From A Mini Computer To The Other Side Of the World

I won’t bore you with the accounting requirements of my new role as head of the new mini computer division of the accounting firm where I worked. Just let me say that I took to the position like a duck takes to water.

The computer was the size of a desk, with a built-in immovable green on black screen. There were two floppy disc drives, the ‘A’ drive, and the ‘B’ drive which took 7 inch discs which actually flopped when you shook them. They each could hold only 640 Kb. One of the drives took the program discs and the other was for the data disks. here was no hard drive. Years later, when hard drives were introduced the ‘B’ drive became obsolete, and that is why there is never (to my knowledge) a ‘B’ drive in a modern-day computer. My accounting program was held on 8 floppy discs, and, while it was working, I had to follow instructions that would appear on the screen every few minutes asking me to change program discs.

Beside learning new computer skills like DOS operating system commands, and even a little ‘Basic’ programming knowledge, I had to train operators and other staff members, so that the firm as a whole could reap the maximum benefit from its new “toy”. I also had to write instructional manuals, in all aspects of the job, which included not only what the software could and couldn’t do, but also the accounting set-up, which I had designed and implemented. From memory we got the mini computer in 1978, and it took me until mid 1980, before I could say that I had my little department running as smoothly as I wanted it to.

To be honest, as an accountant I was fairly average. I was not a spectacular accounting success story. This fact, together with my slight physical disability meant that, as a basic accountant, it was very unlikely that I would ever realize my ultimate goal, which was to travel, live and work abroad. However, late in the afternoon on one Friday in September or October 1980, I was flicking through my Scottish Institute’s monthly magazines and came across an advertisement for accountants, auditors and tax specialists to work for a world-wide group of Chartered Accountants in Papua New Guinea. The advert, almost as an aside, stated that the company made “considerable use” of computerization in its Papua New Guinean Offices. Papua New Guinea, that’s in the Caribbean I think, I thought to myself. The office had a small library and I quickly found an Atlas. Christ, it’s the Eastern half of that big island to the North of Australia, together with some smaller, but still sizable islands to the North and East I learned. It’s one of the most remotest places on Earth. What a hoot.

Most, of the other employees had headed for the pub as I quickly typed out an application. The computer didn’t have a dedicated word processing system, but the accounts package had a facility akin to today’s “Notepad” which was good enough for what I needed. All i had to do was avoid complicated words, as my spelling wasn’t, and still isn’t, the best. Basically I said that I wasn’t interested in being a small business accountant, an auditor, or a tax specialist, but if they wanted somebody to be in charge of their computer and help all departments get the maximum use from it, then I was their man. I finished and printed the letter, photocopied it onto decent paper and manually signed it, before I raided the receptionist’s empty desk and stole an envelope and a stamp. I dropped it into a post box on my way to joining my colleagues at the pub we always adjourned to on a Friday.

The phone call came mid-morning on Monday. The girl who spoke to me apologized for the rush, but said the Papua New Guinean partner was returning the next day, but he wanted to see me, and could I make a 4pm appointment that day. I quickly told my immediate boss that I needed to attend to a personal matter and had to leave at 3.30. That was agreed to and I called the girl back to say I’d be there at 4.00. That will teach me not to leave my magazines unopened for a week, I thought to myself. That lunch time, when there was nobody around, I slipped a copy of the manual and other relevant documents I had written into my briefcase before going for a haircut.

The “interview”, if you can call it that, as I did most of the talking, only lasted just under an hour. It turned out that the interviewer, who introduced himself as James, was an audit partner in Papua New Guinea and therefore would not be my direct boss, if I was accepted. He honestly didn’t know a thing about computers and and although he seemed interested as I went through the manual and other papers I had taken with me, including a fully computer-produced set of accounts, I could sense that the majority of my words of wisdom were going way over his head.

After I had finished, James did spend 5 minutes making sure that I understood just how remote and third-world like Papua New Guinea was, but he never once mentioned my slight physical disability. He gave me a professionally prepared glossy brochure. “Everything you need to know about the firm, the lifestyle, and your potential remuneration package, is in there,” he said. “Start studying it now, while I make a quick ‘phone call,” he said. “The senior partner is in another part of the building.”

I tried to concentrate on the brochure, but I couldn’t help but hear Jame’s half of the conversation he was having with his boss. He asked his boss about having somebody in sole charge of the computer with no other distractions. “They’d be no reason why he couldn’t fly round to the other offices and help them out too,” I heard him say. “Yes that would mean that the whole country could have the same system and so transferring staff would be much more simple,” he replied to a question. “Will do, I’ll tell him now, Albert,” were the last words I could hear of the conversation before the telephone was replaced on its stand.

“Okay, Philip, or is it usually Phil?” James asked.

“Call me Phil,’ I replied. “My friends and colleagues haven’t called me Philip for years,” I answered

“Well Phil, we hadn’t considered a dedicated computer specialist until we got your letter this morning. I think it is a great idea, and Albert, our senior partner agrees too. Albert and I are going back South tomorrow, leaving the office about noon for a 3 o’clock flight to Singapore. We’ll overnight there and there’s a direct flight to Port Moresby the following evening. So we’ve both scored a free day and a half’s holiday in Singapore. Albert and I have a hard evening ahead of us discussing the other candidates, but as you kind of invented your own position, Albert has directed me to offer you a 2 year extendable contract starting at the level of Senior Supervisor. However, unless you really muck it up, and I don’t think for a minute that you will, I’m pretty sure you’ll be promoted to Manager within a year. Managers get a free car as part of their package. Now this is an important decision that could completely alter the course of your life. But we need an answer one way or the other by tomorrow lunch time. Please call the same secretary you spoke to today. Study every word in the brochure and call your parents in Glasgow before you make a decision.”


With that, James stood up, shook my hand, and said “Hope to see you in Moresby in 3 or 4 months time” before leaving the room. I packed up my papers and went outside. I spotted a pub, which had just opened at 5 o’clock across the road, which I headed for and became their first customer of the evening. I bought a pint of room-temperature flat English beer, found a corner seat and settled down to read the glossy brochure from cover to cover.

That took place in the first week of October 1980, and to cut a very long story very short, after 4 of the most hectic months of my life, I boarded a Singapore Airlines flight in mid February 1981. After a day and a half exploring Singapore, I got on my first of what was probably in the end well over 500 Air Niugini flights which was bound directly for Port Moresby, the capital of Papua New Guinea, which had only gained its independence from Australia 8 years before.

My life was about to change forever.

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