Sunday, 28 September 2014

Happy 50th Birthday Computng Science

The Department of Computing Science at the University of Alberta was the first computer science department in Canada, formally coming into existence on April 1, 1964. On April 1, 2014, the Department had a small celebration to recognize their 50th birthday. On Saturday September 23, as part of the University of Alberta’s annual Alumni Weekend, the Department held a big celebration. Between 150 and 200 people attended, including alumni who travelled to the event from across Canada, many places in the United States, and even one person coming from Germany.

Attendees included faculty members Keith Smiley and Bill Adams (joining the Department in 1964), Ursula Maydell (1965), and Tony Marsland (1970). My first day was January 2, 1984 which means I have been with the Department for over 60% of its existence.

The first B.Sc. degree from the Department was awarded in 1968, the first M.Sc. in 1964 (really a mathematics degree), and the first Ph.D. in 1973. Sadly there were no members of the graduating class of 1968 present. However, one member of the 1969 class came. She is still active as a programmer, but she has a most unusual job. Her description of the job was all the more poignant given what I had heard the day before. On the Friday, the self-appointed “Geeks”, a cohort that graduated in the late 1980s, gave a presentation to the undergraduate students about the ``lessons they don’t teach you in the classroom.’’ One of the topics was the rapid pace of change in computing. They described the skills they learned when they were students – IBM 360/370 assembler, Algol 68, Pascal, JCL, Fortran, C – and stated that at best what you learn at university has a five-year shelf life. The point was that you needed to keep learning to be relevant as a computer scientist today.
Rob Enns and Derek Iversion showing off the "Geek Wisdom" announcement -- the lessons they don't teach you in the classroom.
Back to the 1969 grad. What does she do? She programs in IBM 360/370 assembler supporting a US state government that has very old software that has not been rewritten using a modern programming language. Imagine that she programs using the same tools that she learned over 45 years ago. In the field of computing, this is almost unheard of (and perhaps reflects poorly on her employer). On the other hand, for our 1969 grad, this is probably a huge windfall. There can’t be many IBM assembly language experts left in the world, so I assume she charges top dollar for her services!

One of the pleasant surprises at the event was a mock-up of Chatty Cathy, the Department's PDP 11 computer from the late 1960s. In 1970, the machine became one of the first three in the world to host the UNIX operating system outside of Bell Laboratories (where it was originally developed). For 25 years, the machine remained divorced from the passage of time, running an early version of UNIX until finally decommissioned. The machine is still around in a computer museum in Athabasca Hall, but for the 50th anniversary party, a local balloon expert recreated Chatty Cathy.
A balloon rendition of Chatty Cathy. The resemblance to the original PDP 11 is striking, including the tape drives.
The Geeks graduated in the late 1980s. They are a close-knit group of friends who stay in touch and get together frequently, despite living in various places in Canada and the United States. I knew all of them when they were students at the University of Alberta -- some of them were in the very first class that I taught in 1984. They were a social group who organized a weekly evening get-together for beer, which they jokingly called CMPUT 469. That "course" still exists to this day.

The Geeks were active in sports and had a hockey sweater created to showcase the Computing Science team. At the 50th anniversary celebration, I came dressed in the original 1985 sweater. The Geeks, on the other hand, made a new version of the sweater which they proudly wore. Why a new sweater? The old one did not fit any more. I am proud to say that my sweater still fits and even looks rather baggy on me!
A subset of the "Geeks" (photo taken by Rob Enns). From left to right Rob Enns, Chuck Daniel, honorary member Jonathan Schaeffer, Marcel Laforce, Ed Cheng, Jim Moore, Lance MacAndrew, and Derek Iverson.

The 50th anniversary party was a wonderful event. There were three short speeches: Bill Adams on the early years of the Department, me on the middle years, and Mario Nascimento on the present (he is the current Department Chair). There was excellent food, including a special round of the preferred food of hungry students: pizza. It was a time to renew friendships and fondly recall past events. I thoroughly enjoyed myself.