S. J. Farthing



(Link here to The Early Years)

Marconi Defence Systems

Marconi Defence Systems

After moving from Yorkshire to Southampton in 1982 I soon got a job at what was then called Marconi Space and Defence Systems (MSDS) in Portsmouth. This was much better paid than I had been used to in the North. Marconi had several sites around Portsmouth. This was one of the biggest, Broad Oak, located near Hilsea in an area called The Airport which did once have an airport on it but which was no longer there. I worked in the "ISS" department. (In Service Support). The work was with automatic test equipment (ATE). It was a mix of electronics and programming. Initially the work was calibration and maintenance of the automatic test equipment used to test the various stages of construction of missile guidance systems for incorporation into Sea Dart missiles to be used by the Royal Navy. It involved quite a lot of work with RF signals and modulation.

The ATEs consisted of a large assembly about head high, and formed from three or four racks of instruments side by side. The rightmost rack housed the computer which was quite old technology. It had a keyboard and a relatively small dot matrix neon type display with about 8 rows of text. The processor was a 16 bit mini computer constructed from TTL type integrated circuits. No microprocessors. It had a row of switches and corresponding lights on which it was possible to enter and read data for diagnostic purposes. The memory was about 8KBytes and constructed from 'core store', which was particularly old fashioned. It was based around a large removable hard disk, the "Winchester". This contained all software. The operating system and the compiled test programs. Software was normally loaded simply by installing the required hard disk, but could also be input and output by means of punched paper tape. In fact all software was stored primarily on paper tape.

The rest of the ATE depended on its function. There were about 4 different types, being named "Type 2", "Type 3" etc. The computer was connected to the various instruments by means of serial data links. Each instrument was capable of being remotely controlled, but each instrument had a different interface in general so each had a specially designed interface unit. The ATE was left on 24 hours a day.

My work did not involve the hardware of the computer, but did involve the software and all the rest of the ATE. Much of the work consisted of investigating possible faults in the equipment which were usually detected by unexpected test results. There was also routine calibration needed. In some cases this simply meant changing an instrument for another newly calibrated one. In other cases it meant carrying out the adjustments ourselves. I was also involved in making improvements to the software.

One interesting aspect of the programming was meeting the challenge of presenting clear unambiguous messages to the operator, but which were required to be concise enough to fit on the small text screen.

I worked on a number of particularly interesting projects. One was devising a method of accurately measuring frequency modulation which was required for calibration purposes. I had to study Bessell functions to devise a way of interpreting complicated patterns of 'sidebands' displayed on a spectrum analyser and from these calculate the frequency modulation characteristics.

Another large project was when a new version of the missile's power supply was introduced. I was responsible for designing new equipment and test methods for it.

Later I moved to a different department and did a lot of work with the Hewlett Packard 9836 personal computer which looked similar to modern PCs, but with a totally different operating system and architecture. It was introduced in 1983 about a year after the early IBM PCs, but was much better. It used a 68000 processor. It had a high resolution monitor with graphics capability, no hard disk, but two 80 track 5.25" floppy drives and about 1M of ram. It had a GPIB port as standard and was oriented to instrument control. It used an excellent version of Basic with good control structures, (For and While loops etc), and allowed labels in the code for branching, rather than line numbers more common in Basic. Program editing was excellent for the time. It used a wheel (visible in the picture at the top left of the keyboard) which could be used to move the cursor either vertically or horizontally.

I then worked in another different department on quality control work where I had to check all new software for compliance with the test specification it was meant to implement, and take into account all measurement inaccuracies. This software was written for a new computer introduced by the company called the Graduate. Marconi's own in-house design. I did not like the new computer. Everything about it was a departure from conventional practice. It used an 8 inch floppy disk and a non-standard 24 bit processor and the programming language was all entered using menus. After doing this work for several months I found the work extremely boring, and although I did get a substantial pay rise. I decided to leave for another job.


Wayne Kerr

In April 1988, just after Easter, I started a new job at Wayne Kerr as an applications engineer. Their premises was in Bognor Regis which meant I would have to travel quite some distance each day. I was involved with the company's recently introduced 900 series ATE which from a hardware point of view was constructed completely differently from what I was used to. The ATE was manufactured by the company, and was a large part of its business. It was much more modern, being based around an IBM PS2 which was newly introduced at the time. These were 286 and 386 machines with hard disk drives and used the recently introduced 3.5 inch floppy disk.

The company also provided a service of implementing testing for customers. My work was to write new test programs for the company's own ATE as part of this service. I was optimistic about the much more modern computer, and the fact that it was a standard product. Very soon after starting the work I was very disappointed to find that the programming language was the company's own in-house creation, and it was very basic and limited in capability. It seemed surprisingly similar to the language I had previously used at Marconi Defence Systems. It was 'dumbed down' for the benefit of electronics engineers who were not specialist programmers. This seems to be an eternal feature of ATE work, and I was to see the same philosophy later in over 10 years time.

In fact many aspects of the job were more interesting than I expected. The main challenge was designing the test strategy for the circuit boards under test. It proved to be much more a job of electronics than programming. The type of circuits under test were mostly modern microprocessor based circuits and the testing involved some interesting digital logic. Application of carefully designed test patterns and examination of the results all under ATE control. The work also involved some design of special purpose electronic circuits to form part of the test equipment.

I was given a succession of such projects, and in each case entirely responsible for the whole job. This included specifying and ordering fixtures which were made externally.

Later I moved to another department in another part of the building. This involved a lot of new work on implementing testing on circuit boards for Plessey, who were in turn making them for British Telecom for use in the new System X telephone exchanges.

Several factors combined to cause me to leave this job. I had originally intended to move nearer once settled in the job, and around the early part of 1989 I started looking at houses in or nearer to Bognor. House prices were going up in the area, more than the value of my own, and I would be quite stretched financially to afford to move. If I was to move I would need some security in the job as there was little or no other work for me anywhere near the area. An ideal would be a compromise move to Chichester but house prices there were even more expensive than Bognor and I would still have to travel some distance each day. The job was feeling insecure. The company was suffering poor sales and introduced a company-wide pay freeze just around the time I might have expected my first annual pay rise. The travelling was getting very tiresome. The working conditions were poor. There were only very poor catering facilities on the site. As the summer of 1989 came the temperature in the area where I was working was very high, frequently reaching 32 degrees and with little ventilation. My requests for holidays were being turned down. I made a strong request for a pay rise and threatened to leave if I didn't get it. I didn't get it, so left without another job to go to.

There were times later when I considered that I had made a mistake in leaving, but who knows? Perhaps not.

Web site: www.waynekerrtest.com


I found myself with little income due to loss of unemployment benefit due to leaving voluntarily. I had to get a job quite urgently. As a result I was forced into taking an unsuitable job.

Highbury College

Highbury College

I started here as Computer Technician in September 1989. When I applied for the job I hoped I would get the same working calendar as the teachers and students. I was disappointed at the interview to find that I would get only normal holidays of about 4 weeks a year. However I expected the work load to be easy in the vacations. There were good indications that I would have the opportunity to move into teaching, beginning with occasional part-time teaching. Also that I would have good opportunities to go on courses of interest to me. I was actually getting about the same money as my previous two jobs, but the work place was now much nearer.

Although the job was reasonably well paid, there was no corresponding status associated with it. Most of the teachers were less qualified than I was, and had much higher pay, shorter hours, longer holidays and were treated with more respect.

In fact the teaching opportunities were very few, and occasional part time teaching opportunities were grabbed by the other teachers. Any offers of part-time teaching were used as an inducement for me to do extra work. I was offered an unsuitable course, but was turned down for the much shorter and relevant course I wanted to do, a course on C programming.

I was responsible for looking after all computers in the Electrical and Electronics Engineering department. The work involved both software and hardware installation and maintenance. I was also involved in setting up a network. The computers were in 3 rooms, and each room had a particular type of P.C. One room had IBM PS2s with VGA monitors. Another room had Amstrad computers.

As I completed most of the interesting technical work, particularly setting up the department's computer network, the remaining work became more and more mundane. The college had not kept its promises. I was the wrong person in the wrong job and wanted to get out any way I could.

I left at the end of the college year.

Web site: www.highbury.ac.uk


Again I had no job to go to. I was getting dissatisfied with the type of employment available to me, but had plans to try starting my own business. There was a government scheme called the Enterprise Allowance Scheme which was intended to help people in starting new businesses.

Business Enterprise Course

An opportunity came up to take a government run Business Enterprise course. This was about 6 weeks full-time. I was interested in learning about running a business even if I didn't actually go ahead and do it, so went on the course.

The course covered marketing skills, advertising, taxation including VAT. Initially I did not have a definite idea on what my business would be, and expected it to be mainly something fairly mundane but practical. As I thought more about it I realised that I could try to do something I really wanted to do, and it could be of a professional nature using my skills to their best.

I completed the course, but still did not feel confident about starting the business.

I was allowed to pursue a period of Open Learning where I furthered my knowledge of the C programming language with particular application to the PC.

I suppose I felt that after all that I was morally obliged to proceed.

I considered possible names. I wanted something which allowed some flexibility in the type of activity I did. I considered the name First Services, then Logical Designs. I found that name already existed as a Limited company which might cause problems, so settled on the name Logical Designs and Services.

Logical Designs and Services

I started trading officially in March 1991.

I decided to use part of my home as my business premises. I did not feel the need for special premises, and working from home would reduce my costs considerably.

I was willing to consider several types of work consistent with my skills. One such was electronic servicing and I approached a local music shop with this in mind. In fact this aspect of the work became quite successful and provided most of my income. Much of my time was spent doing electronic servicing of amplification equipment for musicians. Most of my work came from this shop, but there was work from elsewhere too. It included the repair of valve amplifiers, and high-powered transistor amplifiers. I found my knowledge of audio electronics was rare and sought-after.

I also did a lot of research and development towards writing computer software for the PC. I developed a number of software products for the PC, but as I got better at it, the software industry was advancing greatly. Windows was beginning to take over everything on the PC, and I couldn't compete with the large companies who were producing software.

In the early stages of my business I also took one-day courses on Marketing, and on Negotiating Skills

I needed to design business cards, letter heads, and advertising material, and I also found this aspect interesting. This was a very satisfying time as far as my work was concerned, my work and my hobbies were becoming one, but it was still not very lucrative.

I started to find that my electronics servicing work was beginning to decline. Perhaps partly because I was concentrating more on the programming side of my activities. I obtained a good contract working for Goodmans Loudspeakers at Havant. This was to develop an automatic test system for testing loudspeakers. Some work had already been done on it. The work consisted of collecting digitally sampled data via a microphone from a speaker under test. I wrote software to process the data and analyse it so as to detect any defects in the speaker.

When the work at Goodmans came to an end I started applying for some conventional jobs in programming.

Alenia Marconi Systems

Alenia Marconi Systems at Farlington

One of my job applications paid off and I was offered a job as Software Engineer at another of the Marconi companies in Portsmouth. It was much better money than I had been getting recently and "an offer I couldn't refuse".

I started the job in February 1998. The company had about 200 employees, most of whom were writing computer software or doing associated work. It had emerged out of Ferranti who had closed down after some disastrous financial problems. The company had been acquired by the GEC Marconi group. It was certainly a modern working environment. Large well lit rooms populated by desks generally arranged in groups of three angled at 120 degrees to each other. Air conditioned to keep an absolutely constant temperature regardless of the time of year. There were few windows.

Ferranti F1600

The company was primarily concerned with writing computer software for the Royal Navy. The department I was in was for the software used on board ships, a command and control system called ADAWS. It was what is fashionably called a "Legacy" system and was for the computer on board the ships which (incredibly) was an old Ferranti computer, either an F1600 or a similar successor. The software was undergoing certain improvements. It was substantially the same system as was used in the Falklands war.

Some courses were held for the benefit of a number of new recruits to the company. These were on the main programming languages and techniques used within the company, and I attended these. I also took part in a visit to HMS York. After that I seemed to be being pushed towards the testing of software, and quite a lot of documentation. I did a lot of work with Sonar and made use of Sonar simulators for testing software.

This was absurd because I was a qualified programmer, unlike many of the other people there who were doing programming, and even the programming language, CORAL was very similar to ALGOL which I had been very familiar with from university.

After about 6 months I was annexed to another department working on a division of ADAWS, Link 16 which dealt with communications with aircraft. At last I was doing programming, and had a major project to write. This involved handling the communication of data between the ship's computer and aircraft. The programming was done using Jackson Structured Programming which generated code in CORAL which was then compiled for the target computer.

In the later stages of my time there the company was running out of work for much of its workforce and people were being encouraged to move to their other site at Frimley. I declined this offer as it would involve commuting over a long distance. The whole site was later closed down.

At this time I did computer based courses on Object Oriented Analysis, Design, and Programming and one on Microsoft Visual C++.

Web site: www.aleniamarconisystems.com


Amfax Ltd

I was invited to an interview just 2 days before Christmas 1999 and started a week after Christmas in January 2000. The start of the much herealded new millennium!

The job was in Blandford Forum, Dorset, a long way from home. I got the job and took accomodation, first temporarily at Wareham and soon after in Blandford.

My first project was to work on a sophisticated test system for testing a large helicopter gearbox. This had been left unfinished by a previous employee who had left the company. It used a powerful PC to collect large amounts of data from various transducers which were fitted to the gearbox under test.

After that I did some work on control of intstruments using GPIB for controlling and measuring the output of laser diodes under test.

The company was making use of computer vision for some of its work, and I went on a short course on the subject.

I then had a large project to write an entire test system for a company called Mitel. This involved the testing of a high performance optical transmitter and receiver for high speed fibre optic communications. It used some very advanced test equpment, mostly related to fibre-optical signal analysis. There was an Anritsu Bit Error Rate Tester which cost something around 80,000. Also an excellent Agilent high speed oscilloscope with both electrical RF input and optical fibre input. The frequency of the signals was 2.5GHz, and these had to be measured accurately. I also wrote all software to control the automatic handling of devices using an Epson robot.

I went on two trips to the customer's site in Sweden which was an interesting experience, especially as it was winter at the time. Dark and very cold.

I also attended a one day course on Fibre Optics technology presented by Agilent (formerly Hewlett Packard).

Most of my programming here was in a variant of Microsoft C adapted by National Instruments as CVI and particularly oriented to producing Windows applications for instrument control. Some use was made of TestStand. The company was also making some use of N.I's Labview which I was not involved in.

The company was in a pleasant location and I could walk or cycle to work almost entirely on tracks and footpaths. Catering facilities were modest but adequate. As I was working closely with the large test system my working environment was not very comfortable.

The company was very much involved in technologies which were part of the boom in mobile communications and was affected by the sudden slump in that industry. As a result the company had to release some people including me. To some extent I was also replaced by less experienced programmers who were asking lower salaries. I think that was a mistake on the part of my employer because I was more productive, and capable of more than I was asked to do.

Web site: www.amfax.co.uk


Fareham College

I was offered some part time teaching work at Fareham College and started in March 2002. This consisted of teaching first and second year A-level students in the subject of Computing.

As I had only a little teaching experience I was given a place on a course for a Further and Adult Education Teacher's Certificate which I obtained successfully.

This was an interesting experience. The curriculum covered a much wider range of topics than I expected. There was a lot of work on databases, of which my knowledge was not so great. (I have since learnt much more about them). My strongest subject is programming, especially in C, but the students had already covered the programming part of their syllabus, and it was mostly Visual Basic. My greatest contribution was on assembly language, microprocessors, and computer architecture.

Web site: www.fareham.ac.uk

Around this time, both before and after the job at Fareham, I found myself looking at job advertisements. Jobs in programming were in short supply locally, there being only about one such vacancy every few weeks. Most computer software work was in web site design, most programming jobs were releated to internet, requiring such technologies as JSP, CGI, Perl, etc.

I had a lot of experience in creating web sites and doing the necessary graphics from a number of web sites I have produced as an interest outside of work. I decided to become self-employed and work from home, primarily doing web site design, but am also considering writing.

I have quite a number of web sites associated with my web site design. For example:

www.top8.co.uk , www.media-mania.co.uk

See also:

The courses I have attended This covers courses I have attended since full time education, mostly as part of my employment.

The development of my skills This looks at how my skills developed and evolved during my employment.