4th August 2020
ICL ME29 mainframe

IT Industry pioneers

 

ICL ME29 mainframe
ICL ME29 mainframes

Introduction

In our days if you wanted to work for an IT company you would aspire to join ICL (later known as Access Information Systems), NCR (changed to AT&T before becoming NECOR) and many others including Datacare, Action computers and Realtime Computers.

The first two companies were run by Mr Mambo Banda and Mr Tom Ngoma. The two later partnered with Mr Cabby Chilangi to transform Pronet Zambia Limited. This is one company that revolutionised the networking industry in Zambia.

When I joined Pronet I came from the background of being glorified as the best in Ericsson PBXs. I became used to being indispensable because I was the only one trained on the Ericsson MD110 and BusinessPhone systems. But at Pronet I came across different skills.

Among the three of us: Cholwe Sikakwa, the late Chipasha Mubanga and myself are credited with installing 90% of all VSATS that were operational in Zambia before 2000. Sam Banks and Cassius Maimbo contributed to almost 80% of all networking jobs with Chiponda Mmembe and Wesley Chilangi doing most of UPS installations. The team was the first to do a mechanical splice of fibre optic cable linking Barclay’s Longacres to Holiday Inn. One area I became indispensable though was on SC connectors on fibre optic terminations.

We were joined later by young engineers Choolwe Nalubamba and Evans Silavwe. The competition was upping the game with usual customers like Zamnet building a good in-house team of young engineers like Daniel Mpolokoso, Ralph Maseko and Mjumo Mzyece. Zamnet later poached both Choolwe and Evans.

These individuals have gone ahead to work for many companies but the pioneering companies have struggled to survive. What is the problem? Some have argued that few Engineers have entrepreneurship approach to business while others feel the market cannot sustain local IT skills due to support given by South African and Chinese giants to local subsidiaries. I will leave those arguments to Brian Mulenga.

Part 1

Zambian IT was the realm of the mainframe computer in the 1970s. The biggest IT company in Zambia was ICL. ICL was very well run in a traditional way. It had salesmen who sold large mainframe computers, the software that went with them and very expensive support contracts.It had excellent support engineers, had a large data entry centre and data processing bureau.

Its biggest competitors in Zambia were IBM who had a direct presence in Zambia ran by former Secretary to the Cabinet Valentine Musakanya and NCR who specialised in banking and finance solutions.

The three firms had a very lucrative oligopoly of IT in Zambia with NCR being the main player in the banks. The largest users of IT were the mines who were an IBM shop, the councils, especially the City and Municipal councils, who all had well-developed IT departments who ran IT on ICL ME29 mainframes and did in-house billing for water, electricity (yes electricity, ZESCO was only formed in 1970 and the last councils only handed over electricity distribution functions around 1973), rates and personal levy.

UNZA
UNZA

UNZA also had a massive computer centre and along its own system it processed Zambian examination results and due to it having the same hardware as the ministry of Finance it also took on extra duties to help out Ministry of Finance.

Zambia Railways had a huge control centre that was not only computerised but also had the largest private telephone network in Zambia and a train signalling system which used Zambia’s first Wide Area Network which ran from Livingstone up to Chililabombwe. The Zambia Railways Computer Sevices operated out of a purpose-built air-conditioned office block that was very large, so large in fact, it actually had bicycles for staff to move around in the office block and had the largest Zambian IT Training school attached to it.
The Ministry of Defence had a big three-story office block inside Arakan Barracks owned by an organisation called Defence Computer Services (DCS). DCS was an ICL shop, Zambia Police had a large IBM computer centre in the bowels of Force Headquarters running Criminal Records and fingerprint systems.
The 1980s heralded an era of change that completely transformed the Zambian IT scene and in the view of some people probably destroyed it. The ICL ME29 or its little brother the DRS20 mainframes were been sold across the country and a large cadre of programmers, systems analysts and technical staff supported the machines.

Using mainframe technology, Zambia had developed an IT industry. Zambia had software developers and a whole support ecosystem. Zambia did not import software, in the 1980s, Zambia wrote its own software. Part of the reason was a lack of foreign exchange but also the cost concerned writing software made it prohibitive to have outsiders do it.

Because of strict adherence to the waterfall Systems Development Life Cycle (SDLC), the each solution for each company or organisation tended to be unique. The solutions were rigid and because of the ponderous deliberate project management style rather expensive.

It was easier to develop software in-house and support and document it yourself. You avoided the cost of a huge technical staff working on the elaborate waterfall by simply putting them on payroll and paying them a monthly salary.

Zambia Railways followed this route. It moulded and trained its own IT staff. At one stage the Zambia Railways Training College IT Qualification stood higher than IDPM or even Degrees and Diplomas from UNZA !!!

They actually would retrain Diploma and Degree Graduates from UNZA and Evelyn Hone to the Zambia Railways way of doing things. The very strong IT curriculum taught at Zambia Railways, for instance, ensured excellent housekeeping and proper documentation was part of the Zambia Railways trained IT professional.

At Zambia Railways, their hallmark was the attention to detail and their excellent documentation and adherence to systems and hardware maintenance procedures. This was drilled into them at Zambia Railways. One of the IT gurus from Zambia Railways was Paul Tembo, later to become a prominent political figure in MMD and a Deputy Minister

As a result, Zambia Railways had a very skilled IT workforce that developed software which could run the company. From payroll to HR to accounting to Inventory control and signalling and controlling systems for trains it had all been developed in-house. The same could be said of UNZA, the Mines, Ministry of Finance, Defence Computers and all the IBM houses as well.

The Mines took a different approach they got bright young Engineers and turned them into IT professionals with a stringent training program which developed an excellent work ethic and enforced disciplined and ingrained professional work habits. ZCCM had few real Computer scientists and technologists instead its staff were all Technical guys mostly Engineers of all types with a leavening of Metallurgists, Geologists, Chemists and so on.

Engineering required an aptitude with figures, lots of discipline and long hours. Also because of the pressure cooker of the infamous UNZA School of Natural Sciences, Engineers in Zambia are very intelligent and used to working to impossible deadlines and under incredible pressure. These attributes turned out to be the winning strategy for ZCCM. It produced technically strong, intelligent, creative and hardworking IT staff who were not even IT people before they went to ZCCM and yet they set the highest standards everyone wanted to emulate. ZCCM IT people were desirable in the Zambian IT Job Market.
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Also existing in Zambia was a large IT outsourcing business dominated by a company called Computer Systems Limited. In the 1970s and 1980s, it was common for companies to have a computer bureau process its accounts and its payroll. Indeco Group had a centralised IT Center that did all the computer work for the group except for some subsidiaries like Kafue Textiles.

The wind that blew in and destroyed all this was the advent of the PC and cheap software packages. Bill Gates wiped out the Zambian IT industry.

The first nails in the coffin came about when a young software engineer called Mambo Katuta Banda left ICL and formed his own company called Realtime. He sold minicomputers made by a company called DEC. They were smaller but could run rings around the IBM and ICL mainframes. The DEC also had the first low-cost Local Area networks sold under the name DECnet and had the first client-server software. They also ran cheap software packages
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The carnage that ensued as Realtime won contract after impact was immense. The main victims were his former employers ICL. ZNPF, ZESCO and ZCCM moved from ICL, and in the case of ZCCM IBM mainframes to DEC. Mambo Banda became the IT visionary in Zambia. He even proposed the first fibre optic network to run down Cairo Road (Lusaka), Buteko Road (Ndola) and Obote Avenue (Kitwe) but no one really knew what he was talking about and the then PTC now ZAMTEL, made very sure he never got that idea off the ground.
The second nail in the coffin came from another young man,  40-year-old Bob Sichinga. The first black Chief Accountant on the mines at age 28, he had a real interest in computers and had risen to the position of CFO of ZCCM and presided over the big switch from mainframe to minicomputers. He retired from ZCCM at age 37 and started Productivity Computer Systems and proceeded to sell as a package Novell Networking Software, a Payroll and Accounting System and NCR PCs. His products swept through the Indeco Companies and usurped the mainframes and had at his peak something like 30 companies running his software
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The results for Zambian IT was catastrophic. All that programming and systems knowledge was thrown into the bin. The buzz word was now networks, PCs, Servers, Novell. And the biggest killer, software packages.

Introduction by James Chona, and part 1 by Brian Mulenga

Reproduced with permission 

4 thoughts on “IT Industry pioneers

  1. Good peace of history. I often wondered when someone would write a story on the history of IT in Zambia. Keep it up but do more research through interviews with people who were there who are still alive.

    1. We need to interview you Mr. Ngoma, you grew up with Mambo Banda in Chilenje and you were contemporaries in the IT market. You ran the the third leg of the oligopoly NCR Zambia if I am not mistaken.

  2. This is just what i was eager to read on friday as the Website was being migrated. So much history, i wish we had more details though.

    Could we have more Data, throughout from the 90s all the way till current period. This is quite informative and has tingled my mind so much.

  3. This is why Techtrends keep chewing my data! Brilliant site. Saw this post on Facebook and thought it would read really well on TT. Keep the content coming.

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