U of S IT professor does not compute

With a cold beer in his left hand and a pen in his right, Jean-Paul Tremblay settles in his rocking chair to start working on his latest textbook on software engineering. This has been his routine for the past 33 years — and you won’t even see him touch a computer to help him write it.

According to Tremblay, a full professor in the computer science department at the University of Saskatchewan (U of S) in Saskatoon, there is no single reason why he doesn’t use a computer. “If I wanted to, I could interact with the keyboard and an interface or whatever program you are using. I write [my books] on ordinary foolscap paper.”

His first textbook, published in 1975, included several topics on programming languages such as Fortran, Pascal and Java, as well as data structures. Students worldwide have used his books for study.

Tremblay took his first computer science course in 1958, but no one has seen him near a computer for about 20 years.

“It has become part of folklore now; it is one of the things he is known by,” said Grant Cheston, an associate professor at the U of S’s computer science department and a colleague of Tremblay since 1975. Rumour has it that the last person to see Tremblay use a computer went hunting with him and was never seen again, joked Jeremy Pfeifer, a former graduate student of Tremblay who has worked for him for seven years doing all of his computer work.

Since starting at the university in 1970, Tremblay, who holds two electrical engineering degrees and a PhD in computer science, has taught students everything from a second-year course in data structures and software development to graduate studies in software engineering and compilers. So how do students believe in what Tremblay is teaching if he doesn’t use a computer?

“His lack of computer use really has no effect on his work and has no effect on his students. Very seldom is a student able to ask a question [Tremblay] can’t answer,” Pfeifer explained.

He said Tremblay’s vast knowledge of the topics he covers in his lectures not only comes from his years of experience in programming languages and building hardware, but also from reading all of the latest books. As well, Tremblay believes that one doesn’t need to use something in order to know how something works on the inside, Pfeifer said. At 66, Tremblay said this book, his 20th, would be his last.

“I am sort of an odd, peculiar case, by no means representative of the high-tech field that I have been involved with for a long time.” He doesn’t avoid using computers just to be different, he said. “It just suits me and I don’t think the students have been handicapped because of it.”

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