The history-making moments IT departments don’t see coming

I would have predicted that the first e-mail ever sent by a Canadian would begin with the word “Sorry,” but “thank you” is close enough.

Buried deep in the back page of its Arts & Life section on Tuesday, the National Post carried the obituary of Derek Schofield, a scientist in Ottawa who worked for the Department of National Defence. Among his other accomplishments, he also tapped in to the early power of electronic mail with a colleague based in Washington, D.C.

“Thank you for your call. You sound well after your trip,” the e-mail message read, adding the meta-irony of making a medium of communication the subject of Canada’s first use of another medium of communication.

It may have been the biggest leap of technology Schofield presided over in 37 years as a defence scientist, but it didn't get much attention.

No politician showed up. No reporter covered it, despite the news release. Who cared about an Internet? (Or, in those days, an Arpanet?)

Well, a few people did, but that’s not the point. Much like the stories of Alexander Graham Bell’s first successful telephone call, Schofield’s obit strikes me as something of an endangered species among the chapters of IT industry history. There probably won’t be an obituary of the first Canadian who used Twitter. If someone can lay claim to being the first Canadian to use Foursquare, I would make that fact loudly known as soon as possible.

Schofield’s pioneering foray into e-mail is consistent with so many adoptions of high technology up until about the last 10 years. The technology in question is usually something created in a research facility sponsored by a large public sector entity. It may be academia, the military, or even a big business like a car manufacturer. The moral of the story, if we can call it that, is that no one involved in those early deployments (usually) had any idea that the IT innovation would one day reach mainstream users. It just wasn’t designed that way.

Now the opposite is usually true. Applications, in particular, are most often created specifically for consumers and then slowly, grudgingly work their way into the enterprise, usually accompanied by a lot of dithering over security, usage policies and the potential to distract from core business activities.

What’s common in both these stories is the role of the IT manager. In the early days, technology professionals were responsible for helping set up adapt technologies originally intended for other uses to solve business problems. Now they are frequently seen as the gatekeepers of business, occasionally finding ways to introduce consumer technology in ways that will make management feel more comfortable.

One day, it would be interesting to read the obituary of the Canadian IT professional whose use of Google Wave changed the way businesses, governments and consumers collaborated on problems. Or that of the IT professional who helped find a use for the iPad that even Steve Jobs couldn’t have fathomed. Few IT managers set out to make history, of course. But wouldn’t that be better than having history thrust upon you?

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