System-X was a BT project that was supported by three telecommunications manufacturers, to create a digital telephone network based on ISDN concepts:

  • GEC (as it was then called)
    GEC had little experience with Stored Program Control systems, so they were given the SPC to develop. It had a lovely name POPUS (Post Office Processor Utility Subsystem). A processing system based on bit-slice technology, with virtual memory capability and programmed in a language called CHILL.
  • Plessey
    Plessey already had a successful Stored Program Control system used in their battle field digital command and control solution called Ptarmigan, so they were given the digital switching and the signalling interworking subsystems.
  • STC
    STC were given the message transmission and the maintenance control subsystems

In mid 1979 I was taken on at Plessey, Edge Lane, Liverpool as a System-X hardware design engineer. There was a “closed-shop” agreeement at Edge Lane that meant that I had to join the appropriate trade union within 6 weeks. On my second Tuesday in the company my department boss (Peter Hampson) came up to my desk and asked if I would walk with him. The office was a large open plan space with 200+ staff with a minimum number of low divider panels. Peter and I moved towards the “corridor” between some of the desks and then Peter asked if I had joined the union yet. I said that I had not. Peter went quiet, then he said that it was his strong recommendation that I go (immediately) to the union representative and join now. Two hours later there was a management lock-out and all the union members were “on-strike”.

It lasted six weeks, which was a pain since I had no income, except for a few pounds from the union strike fund. Still I did get to “man the picket line” and once I took part in turning a delivery lorry around and sent it back to Northern Ireland.

When I eventually got around to working at Edge Lane I found out that there were a small number of exerienced engineers (telephony) but they had no micro-processor skills. The majority of the engineers were fresh out of university, understood a bit about processors but nothing about telephony.

I was in the curious position of having done the telecommunications course at Aston (a highly respected course by the industry) and at the same time I was not lost in computing. So Peter Hampson made me responsible for graduate recruiting and training in his department.

I was relatively free to poke my nose where-ever I wanted. So I asked questions (about telephony, System-X,..), basically I said to people “I’ve got time, tell me what you are doing and why?”. This freedom was helpful since I had to create and give a training program lasting 13 weeks for new graduate entry engineers, and I just had to fill the timetable with as much telephone history and concepts as I could. This was a brilliant follow-up to the Aston course.

Since I had no direct design work Peter Hampson gave me ad-hoc jobs. The University Of Strathclyde in Glasgow was running a M.Sc. in teletraffic engineering and wanted a guest lecturer, so Peter nominated me, this happened 3 years in a row. Edge Lane was interested in modifing the Monarch PBX, so Peter put me on the review team. BT wanted to sharpen up the micro-processor engineering concepts across the project, so Peter put me on the team.

This was simply brilliant, I was getting exposure to a broad range of telecommunications topics.

Whilst the other engineers had their specific jobs (such as developing a digital system to interface to the classical MF2 signaling system, developing a card to interface to a “Long Distance DC” telephone trunk, developing an Automatic Break/Test Access unit), I was free to be nosey. So I had exposure to all of the design areas, where-as the true designers were lucky to work on 2 different units in 3 years. 

After 4 years of this I moved to a small team lead by Joe Watts. We were to develop an alarm monitor and display system. Joe and the others would design the hardware and I would write the code for the two micro-processor systems. Two i8085 processors talking to each other via a FIFO. Human interface via a DEC VT 241 colour terminal. The system had RS232 interfaces to the alarm reporting interface of 32 System-X exchanges. Each interface generated about 32 bytes at, I think, 300 baud. This unit was part of a larger Operational Maintenance Center contract that Plessey had won.

Plessey had acquired the public switching part of Stromberg-Carlson in the United States. BT has agreed to purchase 6 OMCs from Plessey/Stromberg-Carlson and 6 from BT’s own research lab. After I had finished my coding project I was asked to be the assistant project leader to the Plessey Liverpool team who had to make the Stromberg-Carlson “off-the-shelf” OMC system fit for BT. That project was about 18 months old and had stalled. The development team, mainly software contractors were of the fixed opinion that the equipment specified by Stromber-Carlson was not suitable (powerful enough, it consisted of a pair of PDP-11 machines). I studied the situation, spoke to everyone, went back to our senior management and pleaded for serious help!

I was told that I was only 28, that this was my first big task, and it could not be so bad otherwise the project leader would have said. But the project leader (John) told me that he had always said that the system was underpowered, but no-one would listen to him.

Within 8 weeks of this non-stop stress my stomach started to feel heavy and hot, every second of the day. My doctor said it was easy, get a new job or get an ulcer.

I immediately started looking for a job, and spotted an advert in a computer magazine, I think it was Computer Weekly. Basically the advert was “Wanted telecommunications software consultants. Stuttgart. German not needed. Hourly paid.” I flew out to Stuttgart for a job interview with a lad who was one of my project’s software consultants (Ian Rose if I remember correctly). We both had interviews that day with SEL in Zuffenhausen, Stuttgart. I am not sure who interviewed Ian but I have the vague recollection that it might have been Piet Oosterhaven team leader of MPTMON development (a System-12 propriatery test tool). I was interviewed by Karl Rothenhöfer head of System-12 special networks development. Ian declined the opportunity, but I had “no stomach” for Liverpool. So I went back to Liverpool and handled in my 4 weeks notice.

The joke of the situation was that BT had asked us (Plessey Liverpool OMC team) to attend a 3 day conference in Birmingham at which all of the key BT OMC people were to be present. During the 3 days there were a few 30 minute slots in which we (and in another room BT’s own OMC developers) were to demonstate / present our OMC systems. Because of my shy retiring nature I was asked to be the Plessey lead presenter (okay I am not so shy or retiring). I argued with my bosses against this since the conference was Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday of my last week with Plessey.

So I and a team went to Birmingham. I did everything I could to “sell” our system. I can still remember the face of Joe Watts standing in the back of the room when a BT guy asked if I could demo a specific OMC activity. I knew that we could not. So I played a dirty game. John the project leader was standing next to Joe. I shouted out across the room to John, something along the lines of “hey John, did we bring the X&Y modules”. Then before John could answer (not that he could because he was hiding his face in his hands in horror) I shouted out “no, no, sorry John I forgot that we had decided not to bring them” then I said to the BT guy “not to worry since the activities he asked for where in section -n- of the project compliance statement and our project offer stated clearly that we were fully compliant to that section”. Joe found it hilarious, John never said a thing.

On Friday I got a bit drunk at my lunch time “leaving do” in the pub close to the Edge Lane site, near the United Biscuit factory. And that was that. I stayed in Liverpool for about 10 more days to attend my best friend Nick Trickett-Bell’s wedding (Nick the rythym guitarist). Then I was off to telecommunication activities in Stuttgart, Germany.

Funnily enough, Dylan, the drummer of our little music group also left Plessey, and where did I meet up with him again. Yeah, Stuttgart. and then we worked together again in Den Haag in 1992 also for Alcatel.

Oh yes, the really funny part was that within a month of me leaving Plessey the OMC project was stopped. Oh, my “ulcer”, well my stomach settled down after about 6 weeks in Stuttgart.

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