The Squirrel’s Up on Glass in the Aquarium

By Gene Turnbow, January 16, 2012

I used to work for Technicolor Videocassette back in the day. We’re talking about 1990 here. Back when the videocassette was king, and the Intel 486 pretty much ruled the world. In those days Technicolor made about 70% of all the VHS cassettes in the world (including all of Disney’s stuff).

Anyway, we were flying out to Westland, Michigan every week, doing our development work on their videocassette packaging and shipping pipeline that they were integrating with Walmart for what’s called “JIT” delivery (“Just In Time”) services. This meant they’d get the order for the specific video tapes, pick them from inventory and ship just the ones the store had requested.

So we were working on a database driven system that fed a monstrous device called the A-Frame, which was little more than a big conveyor belt from which video cassettes were picked from the stacks standing along its pathway. The cassettes would be selected by computer, be popped off the bottom of the stack, hit the belt, and end up in a box at the end. It made the job of finding the cassettes in the warehouse for each order moot, and saved a lot of steps for the people who had to run around and fill the individual orders. We had spent months on the project, and were working in a small long room with windows in one side that had previously been a shop floor production office. We called the thing The Aquarium because it resembled nothing more than a big fish tank, about the same proportions and glass on the one side, you get the idea.

We had sort of a pointy-haired IT manager, who shall remain nameless (partly because I don’t remember his name, so it’s just as well). We put a sign in the window of the Aquarium that said Do Not Tap On Glass, just like you’d see at a pet store, but when he saw it he didn’t get it at we had to explain it to him. Not the brightest crayon in the box, this guy.

The real story was the database server. Today everybody talks about SQL servers, and they’re commonplace, but back then it was brand new and nobody really had a good handle on what they could do and how they worked – except this one guy in his early 20′s we’d hired away from Microsoft, because he was an expert in SQL. You pronounce it “sequel”, but back then nobody could agree on how it was pronounced, and this ex-Microsoftie called it “Squirrel”. It was as apt as any other pronunciation, and we liked the confused expressions people got when we talked about it in front of them, being the incurable geeks that we were, and so for us, it stuck.

Then came the problem of connecting the SQL server to the A-Frame. In those days we had pretty bad networking. The best you could get was something called ARCnet, and the cards cost about $300 each, and that was in 1990 dollars. They failed a lot, and these days your average cable modem outperforms it by about ten to one or more. So to cover the great distances involved in the warehouse where we were, we needed something better. There was no wifi then, but there was optical fiber.

This was the glass stuff. It was expensive, and fragile. Once a forklift ran over a cable and broke the fragile strands, and a thousand dollars worth of this glass cable had to be restrung. Finally, the networking problems and the SQL server and the A-Frame were all connected together, and we ran our first communications test. We all held our breaths, and sent the message from the control station. The A-Frame responded.

We had been working for months getting to that point. you never saw a bunch of programmers whooping and hollering with excitement as we did that morning.

While all this was going on, the Pointy Haired IT manager happened by and asked what all the commotion was about.

“The Squirrel’s up on glass in the aquarium!” we happily exclaimed.

Mr. Manager just looked quizzically confused, and not wanting to admit that he had no idea what we were talking about, gave us a vague, slightly open-mouthed smile, and excused himself.

– Gene Turnbow

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