The Computer Guy Is Here! Mainframe Mechanic
© 2018 John Sak
When John Sak began his training with IBM as a young college drop out, instructors informed his class that the only constant they could expect from their careers was change. Their jobs would probably not exist before they retired. Sak entered the field when mechanical tabulating machines with some electrical work were giving way to electronic computing units, and ‘continuing ed’ would be a staple of his career at IBM as computers, printers, and computer-driven devices continued to advance. By the time he retired, smaller desktop computers were supplanting the closet towers and basement behemoths. The mainframes Sak and company serviced, of course, were not simply larger and slower versions of PC towers. Although by the end of his career many devices accepted instructions via keyboards and the like , as a younger engineer instructions were fed into computers via stacks of punched IBM cards, with the patterns giving the machine different instructions. Refer to a disk drive today and most may think of a DVD tray, but the unit covered here is the size of a washing machine.
The book is a memoir rather than a personal history, but Sak’s stories cover the many various aspects of field engineers’ work and the IBM culture. Saks and his colleagues weren’t just repairmen, called out to replace or fix faulty mechanisms; they also analyzed new equipment in the field and compared notes to determine if there was a design flaw that could be corrected, or weaknesses which could be improved. This memoir of life as an IBM field engineer combines a few profiles of odd characters with accounts of diagnosing problems, along the way explaining how older room-sized devices operated. (One model, only discontinued in 2005, ran for just over 40 feet and was devoted to letter-sorting.)
Computing has had an amazing history so far, and I greatly appreciated Sak’s account of its boom years — forgiving the primitive cover.