Book review: ‘Making IT Work: A History of the Computer Services Industry’

A new history looks in detail at a part of the IT sector that’s worth billions and employs millions but is often overlooked.

The extent to which the computer services arm of the worldwide IT industry is overshadowed by its more glamourous hardware and programming counterparts is exemplified by its portrayal by the entertainment industry. Real‑life company figureheads like Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg have sustained big-budget movies with plots telling the story of their achievements. Where are the films based on their equivalents in the massive companies that employ millions and make worldwide annual revenues approaching a trillion dollars from the more mundane business of keeping the wheels of modern industry turning?

Specialist support with maintaining and developing IT systems as an enterprise in itself has existed for almost as long as people have been using digital computers. Had Charles Babbage’s 19th-century mechanical calculating engines moved beyond prototype stage, it’s easy to imagine how quickly an ecosystem of engineers and technicians would have sprung up, dedicated to helping businesses plan how to adopt this new technology and then being on hand when the hardware needed fixing and upgrading.

Jeffrey Yost, a science and technology historian who is associate director of the institute at the University of Minnesota that takes its name from Babbage, turns a spotlight on this significant but neglected aspect in ‘Making IT Work: A History of the Computer Services Industry’ (The MIT Press, £30.95, ISBN 9780262036726), a comprehensive history that is the latest volume from the MIT Press History of Computing series.


One of the main reasons why this is among the first accounts of a sector that will be familiar to anyone who has ever had cause to ‘call IT’ to deal with a computer problem, is its disparate nature, Yost acknowledges. “It is an enigmatic industry, characterised by diversity and dynamism, that sometimes defies clear definition,” he writes.

Much of the material in ‘Making IT Work’ comes from newly available archive sources, particularly at the Charles Babbage Institute, and from corporate records of firms like services giant IBM. Yost has also interviewed some of the key figures from the history of computer services and mined the seemingly ephemeral trade literature from past decades, which has since acquired massive historical value.

Equally, this is an attempt to give a fair hearing to an industry that has frequently ended up as the scapegoat when large-scale IT projects go wrong, as they so often do in both public and private sectors. Services companies, Yost explains, have the unenviable task of bringing together the work of programmers and hardware developers in a way that works in the real world. “Creating software is hard and managing large-scale programming and systems integration is much harder.”

Tracing the evolution of the computer services industry from the 1950s to the present, Yost provides case studies of companies including IBM, Hewlett Packard, Andersen/Accenture, EDS, Infosys and others, together with profiles of such influential leaders as John Diebold, Ross Perot and Virginia Rometty.

Although the focus is largely on US firms, ‘Making IT Work’ puts their development in a global context. And with the emergence of cloud computing making geographical location less important than ever before, there’s much that industry can learn from the story of how it has reached its current position.

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