My career in IT started when my parents invested in purchasing me a ZX81 at the grand age of 12 years old. I still remember going into WHSmith with my dad to get it, and the excitement of going home and loading up the first computer game I’d played at home.
I’d used computers in the past at school, and programmed a turtle using the BBC Micro and the excellent BBC programmes that had been shown in our primary school class, but the BASIC language seemed like an excellent way to start programming and to create new little computer programs that at first I typed out of a book, but later started to amend and to use my own.
I completed my A-levels in Maths, Economics and Physics, but always yearned to get practical with IT and so went and completed a HND in Computer Science. This diploma at the time taught me all about databases, other programming languages such as Pascal and Cobol and most of all a good overall knowledge of Windows systems (3.1 at the time) and how PC’s worked in comparison to mainframe VAX computing.
But, when it became time to then get a job and meet the real world, I went out and a Junior VAX Basic developer position at a local hamper company was my first foray into commercial computer programming. I’d not done BASIC on the VAX, so was sent to London to complete (to my knowledge) the very last course in VAX BASIC that Digital in London were holding. There were 2 of us on the course, and they had run the previous course 6 months earlier.
Commercial programming at Park Group PLC was very different to bedroom coding. There were already set routines to be used for data level access and I had to learn these and work with the other programmers in the team to create new ones, but I was happy that I also brought in some PC database knowledge (In the form of DBASE III at the time) from my HND course.
My first major project was looking at how the screens and data within the call-centre business could be improved from the agency centre. Park dealt with 100’s of calls a day from customers who saved money through the year and then received hampers and vouchers in December. A few analysis sessions later and it was clear that the process of taking new orders, and issues with getting people’s addresses correct and subsequent delivery issues caused a lot of wasted time and customer complaints. So my first task was to integrate a new API for address verification into the existing call centre screens. This would require me learning the API from a company called QAS (who were consumed by Experian a few years later) and their VAX API, and then changing the call centre screens so that they would ask for post-code first and then allow the software to show them the street level details and select an address.
Although this sounded simple, it wasnt. There were little graphical abilities on a VAX mainframe so I had to work with the team to utilise a few routines to make a menu system, and check that it was useable for the people on the floor. What struck me about these formative years was how much analysis was needed before putting something live into a larger environment to make sure its performance was optimal.
I worked my way through several projects in 3 years and became a Senior Developer within the development team, before being offered an opportunity to work on a new project within the business. A new director was joining to create a brand new company within the business from scratch, which would involve looking for brand new systems to help run the business and put in place the infrastructure required to run the business.
I jumped at the chance straight away. It seemed scary at first, as my title was to change immediately to “IT manager” for this new section of the business, and I still considered myself a coder – however I did realise that I’d done a lot more than just code in the projects that I’d developed. There had also been a few of my colleagues that had gone off to other parts of the group to do further work, and the chance of enhancement drove me forward.
“Park Direct Credit” was the company I helped to set up with a small management team. Our first task was to trial the concept, in a small office in Hanley, Stoke-on-Trent. The business would in essence provide a base for existing agents, allowing us to start door-step collections, but also provide a shop front for financial services in the form of insurance, cheque cashing and pay-day loans.
We built a client/server infrastructure based on Windows NT at the branch level, implemented a packaged solution to cover lending and I wrote the software for cheque cashing that would capture a persons details in branch and take photo’s and them for security, and stored this in an Access database on a branch server. Each branch was then connected via a VPN tunnel to our head office server in Birkenhead and then at the end of each working day would update the centralised database with the days trading. All of this sounds simple, but it was a lot more complicated, especially when we got the go-ahead to turn the trial into a nationwide rollout, and over the next 4 years we created around 30 branches of “Park Direct Credit” across the country with a doorstep collections force of over 300 people.
Park Direct Credit amassed a trading loan book of over £11 million after its 6 years of trading, but the business was cut off in its prime because of what became known as the “Fairpak” scandal. Fairpak hampers, a keen competitor of Parks, went under. All of the savings money that they had taken over the year from their agents who saved with them disappeared as part of the collapse, and their customers ended up losing a lot of money. The OFT stepped in to try and regulate a deter from such a situation happening again, and forced savings companies to make sure that savings were then protected and ring-fenced. This meant Park however could no longer use the funds from their savings business to feed the ongoing growth of the debt business, and all of sudden our growth stopped overnight, and Park re-assessed the ongoing need for the PDC business.
A plan for scaling down, and then eventually closing the business was produced and after 10 years of working for Park, and closing each office or handing it over to “Cheque Converters” (a new pay-day loans company in the UK), the final loan book was sold off to Lewis Group and although I was offered a position elsewhere in the Park Group, I chose to take redundancy. To this very day, I still miss the place though, as there was a great management team there and working for an owner-managed business make a business very dynamic and reactive to change.
… to be continued