A lifetime love affair with tech

Vacuum tubes, magnetic storage drums and binary-coded machine language – if you had cracked open some of the first commercially available computer systems of the ’50s and ’60s, that’s what you might have found inside.

By today’s standards, this equipment was exorbitantly expensive, difficult to program and limited in speed and versatility. But such computers were a bedazzling sight to many people at the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair, according to Faye West, director of information systems for the Alberta Research Council (ARC) in Edmonton.

At 14 years of age, West was one of more than three million visitors drawn to the fair’s IBM Pavilion, which featured exhibits on how computers could be used to improve life. For some fair attendees, it was their first exposure to technology.

West was enamoured with what she saw. “I spent almost the whole day in that exhibit,” she recalls, adding that she decided from then on to pursue a career in technology.

The path she chose was “pretty unique,” West says – few, if any, of her peers were interested in the same career. It was also difficult to get the education she wanted, because “computer science at universities was just getting started.”

West enrolled at the University of Alberta, but because the school didn’t offer a computing science major, she registered as an Honours math student, and completed one year with a basic computing and statistics course under her belt. “It was not the kind of focus I was looking for,” she said. That’s when she switched to a commerce major – “they were doing a little bit of computing science, and I thought that might be more practical.”

Still, West found the computer course offerings “pretty meager.” After her second year, she landed a summer programming job with the administrative systems department at the University of Alberta, which had just acquired one of IBM’s System/360 mainframes. “I decided that this was such a wonderful thing that I dropped out of university and went into that full-time.”

West worked at the university for eight years in a variety of roles: programmer, systems analyst and designer. She then left the workforce to become a mother – but six months later, she decided she missed her work too much, and took a job with R. Angus Computer Services, an in-house computing department for a local Caterpillar dealer. She stayed there for a year-and-a-half, and then moved to Alberta Government Telephones (now Telus) for 10 years before joining the ARC, where she’s been for 17 years.

West says her current position is not one she expected to end up in. It’s more of a management role than what she’s used to, and her true love has always been the “techie” side of IT.

“The thing about doing technology and being a hands-on geek is that you can see what you’ve accomplished,” she says. “You write a program, it works and it does what it’s supposed to do.” But as a manager, “you plan your work through your staff to get things done instead of doing things yourself, so your reward has to come from seeing that things are accomplished, not by doing them yourself.”

That could get frustrating for someone who likes hands-on work, but the fact that the ARC is a relatively small organization gives West an opportunity to contribute some of her programming skills to projects. Smaller work environments also give IT workers more opportunity to influence the direction of their organizations. “If you see a tool or process that you feel would be good for your organization, you have much more of an opportunity to introduce it than you would have in a larger company.”

A former national and Edmonton Canadian Information Processing Society (CIPS) president, winner of the 2001 Women of Distinction award and one of last year’s Global Television Women of Vision, West was most recently elected chair of the Software Human Resource Council board. While heading up CIPS, she started the Women in IT program, which is aimed specifically at encouraging grade-nine girls to consider science and technology careers and take related courses in high school.

She also helped start an Edmonton-based program called CIPS in the Classroom, and today gives presentations to junior high students, with the hopes of dispelling the myth that IT is predominantly a career for male geeks. “Girls, in particular, tend to believe that technology is for guys, that it doesn’t impact real world and doesn’t help people – and that a computing career involves pounding out code in a cubicle in a dimly-lit room in isolation – which it doesn’t,” she says.

It’s difficult to judge what kind of impact the school programs have on female participants, but West says she sees many girls walk out of the seminars with at least a more positive attititude toward IT careers.