23 - THE LEAN YEARS
by BERNARD A HODSON
With the disappearance of my job at Symbionics I had to look around for work with which to support my growing family. At that time there was a scarcity of high tech positions in Canada, companies weren't hiring. I had also invested quite heavily in Symbionics, using borrowed money, with my house as collateral. Fortunately it was three years before the bank realised that the Symbionics shares were of little value, at which point I was about to sell the house for a move to Ottawa, so was able to retire the loan. In addition the consulting opportunities in Winnipeg were limited. Fortunately a position became available at Lakehead University, about 350 miles from Winnipeg, teaching statistics and systems analysis in the School of Business. The University was fairly new and was mainly a teaching institution. I did more research than the rest of the Faculty put together.
We were not interested in moving to Thunder Bay so I commuted by bus, a seven hour journey which I usually took overnight, having rented a room in which to sleep in Thunder Bay. On the journey we passed through Dryden. This is the home of a major paper industry. On my first journey through the town I thought that someone had had problems in the bus lavatory, the stench was so bad. However, it turned out that it was the stench generated by the paper processing plants. Apparently the residents of the town have become used to living with the smell, which provides their weekly pay cheque.
I was doing some minor consulting with Creditel, on their business credit system and then I received a call from a Mr. Nightingale at the Head Office of the Hudson Bay Company, which is located in Winnipeg, although operates nationally. They indicated that the laws were changing on oil and gas holdings of companies whose primary interest was elsewhere (the Bay is primarily a retail organisation), and wanted to know if I could help them develop a computer model of their operation, to determine what strategy they should employ as the laws were being developed. This was a rather interesting situation because we were to run the model as the laws were being developed, so that they could see how they should respond (this had some similarity to the models we developed with Imperial Oil, where we ran the model every six months, as other oil companies tried to reduce our oil delivery quota and increase their own).
I indicated to them that my schedule of lectures was such that I could handle the assignment if they were prepared to fly me back and forth from Winnipeg to Thunder Bay (a one hour flight) which they agreed to do. The contract was on a per diem (i.e. you are paid for each day's time) rather than a fixed price contract, which events proved providential. It was somewhat ironic for me that, being close to broke, I was discussing how to handle many millions of investment money that might become available. Originally we included 15 different variables that could affect the investment (such things as income, royalty, taxes, expenses) which we later increased to twenty seven.
The first model projected cash flow for twenty five years and I placed the model on a time sharing system called CALL 360 which had been originally developed by IBM but transferred to Control Data Corporation as settlement of some law suit. The input device, a typewriter with communications capability, was placed in the Executive offices of the company so that they could try out different values of the twenty seven variables, to help them develop their investment strategy. The executives had never had a terminal device in their offices before and were quite intrigued, their only complaint being the noise of the device.
All went well until they asked to increase the number of years of projection from twenty five to fifty, at which point I increased the size allotted to the variables and found that the CALL 360 system did not work. Over the years I had found several flaws in manufacturer supplied software (and still do) so I documented the error as I saw it, and the probable cause, and asked the supplier of the software to fix it. Fortunately it was not too difficult to fix, but did involve me in several days of unexpected work which was paid for by the Hudson Bay Company as I was not on a fixed fee contract. Flying between Winnipeg and Thunder Bay twice a week for several weeks was not particularly stressful, and enabled me to spend time with my family.
In Thunder Bay I converted SOLIS to operate with the Fortran language and a person whom I had given advice to a few years before regarding whether he should take a PhD now lived in Thunder Bay. He arranged for a small retail company called Chapple's to have a part of their operation computerised with the revised version of SOLIS, the actual work being carried out by a colleague at the University. It was at this time that I also wrote a number of papers outlining how the generalised approach used in SOLIS could benefit a number of areas, including accounting, hospitals, banking, libraries and so on.
Work in Thunder Bay continued for three years and was somewhat boring, but paid the bills. In particular, by introducing SOLIS in to lectures on systems analysis I was able to verify its power as a teaching tool, which of course had been already demonstrated at Banff and in the United States. As one example of its use I asked the students to visit the Air Canada ticket office and have a demonstration of ticketing. They were then to develop a simple air line reservation system that had a file containing flights, with plane capacities. They were then to accept plane reservations and cancelations, keeping track of how much space was left for each flight. They were given two weeks to complete the assignment, which most of them did with no problem. Their solution had to be demonstrated by a computer run. Other examples of equal complexity were also achieved during the course.
Towards the end of the third year the job situation was improving and I applied for a job in a government research group that was involved with the processing of data received from satellites, called the Canada Centre for Remote Sensing. I also considered taking a post as an international consultant in Tanzania. The government job won out and I moved with my family to Ottawa.