Stephen Freeman Rotating Header Image

When will we ever learn?

I’ve just finished an excellent little book, A Computer Called LEO by Georgina Ferry (1), about the history of the “Leo”:, the first business computer in the world (2). Commissioned by Lyons, the UK’s leading catering company at the time, it was a technical triumph but lost out commercially. A friend of mine, Alan Keen, actually worked on one in his youth and found it an excellent machine.

What patterns can we recognise?


* _A Few Good People_ Work with a small number of the right people and let them get on with it. Put the emphasis on the task, not on status — the juniors were involved in key business decisions and even the most senior programmers had to get their code checked by someone else before running it. Don’t let the organisation get in the way of people from different teams, such as hardware and software, talking to each other to produce a combined solution.
* _Provide real benefit_ What really interested the people who ran the place was organisational efficiency, the machines were just an effective tool for getting there. Some installations lasted for decades because they did the right job. At each installation, the programmers got involved in the design of the organisation and then fitted the machines into that; the one time this failed was when they talked to the customer’s accountants rather than the end users in engineering. Nowadays we know this as Consultancy-led sales.


* _Gross underfunding_ They had far too few people and resources for what they were attempting to do. At the time, the Americans were spending hundreds of millions on developing competing machines.
* _Arrogance_ A traditional Cambridge failing, they were so good that they thought that the quality of what they were doing spoke for itself, but that only happened when the customers were sophisticated enough to understand. Many people dismissed their achievements because they came from a chain of tea shops, rather than the military. The Leo company never had the organisational depth to support growth.
* _Wrong product_ They never managed to charge appropriately for the consulting that went with each sale, which drained the team without bringing in revenue, especially as the customers liked to hire away the staff. They thought they were selling boxes, rather than solutions.

In the end, the Leo company was sold off to English Electric who misunderstood the product and imposed a hierachical organisation. Finally, the government arranged a shotgun wedding of all the UK vendors into ICL and the rest, as they say, is history.

Although the motivations of the original sponsors were Taylorist, to come up with exactly one way of processing data, their approach to the Leo team had many Agile aspects. They certainly had _courage_, to commission a radical use of such a new technology; they emphasised _communication_ to make sure that the team was effective and that they implemented the right applications; they had techniques to _feed back_ errors that ensured the reliability and correctness of their system; and they probably valued _simplicity_ too.

The morals of this tale?

* We’ve have known the right way to get things built since the earliest days of the computer, because after all it’s about people not hardware, but precious few organisations seem to be able to do this.
* Customers who want cheap, effective solutions have to have internal staff who know what they’re doing, otherwise they’ll spend a lot of money on some Magic Solution. Something to remember in these days of oursourcing.

(1) Published by Fourth Estate, ISBN 1-84115-185-8
(2) It ran a Bakery Valuations program on 25th November 1951.

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