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Columbia Loses the Last of the Old Guard: Computer Supervisor Joe Sulsona Retires

By Lauren Marshall

Joe Sulsona days before retirement

He may look like a regular guy as he stands in line for his morning coffee at the local coffee cart, but there's a lot that is different about Joe Sulsona, computer operations supervisor at Administrative Information Services (AIS). For one thing that cup of coffee is his afterwork drink. Joe is one of a handful of people who keep Columbia safe and running while everyone else sleeps. He is also one of those long-time Columbia employees with a few institutional tales to tell. In fact, he is one of two people on staff who can give a complete oral history of central computing at Columbia, from its inception to the present day.

But those stories of the old days have left campus along with Joe. On Jan. 12, he retired, closing the Columbia chapter of his life, taking scores of memories, which spanned 42 years.

"Joe was here even before the University started using centralized computers for administrative use," said Joe's supervisor John Lenzi, associate director of data processing. "The history of computing at Columbia is a part of his work history."

During his four decades, Sulsona has witnessed the evolution of institutional computing at Columbia as its computing technology transitioned from small manually-operated data entry machines at the departmental level to the state-of-the-art integrated administrative brain that is presently housed in Columbia's underground computer center. Meanwhile, Sulsona progressed professionally, learning to operate new technology as it hit the University at lightning pace. In his 42 years at Columbia, he has worked with nine generations of IBM computers dedicated to administrative and academic processing.

Sulsona, a New York City native, went from high school directly to the military. When he returned from Korea in 1957 at the age of 23, he studied the latest in computing, gaining experience as a board programmer, which involved the manipulation of wires and plugs on a computer board, much like the original telephone operating systems. He was hired at Columbia's alumni faculty records office as a machine operator and spent his time punching out data cards using a small keypunch machine.

Joe Sulsona at work in the Computer Center in 1964

In 1964, a year after the 4,000 sq. foot underground Computer Center was built next to Uris to accommodate Columbia's first central computer, Sulsona joined the computer center team putting his training to use. As a computer operator, he hand fed the cards he had produced in his previous job to the central computer, which then converted them to tape for processing. Since that time, overseeing the processing of 'jobs' and the technicians who run them has been his life's work.

As technology has progressed his work as a computer operator has become less manual and more solitary. In the years of the first generations of IBM computers, so large they filled the room, yet less powerful than today's desk top PC. Jobs (stacks of data cards) were brought to the computer room by various clients, such as professors, deans, administrative vice presidents, and coaches for processing.

"Things were done in an informal way," said Sulsona. "The deans would come in and say, 'Joe, I need to get this done,' and I'd do it." He recalls the time when the University football coach sweet-talked him into processing some data to produce the plays for the next Lions football game. He received a few game tickets as a result.

Over time, the Computer Center grew but with an increased need for administrative computing power, most of the computing staff were parceled off to other campus offices and new generations of larger computers and upgrades took over the center. But Sulsona stayed.

One of the thousands of data cards, which Sulsona ran through the IBM 360, one of the most powerful computers of its day

When Columbia retired its first computer in 1967, an IBM 7090 affectionately called "the slave" by the old guard, every inch of the room was filled with its replacement, the new IBM 360, considered at the time to be the world's most powerful computer. Columbia owned one of only 13 ever produced, and IBM retained most of the others for its own internal use.

"The 360 was such a monster," said Sulsona of his favorite computers over the years. "It was the last of the large computers. Since that time they have gotten smaller and smaller." The IBM 360 was a challenge because operators had to supervise jobs, pressing keys to begin and stop each job. If there was an error in a program, the next would not run correctly. And if there was a mechanical problem, it could take days to find the source. "You had to stay on your toes back then," added Sulsona.

Although most mechanisms in the computer center are automated today, 'glitches' can occur causing major problems for the University, which could determine whether an employee receives a pay check or a student gets to register for his classes on time.

The computer center is one of two campus offices open 24 hours, 7 days a week, the other being power plant control center. As night guardian of the computer center, a position he has held for the past 12 years, Joe has overseen the work of six operators who monitor run the large administrative jobs that keep the University running.

"There is a little joke about Joe," said Lenzi. "And that is that Joe allows us to sleep. Because if there has been a crisis overnight, Joe handles it. I rarely get that early morning call."

"If there is a snowstorm and people can't get in, Joe will stay. It is that dedication that we have come to rely on," added Tony Cirillo, Joe's departmental supervisor and assistant vice president of operations and technology services.

"You form a special bond with coworkers you've known since you were both so young when you started out," said Nuala Hallinan, editor in chief, AIS computing, who has known him since 1966. "His leaving is the end of an era and I will miss him."

For Sulsona, the departure is bittersweet. "I ask myself over and over, 'where has the time gone?'" he said. "I've been here so long and made so many friends here, presidents, vice presidents, deans, managers, technicians. A lot of memories. In some ways I'm sad to be leaving everything I've ever known, but I am also looking forward to doing what I love best." For Joe this means helping his daughter and son-in- law care for their newborn child.

Published: Jan 18, 2001
Last modified: Sep 18, 2002

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