormal—which I thoroughly enjoyed. I would like to have gone on, but the head and I didn’t quite see eye-to-eye. I think she thought I was a bit too independent, and she decided she wanted somebody who’d actually had training in dealing with them, so that was just a term. I then went and did a post-graduate Certificate of Education, and then I taught in primary school from 1976 till 1987, something like that. It must have been 12 years, I think. That I thoroughly enjoyed, but it was just at the period when there were falling rolls, so I never managed to get a full-time job. I had to only have a part-time job, which was a bit of a nuisance. And then, because I’d had to change schools, because of falling rolls—and I didn’t get on with the headteacher very well, educationally: (socially we got on all right, but educationally we didn’t get on—and we shared the class, which is disastrous in those circumstances.) And at the end of three years, I decided I would give up teaching, because it wasn’t in either my interests or in the interests of the children I was teaching for me to stay. I’m sure it was a wise decision. But I keep my hand in with teaching; I’ve got a few piano pupils; I run the church choir . . .

Coombs:

I then spent seven years in the water treatment industry. So I’ve had three completely separate careers! And in the end, I worked until I was 64—a month short of my 64th birthday, actually.

Abbate:

Wow. Those are completely different.

Coombs:

Yes! [laughs] Completely different, yes!

Abbate:

I guess if you count the school in Switzerland, you had four careers.

Coombs:

Yes.

Using Personal Computers

Abbate:

Did you miss the computing at all? Or did you keep involved in any way?

Coombs:

No, I didn’t keep involved. And, when my son—my younger son—left school, he went on a course in commerce at the local further education college, just a one-year course—and this was the point at which I realized how rusty my knowledge of computers was! Because I only thought in terms of mainframe computers, not in terms of personal computers or networked systems like that! Actually, while the children were at school we bought a BBC computer. That was interesting. We’ve still got it upstairs, on top of the cupboard. It’s still working, but we lost the manual, and we couldn’t seem to develop what we were doing well enough.

Abbate:

I’d love to see that. I’ve never actually seen one.

Coombs:

It doesn’t look much different from any other personal computer—except it didn’t have a hard disk, you see! It had a disk system, held on the floppy disk; we had the second brand of BBC computer that had a disk system; and the only thing was that everybody said that the small disks were the up-and-coming ones, and so we had the small disks. Now, floppies for personal computers nowadays are, almost exclusively, three and a half inches—or still also five inch. And we’d have been much better if we’d had the five inch one, for the Beeb, because obviously then you could have married it up with a modem computer without much trouble, whereas there doesn’t really seem to be any easy way. Our Beeb had the three inch disk. You read all sorts of solutions to people’s problems of transferring stuff from old computers to modem computers, and they never seem to tackle the problem of people who’re transferring from a three-inch disk! My husband writes sermons, because he’s a licensed lay minister for the Church, and so some of his sermons were on the old ‘Beeb’, on one of the disks, and it might have been quite good to have been able to transfer them over, but there you are.

So then, while I was still working, I got a computer, which is just a 486, and then I had a CD-ROM fitted, and a hard disk. But the CD-ROM only works sometimes: if you boot it up, one time it would be linked up all right, and the next time it wouldn’t, so you had to keep on rebooting it if you wanted to use it. But now we’ve got two computers upstairs, and they’re both Pentiums.

Abbate:

I guess the reliability is still an issue.

Coombs:

I use it an enormous amount. I edit the church magazine, which means I take in the raw data and produce something which is fit to go to the printers to be printed, usually about forty A5 sides. So I do plenty with the computer. I do my son’s accounts—he’s a builder—and I do other things for the church.

On Computing Skills

Abbate:

What have you found to be most satisfying about working with computers?

Coombs:

The speed at which you can get things done! And the amount of interest you can get from it!

We aren’t linked to the Internet. We could be—we’ve both got modems on our computers, and we’ve even got a phone line upstairs we could link it up with—but we haven’t done it yet. But nonetheless, it is, at times, frustrating when you push the wrong key and don’t realize you’ve done it, until you’ve done something that you don’t know how you can get out of. But as far as I’m concerned, there’s fewer and fewer occasions when that happens. But no, I think it’s great. It keeps the brain active, too, to be able to do things that require a certain amount of skill and coordination.

Abbate:

What kind of skill do you think is needed to work with computers?

Coombs:

A bit of manual dexterity—unless you’re programming, or doing something scientific with them! And I’ve got that, because one of the things I did with my part-time teaching in Switzerland, all those years ago, was to learn to type. I went to evening classes and did typing and shorthand. I never used the shorthand, but the typing has turned out to be very useful. I never used it other than for a few letters until I was in my last job, when they’d got computers and introduced me to the word processing package, and I then started typing for real—and I type very fast and pretty accurately. I mean, if I was young enough to want to go out and earn my living, I could certainly earn a good living typing, or being a secretary. I don’t want to. In fact, I wouldn’t really want to be a secretary.

But otherwise, I think computing requires the ability to think logically; to reread something until you’re sure you know what it says; if you’re programming or doing systems work, to get on with people.

Abbate:

Was that an issue? I mean, did you see people who didn’t have good interpersonal skills and that that caused problems with their ability to create good programs?

Coombs:

I think that if you didn’t have good interpersonal skills, you would not get on well in terms of progressing your career. You might still be a competent programmer, but you would be relying on other people to direct what you did more. The biggest job I was actually involved with, I led a team of about fifteen programmers, working for British Oxygen. Now, that was for a computer that we were selling them , and then they rejected it, and I’m sure part of the reason they rejected it was because what they were trying to get out of it was a waste of time and money. They had enormously complicated things they wanted to do in the statistical line. They wanted to get the sales—this was one that particularly struck us—the sales analyzed to a six-digit grid reference; and they were going to do things that required enormous quantities of paper for the printouts. Well, who on earth was ever going to look at them? Who would have time to go through all these detailed lists? There were a lot of programs—I think there were more than ten programs that we were supposed to be working on—and I kept saying to our own consultant who was working with their management that I thought this was a waste of time and effort; but because that was what they wanted, I don’t think he felt that it was sensible to try and criticize it! And I’m not sure that this isn’t a short-sighted view.

I can give you a similar example, nothing whatsoever to do with computers. When I was in my water treatment buyer mode, the firm had big financial problems. I don’t know why they had big financial problems, but they did, and at a given point they made two-thirds of the staff redundant; and despite the fact that I was one of the last to come and the only woman buyer, I was the one who stayed, so I became the buyer. We would sell water treatment systems to big companies all over the world, frequently through managing consultant agents, who might be from Japan; they were frequently from Japan or Korea. Our Sales Director’s attitude was, “When the job has been handed over, you concentrate entirely on the next job”—but a firm of contractors relies on these managing consultants to get them work, and the last thing you should be doing is ignoring what they’re saying! They ring back and say, “So-and-so doesn’t work,” or “This part was missing,” or something like that; and I would be told, “Don’t have anything to do with it. Ignore it.” It was all addressed to the Sales Director anyhow, but I used to get a copy of it—because I made sure I did! And the Japanese, they’re very formal in their manners, aren’t they? Even if all you can do is acknowledge that they’ve got a problem and that you will deal with it in due course, you should at least be dealing with that. Well, in the end, I took the Sales Director’s correspondence off him and dealt with it myself, and most of the time found time to deal with the actual point and progress my own work.

But this is what I think it’s all about, in relations between companies: you’ve got to see where the important thing is. It’s easier to justify a slight delay in the next major project, because there’s always things that cause delays; but you want to make sure that these consultants recommend you for the next big job that’s going, don’t you? So it was a bit a parallel to the thing with British Oxygen. I didn’t feel that the consultant was looking at it from quite the right attitude. He was just looking at it from the point of view of being a successful salesman of the system that was here and now.

On the Work Environment in the LEO Department

Abbate:

Did you have any role models or mentors in any way? Technically, or in terms of management, or encouraging you to go on in computing?

Coombs:

Oh! Well, Leo Fantl was always very encouraging. But of course, he went to South Africa; I can’t remember when. My immediate mentor, when I first joined LEO, was John Grover. [pause]

No, I can’t say particularly that I did. I was always very busy. Our only breaks, really, were to eat. [laughs] I found one of our busiest times, of course, was when we were up in London, in Hartree House. But I seem to remember it as a lovely fine summer where we spent a lot of time having lunch picnics in Kensington Gardens which were only a five- minute walk away, and then we really did relax a bit. But that must have been in the early ‘60s, I think.

Abbate:

Was there a lot of camaraderie among the group members?

Coombs:

Oh, terrific! The number of people who got married as the result of the people they met while working on LEO was quite big. Some of them I’m probably not aware of, because they probably happened after I left.

On the Status of Women in Computing

Abbate:

Do you have any feeling that computer jobs are more open to women than they were when you started? Or less?

Coombs:

I don’t know. I don’t know many women—I can’t think of any at the moment who work with computers, as such. I mean, who use computers, yes; every other person uses a computer these days. We’ve even had classes for the OAPs from the Village.

Abbate:

The OAPs?

Coombs:

Old Age Pensioners in the Village: senior citizens.

I don’t know. I know blokes who’ve gone into computers as a career, but no, I don’t know women. I don’t know whether it’s just the people I know, but I can’t think of any of the female children of my friends who have gone into computers.

Abbate:

Do you think it’s become more sort of masculinized?

Coombs:

I don’t know. I’ve no idea at all. It probably has something to do with the content of the various degree courses, but then, I’m not familiar with what the content is. Women might think of them as being more masculine preserves. People vary, don’t they? I get very bogged down in this equality-of-the-sexes issue, because I think when people are of equal ability, it doesn’t matter what sex they are, or it shouldn’t matter. I think women have been their own worst enemies, in many respects, as far as female emancipation is concerned.

But I worry a bit about this whole career thing, because you see, my father and the fathers of most of the youngsters I was at school with were all career-oriented for their daughters, or most of them were. At St. Paul’s we had daughters of the aristocracy at school with us, and they didn’t not go on to university because they were members of the aristocracy, and one would have assumed that they ended up doing something practical with their lives, not nothing. Some of them, I suppose, would have married early and concentrated on children, but if you can afford servants and things like that, then you can also afford to have interests that continue to educate you, can’t you? But, you know, our own daughter wasn’t interested in a career: she was interested in fun and fashion and maybe drama, if she could have been an actress going to the top. She totally stymied us, just recently: having spent about eight years in the States, and had an unsuccessful marriage, and never done anything more practical than work in a bar or waitressing or something like that, she suddenly upped and said, “Oh, I’m going on an Associate Degree course, Mum!” “Oh?” I said, “What are you doing?” “Computer-aided design!” [both laugh] And she’s steering towards the engineering side, or the architecture side, and not to any of the areas that I would have thought. One more module to do, and she just got herself a part-time job two days a week to go with the course, and within a week it’s full-time and she is finishing her course with evening study. So she is now realizing, at the age of thirty, that a career is a good thing! But youngsters: on the whole, they seem to think in terms of gap years, either before or after university, and of changing jobs in quick succession in the interest of getting money in their pockets—which may or may not actually further their careers unduly, because I don’t think they stay long enough in places, a lot of the time, to get to know enough about what they’re really doing. I mean, you get those who say, “Well, I’m going to be a doctor,” or “I’m going into nursing” or “I’m going into teaching”; but an awful lot don’t seem to think terribly practically towards a proper career, girls, certainly. I’m not sure whether the boys are much different, but they probably are.

Abbate:

What strikes you the most about the way computing—not just technically, but as a place to work—how that’s changed over the years?

Coombs: Well, it’s obviously much easier to work from home—assuming you are self-disciplined enough to do it, and that is a big point—although I suppose the money doesn’t come in, on the whole, if you aren’t disciplined about it. But I don’t know enough about working from home in computers as a career; it’s easy to see working from home with a computer and the net as part of another type of job. But I know very little about programming these days. I would like to know more. The software we had when I was working enabled me to do mini bits of programming quite easily without knowing a language.

I don’t know: I seem to be busier since I retired; I don’t know where I’d find time to work! [laughs] But the one thing I would quite like to know at the moment is how to do a few bits on the computer that don’t involve using the software I’ve got. I’m on the net and finding it a great help in keeping up with my correspondence, and I have a faster computer and an excellent scanner and printer, and as I don’t spend much time surfing the net, I even have my phone bill reduced.

On the Rewards of a Career in Computing

Abbate:

Are there any achievements you’re most proud of, from the computing side of your career?

Coombs:

Just being in at the beginning, I think. I believe I was the first woman programmer of commercial applications. I know we had women scientists bringing crystallography and things of that nature to work on our computer, but that’s not commercial programming, and I have no idea whether they did the programming or whether they merely worked out the outlines and somebody else did the programming.

Abbate:

Did you have a sense, then, that this was the beginning of something important?

Coombs:

Oh, yes! Oh yes, we worked with terrific enthusiasm for not much money, even by the standards of those days; long hours for which we got no overtime pay, most of the time; and it was just a terrific challenge.

Abbate:

So was there a sense of excitement and fun about it?

Coombs:

Oh, yes! I think we would all say—you know, as long as we’d got to grips with the job and were happy doing the job—that it was the greatest possible fun.

On Changes in Computing

Abbate:

Do you have any advice for young women who might be thinking of going into a computer career?

Coombs:

Well, only that I can’t see that it isn’t just as suitable a career for women as for men. But since I don’t know enough about computing in the modem environment—or programming, in particular, and systems development in the modem environment, or even the technical side of developing the actual computers…...

Abbate:

Do you think it’s changed so fundamentally that there’s not a continuum?

Coombs:

Well, I think I’m not the right person to answer that question, because my years in computing ended—to all intents and purposes—at the beginning of the ‘70s. And because for me there’s not been a continuum, it’s difficult to see whether there is one. [laughs]

Abbate:

I guess I’m just wondering if the fundamentals of good programming practice are eternal, or if it’s . ..

Coombs:

Well! Good programming practice today must be entirely different from good programming practice in the ‘50s, just because all that happens today is: they develop larger and larger amounts of hard disk, and better and better backup facilities! So it’s not a bit the same.

[DOOR BELL RINGS; RECORDING PAUSES]

Abbate:

Right. So: different constraints on ...

Coombs:

Well, it’s entirely different constraints on programmers. I mean, if you bear in mind that when we started with our 2K store for everything, we had machine code instructions that would do all the basic things like adding and taking away and testing for positive, negative, or zero—although I think even then we had only two tests to start with: testing positive, including zero, or testing negative; so you then had to do a second test to find out whether it was zero or positive. The one thing we didn’t have was an instruction that would do division, so that you had to have a little subroutine of instructions that would approximate a division. And now, you boot up your computer, and it takes forever to boot up. Mine’s only a Pentium II; my husband’s boots up a bit quicker, but you can hear it chugging over, doing all these instructions, and you think, well, maybe if you were doing this yourself in machine code, it would be an awful lot quicker! [laughs] Because this is really the lack: you can do so much more sophisticated things with computers, but at a very expensive price. So it all depends on where the priorities are.

Abbate:

Do you think the skills required are any different, or just the particular knowledge?

Coombs:

No, I think the skills would be about the same. The knowledge is different, obviously. But because there’s so much more knowledge to acquire, the actual skills needed to be competent might be less.

Abbate:

Did you actually need to know about the hardware, to an extent that someone now doesn’t really need to know what’s inside their desktop machine?

Coombs:

Well, with a valve-type machine, we did need to know where everything we put in was, so that we could help fault-find when something went wrong. For instance, a typical fault finding session would involve the programmers in trying to establish in exactly what part of the routine the fault had occurred.. It is for this reason that we tried to put cross-checks of various kinds into our programming routines. Then we would make little closed loops of the actual instructions which could be inserted by hand into our programme so that the engineers could isolate the particular valve or connection which was faulty.

Can you ask the question again?

Abbate:

I was just wondering if you needed more of a knowledge of the hardware in the old days, compared to today.

Coombs:

I don’t know the answer to that question, because I haven’t tried programming today. And I don’t—I mean, I know how a computer works, but it’s not quite the same, is it? You’ve got all this enormous amount of stuff in one little tiny chip, whereas we had a great room, which was probably bigger than the square of this side! I don’t know how big it was, actually, but I’m sure it was bigger than 26 by 26 feet.

Are we through?

Abbate:

I think so, yes, unless there’s anything else you want to add.

Coombs:

No, I don’t think so.

Abbate:

Thank you so much for your time!

Coombs:

It’s a pleasure.

Notes

1. David Caminer, ed., User-Driven Innovation: The World’s First Business Computer (London: McGraw Hill, 1996).