Rebecca West: Words & Music

Keeping Hope Alive

by Bob West

Nursery Software manual and computer

The following quote is from the beginning of my article,
"Commodore Computer Helps Blooming Business Grow,"
which appeared in the April/May 1982 issue of Commodore Magazine:

"How would you like to have an employee who works fast and accurately 24 hours a day, seven days a week, including holidays, doesn't take a vacation, is seldom sick, doesn't complain, and follows instructions to the letter?

"Salary? About $10,000 the first year, no unemployment insurance or Social Security payments and no pay the following years.

"Unbelievable? No, there is such an employee! In fact, there is one or more available for each plant nursery that has an opening. Wells Nursery Inc., Penrose, NC, hired one. And I taught it to do its job. It is called a nursery computer system..."

In the same issue an article by my customer, Jeremy Wells, president of Wells Nursery, appeared under the title "How to Buy a Nursery Computer."
Here are some excerpts from that article.

"It all started with a pile of paper...

"Inventory control is difficult in any size nursery... We had four large books that contained all information on available salable inventory... Up to half of our secretary's annual work load was spent on office inventory control. When this time was added to the hours spend on inventory control in the production and propagation area, a total of almost 1,500 working hours was spent on the process. This equals approximately nine months of work for one person...

"We wanted a simple, flexible system that would allow our current paper cross-referencing and provide accurate checks and balances. It should be a system that any individual within the company would be able to operate. We wanted safeguards for our corporate information.

"In addition to inventory control, we wanted a system to handle customer information, daily sales analysis, monthly and annual sales analysis, sales commissions and customer mailing lists. We also wanted it to write orders and print a variety of reports. We wanted all printing to be of letter quality. The entire system had to be purchased or leased for less than $10,000...

Jeremy Wells and Bob West in conference
Jeremy Wells, left, and Bob West discuss ways to adapt
the Wells Nursery manual system to a computer system.

"It was March, 1981, when Robert West of Bob West Computers came to Wells Nursery in response to a telephone call. He represented Commodore micro-computers. After a year of computer salesmen, I watched this one enter our office with a jaundiced view. He listened to my remarks for a few minutes and then said, 'Mr. Wells, how can I help you make money with my computer system?'

"This comment stopped me. No other salesman had said this to me. I was beginning to see a glimmer of hope. We talked in detail for a couple of hours. Then West said, 'Mr. Wells, I feel that I can design a system for you as you desire it. I am so convinced of this that I will return your deposit if I fail to give you a system that you, sir, can operate. I need three months to complete the task. May I have your order?'

"Now, there was confidence in one's abilities. I was so impressed that we launched into the project. Many details were hammered out, and some changes were made in the original concepts for our program. Our system was on line by August 25, 1981 --
3 1/2 months after signing the contract."

Now back to my own article in the same issue of the magazine...

"A computer can do many different jobs if given the proper instructions. Each step of every function must be described in minute detail in precise order. And all of this must be written in a language the computer understands.

"My first step was to learn the manual system used by Wells Nursery. This was accomplished through interviews with Jeremy Wells, president of the nursery, and his staff. Some of my questions were: What takes place when an order comes in? What kind of records are kept? What kind of information is in those records? How many records are in each file? What reports are needed? Are there any other reports that would be useful if you could get them?

"I organized all of this information into work flow charts and looked for ways to let a CBM 8032 do most of the work with a minimum effort from the operator. However, there were some things that we decided to leave to human judgment, even though the computer logically could have been programmed to do them. One such decision was substituting for unavailable plants on orders...

Flow Chart for Orders software
This flow chart prepared by Bob West
is for one of the computer processes, "enter orders."
It shows how many steps are automatically performed
by the Wells Nursery computer system.

"I wrote a program for each of the jobs I wanted the computer to do, like processing orders, changing orders, maintaining customer records, recording inventory, processing end-of-month and end-of-yesr materials and printing out various reports.

"Most of these programs turned out to be rather complex, for there were all sorts of error-checking routines, verifying, cross-referencing and so on. For example, the 'order program' not only makes it easy to enter an order, but it automatically updates the customer record, the appropriate inventory records, the sales summary and the sales commissions. This program also records the order on a disk in the appropriate season file and prints out the acknowledgment or invoice...

"Over the next two months, I wrote 21 programs and set up 18 files on two magnetic floppy disks that make up the software of the system." (Note: this was before hard drives with megabytes, much less gigabytes, of storage.) "Dummy data for the customer and inventory records was used to test the programs. Orders were entered, some were changed or canceled. Reports were printed. I tried to use every possible type of operator response with each of the programs to see how the computer would react...

"As soon as the equipment was installed, I began training the Wells staff to work with the computer. This was easy for two reasons. First, the 8032 is just an automated version of their familiar manual system. Second, the computer continually prompts the operator with messages on the display..." I also wrote, designed, and published a User's Manual to leave with them for reference. (It is included in the photo at the beginning of this article.)

Bob West trains secretary to use system
Bob West prepared a step-by-step owner's manual
and uses it in a training session with secretary Sheila Hunter.
Because the computer is an automated version of the familiar manual system,
the Wells Nursery staff found it easy to learn.

There was much more to these articles as they appeared in the magazine. I just wanted to give you an idea about what happened. Mr. Wells was very satisfied with the results. After four months in use, he felt like the system had already paid for itself. He also believed (and I hoped) that when he shared our information with other members of the Nursery Growers Association that I would receive additional orders for my nursery software and the computer hardware to run it on.

But it didn't happen.

To be continued...

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