Fierheller blazed a trail for Canadian IT

You can chalk up George A. Fierheller’s contributions to the Canadian IT and telecommunications industry to an uncanny knack for being at the right place at the right time. For more than 40 years, Fierheller — named a member of The Order of Canada in 2002 — has been a veritable whirling dervish.

“It just happened that I joined IBM Corp. just as computers were coming into Canada,” said Fierheller, who in 1998 was also inducted into the Canadian Information Productivity Hall of Fame.

After graduating from Trinity College (University of Toronto) with an honours degree in Political Science and Economics in 1955, he joined Toronto-based IBM just around the time when the firm unveiled the IBM 650, the first commercial computer to be introduced in Canada. Moving quickly through the IBM sales ranks, Fierheller was ultimately responsible for the 650, the first mass-produced computer, the IBM 704 (which was used in designing the Avro Arrow), along with the business data processing IBM 705, which in 1961 was the first computer used in conducting the Canadian census.

It was while running IBM’s federal government business in the 1960s that Fierheller (along with two other IBM colleagues) concluded that Ottawa would be best served by a commercial service bureau. And so, after leaving IBM, raising funds and buying land on which to build a headquarters, Canada’s first computer services firm, Systems Dimensions Ltd. (SDL), was born in 1969.

“Someone once referred to it as the palace of computing,” Fierheller remembers. “As well as putting in a huge machine (a System/360 model 85 that occupied two levels), which was going to be accessed on a remote batch basis…we also had to design a new accounting system (AccountPak) that would account for sharing the machine with different requirements.” This became one of the first such data sharing systems in Canada.

SDL grew with international offices until it merged with DataCrown in 1978. From there, Fierheller moved out west to Vancouver, becoming president and chief executive officer of Premier Cablesystems Ltd. Premier ultimately merged in 1980 and evolved to become cable TV firm Rogers Cablesystems Inc., where he played a pivotal role in building Rogers’s cable and telecom business into what it is today.

Recognizing the potential impact of wireless communications, he made his mark in the history of Canadian telecommunications when he led the team that secured the first mobile cellular radio licence for Canada in 1983. As president and CEO of the newly formed cellular company Cantel Inc., Fierheller was in charge of essentially developing a telecommunications firm from the ground up. “We got the idea that we should be able to use the cable to do the backhaul between cell sites — it seemed to make a lot of sense.”

Looking back, the launch of Cantel is what he terms his definitive achievement. One of the biggest challenges was getting enough telecommunications capacity to match the specific computer capability, Fierheller said.

“In those days you had to get what they called conditioned lines because the average phone line was just too noisy and too uncertain to be used for that purpose. Today you wouldn’t even think about it but in those days it was very important.” He was promoted to chairman and CEO of Rogers Cantel Mobile Inc. and continued as a vice-chairman for Rogers Communications Inc. until 1996.

He is and has been a member of various community affairs and associations, notably president of The Toronto Board of Trade (TBOT), chair of the Information Technology Association of Canada (ITAC) and president of the Canadian Information Processing Society (CIPS). Currently, he heads a private investment and consulting firm and sits on various honorary boards, including Rogers Wireless Inc.

Even today, Fierheller still keeps his ear to the ground when observing IT trends. He cites the continued growth of wireless, the thriving Internet and the ongoing miniaturization of computer chips and devices as trends to watch out for.

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