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Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Debbie Does Dallas


It all started in 1985, my very own annus horribilis: I had returned from my last assignment overseas and, in anticipation of continuing the work for my former Saudi boss, settled in tropical Townsville.

The work never came - well, not until two years later when he offered me my own office in the Banque Des Echanges Internationaux's building on Avenue Kléber in Paris but by that time I had grown tired of the fickleness of Arabs and declined the offer.

With few other job prospects in Townsville, I had hastily relocated to Sydney where I eventually took up the impressive-sounding job of "Internal Consultant" with Wormald International which required me to be 'on the road' - or rather 'in the air' as Wormald's operations were spread all over the world - for nine months of the year. After the first rush of adrenalin had passed, I remembered that I had just given up an even more highly-paid overseas job with even greater perks in order to live a 'normal', domesticated life.

But not in Sydney! So when I saw a job advertised for a PICK computer programmer in Canberra, I remembered having studied PICK with Ranger Uranium almost a decade earlier, and applied. A few days later the company's directors flew down from Canberra to give me the once-over and then the job.

I had found it puzzling during the interview when the directors asked me if I had any objections to working in the 'adult video industry' which, as they repeatedly pointed out, was involved in the duplication and distribution of X-rated videos. I had never heard of an 'adult video industry' nor did I know what X-rated was or who rated it. As for videos, the first and last time I had seen a video was at a friend's place in Saudi Arabia during the screening of 'Bambi' to his young kids.

However, I wasn't going to let this lack of knowledge get between me and a lucrative job in Canberra. And so, one early morning before the crack of dawn in late November 1985, I drove out of Sydney, against an endless stream of headlights coming into the city. I still remember thinking to myself, 'You can keep it, you suckers! I'm out of here!'

Arriving in Canberra, I acquainted myself with my new 'boss', a brand-new AWA Sabre mainframe, its empty bowels hungrily awaiting its very first line of computer code. But before I could start 'cutting code', I had to learn about the business. And what a business it was! Quite simply, it was Australia's biggest - by far! - distributor of pornographic movies with a client list as thick as a metropolitan telephone directory and a turnover running into the millions. The problem was that it was all done, slowly and expensively, by hand.

After having accepted the fact that pornographic movies were just like any other movies except with the boring bits removed, the professional challenge was simply too good to be missed and I was itching to introduce some methods into the madness.

Which began each morning with Australia Post delivering several large bags of letters containing orders and cash. Lots of cash because many customers didn't want to use their real names which were needed to pay by Bankcard. I had never seen so many Donald Ducks and Mickey Mouses buying pornographic movies! ☺

The girls - it was an all-girl crew! - would write up the bank deposits and Bankcard slips and then pass the orders to the 'production department' with its banks of fifty-or-more duplicating machines. The 'production manager', when drunk (which was often), delighted in turning up the sound. I don't know how many heavy grunts and groans got embedded in my computer code. ☺

Creating a database of tens of thousands of customers, adding their 'profiles' of likes and preferences (I won't bore you with the details ☺) and their purchase histories, and then linking their orders to produce daily picking slips for the production department, bank deposits, and Bankcard submissions seems to have been, in retrospect, quite a simple task but was in fact colossal. There were many nights I couldn't sleep; not because I had watched too many of their movies - as it happened, I didn't watch my first X-rated movie until several months into the job! - but because of the many programming problems.

One particular problem was the 'lending' side of the business. With the price of a movie around fifty dollars (when fifty dollars was still real money), many customers preferred to borrow, which sounds a bit like your local library and in many ways it was: a customer would buy his first video and, after viewing it, exchange it for another.

This was a very profitable side of the business and, to keep it going, customers were given one free 'exchange' after six (six, not sex! ☺) To keep tabs on their exchanges, a bunch of girls kept 'library cards' for all customers which presented a problem as harddisk space was still at a premium in those days and a decision had to be made on how many and for how long such records should be kept.

My idea was to do away with library cards altogether. "But what about the free exchange?", asked the 'library girls'. "Give them a coupon with each exchange; when they've collected six, they can return them in lieu of money for a free one", was my reply. "But what if they lose them?", shot back the girls who seemed more concerned about losing their jobs than the customers losing their coupons. "Tough!" I told them, on both counts. But they still had one shot left in the locker, "Without a library card, we won't know what they ordered before. What if they borrow the same video twice?" "Girls", I said, "if they want to do Debbie twice, they're welcome to her!"

And so it came to pass that, in just under a year, the business was fully computerised. The order backlogs vanished, turnaround times were reduced from more than a week to just one day, and I like to think that those 'library girls' found work elsewhere - maybe even in your local library in which case say 'hello' from me next time you borrow a book.

As for all those people who tut-tuttingly told me, "How could you?" (they were probably the same who signed their orders with "Donald Duck" ☺) and asked what it was like working for an X-rated adult movie distributor, I tell them it was hard. In fact, it was constantly hard. The drunken production manager saw to that.