Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Banking on Computers (Day 3)

The move to the Computer Department, as it was called, was convoluted.  I’d been running the Cripps Warburg rundown for the best part of a year.  The job consisted of checking the list of defunct loans every morning, making a few phone calls if required, booking a dollar rate at eleven o’clock with Ken in the dealing room, sending out some telexes, filling in some forms, and going down the pub.  In the afternoon I’d set up the next day’s routine and then go home as soon as I could decently get away with it – that wasn’t hard, as I was sitting in a backwater where everyone’s key objective was to keep their heads down and not rock the comfy boat.  I was stultifyingly bored.  

So when the offer to join something called a ‘test team’ came, I said yes, even though I had absolutely no idea what this meant.  To be fair, nor did the person who made the offer.  It turned out that a new computer system had to be created, tested and installed, by a given date (1st May 1977, I think), in response to something called SWIFT, standing for Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunications, which tells you most of what you need to know about it. 
The brand new idea was that computers could be made, using internationally agreed messaging standards, to talk to each other; the actual banks, and their computers, would just have to agree and fall in line. Imagine it: banks from thirty countries across the world, having to agree for the first time ever to a single rulebook - written in English but spoken in as many dialects of computer as there were banks -  working together to a self-imposed timetable in which failure wasn’t an option.  It was a bold, visionary initiative, which couldn’t happen now.   
(I say that because today, the spirit of co-operation has almost been obliterated in favour of that of self-advantage, whereas back then everyone was just avid to make it fly.)

I turned up on day one, along with the other eight misfits, to find we’d been sat round a horseshoe desk layout.  Tom and Dave, the computer guys who were more or less on their own trying to get this system designed, specified, programmed, tested and implemented, whilst running on empty, had rightly decided this was the best way of getting the help they needed.  They gave us a pep talk, then we all went for a drink.  Then we came back, pissed and laughing, and worked out how to do it.

It was the most intense eighteen-month period of my working life, and the most exhilarating.  Who can say how we managed it, but we did.  My bank actually sent the very first live message over the brand new SWIFT network.  A few days later, to my honest surprise, I was offered a full-time job, with a modest salary increase, as a Systems Analyst with the Computer Department.  As always, I said ‘yes’.  This time, I meant it.


  1. Wow! Not content with wowing Eric and Bob with your blues licks, you went off and invented the Internet while Tim Berners- Lee was still on nappies! And you did it whilst pissed!

    I've always been in awe of banking computer staff as the worry and responsibility would have made my head explode.

  2. Now is it a good thing or a bad thing that, instead of the banks developing the internet in its infancy, it was the US military?

  3. Aw shucks, that's nothing. Tune in next week, when I discover radium, solve Fermat's Last Theorem, find out how to work the Sky + HD box and invent the Collateralised Default Interest Rate Swap. (Oh all right, I made one of those up.)

  4. You make banking and computers sound almost as exciting as music!

  5. Ah when life was simple and the pub was affordable at lunchtime, working in a clearing bank in the late 70s-80s I remember the advent of SWIFT, or at least the acronym. Never gave a thought to you clever sorts behind the scenes, so a belated but in no way patronising, well done!
    The first actual thought I gave to moving information digitally was the fax machine, I was simply astonished that a picture popped in one end could reappear on a desk elsewhere down a telephone wire, alchemy of the first order.

  6. As we discussed, Mig, these things (careers, hobbies etc.) start off interesting and end up boring, unless we're very lucky or careful or dedicated. Episode 4, if there is one, will have you reaching for the tablets.

    Hello, Zig, nice to 'meet' you. Happy days indeed! I'm assuming for some reason that you were in a branch - well, believe me, we 'clever sorts' had no real idea of what you front line folks did either!