Saturday, 31 March 2018

A service to the public

CCAE pin

CCAE newsletter, 1979
Even before finishing the Graduate Diploma in Computing Studies, I received a job offer from the Commonwealth Public Service to be a programmer. The Canberra College of Advanced Education (CCAE) had its own Burroughs B6700 mainframe, the same type of computer rented by the Department of Immigration & Ethnic Affairs (DIEA).
The Department’s A.D.P. (Automated Data Processing) Section sent representatives to the College to persuade graduands to become new recruits, an experience quite different from the university graduate examination imposed by the Public Service Board. 
The CCAE had a good relationship with the Public Service, and performed its employment feeder role well. Although my first experience with a mainframe was using the Univac at the Australian National University in 1978 to count results from a psychology survey, the requirement to fill mark-sense cards with precise black felt strokes and leave them for an overnight processing run seemed like magic rather than a deterrent.
So the CCAE's Graduate Diploma beckoned, and with a good balance of male and female IT  experts, we were soon immersed in dot matrix printouts, restricted mainframe time (the most expensive resource) and a wide range of subjects from coding in standard languages like COBOL, Assembler, Pascal and Fortran to systems and business analysis.
The first coding skill I took to my new workplace was in the Job Control Langage – JCL - operating instructions used to start and finish tasks. 
The CCAE’s School of Information Sciences discharged its educational responsibilities assiduously. This was the introduction to Programming Systems 1, Semester 1, 1981:

“While this course teaches computer programming using two different languages, its central theme is that of “structured programming”; this theme is the common thread running through the course irrespective of which language is being taught. Right at the outset we wish to make clear that programming must not be confused with merely writing code.”
The use of computing resources was under strict control, as was access to commercial system documentation.
The extended availability of machine time in the nighttime hours, rather than during the day, soon led to midnight sessions. Coding a trip instruction for an endless processing loop was always a consideration - a few hapless students didn’t and lost their entire processing allocation for 24 hours which jeopardised their assignment submissions.

The School of Information Services’ staff were not without a sense of humour. Programming tasks included code for managing student numbers and rankings, generating a ‘Merry Christmas’ banner, and conducting a full analysis of the Department of Overseas Aid’s (DOA) operations prior to coding a new application for it. 

DIEA had responsibility for Australia's arrival and departure Passenger Card Index, a huge database which was backed up on 26 magnetic tapes. 
My midnight learning sessions turned into weekend sessions as I oversaw the data updates each weekend on a Burroughs B6700 rented from the Department of Administrative Services at Fyshwick (in Canberra). 
Despite its significant responsibility, the A.D.P. section had almost a skeleton staff. There was very little emphasis on teamwork - each programmer had a primary responsibility that absorbed all the time available.
By the mid 1980s, DIEA was given the budget to purchase its own mainframe, which meant the ADP group had to grow. Wanting to stay in a small IT shop, I transferred to the National Library of Australia’s A.D.P. Branch in early 1986. 
The Library was five years into hosting a union catalogue system called the Australian Bibliographic Network. The underlying database was coded in PL/I, a coding language similar to COBOL, and the reliance on it by all of the nation's libraries imbued the service with an indispensability on a scale not matched at that time by the number of immigration offices needing access to passenger cards.
8 May 1981
Two other programmers already maintaining this service were CCAE School of Information Science graduates in the same year as me. The National Library's working environment had another characteristic which had been well taught - the value of teamwork. 
Even as I moved from the roles of programmer to project manager to inaugural business manager for the award-winning Trove, the National Library's innovative 21st century platform for information discovery and engagement, the approach never changed.
Trove's first four years were my last four in the Australian Public Service. (Coincidentally, 1968 celebrates 50 years of the building of the National Library as well as the Canberra College of Advanced Education.)
Although we now operate in a web interface- and mobile device-enabled environment for accessing information, the basic principles of programming practice then were still the same as now: garbage in, garbage out; the importance of rigorous documentation; and the value of teamwork in scoping and designing solutions to improve human-computer interaction. The CCAE deserves recognition for the professional grounding it provided to public servants and in particular for its Information Scientists including Kate O’Driscoll, Igor Hawryszkiewycz and Bill Ginn. 


This story was originally compiled for the University of Canberra's Personal Histories Project

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