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Oral-History:Judith Mills

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About Judith Mills

Judith Mills was born in 1950 in Gateshead, UK. She attended Leeds University where she majored in computing. After graduation Mills was hired as a computer programmer for Hepworth's the Tailors. While her children were young, she worked at several part-time positions, before accepting a position in 1982 at Wakefield College. She eventually arrived at General Electric Company plc (GEC). where she used several pioneering computer software programs.

In this interview, Mills reflects on her career in computing. She also talks about the different programs and languages she used, including COBOL, and her experience with them. Mills talks about her family life and her career and the struggle to balance them both.

About the Interview

JUDITH MILLS: An Interview Conducted by Janet Abbate for the IEEE History Center, 19 April 2001

Interview # 612 for the IEEE History Center, The Institute of Electrical and Electronics 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:

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

Interview

INTERVIEW: Judith Mills
INTERVIEWER: Janet Abbate
DATE: 19 April 2001
PLACE: Judith Mills' office at General Electric Company (GEC), Leeds, UK

Background and Education

Abbate:

Just to begin at the beginning: When were you born?

Mills:

1950.

Abbate:

And where did you grow up?

Mills:

In Durham, which is the next county North to here. I was actually born in Gateshead, so I’m a Geordie! [laughs.]

Abbate:

I don’t know what that means.

Mills:

Over here, if you were born within so many miles of the River Tyne, you’re a Geordie. And I was born right on the banks of the River Tyne, so I’m a definite Geordie. [laughs]

Abbate:

Oh. That’s a good thing, I guess.

Mills:

Well—not really, no! [laughs]

Abbate:

Oh well! What did your parents do for a living?

Mills:

My mother was just a housewife—she says. My father was Deputy Director of Education, so I suppose I was middle-class.

Abbate:

Did you have any brothers and sisters?

Mills:

I have an elder brother. He’s now a farmer.

We were both sort of brought up that education was the thing—and certainly my mother had no qualifications, and she was very worried always that if my father died, how would she cope? So she made sure that I had a qualification to fall back on, just in case I ever needed to. I don’t think she expected me to work, but . . .

Abbate:

Ah, interesting. But she conveyed that . . .

Mills:

It was definite that women had to get qualifications, just in case something happened to their husbands once they were married. That was sort of the atmosphere I was brought up in. So it was assumed I would go to university, which I did.

Abbate:

Before you went, what type of schools did you go to?

Mills:

A grammar school. In those days we had what was called the Eleven Plus; that was an exam you had when you were sort of 10, coming up 11. If you passed that, you went to a grammar school. So there was sort of one grammar school in Durham, which brought in children from probably a 20-mile radius. You were the sort of elite, as it were. The second stage was that there was a sort of an up-market “secondary modern,” they were called, where if you sort of passed the first half but not the second half of the Eleven Plus, you went there; and then, if you didn’t pass either half, you went to the local secondary modern, where you were taught, sort of a trade more than anything else. So the grammar school was a very academic environment. The up-market secondary modern, if I can put it like that [laughs], was sort of a halfway house, and certainly there were feeds . . . I don’t know how much you know about the British education system, certainly as it was in those days: we had the Eleven Plus, and then, at about 15 or 16, one did your O Levels; then you went on to do A Levels afterwards. So there was a feed between the sort of secondary modern to the sixth form of the grammar school, if those people had done well enough. But as I say, it was the academic route that was—that I went to.

Abbate:

So you went directly to the grammar school.

Mills:

Yes.

Abbate:

Was that all girls, or mixed?

Mills:

It was all girls in those days, yes. “Never the twain shall meet” with a boy! [laughs]

Abbate:

And did you have an interest in either math or science when you were in school?

Mills:

Not particularly. I mean, I did sciences, but I think . . . I skipped a year. You would normally do three years and then choose your O Level topics, and we did two years and then chose our O Level topics, so we skipped a year somewhere. It was an experiment, which I’m not sure was a good idea or not. And basically, being an all-girls’ school, the choice of O Level was quite limited, and I could choose either biology and art, or physics and chemistry. Now, seeing as I’d had one term of biology, one term of physics, and one term of chemistry, I didn’t really know what they were all about—but I know I can’t draw! [laughs.] So I went down the science route.

Abbate:

So you didn’t even have maths?

Mills:

Oh yes! At O Level, certainly the school I went to, we did French, Latin, history, geography, English language, English literature, maths; they were the standard, and everybody had to do those.

Abbate:

So the optional . . .

Mills:

The optional was either biology and art, or physics and chemistry. So I chose physics and chemistry. Then when I came to A Level—I’m not really too sure why I chose them, but I chose maths, physics, and chemistry, which seemed to go quite well together. Being an all-girls’ school, I didn’t actually have the option of double maths. When I went to choose a university course, at first I thought, “Oh, I’ll do maths!” I’m glad I didn’t now, but I thought at the time I would; and they said, “Oh, you’ve only got single maths; you can’t do it.” So it had to be maths and something, and at this point I realized I didn’t particularly like physics, and I didn’t particularly like chemistry, and I didn’t fancy statistics; so I thought, “Oh! Computing!” [laughs.] I had no idea what computing was! So I did maths and computing at university.

Abbate:

When was this?

Mills:

I started university in ‘67.

Abbate:

So they already had computing as a . . .

Mills:

Yes, I was the second year. There was—I think the course started in 1966, and I was the second year of this course. But it was very much an unknown; I had no idea what it was. But it sort of was the only choice that seemed sensible.

Abbate:

But it seemed more interesting than . . .

Mills:

. . . physics or chemistry, yes.

Abbate:

Was that because you had some idea about computers, or it was just that . . .

Mills:

No. I think I’d actually seen one computer when we went on a visit, a school visit somewhere, and they showed us a little bit of machine code, which just went completely over my head. So I . . . I mean, no, I didn’t anything about computing; but I knew enough to know that I didn’t fancy either physics or chemistry or statistics, which were my other options to go with the maths that I quite liked at that point. So . . .

Abbate:

You went for the devil you didn’t know.

Mills:

That’s right! [laughs.] So as I say, it’s really because I can’t draw that I’m in computing.

Abbate:

This was at Leeds University?

Mills:

Yes.

Abbate:

Were there other women in the computing course?

Mills:

Yes: roughly about 50 percent.

Abbate:

Really!

Mills:

In fact I was speaking to one of my lecturers only a few years ago, and he was saying that there are no women at all doing computing now. But . . .

Abbate:

So it’s gone down from the mid-’60s.

Mills:

It’s gone down, yes.

Abbate:

Why do you suppose it was so high?

Mills:

I think it was because it was unknown and it wasn’t then thought of as being a boys’ topic. I think more and more, with the advent particularly of PCs and computer games, computing is thought of as being a boys’ hobby—you know, playing on computer games. Therefore, the subject of computing is thought of as being a boys’ subject.

But interestingly enough, we’ve got quite a few females in our systems department—she says, desperately trying to count them up! [laughs.] We’re probably about a third, something like that? And everywhere I’ve worked, certainly in education, there’s a heck of a lot of women in computing; but it seems that the university courses—and even the courses I taught at a college—there are very few. So where they come, I’m not quite sure.

Abbate:

That’s a good question! I’ll try and get the answer to that.

All right, so you did computers and maths, and so that would be the first time you actually used a computer?

Mills:

Yes.

Abbate:

And what was that like?

Mills:

I’m not sure how to answer, “What was it like?” It was an Elliott 903. We had two computers at university, an Elliott 903 and a KDF 9.

Abbate:

Was that English Electric?

Mills:

Now you’re asking, I have no idea!

Abbate:

I can find that out.

Mills:

The KDF 9 was definitely a very up-market computer for the time, and it actually had several users logged on, we could actually log on to it; whereas the Elliott 903 was one that as students we were allowed to operate ourselves, and it had paper tape, and we had to toggle in the bootstrap! [laughs.] Didn’t know what I was doing at the time! I knew you had to go through this procedure, and I had no idea what it was actually doing—but I knew to do this, you know, to actually get the machine up and running.

Abbate:

So that when you started out, they just tossed you in there and said, “Okay, you have to do this and this and this, and then . . . “

Mills:

Yes. I mean, there was a set of instructions up on the wall, you know, “To load the machine, do this, then that, then that.” So you just sort of followed it, parrot-fashion, and got the machine up and running.

Abbate:

Were you operating the machines for other people, or just for yourselves?

Mills:

Just for ourselves. But as I say, the only one we were allowed to use at all, or use hands-on, was the Elliott 903. The KDF 9 we used to just log on and use it as a terminal, which in those days was very advanced. And, the operating system was written by one of the lecturers there, Dave Holdsworth, and he certainly was way ahead of his time in how he designed it, and things like that.

Abbate:

So he did the time-sharing system.

Mills:

Yes. ELDON 2, I seem to remember it was called: named after the local pub! [laughs.]

Abbate:

Did you have a particular area of computing that you were interested in at university? I don’t know what the course was like . . .

Mills:

We did some programming; we learned ALGOL, which I can’t remember anything about now. It certainly wasn’t written in any structured format, because I remember having GOTOs floating around all over the place! I don’t really think I actually understood what I was doing. I don’t know if I ought to say this: I remember my very first program that I wrote there, and we had to enter the number N, and then enter N numbers, and total them up. And I’d handed in this program, and it had come out with a message saying, “Calling for more data.” And I didn’t realize at the time that program hadn’t actually executed properly and come to the end and printed a total out; that it was wanting more numbers to feed in, because I hadn’t put N numbers in there. So, I can’t say that I actually—looking back, did I really understand what I was doing? I don’t think so! [laughs.]

Abbate:

Well, it was only your first one!

Mills:

Yes, but you’d have thought I would have realized that I hadn’t actually produced a total—but I didn’t! So I suppose students haven’t changed all that much, have they. [laughs]

We did a lot of work on operating systems and syntax and semantics and things like that. I can’t really remember what else.

Abbate:

Did they expect you to go work for computer companies? Or do you have any idea where—what they thought they were training you for?

Mills:

I don’t think they thought they were training, as such. I suspect that in those days, you were there to—how do I phrase this?—you were there to get an education; whether that education was at all relevant to the outside world (which it wasn’t!) I don’t think, you know, entered their mind at all. I think education’s moved on a lot now, and you know, people are trained to be useful to industry, whereas in those days they weren’t. All the degree meant was that you had a certain level of intelligence and a certain level of being able to recap and regurgitate on paper what you’d been taught—without, I really believe, actually understanding it!

Abbate:

So even in computing, which seems so hands-on, it was at a more abstract level?

Mills:

Yes, definitely. So the only practical work we ever did was writing programs, and they weren’t very many, you know; programming was only one little small part of the course. The only things I can really remember are writing this program, and also learning about syntax and semantics—insomuch as we had the two phrases, “The peanut ate the elephant,” and “The elephant ate the peanut”; and “Time flies like an arrow,” and “Time flies like an apple!” [laughs.]

Abbate:

Right.

Mills:

You’ve obviously heard it before as well. Those four sentences, and my program that didn’t work—seriously, are the only things I can remember of my university course!

Oh, we learned a lot about number systems: binary, octal, hexadecimal, things like that . . .

Abbate:

Were you—You said you were using ALGOL; were you also using binary, or machine code, assembler?

Mills:

Yes. Yes, we were. But whether it was a genuine one, or whether it was . . . It was SIR, which I think was a made-up academic one. And, so it taught you the concepts without getting into any of the complexities. So yes, we did some.

Abbate:

Was there any hardware? Or was it just the software side?

Mills:

I honestly can’t remember.

Abbate:

You weren’t soldering things together?

Mills:

Oh no! Definitely not. Nothing like that. If we had done anything on hardware, which presumably we did, it would just be sort of, “This is an exchangeable floppy disk,” and explaining how the heads move, and the concepts of cylinders and things like that. But, we wouldn’t have done that in 1970, because I don’t think I came across disks until much later—about ‘73?—she says, desperately trying to remember! [laughs.]

Abbate:

Well that’s interesting. I should get the curriculum for that.

Mills:

Well they probably do have it, still.

Abbate:

Yes, probably the university has it somewhere.

Mills:

Well, the contact that—I know he’s still there—will be Dave Holdsworth.

Abbate:

. . . who actually wrote that?

Mills:

He was the man who designed ELDON 2. And, he’s the lecturer I—I used to see him occasionally when we went to the BCS Computer Challenge. So I’d say certainly he’s still at Leeds University, and you know, if anybody can find it, he’d be able to.

But—it’s a complete blank! Did I really spend three years there? [laughs.]

Abbate:

What happened when you finished?

Mills:

I got married! I finished in the sort of June-July time, got married in the July, and then thought, “Oh! I’d better get a job!” Now, my husband was still at Leeds University; he went on to do an M.Sc. in computing.

[Remembering something else about the course:] Oh! We did a lot about numerical analysis—which again went completely over my head! But I only say that because he specialized in numerical analysis when he was doing his M.Sc., because he did maths as a first course.

So I had to stay somewhere in Leeds, so I thought at first of just sort of temping, and going in as a clerk somewhere; and I got an interview at Hepworth the Tailors for a clerk’s position, and I thought, “Do I put down that I’ve got a degree?” And I thought, “Well if I do, they might think I’m over-qualified; but there again, you know, I’d better tell the truth.” And they looked at my C.V. that I filled in and said, “Why are you applying for a job as a temporary clerk here, rather than a programmer?” I said, “Well, I’m hoping to get into computing via the back door”—which was just something that came off the tip of my head! And they immediately took me along for an interview, and I got a job; so that was really the first computing job I’d applied for. And that was Hepworth’s the Tailors, just up the road.

Programming for Hepworth's the Tailors, Using COBOL

Abbate:

And they were eager to have programmers?

Mills:

Yes, yes.

Abbate:

What kind of work did they want you to do?

Mills:

It was programming in COBOL, mainly. We did some assembler programming, but the majority of it was on COBOL, to do with, I suppose, financial-type systems, stock control, warehousing, credit control, that sort of thing.

Abbate:

Did you already know COBOL?

Mills:

Nope. I was there a week, and then they sent me off for three weeks of training. The first week was—I’m up to things I can remember now!—the first week was sort of a general introduction to computing: in a week, covered my university course. Then we did two weeks of COBOL training, and I can remember writing the notes and converting everything to ALGOL. You know: “‘Move X to Y’ is equivalent to ‘Y:=X;’”—because by then I knew the ALGOL; it was a way of sort of equating the same sort of information, so I’d know what it was. I think I’d have to do it the other way around, now!

And then as I say, I came back and started working as a programmer. Again, I can remember my first program I wrote. And it worked! [laughter.] But it wasn’t very efficiently written, as I discovered when I came across it sort of, like two years later on. I thought, “Who on earth wrote this? Oh god, you did! Change the name on the author!”

Abbate:

What sort of machines were you working on at that point?

Mills:

They had two machines when I first started: They had an Elliott 803, which I never actually worked on, but which I believed had magnetic film as its storage device; and then there was a Honeywell 1200, which at that time just had four tape drives, but they soon got disks, I think probably one or two exchangeable disk packs, which was definitely state-of-the-art at the time. But it was, you know, rapidly progressing at this point, the computing.

Abbate:

How long were you there?

Mills:

Well, 1970 to ‘75. And then I stopped work to have my first child. And then I went back part-time afterwards. I used to sort of work from home, and go in two mornings a week, so I did twenty hours for them, of which I did two mornings in—about eight hours—and the rest of the time at home, which was rather nice.

Abbate:

Now, how did you do it at home? Was that at a terminal, or on paper?

Mills:

On paper. Often what they would do, because I could sit quietly, they’d give me the sort of the problems—you know that sometimes you’ve got a problem and you need to just go somewhere quiet and sit down and think about it and debug it. Well, they often gave me the big problems to take home, and it was— Sometimes, you know, you could sit down: “Oh yeah, that’s straightforward!”—and do what everybody else would have done in ten hours in about an hour! [laughs.] Just because you had quiet, and there were no interruptions, and things like that. So sometimes I would write the coding at home—we were still writing upon sort of coding sheets, and there would be punch-girls to type it in; and sometimes it was sort of the debugging. It was quite interesting working part-time.

Abbate:

So that worked out well for you?

Mills:

Very good, yes.

No, between actually ‘75 and ‘82 . . . In ‘75 I left Hepworth’s; ‘82 I started working at Wakefield College, so in between them, as well as having two children, I also did various part-time work. I worked part-time at what was then Leeds Polytechnic, now Leeds Metropolitan University; I did some teaching courses there. I did some at Kitson College. I did some work for B/Tec—or Bec/Tec as they were then—which is one of the awarding bodies, an academic awarding body, so I did some work on their administration system. Again, that was a group of women, really. I also worked briefly for F International.

Abbate:

Wow! I’m talking to Steve [Stephanie] Shirley tomorrow.

Mills:

Right!

I worked on a—is it Swedish system? Again it was sort of working from home, and then you’d go occasionally to a site to do some testing. The majority of the work was at home.

I also . . . where else did I work? Oh, I did sort of one or two consultancy things. So there was numerous sort of part-time jobs from as little as three hours a week to up to twenty hours a week, in between there. I actually have difficulty remember when I did what!

Abbate:

So was it easy to find work?

Mills:

Fairly easy, yes. I think as long as you kept reasonably up-to-date—and of course, being that—my husband being in the university, he had lots of sort of contacts in the academic world, so I could always get part-time teaching jobs. But there was also, as I say: I never really stopped working, other than the times when my actually maternity allowance paid me some money—you know, sort of six weeks before to six weeks after (or something) the birth. That was the only time I really didn’t have any work. But it varied, and I moved on from job to job. But yes, it was reasonably easy, I think, to find.

Starting to Teach

Abbate:

So you had contacts, and once you’d done some work, you could . . .

How did you start teaching?

Mills:

Well, I always intended, I think, to go teaching when the kids were, you know, going to school, because at that time, you got the long summer holidays. You also . . . Your hours were sort of flexible: so okay, some days you were home in time to pick the kids up from school; not every day, because other days I’d work late, but it seemed to be the one full-time job that I could do to fit in with the children. So I think I’d always assumed I was going to go teaching somewhere, and I just happened to see an advert in the paper—actually in hospital, when my son broke his arm, but that’s another story—at Wakefield College, which was one of our local colleges, and I thought, “Yes! This is the job for me! There it is in the paper, just when I was about to start looking for it”—and applied, and got it. So I went to Wakefield, and I was there for many years: too long, looking back! [laughs.]

Abbate:

What was that like?

Mills:

At the beginning, when I first started, to be quite honest, it was a cushy number. The class sizes were fairly small—it was a post-16 college . . . The class sizes were fairly small; there wasn’t the amount of administration to do that there is in education now—you’re nodding; you know what I’m talking about—and the work load wasn’t that bad at all. You could sort of prepare, mark, et cetera, really within the working day. So, yes, in those days it was a really nice job. You got long, hot summer holidays, et cetera—and I took them.

But then things started to change, and the work—you know, the class sizes—went up. The number of classes you took per week went up. The amount of administration you did went up. Also, as I was moving up the ladder, as it were, I got more and more administrative jobs to do, and it just got to the point where it just got ridiculous. In fact, it got so bad that that’s why I left.

Abbate:

In terms of the courses you taught, did you just get to teach what you wanted? Or was there a set curriculum?

Mills:

I’m smiling, because I was the time-tabler, so I always got to teach what I . . . [laughs] The first thing that went onto the time table when I was doing it was what I wanted to teach—so yes!

But also there was . . . I mean, I taught a lot of A Level, and A Level had a standard curriculum, so I couldn’t teach what I wanted; you know, within that course I had to teach to the curriculum. But it didn’t change very rapidly, so in some ways A Level was a very nice course to teach, because once you’d got your notes prepared, they lasted quite well. Other subjects and other people had a lot more to do; and in particular, if you’re teaching a software package—you know, how to use Word or WordPerfect or whatever—you’d just get the notes done and then they’d move, you know, from Wordstar to Wordperfect to Word, and all the notes that you prepared had to be updated. So that was very hard on a lot of people teaching that sort of thing.

Abbate:

When did they start having an A Level in computing?

Mills:

1975, I think? Yes. And at that time it was a very mathematical—there were a lot of sort of numerical analysis–t¬ype questions on it, and things like that. And then it gradually moved, over the years; you know, the numerical analysis came off, and there was more on operating systems and things put on. But the syllabus changed fairly slowly. It wasn’t, you know, a brand new syllabus and throw out all of your notes one year; it was just sort of a slow adapt-up. But I’m sure it was [established] long before I started teaching, anyway.

Abbate:

That seems quite early.

Mills:

And it was the A.E.B., as it used to be; the Associated Examining Board, I think, was the first one who did an A Level computing. But it was definitely a sort of topic to go with the maths. So you could do double maths and computing, or double maths, physics, and computing—so again, it was very scientific.

Abbate:

So you wouldn’t do art, biology, and computing.

Mills:

No, not in those days.

Abbate:

Were you able to shape the curriculum in other ways? Were there topics you thought should be taught and you wanted to bring in?

Mills:

If we think it . . . The A Level, no; you couldn’t really influence what was on that at all. When it was the B/Tec, which was another awarding body, which did—now, what were they called in those days? National Diploma and Higher National Diploma, they were called, and National Certificate. To a certain extent, yes, you could. There would be . . . The syllabus was center-devised, and there would be guidelines—you know, “We expect you to have 20 modules, 15 of which must be these modules, but the remaining 5 you can design yourself.” So yes, you could put the specialisms in, but once that course was designed, it would go for approval, and then you could only change it very slightly, in conjunction with your external examiner or moderator, until you resubmitted. So, some courses, yes, you could fiddle with them slightly; other courses, no, it was definitely prescribed by an outside body what you taught.

Abbate:

And did you have a specialty?

Mills:

Programming. I think! [laughs.] I certainly taught a lot of programming. Probably just, as I say, because I was the time-tabler, and I thought, “Oh! Yes, we’ll do this!” So I taught virtually all the A Level, which was quite a bit of theory as well, but I’d teach them programming on A Level, because they had to do a project, so they had to have the practical skills; and I’d teach programming on one or two of the other modules, so . . .

But, to be fair—I’m sounding as though I did this deliberately for me. You would also try to put people on as minimum number of topics as possible, so that perhaps if somebody was teaching word processing, you’d put them on a lot of word processing courses, so that hopefully they’d get the notes and there wouldn’t be too much of a workload. But it’s certain that life in colleges, in particular, got very, very difficult. I’m not the only one that left. In fact, of the “old school,” as it were, we’ve all left, I think, now, and all gone back to work in industry.

Abbate:

Did you see changes in the types of students you got?

Mills:

Yes, definitely. I’m sounding old here! I think everybody was [laughs]—I’m sure they got less intelligent as they went on! I think that was partially due to the college I was at as well, and the way it fitted into the local environment. When I first went there in 1982, it was the only place in the district that did the A Levels, so the students came from all the schools into Wakefield College to do A Levels. And then more and more schools got their own sixth form and did their A Levels; so to a large extent, over the years, the schools would keep the better students, and only the worse ones were coming into the college. The ones that weren’t really encouraged to stay at the schools came into the college. So I think that had some effect, and I think also, at that time, there was a lack of employment in the area that meant that more people were staying on at school, not because they were interested particularly, but because they hadn’t got a job, and it seemed a sensible thing to do to perhaps get some more qualifications. So people who historically would have gone out and got a job were staying on in education, and I think bringing the level down. So I think it was economic/environment, rather than just the intelligence of the students! [laughs.]

Abbate:

And I guess you were getting more students, so the class sizes were going up?

Mills:

Yes. Bigger classes, so you weren’t able to give them the individual attention. I don’t know, maybe it was me getting old, but they didn’t seem to have the dedication that the students that I first started to take did. When I first started, if you set them some homework, it would always be done. Later on, if you set them some homework, you’d be going around chasing them for it for weeks afterwards. And it wasn’t just me that found this. I think everybody found the same, that the dedication of the students—whether that was because they weren’t that interested, or whatever; or maybe there was more work handed out to them; I’m not sure—but it became more and more difficult motivating the students as well.

Abbate:

Do you think they were more sort of job-oriented rather than doing it for intellectual interest at that point?

Mills:

Yes. And if they didn’t see it as being relevant to the job, then they weren’t particularly interested, so . . .

Working for General Electric

Abbate:

So you got out!

Mills:

I got out.

Abbate:

When was that?

Mills:

January—January ‘99 I started here. Is that right? Yes. Yes.

Abbate:

Here at General Electric.

Mills:

Yes.

And again, it was just one of those coincidences! [laughs.] Had a disagreement with my boss one day, stormed out of the office, opened up Computing, which was something I never looked at. Big, full-page advert: “COBOL Programmers, Leeds.” I thought, “Yes!” [laughs.] Phoned up, talked to the woman at the agency; she said, “Yeah, well send us your C.V.” And at this point I don’t think I was really thinking of leaving, so I went home that night, wrote a C.V. out—because it had been years since I’d updated it—sent it off. Got a first interview. I thought, “Right!” So, I went up to my boss: “Oh, I’ve got an interview for a job.” Just really to see her face, you know? And she said, “Oh, all right, okay.” So I went off for this interview, and I don’t think I was really bothered about the job. Anyway, got a second interview. So I thought, “Oh!” And I was pleased to get an interview, because I’d been so long out of the commercial environment; I was even more pleased to get a second interview. And then I got the job, and I thought, “Yes! Go for it!” It’s the best thing I’ve ever done.

Abbate:

What work are you doing here?

Mills:

I think my official title is Systems Developer. The job I applied for said definitely “COBOL programmer.” I do some programming in COBOL; I do some programming in Access and VB [Visual Basic] and work as a systems analyst. At the moment I’m the IT lead on a rewrite of a global payments process, where we pay any currency in any country as cheaply as possible. It’s actually extremely complicated, and I won’t bore you with how we do it! [laughs.]

But we have a process in at the moment that’s basically—it’s at breaking point—it can’t take any volume because it’s so manually intensive in various places, so we’re also . . . It has a piece of software, in that it’s part of a package that we use that is not exactly Euro-compliant. It’s got so many bandages on it at the moment to limp it through that we just said, “Enough’s enough; we’ll rewrite this completely from scratch.” So it’s a big project. Probably—well, stage one we’re aiming to get in June the 30th, and there’s stage two, three, and four after that; so that’ll probably be another 18 months, I would think, before it’s all up and running properly.

Abbate:

Do you have to fit in with deadlines to . . . Well, now I can’t remember if the U.K. is going to convert to the Euro or not, actually.

Mills:

No, we’re not. Not at the moment!

Abbate:

Not at the moment, okay.

Mills:

The official line is “no!”

Abbate:

So you’re not facing that kind of deadline, necessarily?

Mills:

Well, we are, because it’s a pan-European office here, and we have businesses dotted—basically what we do here is pay invoices on behalf of other GE businesses. At the moment, throughout Europe, but in the future we’ll be taking on the Far East as well, running from here. So Euro does affect us enormously.

Abbate:

Isn’t that phasing in next January or something? I don’t remember the deadlines.

Mills:

It has been phasing in for a while.

Abbate:

But the actual—Are they going to have actual paper Euros?

Mills:

Yes! But it’s more to do with how the banking systems are phasing into it, and some of the complications we have in there. Because, say if you have a French bank account: If you pay French francs, it depends how your bank account is denominated as to whether they report in French francs or report in Euros. So you—if it’s a Euro bank account within France, you pay something in French francs—that’s fine—but it will report on your statement in Euros; and all the bank reconciliation, the fact you’ve paid so many French francs, and on your statement it’s so many Euros . . . So that causes problems, until it’s all in—and everything’s in Euros. We’ve got a lot of transition problems.

Abbate:

It sounds challenging! [laughter.]

Mills:

I won’t tell you about Deutschebank! [laughs]

Abbate:

You’re trying to coordinate this team; is this the first time you’ve been in charge of a big project, or had you done that earlier?

Mills:

Yes and no. I mean, I’ve been in charge of projects before, when I used to work out in industry in the past. I’ve also been in charge of people before, in education. This is the first time I’ve been in charge of people and a project in the commercial environment. I work—I have a contractor working with me that comes over from Mexico—GE Global—and it’s really only him and me that’s working in terms of the systems. But because I’ve been working on this global payment process for quite some time, I know a lot of background knowledge, so I’m also able to put a user interface in there. So often, instead of the user giving me the spec, I say, “This is what we’re going to do,” write my own spec, and say to the user, “Now this is how it should be; you check it off.”—Which is what I’m upstairs doing at the moment!

Abbate:

So you’re really doing management and high-level design as well as . . .

Mills:

. . . as well as detailed; yes. Jack of all trades. [laughs] Is that a new expression for you?

Abbate:

Jane of all trades, maybe.

Mills:

Yes, I mean we always say “Jack,” don’t we? [laughter.]

Abbate:

And you said there’s quite a few women here, in computing?

Mills:

Actually, there’s really only me, Nivea (who is Brazilian), and Karen. Yes, because we did have Tracy and Fiona, but they’ve recently left, so there’s only—we’ve only now got three women, out of a team of about 14, something like that. Now, I know Nivea was a programmer over in Brazil before she came here, and then she started working downstairs in A.P., sort of data entry and things like that in customer inquiries, because she could speak Portuguese. And then they found out upstairs that she’d actually got programming experience, and moved her upstairs! I’m not sure of Karen’s background at all—other than she’s been here a long time. She only works four days a week, because she’s got a little girl, so she has one day off to sort of get everything sorted out, house-wise.

Abbate:

Do you think programming still accommodates working mothers in terms of flexible hours or working at home?

Mills:

Yes! Certainly here. I would have no problem from working at home. If I was to—In fact, there are moves afoot for us to be able to work at home, full stop. There are legal implications of that, which have to be sorted out, because you’ve got to have your . . . to make sure that your office environment is—you know, your home environment is suitable for health and safety purposes, and things like that!

Abbate:

I didn’t know that.

Mills:

[laughs.] Well, neither did we, until we looked at it. Because obviously, if you’re working full-time from home, then GE has to have some sort of responsibility to make sure that you’ve got an adequate desk and, you know, the lighting’s correct, and you’ve got your correct chair, and things like that. Otherwise they’d be liable if you had, you know, back problems, from sitting in the wrong place.

Abbate:

Even if you—even if it was your idea to work at home?

Mills:

Mmm-hmm. So that this—our working full-time at home—is held up in this sort of legal loop. But the odd day—if there was something like that the gas man was calling or something—my boss would have no problems with me saying, “I’m working at home.” I mean, I can dial in; I’ve got my mobile phone—company mobile phone—should anybody need me while I’m, you know, logged on, or whatever. So yes, we can work from home. I tend not to, because I like to come in to work, just to sort of chat to people! But I know quite a few people do work from home, and certainly—I don’t know if you knew, recently we had a petrol crisis?

Abbate:

I don’t think I knew that.

Mills:

Oh, there were all sorts of petrol protests going on over here, probably about three, four months ago now? I can’t actually remember. And arrangements were made for us to be able to work at home should we run out of petrol.

Abbate:

Ah.

Mills:

So yes, the company says, “No problem.” And I certainly—My official hours of work are nine to five; I tend to work sort of eight till four, just so that I come in early, miss the traffic, and go home early and miss the traffic. And, you know, my boss has no problems with that whatsoever. He’s fairly laid-back, I think.

Balancing Work and Family Responsibilities

Abbate:

Has it ever been an issue for you, balancing work and family responsibilities?

Mills:

I’m probably luckier than most, because my husband’s in education, and I think they have a fairly flexible approach. Also, my kids have been remarkably healthy. But I have been worried, “How on earth am I going to . . .”—you know, if the kids are ill or whatever. But no, we’ve always managed to sort of juggle two jobs, as it were, when they were smaller; so that if I had to work late, Alan made sure he was home early, and things like that. I mean, we’ve often passed in the drive, you know: “Hello! See you later on!” [laughs.] But I think I was very lucky, insomuch that he was in education as well and could be much more flexible. I don’t think I’d be anywhere near as lucky now if we were both in education. Certainly . . .

[TAPE 1, SIDE 2]

Abbate:

So you were juggling . . .

Mills:

I don’t think it would be anywhere near as easy to juggle like I did in the past now, because education has changed. You know, given the choice now, I would not go into education when my children went to school; I would go into a commercial place, because I think they’re more flexible than education is.

Abbate:

How old are your kids?

Mills:

Now? Let me see. Rachel was born in ‘75, so she’ll be what, 26? She’s a solicitor in London. Ian is—he was born in ‘77, so he’ll be what? Coming up 24. And he’s a trainee actuary in London. So they’re both down South.

Abbate:

But not in computing.

Mills:

Nope!

Abbate:

With both parents in computing, they decided that was too much?

Mills:

Well, I think at the time it was both parents in education. My husband also has a law degree that he did as a part-time thing, so I think Rachel picked up her interest in law from him. And Ian is definitely very mathematical; and Alan had always said that he wanted, when he was sort of 20, to be an actuary, so Ian, I think, has gone into that!

Abbate:

How interesting!

Mills:

So, it’s, I think in both cases, Alan’s sort of frustrated—my husband’s frustrated ambitions, as it were, that they’ve taken up! [laughter.]

Abbate:

I hope that works well for them.

Mills:

Well they’re both quite well-paid, so . . .

Being a Woman in the Field

Abbate:

Have you ever felt that, as a woman, you encountered workplace discrimination in terms of attitudes, salaries, promotion, anything like that?

Mills:

Yes. Definitely. I know when I first started work—you know, from ‘70 to ‘75—I was paid substantially less than the men in the department.

Abbate:

Was there an official scale for women? Or was it just implicit?

Mills:

No. It was . . . There were no scales for anybody. You were paid what they thought they could get away with. I don’t even think there was an Equal Pay Act in those days, actually. And definitely the women in the department were paid less. I mean, nobody would actually say, “I am on such-and-such an amount,” but from comments that people made and things like that, you knew you were on a lot less than the men.

They also had—It was a very sort of hierarchical structure in those days, that there were Executives, Senior Executives, Senior Staff, Staff, weekly-paid, monthly-paid Staff, hourly-paid Staff—you know, et cetera. I became the first female Senior Staff Member—which caused all sorts of problems, because as a senior Staff Member, I was allowed a free suit at Christmas! [laughs.]

Abbate:

Really! Did you take them up on that?

Mills:

My husband did! [laughs.] And I was allowed 33% off in all the men’s clothing shops, for myself—and only 15% for relatives. And I thought, “Well, this is no good, because I can’t buy anything for myself in these shops!” So, I was—I think I was probably very much a rebel in those days, and got it sorted out that female at Senior Staff could get a third off for a nominated male relative! [laughter.]

So actually my husband had a collection of suits in those days! [laughs.]

Abbate:

Interesting perk.

Were you managing people at that point?

Mills:

At that time, no, no. No, definitely not.

Experiencing Sexual Discrimination

Mills:

I also came across discrimination, I suppose, in education. Not so much in pay, because they had recognized pay scales, and you plodded your way up. I think there was discrimination early on about promotion, but this was before I was at the stage where I would be promoted. But it seemed—it seemed, looking in, that the men got promoted, whereas the women didn’t. But as I say, it didn’t directly affect me, because I wasn’t at that stage. And by the time I got to the stage where I was going to be promoted—would have been promoted—they’d done some sort of reorganization, so I plodded up anyway.

I also came across sexual discrimination I’m sure you want to know about. [laughs.] Get on the interesting stuff! Not horrendous, but definitely sort of comments . . . I know my bosses used to often come up and sort of massage my shoulders, and things like that—so I used to quick elbow him!

Abbate:

This was at the tailor?

Mills:

No, this was at the college.

Abbate:

At the college!

Mills:

Yes.

But I think things were—you expected it, much more than nowadays. I don’t think any . . . You know, I’m sure my husband would never dream of going up and massaging the shoulders of one of his female members of staff! It would definitely be a no-no! [laughs.] Whereas in those days, I’m sure it was—if not expected, much more—I don’t want to say “acceptable,” because that sounds as though you enjoyed it, but . . .

Abbate:

You sort of shrugged it off.

Mills:

Yes. It wasn’t the sort of thing that you would have complained about. It was assumed that it would happen and you would in some way show your displeasure, rather than complain. Whereas now you’d definitely complain if something like that happened and you didn’t like it.

So it wasn’t sort of downright discrimination, but it was—it was there in the background. And there were definitely the sexist jokes, and the nude calendars were around, and things like that.

Abbate:

At the college?

Mills:

Yes. Oh yes.

Abbate:

I mean, it seems like that would affect the female students as well. Or were the pictures only in . . . ?

Mills:

They’d sort of be in the staff rooms and things like that, yes. I mean I don’t think anybody would dare put a nude picture, a nude female picture, up here. It would just . . . People would jump on them these days.

Abbate:

It’s a different world.

Mills:

It is.

Abbate:

Did they have those nude computer printout things? Line-printer art?

Mills:

I think that’s a dismissable offense, isn’t it? [laughs.]

Abbate:

But I mean back in the . . .

Mills:

Oh, in those days! Not really, I don’t think, no. I mean, we’d get porn off the Internet posted up, but that would be the students doing it, so you’d have to go around taking it off, sticking it in your pocket, and then saying, “I’ve just seen this on the notice board!” The number of times I walked around with pocketfulls of pornographic material that I’d confiscated from one place or another . . . But that’s students for you.

Abbate:

Do you think that made it uncomfortable for the female students?

Mills:

Probably, yes. But I think that’s—you know, I think sort of teenage boys are going to be like that, whatever laws you lay down.

Abbate:

That’s true, you had young students.

Mills:

Yes. And it does make a difference. You know, you could tell them off and it—they knew that it wasn’t acceptable, but they’d still do it. We did have students expelled because of pornographic material.

Abbate:

Did you have problems with hacking? Students?

Mills:

Yes, but not a lot. Those hackers—and I can think of one or two in particular that were really good at it—we used to employ them part-time! [laughs.] We used to actually say, “Right: We’ve caught you hacking. Either you come and work for us part-time and help us sort out the problem—stop other people hacking—or you’re expelled.” And being a post-sixteen college, you could do that, because it wasn’t compulsory to keep them. So yes, some of the students knew more about the system than our technicians. So they used to train up the technicians, as it were, in their part time. [laughter.]

Abbate:

Were these always boys?

Mills:

Yes. I don’t think we ever had a girl hacker, no. Again, I think it’s the boy thing, isn’t it?

Abbate:

That’s interesting. I talked to someone at University of Greenwich who said the same thing, that they took the hackers and made them into their security force.

Mills:

Yes? [laughs.]

Reflection on Career with Computers

Abbate:

What have you found to be the most satisfying aspects of working with computers?

Mills:

I’m not sure. I mean, “satisfying” is when you’ve been, say, writing a really complicated program, and you’ve had your head down for days, and you test it, and it works. That is extremely satisfying. Yeah, and I still do get a kick out of.

I mean, a lot of the things I do are more business-oriented than actual computing-orientated. For example, this afternoon I’ve got a conference call with Treasury in the States and Treasury in India, where we’re trying to work out, among other things, how to get payment rejections pulled back off the web, and it’s, you know, it’s quite complicated. It’s more from a business point of view than a computing point of view that I’ll be there.

Abbate:

They’re the users, right?

Mills:

What they’re trying to do is—I don’t want to get too technical here—all the payment files that go out to all the banks: They’re trying to get all the banks to report payment rejections in a standardized format. That in itself is incredibly complicated, because the banks are all over the world, so they’ve all got their own set of rules, and trying to get, you know, banks that send in the report to report in exactly the same way as a bank in England or in a bank in the States—but hopefully this will be the case. And these rejections will be posted up on the Web, and we will download our payments and that information about them into a big data warehouse. But this is a big Treasury initiative that we’re sort of jumping in on the back of; but it’s all to do with how the payments are sent to the bank, as well as how the banks report. You know, the mapping instructions all have got to be standardized, and it’s probably a year’s work there—that we’re hoping that when it’s up and running, we can get in on the back of.

Abbate:

So in terms of computing, that would be sort of user requirements, system design, and specification.

Mills:

Yes, mm-hm.

Abbate:

So it’s that end of the . . .

Mills:

Yes. I’ve spent a lot of time, rather than the actual cutting code end, more on the systems analysis side, the user requirements, and getting into really quite technical banking issues, as opposed to computing issues.

Abbate:

Do you enjoy that side?

Mills:

Yes, I do. I think I know a lot about the banking system now! I knew nothing when I came here.

Abbate:

It sounds like working with computers also gave you this opportunity to get into other areas that you wouldn’t necessarily have walked in with the qualification to do.

Mills:

No, probably not. I mean, if I wanted a mid-career change now—which I don’t—but if I did, I could probably go in as a banking consultant. Nothing to do with computing, just explaining to people about, you know, the intricacies of bank liaison and all the different types of wires, formats, and things like that—because I’ve picked that up from the work I’ve been doing here, the systems work. I’ve had to find out a lot about how the banking system works, and how things are . . . It never ceases to amaze me, you know, that if we want to send a payment from here to the U.K., it often goes by Cincinnati and India!

Abbate:

I’m amazed.

Mills:

They fly all over the world, they really do! Because sometimes we may not have a link directly to the bank, so it’s got to go by three or four different routes; you know, we send it to Chase Manhattan, who send it to CitiBank, who send it to So-and-So—and these are all electronic transfers going on, till it gets to the bank that will make the payment. And, it’s quite fascinating!

Abbate:

Does that mean you’re also involved in networking? Or just tangentially?

Mills:

Just tangentially, really. I mean, we have our own networking teams upstairs, so if I have a problem I’ll go and see them; so it’s not an area I get into a lot.

Thoughts on the Field of Computing

Abbate:

How do you think the field of computing has changed since you’ve started?

Mills:

It’s changed phenomenally, hasn’t it? I mean, if I go back sort of to 1970, say, to my first job, then we had no disks, one mainframe, one line printer; all we really did was the payroll—because I think that was the first system everybody put on was the payroll, wasn’t it? And that was about it. If you were to write a program, you’d hand-write it out on cards—on sheets of paper. That would actually be typed up on paper tape, so if you wanted to do any amendments, it was cut your paper tape, slice your new bit in. It then you then progressed onto cards, and you had to mark the box of cards with a big “X,” so that if you dropped it . . . ! [laughs]

Abbate:

I know what you mean.

Mills:

You’re older than you look in that case! [laughter.]

Abbate:

No, personally I haven’t marked punch cards, but I’ve heard of this.

Mills:

All right. And then . . . You think of it now, I mean you’ve got—my PC up my desk is phenomenally more powerful than this mainframe I used to work on. Everything you do is on a computer, and the computers talk to each other all over the world. I mean it’s just . . . And payroll is one of the little insignificant things. It’s really about, well, data warehousing more than anything else, isn’t it? Being able to access the vast amount of information stored somewhere, with the Web and things like that.

I mean, you probably know GE’s got this huge initiative where virtually everything is going to be Web-enabled. Gone are the days of filling in—you know, if you go off somewhere—your expenses, filling your expenses form in by hand; it’s all done on the Web. Everything is Web-enabled—or not everything now, but they’re moving that way. All the things, the administrative things within a business, as well as the actual function of the business itself, is put on the Web. We’ve got a big e-pay . . . EPS, what’s it called?

Abbate:

Electronic Payment System?

Mills:

It’s “E-Payables System.” It’s that we get an invoice in; it’s scanned, sent over to Mexico, where they perhaps add information—you know, enter it in. That link will go [over], then it comes back over here; it’s been paid into a global—you can see the copies of the invoice—so it’s all on the Web. Every invoice that comes in is scanned, and its picture’s put up on the Web, so if there’s any queries, you can go back to the original piece of document—you know, paper—in an image format, rather than having to look through the paper records. Anything that’s incorrect with them, it’s pushed into a work-flow queue, so that people work their way through correcting errors and things like that.

I mean, it . . . It governs your life now. You know, if you talk to anybody down here: everybody’s got a PC; their work is governed, often, by this work-flow—you know, that the next piece of work comes in, and it’s there on the screen; they do that; the next one comes in—rather than perhaps you deciding what you wanted to do, which I think was the case in the past—probably is still for me as well, actually—but that’s how it affects other people. It probably affects everybody, doesn’t it?

Abbate:

Mmm.

Do you think the culture of computing has changed? The type of people who do it, and . . .

Mills:

Well, I’m the oldie here, you see . . .

Abbate:

Well, sort of at large.

Mills:

I think it’s still a young person’s . . . I don’t know where a lot of the old ones are! But . . . I mean, I’m the oldest. There’s Alan, who’s mid-forties, and most of the others are less than 30, or 30—around 30. So yes, it’s definitely a . . . It seems—well, certainly here it seems to be still a young person’s trade. So what happens to them afterwards, I’m not too sure! [laughter.]

Abbate:

There’s lots at universities . . .

Mills:

Well yes, I mean, the people at universities are typically 50, aren’t they? 50 to 55. You look at the Lecturers in computing—actually it’s probably more, probably . . . Well, my husband’s what, 53? And he reckons he’s virtually one of the youngest. Certainly at Leeds Metropolitan University.

Abbate:

Because the young ones are lured off to industry?

Mills:

Yes. Because they don’t pay enough. And I think historically, perhaps, where they got people like me, who wanted to go there because it was flexible and had the long holidays, they don’t have that to offer now; so I know they find it very, very difficult to recruit.

Abbate:

Do you think computing has become more open to women? Or less open over time?

Mills:

I honestly don’t know. As I say, I think at the time when I first went into it, it was open to women. Whether it still is . . . I suspect it probably still is. I think once you’re in there, you move from job to job, and so you rely on your experience or whatever in the previous job to get you the next one. So, you know, if I was straight out of college now, I think I’d be able to get in again quite easily. But as I said, the people aren’t coming into college.

Abbate:

Do you hire people here?

Mills:

No. Mick, my boss, does the hiring. Actually, most of the recent people that we’ve appointed have been men. But I don’t think that is because he prefers men to women.

Abbate:

Right. It’s the pool.

Mills:

Yes. No, I’m sure he . . .

I think women have a different skill set. I think they’re probably more methodical. I’m being very sexist here, aren’t I? I think women in general are more methodical than men. I think they probably make better programmers than men; but men, I think, have more come-up-and-go, get-up-and-go, than women.

Karen, for example: She’s been here forever—well, not forever, but for ages. And it suits her; she’s reasonably well-paid; she knows what she’s doing—but I’m sure a man in her position would have moved on before now and gone higher than she is. But, as I say, it’s convenient, she doesn’t want to move her daughter . . . I think women in general lack ambition compared to men—but I actually reckon they’re better programmers.

Abbate:

Ah, interesting!

Do you have any advice for young women contemplating going into computing today?

Abbate:

Just do it! Yes. Because I think it’s . . . It’s the one thing that you can always get back into. I think for a long time there’s going to be a shortage of people, so get in while you can. If you stop work, try and keep yourself, like I did, reasonably up-to-date—because, I mean, it moves on so rapidly—and you’ll get back in again.

Abbate:

All right. Well, I think I’ve probably asked all my questions, so: Thank you very much!

[END OF RECORDING]