Making IT Work: A History of the Computer Services Industry

by Jeffrey R. Yost, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2017, 376 p. (hardcover) ISBN: 978-0-262-03672-6

In an excerpt from his new book 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, published in The Atlantic, Yuval Noah Harari makes a provocative statement: the way to save democracy is “to find ways to keep distributed data processing more efficient than centralized data processing.”[1] Should one be interested in rising to Harari’s challenge, Jeffery R. Yost’s Making IT Work: A History of the Computer Services Industry provides an excellent primer on the mostly overlooked history of computer services—from consulting and programming to data analytics and cloud computing—that remain at the periphery of most peoples’ awareness, in spite of being a trillion dollar business worldwide with significant political and economic import, as Harari’s provocation suggests. Yost, Associate Director of the Charles Babbage Institute, has written the first full-length business history of this important sector, highlighting newly available archival materials and oral histories recorded specifically for this project. The historical approach is largely descriptive, but provides a foundation of authoritative facts about the key businesses and personnel that established and defined the computer services industry during the twentieth century. The book provides a necessary baseline for future scholarship in this important area.

Making IT Work is organized around the most prominent computer service providers in each of three eras: those who started the industry in the 1950s, those who defined the industry and its trade associations in the 1960s and 1970s, and those leading the industry into new services and markets in the era of globalization since the 1980s. Yost acknowledges that he has focused on the most successful or otherwise influential companies, recognized names including IBM, ADP, EDS, and Tymshare. The actions of these companies, including services developed, acquired, traded, and abandoned, are important for tracking patterns that help readers understand the power and influence of the industry as a whole. The book isn’t about IBM specifically, but the company nevertheless becomes a touchstone for recognizing trends. In chapter two, IBM is among the first companies in the 1930s to establish a service bureau through which its tabulating machine customers could outsource their data processing. In the concluding chapter, IBM is a worldwide leader in providing cloud based data analytics and artificial intelligence applications for its customers. In between, IBM’s fortunes are shown to rise and fall along with its service strategy, to an even greater extent, perhaps, than with its hardware business. Additionally, IBM’s significant market share of computing hardware in the 1950s and 1960s was a substantial factor in what kinds of third party computer services were developed. It’s no surprise that former IBM employees populate the executive teams of many of the companies discussed throughout the book. The perpetual influence of IBM helps bring unity to a history that encompasses businesses otherwise disparate as to size, geographic location, customer base, and even the very services they provide, from payroll processing to software programming to systems integration.

Making IT Work is at its best when revealing the details of newly available archival material and oral histories Yost himself conducted for the project. Chapter five covers the formation and activities of the Association of Data Processing Service Organizations (ADAPSO) and is based on that trade association’s records, recently donated to the Charles Babbage Institute. Similarly, chapter nine highlights the formation of three brokerage firms for independent contractors as well as the development of their own trade association, the National Association of Computer Consultant Businesses (NACCB), and is based largely on oral histories of those who started these organizations, details that have not been available for previous analyses. As Yost points out, including the history of the industry’s trade organizations helps readers understand the nature and extent of the circulation of knowledge within the industry, who was participating and being excluded from participation, and what political and legal factors most influenced industry-wide trends (117). Bookending the second section of the study, “The Industry’s Identity,” these two chapters deepen readers’ understanding of important cultural factors, such as ADAPSO member businesses attempts to negotiate an ethics statement for the industry, and the barriers to leadership experienced by women. In contrast, the introductory material in several chapters is a bit thin. While meant to establish the context within which the companies being discussed were operating, Yost often relies heavily on one or two sources, even when a large literature exists. For example, the discussion of System Development Corporation (SDC) in chapter 4 necessarily summarizes the history of the Air Force’s Semi-Automatic Ground Environment (SAGE) project that was the original impetus for forming what became SDC, but relies primarily on Kent C. Redmond and Thomas M. Smith’s, From Whirlwind to MITRE (MIT Press, 2000), rather than offering a broader perspective on scholarship about SAGE. Nevertheless, the book’s corporate case studies are an important contribution to the history of computing even on their own.

As Yost states early on, the computer services industry is most important for how it shapes the information technology landscape (p. 1). Harari’s point is that our very democracy is imperiled by failing to recognize the stakes of how IT infrastructures and the services that support them are deployed. Making IT Work provides a basis for understanding the history of this understudied industry, and for thinking about what its future ought to be.

Sarah A. Bell, Assistant Professor of Digital Media, Department of Humanities, Michigan Technological University


[1] “Why Technology Favors Tyranny,” The Atlantic, October 2018. Online at