This is how programming looked like for a woman in USSR

A lot of young people have a feeling as if IT was something very new and appeared very recently. In fact, I've met people, who doubted that there are old programmers. However, programming is here for quite some time.

But many things changed. You have probably seen somewhere pictures of huge computers, which were occupying whole rooms, some of you might have even heard of programming languages like Assembly, Fortran, and COBOL.

We were lucky enough to interview a woman, who used to program back in USSR times. And we promise you, it's exciting and worth reading! And if you have any questions to her - please add them in the comments below, so she could answer all of them.

What was your official job title?

I was working as a Software Engineer

(Editor's note: I had trouble translating this from Russian to English. The Russian job title was "Engineer-programmer")

What were you working on, what was your department's target and when was it all happening?

From 1985 to 1995 I worked at a computer center. The entire region was supplied with goods through this organization. We were automating the work of accountants and goods registration operators in warehouses. This means handling the receipt and consumption of goods, payments through a bank, customer debt, accounting of goods for their own needs and automation of payroll accounting for employees of this huge organization. At the end of each month, more precisely on 26th, we had to submit reports on non-ferrous and ferrous metals to Moscow.

Could you tell us how did the process of working with punch cards look like?

All 256 characters (ASCII) had their own binary code. The code of the first character of the operator was punched from the first position in the column on the first position of the punch card. Each character was encoded with eight bits. Positions other than zero were punched on the card so that there was a hole. We all had a binary conversion table to regular letters and numbers. But were already knew many symbols by heart. Now I forgot, but then we could quickly read punch cards.

All the data from the receipt of goods and expenses (waybills) and bank documents were filled by operators on special machines, Robotrons, and punch cards. Each punch card is one line of the document. We wrote programs for the computer - EC1020 if I remember correctly. Girls-operators punched through punch cards from morning till evening, and we ran them through programs on these computers. Every hour of the machine's time was very expensive, so we had to calculate the printouts, listing, and results by ourselves. We tried to analyze the content of variables at the input of each operator and at the output. There were moments when to do work faster, it was necessary to read punch cards and to make holes with a razor or to stick unnecessary holes by ourselves.

Back then I wrote in PL/I. I don't think anyone still remembers it.

How did your typical working day look like?

The computer center worked around the clock, but in the department, where the punch cards were punched, in the night there was only one operator left and she did not have time. On reporting days, we worked until night... Once I stayed for the night and slept on chairs.

When I came to the Computing Center, they just started to automate manual accounting. They gave me a task: automation of incoming and outgoing transactions for how many goods arrive and leave the warehouses per month.

Every day started the same way: we were going into the computer room and taking the results of punch cards with the listings that were run through the EC1020. Then we were processing the result, reading to check if there were some syntax and logical errors. Each punch card was signed with a pencil, that is, one programming operator was recorded on each punch card. If there was a mistake in the punch card, we were writing a corrected version on the back and then we had to take the whole deck of punch cards to the department of operators. They punched through punch cards again and inserted new cards instead of the ones with errors. Then they would give decks with punch cards back to the machine room (as we called the room where our EC1020 machine was). You could endlessly debug the program!

What do you remember about the first discs and drives?

The first drives occupied an entire room. I remember trying to lift one drive and was unable to pull it out. I was thin and small back then... There were still magnetic disks, but they were also huge and were inserted into a sort of a rectangular “cabinet”.

What were the biggest challenges in programming for you back then?

There were difficulties in our work, like the lack of books on programming, which would help us improve our knowledge. Also, running a program on the machine was expensive.

By the way, we had a socialist plan and therefore we worked sometimes until night. They told us to transfer work from tabulating machines to the EC1020 for full automation within some period of time and the managers urged us all the time and threatened us. You were assigned to finish a task by a certain date and you could not fail to fulfill it. For us, it was something like a terrible "betrayal" of our building of communism. It's funny now, but then we were like soldiers. We repeatedly discussed this among ourselves, how can brains work according to a plan?

But you can rarely say that out loud. There were informers within any organization.

Do you remember any interesting story from work? Please share!

When I came to the Computing Center, there were only old people working there (that's how I thought back then) and they processed huge information flow on tabulating machines. This was a huge iron machine that was outputting columns with numbers. When I was given the opportunity to study such a “sheet” to study in order to develop the software, I was shocked. There, in the column "Quantity" stood 0.0000, and in the column "Price" - a number, in the column "Sum" again a specific number. I asked them - how is it possible to multiply 0 by a number and get a number?

They were angry at me because they thought that we, programmers, would eventually transfer everything to the EC computer and they would be left without work.

When did you leave the programming job and why?

I left the department when I got pregnant. It was difficult to be a female programmer. Every pregnancy throws you away from the evolution of machines and you need to catch up with men every time...

Photo by Sergey Svechnikov on Unsplash

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