13th June 1988 – twenty years ago today – was the day I started work at Psion. I arrived at the building at 17 Harcourt Street, with its unimpressive facade that led most visitors to wonder whether they had come to the wrong place. When the photo on the left was taken, the premises were used by Symbian, and a “Symbian” sign had been affixed outside. But on my first visits, I noticed no signage at all – although I later discovered the letters of the word “Psion” barely visible in faded yellow paint.
Unimpressive from the outside, the building looked completely different on the inside. Everyone joked about the “tardis effect” – since it seemed impossible for such a small exterior to front a considerably larger interior. In fact, Psion had constructed a set of offices running behind several of the houses in the street – but planning regulations had prevented any change in the house fronts themselves. Apparently, as grade two listed buildings, their original exteriors could not be altered. Or so the story went.
I worked under the guidance of Richard Harrison and Charles Davies on software to be included in a word processor application on Psion’s forthcoming “Mobile Computer” laptop device. My very first programming task was an optimised Find routine. After two weeks, I found myself thinking to myself, “Don’t these people realise I’m capable of working harder?” But I soon had more than enough tough software tasks to handle, and I’ve spent the next twenty years very far from a state of boredom. On the contrary, it’s been a roller-coaster adventure.
Back in 1988, the software development team in Harcourt Street had fewer than 20 people in it. Eight years later, when Psion Software was formed as a separate business unit, there were 88 in the team – which, by that time, also occupied floors in the nearby Sentinel House. Two more years saw the headcount grow to 155 by the time Psion Software turned into Symbian (24 June 1998). Today, our headcount is around 1600. It’s a growth I could not imagine during my first few years of work. Nor could I imagine that descendants of the software from the venerable “Mobile Computer” (MC400) would be powering hundreds of millions of smartphones worldwide.
(You can read more about the long and interesting evolution of Psion’s software team, in my book “Symbian for software leaders: principles of successful smartphone development projects“.)