Societies united Canada – and inflamed the Cold War

It has been nearly 44 years since several Western Canadian computer professionals first got together and formed a society to discuss growing activity in IT – the Calgary Computer and Data Processing Society.

The new entity, with professor John Peck From the University of Alberta as its first president, met monthly. But it wasn’t the first of its kind. A similarly named society had already been established in Eastern Canada, grouped in several major cities. When they learned of events Western Canada, the Eastern officials proposed the idea of becoming a national society, and asked Calgary to join forces.

With many thousand of kilometers separating them, the folks in Calgary initially didn’t think that much could be gained from a national society. But two years later Western members finally agreed to merge. Terms included that the next national conference be held in the West, a decision skeptically received by members in the East, who feared a financial disaster. Conferences to this point had always been held in an Eastern university setting, usually averaging 225 participants.

Ken Marble of Imperial Oil was appointed conference chairman, and he received support from many other Alberta organizations. A non-university setting, the Banff Springs Hotel, was chosen, further increasing the Eastern concern.

It was decided that the conference’s success hinged on the caliber of speakers, so organizers aimed high. They managed to snag Dr. Fano, who was pioneering time sharing research at MIT. NORAD was also asked to make a presentation. Others of equal caliber accepted. Fare reimbursement – but no fees, were offered to invitees. The rest of the program was organized by submission of papers.

Break even was 250. After conference announcement, registrations arrived by every post, reaching a total of 650, making it the largest Canadian conference of its kind to that date. It caught organizers off-guard; rock hen was set to be the main dish for the final banquet. Problem was, the hotel could not find 650 rock hens in the whole of Alberta, so it was agreed that the “deprived” unfortunates would have Alberta steaks instead. The conference was an overwhelming success, and it forever changed computing conferences in Canada, and established Western Canada as a major IT player.

Particularly memorable was the NORAD presentation, which outlined the threat posed to North America by the Soviet Union, and how our defense was organized. This led to a confrontation between the conference committee and the attending Soviet scientific attache, who said that a protest would be made to the Canadian government unless an apology was received.

As I had to give the apology, being program manager, I remember this only too well. NORAD talked about old technology – the Arrow fighter plane, Soviet bombers Bison and Badger, simulated attack patterns and the like. The protest itself was entirely political

Soon after the conference there was a presidential election for the society, where the only well-known candidates would likely be Easterners. This handicap was remedied by nominating a Westerner and circulating his profile. This infuriated the computing establishment, as elections had up to then operated on a gentleman’s agreement basis. The society eventually allowed a profile for every nominee. Calgary brought Western influence to bear on what traditionally had been dominated by Eastern groups, and the society was never again the same. Conferences were mainly (although not entirely) held in resorts from then on, and we had a more democratic society.

The Society then tried to bring professionalism to IT practitioners, there being a need to inject some discipline into the profession. I once wrote an article for the Globe and Mail called Idiot Systems, which was updated for the Guardian in the U.K., reprinted in the international Guardian Weekly and other publications. I received mail literally from around the world in response. Many of us, not just me, were fed up with the junky software being developed by people who had no systems analysis background.

A no-cost study was led by Urwick Currie, a consulting firm. Their report indicated the feasibility, but professionalism took a further 25 years to implement. Members were somewhat scared of trying to establish a “professional” tag like the engineers had. Eventually the Society changed its name to the Canadian Information Processing Society (CIPS).

Other IT groups were formed, several related to specific manufacturers. One such group was the Digital Equipment Computer Users Canada, group, or DECUS. Several branches of U.S. organisations were established, the chief ones being with the Association of Computing Machinery and the Data Processing Management Association. The former had a number of specialist sub-groups for topics of interest. In addition the International Federation of Information Processing Societies (IFIP) was active and Jim Finch, a Canadian, attained the position of vice-president, while other Canadians were actively involved with sub groups for languages and databases. Still others became involved with the International Standards Organization (ISO).

The early Societies grew only slowly, and never in keeping with the growth of IT, various remedies being tried to change (unsuccessfully) the situation. Regional or country societies tend now to be networking groups, whereas the early Societies were learning of exciting new developments and even pioneering these developments. This is partly the result of the growth of huge conferences, often in association with Exhibits.

Today these large conferences, which are somewhat impersonal, tend to concentrate on specific topics, such as the Embedded Systems conference in San Francisco and the Mobile conference recently held in Cannes. Attendees go there to learn about the latest trends in the IT industry.

Hodson is an Ottawa-based IT industry veteran who has helped develop Canadian computer science programs. Contact him at [email protected]

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