Activation of B Spaces

(Pre-History)

Edgardo Noya

We shape our constructions, and then they shape us.

Winston Churchill said something similar in 1960, in connection with the reconstruction of the British Parliament, after the Second World War: "We shape our buildings and then they shape us.".

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A few years later, in 1967, Marshall McLuhan, a Canadian philosopher, professor of English literature, literary critic and expert in communication theory, who is considered one of the great visionaries of the present and the future information society, generalized what Churchill had said: "We shape our tools and then, we are shaped by our tools shape us".

As pointed out by Alfredo Halm in the post "What are 40 years’ worth? throughout our history, Quanam has ventured into several curves of technological evolution. Some curves related to hardware and communications architecture (i.e. infrastructure) and others, related to software layers. 

Every venture has led us to reinvent ourselves, by "building" solutions or "tools" which we make available to the productive sectors in which we participate. As a result, we have gathered a rich baggage of experiences and lessons learned that today nourish Quanam’s cultural heritage.
Therefore, it makes sense to ask ourselves: what have our constructions been, and how have we been shaped by them? Let's focus on one.
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In a very short period of time, at the end of the seventies, Uruguayan organizations, companies and agencies such as the Inland Revenue Office, National Accountancy Ageny, Central Bank of Uruguay, Social Welfare Bank, Mortgage Bank of Uruguay, Insurance State Bank, Electricity and Water Supply Companies, Ministry of Transport, Montevideo Town Hall, Bank of the Republic of Uruguay, Commercial Bank /DGI, CGN, BCU, BPS, BHU, BSE, UTE, Antel, OSE, MTOP, IMM, BROU, Banco Comercial /, among others in the region, incorporated computer tools that dramatically increased their development teams productivity. Tasks which used to take days to be accomplished, were finished in hours.

Below, we will review the background of this event, what the problem and  the  innovation introduced by Quanam were, as well as  the impact this experience made on our own organization.

In 1978 we met Thomas Nies, a former IBM employee and founder of Cincom, a company based in Cincinnati. Tom Nies had such a leading role in the transformation of the IT industry, that has been given a prominent place at the "Smithsonian Institution's Computer History Collection", along with other industry pioneers such as Bill Gates (Microsoft), Larry Ellison (Oracle) and Steve Jobs (Apple).

Working for IBM, Tom Nies lived the golden decade of the company. IBM’s activities during the 60's dealt with hardware industry. At that moment in time, it was said that hardware yielded $$$ and software yielded problems. 

At IBM, Nies became a technician and an advisor to large customers’ accounts. Their challenges consisted, not only in understanding clients’ needs in order to provide them with the necessary IBM hardware, but also, having and pioneering a crucial role in terms of software implementation, so that computers could satisfactorily perform.

Having worked on large projects, such as one carried out at the giant steelmaker ARMCO, he visualized that the main innovations were going to come hand in hand with software, not hardware.

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At that time, the problem was that since there were no commercial database managers, each software program used its own data files. Consequently, information and programming were chaotic. The same data could appear in different files and with different values. In addition, each program had several ways of their to have access to this data. Therefore, programming tasks duplicated, and had several access to it; i.e. there were a myriad program to perform the same task which was: having access to information.

A separate problem was the development tools available at the time. There were no structured languages and to make a " program in real-time" logic was programmed separately from and simultaneously with user interface, through a very rustic language. Subsequently, all the modules had to be integrated into complex processes of compilation. Data correction loops were repeated several times during debugging process.

Consequently, development took up huge amounts of resources (time, people, work stations, processing capacity, etc.). 

In 1969, Tom Nies decided to found Cincom, a company that provided IBM customers with services. It was through this activity that he became acquainted with customers’ development and data management problems. After solving the same problems over and over again, together with his team, they introduced three important changes which later Quanam introduced in the Uruguayan market:

  1. They manufacture the first database manager in the market, which they called Total 
  2. They separated Data Base programming and management activities by introducing Database Management practices, which had been unheard of at the time ("database management")
  3. They developed a program generator through a fourth generation interpreted language (not compiled) that they called Mantis

By hiring Cincom, customers such as Chevrolet, 3M and many others appearing on Fortune 1000, lowered their development costs to less than a tenth.

When Quanam strikes bonds with Cincom, these solutions were already mature because they had been implemented at several leading northern customers. That circumstance, plus the fact of having trained a very good team of technicians in Cincinnati and built an important community of programmers through local training and specialized events, had  an even major impact on large national computer centers.

Over time, in addition to innovations such as vertically specialized applications and ERPs, lower costs of hardware and software base, changes in architectures, internet and open source software, Mantis programs have been replaced.

However, even today, there are 2 paradigmatic cases where this software is still run. In such cases, the systems developed by programmers of both institutions migrated from an obsolete IBM mainframe hardware architecture to Open Systems (Cincom software is also multiplatform), with minimal migration cost.

Although the link with Tom Nies and his company is still alive,  our clients’ needs have made Quanam direct our efforts towards other directions, but this experience left deep traces in our organization such as the quotation: "We give shape to what we build and then we are shaped by what we have built ". “We shape our constructions and then they shape us”

Some of these "footprints" were:

  1. Willingness to explore innovative technologies and methodologies by going out to get them, regardless where referents resided, and focusing on the development of practices that, through the use of Information Technologies, generated a positive impact of "by 10 or more" in the productive places where we worked.
  2. Learning how to participate in the activities of large world class IT companies. At that time, we stroke strong bonds with IBM ecosystem, and later, we did so too with Microsoft, Peoplesoft and Oracle. More recently, we started our participation in "Open Source", also creating high impact solutions. 
  3. Activating a global community of professionals and organizations, fostering a culture of trust and mutual learning environments (M Environments), where collective knowledge is generated, and spreads beyond the participants of the productive space (consumers, suppliers or producers and partners).
  4. Trusting on preparation, seriousness and collective spirit to give rise to situations that benefit both the system as a whole,  and each of its parts.
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Today, in an environment where technology is introducing major changes at all levels, we are committed to the "construction" of methodologies and technologies that allow us to accelerate highly productive spaces with certain characteristics, which we called "Spaces B".

Edgardo Noya  @enoyajr

Director of Solutions