History of the Telstra Research Laboratories


Memories of Telstra Research Laboratories – Rick Coxhill 1964 – 2003

I related a few of these in my send-off speech in July 2003. People liked the stories so I elaborated on the ones I related and added a few more. Some stories came from work colleagues.
Despite all the negative things I have mentioned below, the Labs was a great place to work.

Scariest Moment
Happened in about 1965 when I was a trainee and based in the Labs training annex in the Melbourne CBD at 51 Latrobe St., Melbourne. After an intense drinking session at one of local hotels, we went back to the training annex and I upset one of the more burly trainees. He grabbed me by the ankles and hung me head first out through a window from the second story. I thought I was going to die.

Most Inspiring Moments

In both the above cases I came away feeling inspired. Did not last long though.

Most Embarrassing Event for Telstra Management
The hiring of Bruno Sorrentino as Director in 1992. He was subsequently exposed by certain Labs staff as not having the qualifications he claimed to have and resigned after 5 weeks. The involvement of those Labs staff was never be forgotten by a certain Telstra executive who hired Bruno.
I was a member of a group that met with Bruno after he was hired where he outlined his plans for the Labs. I must admit that he was a good speaker and impressed me with his plans for the Labs.
See also various media articles about Bruno

That which should not have happened
The “Rotten Apple” episode. In late 1970’s, the Apple Computer company released the Apple II computer. An enterprising person in the labs obtained a circuit diagram and wire wrapped a copy of the circuit. Then copies of the printed circuit were produced together with copies of peripherals and software. Nearly everyone in the Labs were involved in one way or another. The trouble was it got out of hand and word spread to the outside. Two incidents occurred that made me realise that it should never have happened.

Space Wars
The term used within the Labs to describe the wars between management and staff that occurred whenever new accommodation was being designed. I was always happy to have a job and a seat to sit on. For many others it was a constant battle to ensure that they got what they thought they were entitled to. This tended to drag out the design process time and cost heaps of money.
When it came to the demolition of any existing walls, strange things would happen. One time an electrician unscrewed all the power points on the walls ready to be removed the next day. Overnight they all disappeared. When the electrician complained, the next night they magically reappeared.

Most Enjoyable Personal Times
1964 and 1965 at the Labs Training Annex in the CBD at 51 Latrobe St. Could not wait to get there and did not want to go home. Learnt at lot, played pranks and mixed with a variety of people my age. Brian Waldron, the guy in charge, was one of my mentors. Despite having to deal with some extremely wild trainees, Brian was always in total control and very well respected by every trainee. He helped many of the wild trainees with various problems.
I also remember that in 1964 I had my first introduction to the Beatles in the training annex. One of the later year trainees had a turntable and he continually played the very early Beatles records.

Secret Projects
I only discovered just before I left that a some Labs staff were working on secret projects. These were not secret in the sense of not letting your competitors know about them but ones significant to National intelligence and security.

Pranks and Funny Incidents

Sporting Accidents
For many years we played squash during lunchtime at the Royal Tennis courts in the CBD and later the Clayton squash courts. I had a history of damaging a few of my opponents. The two worst incidents I recall were 1) One John Kelly had the imprint of a squash racquet on his back (complete with strings) for a few weeks after I slammed my racquet into his back. 2) One Roger Smith lost a front tooth when my racquet accidentally connected with his mouth. We found the tooth and it was successfully replanted by a dentist.

Best Times
The “Golden Years” of the Labs were from about 1970 to 1996. Plenty of staff, unlimited money and resources. Labs were at the forefront of technology and the move to Clayton motivated lots of people.

Worst Administrative System
In the late 1990’s, Telstra moved towards reducing the clerical support and having every possible administrative system on-line accessible via a browser. For some things this was very good.
One system they never got right (at least until I left) was the one used to collect a persons time and project details. First known as TAPS and later Integral, Telstra purchased it from a Company called SAP. This system had a terrible user interface and I believe it was designed by a 10 year old as the result of a Primary School competition. Despite many complaints from users directly to managers and via the Employment Opinion Survey (EOS), it never improved. This is a good example of how useless the EOS was.
After writing all the above, I was contacted by "Alan" who related his experience with Integral which was most interesting. Read about it here.

Most Useful Outputs from the Labs
These are detailed in the Labs history. The main three are:

In general, the most useful things the Labs did were related to solving problems with, or improving the Corporations internal processes.
For a while, the Labs executives were besotted with commercialising everything and even starting the commercialisation process as soon as a project commenced. In some cases, you had to prove that the project could be commercialised before it commenced. This was always viewed by the staff as a waste of time and they were proved correct in the end.

The Cure for Insomnia
Take a book home to read on the programming language LISP. I guarantee you will be asleep after the first page. The theory was that LISP requires intensive computing power to run so it tends to bog your brain down as well.

I always looked forward to POETS day (Piss Off Early Tomorrows Saturday) and the potential to leave early (with Flexitime). As a joke, I liked to remind people how many days were left to the weekend.

Administrative Improvements
I must admit that there are some things that did improve over the years. When I first started, the paperwork associated with doing anything was enormous. Here are a couple of improvements I can think of:

Missed Opportunity
In the early 60’s, we spent a lot of time at the hotels in the CBD. One time near Christmas, we met some girls who were involved in a pantomime at the Princes Theatre. They invited us backstage to the Theatre but none of us went. I will never know what I missed.

Putting The "mos" On
There were a few people in the Labs who seemed to have the ability to "put the moz on things". Certain actions they performed caused that thing to stop working. I don't know if these people were unlucky or there really was some ESP issue involved.
I was aware of one person who was entering his PIN for a card inside a bank. The instant he finished entering the PIN the banks internal computer system crashed. The teller even intimated it was his fault.
We were also very wary about receiving email from these people as the moz appeared to be electronically transmitted. There were a few instances when as soon as you opened the email from them your computer crashed.

Silliest Thing Anyone has Done
Cheneys, one of the early Labs buildings in the CBD, had a water powered lift. The system was archaic. The door interlocks did not work reliably. It was very slow and always breaking down. After entering the lift and manually closing the doors, there was a rope visible through a hole in the lift shell. You pulled the rope up to go up and down to go down. A Labs staff member on the first floor summoned the lift (I cannot remember how you did this). A fault caused the top of the lift to stop level with the first floor and the lift doors could be opened. This person pushed a trolley onto the top of the lift, closed the doors and pulled the rope to go up. When the lift neared the next floor they nearly got crushed as the lift reached the top of the lift well. Why this person did not realise they were not inside the lift but on the top remains a mystery to this day.

Biggest Battles
When the Labs were based in the city, staff had continual confrontations with the “Grey Ghosts” (parking officers). The Cheneys building had a rear lane which was a convenient place to park. Parking signs put up by the Melbourne Council mysteriously disappeared. Chalk marks on tyres left by parking officers were rubbed off. Officers were abused. One time, an officer was writing out a parking ticket when he had a bucket of water thrown over him. The water came out of a first storey window at the rear of Cheneys. The officer raced into Cheneys and up the stairs but the culprit had disappeared (I know who it was and it was not me).
A related problem with parking in the CBD was that you had to move your car every few hours to avoid getting booked. After moving your car a few times you would tend to forget where you last parked it. To find it, one would just walk around the immediate blocks searching because you knew it was parked somewhere close. The advent of GPS phones would have solved this problem.
One work colleague was well known for the getting a high number of parking tickets in the lane behind Cheneys. Nearly every time I walked past his car there was a parking ticket on the windscreen. Because he got so many parking tickets, it was rumoured that he had arranged an automatic deduction for the parking tickets from his pay with the Melbourne City Council.

Spreadsheets in the Corridors
From 1987 to 2003 redundancies occurred in most years with the majority in 1996, 2001 and 2003. It got to the stage that whenever the word redundancies was mentioned people gathered in the corridors to discuss the latest news. A work colleague coined the "spreadsheets in the corridors" phrase whenever people compared spreadsheets and strategies for maximising their pension or payout.

Scorched Earth Policy
This is a well known phrase that has been applied during wartimes. I was credited in applying this policy whenever I embarked on a clean out of old equipment. People loved hanging onto old equipment “just in case we might need it” but I was usually successful in getting rid of it. I must admit the policy came back and bit me a few times when I threw out something that was later needed.

Silly Things I Did

Biggest Wastes of Time

Contentious Issue
In 1992, an overzealous computer administrator had the idea that the "names" of all computers in Labs should be allocated by the group that looked after the centralised computer facilities. Up till then each Branch or Section had developed their own sub-networks and computer names were selected by the users. Apart from a few unacceptable names there was absolutely no reason to change any of the names. This proposal got under my skin and I organised a petition to the Director of the Labs against the proposal. With help from others I obtained 300 signatures. The Director agreed that there was no reason to change and the proposal never eventuated. We won! See this poem about the same overzealous computer administrator who did other things that annoyed people.

Worst Times
The mass redundancies in 1996 when we lost a third of our staff (150 people). Made even worse by finding out about the proposed redundancies via a taxi driver. Prior to the redundancy announcements, the taxi driver was ferrying a couple of Labs executives and overheard their conversation about the proposed redundancies. He mentioned the conversation to some other Labs staff he was ferrying later (who happened to be Union reps). The Union reps confronted the executives and they admitted it was true.
See also the media articles about redundancies.

The Marshmallow
People trying to do useful things were always battling with management. One of the engineers I respected likened the process to fighting with a giant marshmallow. He said that as you fight your way in, the marshmallow closes in behind you, eventually trapping you. A good description.

Mystery of the Speeding Fine
The Labs has always had a pool of vehicles that people can use on an ad hoc basis. The first I remember driving was a VW Combi Van. Until the late 1990’s, there was booking diary in a central location where potential users booked a time when they intended using a vehicle. The system was simple, worked well and rarely abused. People used the vehicles on the basis that they were responsible for any traffic infringements. I recall that I once got parking ticket which I paid and I know of others that had other infringements and paid them. One time, management were trying to determine the user of a vehicle that had incurred a speeding fine but discovered that the relevant page in the booking diary had been ripped out! They never found the culprit.

Are You with Me.
This story was related to me by a colleague at the Labs who interviewed numerous Telstra field staff on their attitude to change. Whenever a new Manager is appointed they gather the team together for a talk and detail their plans for improvement. The plan usually involves changing the way something is done. It is important that the new Manager gets the team on their side and fired up so the talk usually ends up with the evangelistic phrase "are you with me" and the associated flag waving. The trouble is that older workers have seen it all before. New Managers in the field only hang around for a short time and are never there long enough to see the results of, or be responsible for, the changes they implemented. Is it any wonder that older workers get disillusioned.

Managing Recreational Time
I was a stickler for having breaks at particular times, going away from your normal location and talking to a different group of people. My schedule was 10.00 for morning tea, 12.12 for lunch and 3.00 for afternoon tea. Despite the repeated jibes I got from workmates, I always believed it was a good thing. In particular, getting away from your normal work environment and talking to others is very important. There were many people who would eat their lunch out of the top drawer of their desk and continue working.
Some of our Directors over the years also made an effort to be seen in the cafeteria at lunchtime and circulate amongst the staff.

Best Labs Public Relations Exercise
The open days of 1969, 1973 and 1985. We spent months preparing displays and had unlimited money. We also had a wide variety of things to show. In particular, things that you could touch, bits that moved and spectacular visual shows such as the lightning display. The feedback we got from the public was tremendous. These days there is nothing much to show except displays on computer screens which is boring.
At one of the open days, there was a staff member at the entrance checking and recording every person entering. When the then Director tried to push his way through he was stopped by the overzealous gatekeeper and asked who he was. Our Director was very annoyed that the gatekeeper did not know who his Director was. Thereafter, the Director made himself more visible.

The People
Although I did not particularly like some people I worked with, I never had a heated verbal or physical confrontation with anyone at the Labs.
The Labs staff
spanned both ends of the Political, Physiological, Sexual and Physical spectrum. A large proportion had Doctorates and many had 2 or more degrees.

I have had the privilege of working with people of extremely high intelligence and world experts in their field of expertise. I have learnt so much from these people. Their brains work completely different to mine. They think of things that I would never have thought of and many of them have frightened me with their intellect.
Some examples:

Peculiarities of highly intelligent people:

Had from far Right to far Left. Made for interesting discussions over the years.

Have met some strange people. Remember one who robbed a bank at lunch-time.

I have worked with people who had all types of physical disabilities. Paraplegics, blind and deaf people. All of these people have inspired me because in most cases they were more useful than a couple of normal people put together and despite their disability they got the job done. Seeing these people accomplish things makes you realise how well off you are.

The Labs Network
If you wanted to find out something about any subject, there was always someone in the Labs who knew the answer.

Faster than Email or Twitter
In the late 1960’s an incident occurred that will never be beaten for speed of communication. The Labs Cheneys building in the CBD faced the Southern Cross Hotel (now gone). That day, there was a fashion parade occurring in the Southern Cross and the ladies were changing on the first floor directly across from the first floor in Cheneys. The ladies noted the interest from some Labs staff and decided to put on a show for the boys. Word spread fast and within microseconds every available Cheneys window space was taken, there were people on the roof and the catwalks on the building site behind Cheneys was packed with building workers eagerly looking through binoculars. One of the lady ringleaders later became a Miss Australia.

Most Useful Equipment
During the time I worked as an electronic technician designing and building electronic equipment, there were three items of equipment that proved most useful:

Biggest Technological Innovation
The Internet. Although not developed by the Labs, we were using it in the 1980's and realised its potential. It was not until the early 1990's that business and Telstra realised its usefulness. In the early days, we were using it for various internal projects. Initially, upper management (outside of the Labs) were not very supportive of anything to do with the Internet. They could not see its potential and in fact made life difficult.

During the 1990's and early 2000's I got to know the Labs Directors very well through my various Union involvements. Paul Kirton is a very compassionate person and has pulled lots of strings for those made redundant. Hugh Bradlow I personally like despite having many disagreements about Union issues with over the years.

Most Useful Projects I Worked on
I always tell people that it is not important whether you consider the project you are working on to be useful. Just do the work and increase your skills and knowledge

Other Things

My Message to the Telstra CEO
Move your office to the basement rather than the top floor. Commuting would be much faster and the morale of Telstra staff would soar.

Why should you Remember Rick Coxhill
For those who have ever used flexitime whilst working in Telstra or its earlier incarnations, you can thank Rick Coxhill. In 1974, a committee was set up to represent the staff interests in the move to Clayton and they were successful in gaining compensation, flexible hours, a cafeteria and landscaped grounds for the Winterton Road Clayton staff. I was a member of that committee. Maybe it should have been called Ricktime.

Last Updated: July 2013