26 - CONSULTING AND GENETIX DEVELOPMENT
by BERNARD A HODSON
After the fiasco with the British company I spent a year as an Adjunct professor at York University, in Toronto, teaching mainly programming languages, following which I moved to Ottawa, first as a government based consultant, then on my own so I could develop further the software concepts of GENETIX.
Between the two consulting operations I had some interesting assignments, one of which is described in detail in a later chapter, involving a national search and rescue system. They covered a wide spectrum, from policy development, including speech writing for a government Minister, to organising a government computer operation, to developing University based programs to upgrade the skills of high tech workers within industry and later within the government (also described in a later chapter).
One of the early assignments was to evaluate "voice mail" systems and then (what are now ubiquitous) automated voice response systems. In a voice mail system you can phone a party and leave a message to which the party called responds, and can also send a broadcast message, where the same message is sent to several recipients without the necessity of repeated phone calls. I installed one of the early systems in a small office and we played around with it, even though the test individuals were located close together. It became evident that it would work but that there could be office culture problems. As one example of a potential problem there was no recall of the message and it would be possible, in the heat of the moment, to say something inappropriate which could not be changed once it had been sent, leading to potential discontent between office workers.
In an automated voice response system you phone a number and a voice tells you to press 1 if you want such and such a service, 2 for another type of service and so on. It only works if the party making the call has what is known as a "touch tone" service, which was not universal when I conducted the study. I conducted two surveys on this, one for the Immigration service in Toronto, the other for one related to unemployment services in Quebec.
In Toronto people wanting information on the status of their immigration application, or requiring other immigration services, would line up at the Toronto immigration office hours before it opened. The service introduced in Toronto inquired first of all whether the calling party wanted responses in English, French, Cantonese or Mandarin (the office was convenient to Chinatown) and, if I recall correctly, one other language. They were then given a menu of available inquiries, to which they responded by number, being given the response in the language of their choice. I surveyed a goodly sample of users, as well as the staff of the immigration office, and received an overwhelming positive response, even from immigration lawyers. The system had cut out much of the waiting time for many of the potential immigrants.
The system was so successful that the Chinese community was asking the local banks to introduce a similar operation for banking services, which I believe they did at a later date. In Quebec, which is predominantly French speaking, the choice was between French and English. At the time there was high unemployment in Quebec and the service enabled people to determine by phone the status of their unemployment insurance request, or receive other useful information.
In both of the surveys conducted there was a very positive response to what perhaps was a major advantage of these automated systems. A user could phone at any time of the day or night, on any day including weekends, and avoid the lines at local offices which only operated on weekdays from, usually, 9 to 5.
I was asked if I would write a speech on the information technology industry for the government Minister in charge of what was then called the Department of Supply and Services, which then handled the bulk of Canadian government purchases. I consulted with the Minister's "spin doctors" and was given the general topics they would like to see in the speech. I prepared the speech and it was well received. It was so well received that I was asked to write another. The difference in the second speech was that I composed it so that he gave my views on what should be done within the information technology industry, rather than those of the "spin doctors". This was also well received and the reverberations were very amusing. As a result of that second speech the Deputy Minister, a public servant, demanded that his staff see that what the Minister had proposed, be implemented. The orders descended the public ladder and eventually some of the ideas I had proposed were carried out.
Another assignment was to develop an information technology strategy for what was then called the Department of Energy Mines and Resources. Government department names tend to change frequently, depending on some survey or other conducted by some bureaucrat interested in promoting his or her career. In this assignment I was given a budget and a small staff to help in the survey, who would later be assigned to me to carry out the recommendations I made. I first of all, as was my wont in such surveys, interviewed all the senior management. There was a virtually unanimous opinion by the senior management that the real problem was the present incumbent of their data processing operation and that I should propose his removal (I later advised against that as it was not the real problem, although partially true).
The incumbent had been on an early course on programming that I had given years before when employed by UNIVAC, given at what is now Carleton University. I knew him to be a highly intelligent and very technically oriented individual. I discussed the situation quite frankly with him and told him that I would be suggesting a number of changes which he would do well to go along with. This was the era when microcomputers were being introduced to the industry and I told him that his group should become familiar with them, as all their experience had been with major and large scientific computers. He said he would order two and evaluate them over six months, following which he would develop a purchase policy. I asked him if he knew how many such computers were in the Department and he suggested that his order would mean that there were now two. I told him quite frankly that there were over 100 such machines already there, purchased under a variety of disguises, which somewhat amazed him. I transferred the purchase of microcomputers to my small group and reduced the ordering process from over six months to just a few days, much to the surprise and delight of the large scientific staff within the Department.
The Department had been a closed shop for Control Data computer equipment for so long that other vendors had given up hope of ever getting a "foot in the door". It was obvious that these scientific computers were not well suited to much of the data processing needs and I advised that one of the current IBM computers be purchased. I phoned IBM, with whom I have always had a good relationship, even when I was "giving them hell" and told them, quite frankly, that I was seriously interested in one of their systems. When they realised this they changed their representative from a junior to one of their most senior people. This person heard that the Bank of Canada were upgrading their systems and that their current machine would be available, and I agreed to purchase it at a saving of over half a million dollars. The other possible vendors squawked but I told them plainly that this was a government system already and I did not have to go to tender to buy a government machine, particularly when I was saving so much money. This shut them up, and we quickly installed the machine, which was now used for most of the data processing. I made a number of other suggestions, all of which took place, and received a very warm send off, even from the head of the data processing operation, when my assignment concluded after two years.
Another interesting assignment was with the Operational Research and Analysis Establishment (ORAE), a Canadian government think tank devoted to defence matters. This involved evaluating their computer operations and determining what might best be done in the future. I have always had a high national security classification (including security classifications in the USA and UK), which was one of the requirements for the task. I studied their current Honeywell computer system, which had what was regarded as having a top rated software security capability. The problem when it was used for mundane things like generating text with a word processor was that every character had to go through this security software, resulting in the impossible situation that the characters appearing on the screen were several characters behind what a user was currently entering on the keyboard. I studied what they were doing in land warfare operations, as well as in air operations. This latter involved visiting North Bay where I went down a rock sided tunnel passage to a deep underground vault (past armed United States guards). Within a huge cavern in the rocks operators were monitoring every flight over Canada, determining whether or not they were hostile.
As with all defence equipment any computer system had to be shielded to prevent radiation from the computer being picked up by the Soviets, usually called Tempest shields. ORAE was planning a move to another location so I had to examine the plans for the new location, and how well they might be radiation shielded. One problem to be faced was that their computer was several miles away and I studied the feasibility of linking their actual location to the computer by optical cable. I proposed that a cable be laid with two optical cores, an inner and an outer, and that data be only transmitted through the inner core. I suggested the inner core have several optical lines and that the data be transmitted randomly along one or other of the several inner lines, presumably frustrating any Soviet attempt to intercept. I believe my suggestion would have worked but they showed me how to tap an optical fibre without being detected, and were reluctant to follow what I suggested, preferring instead to locate what, at the time, was very scarce encryption/decryption equipment. During this study I became quite familiar with both the military and the civilian security systems. Upon completion of the study I made recommendations regarding what they should do for the future.
A further study with which I became involved was the International Joint Commission, based in Ottawa, Washington and Windsor, Ontario. This group is concerned with the quality and flow of water in to the Great Lakes. The head of the Canadian operation later became chief honcho for security matters to the Canadian government. My role was to study their operation and make appropriate suggestions as to how they might improve things. This group did a lot of business by facsimile, transmitting documents for study between the three locations, and one obvious improvement was to change their fax machines. They were using old and slow equipment and it was costing them more in long distance charges than the cost of new machines (which transmitted much faster) plus long distance calls. I was able to determine their needs and offer a number of improvements which were accepted. One interesting aspect was a visit to the Washington location of the IJC where I was also taken to a Congressional hearing, which proved to be quite informative of how the US system works.
The World Bank in Washington had introduced an office automation system and some time later I was asked to evaluate the impact that such a system had had on the organisation. It was interesting to observe how the educational aspects of staff had changed as a result, how there had been changes in the work flow between managers and secretaries (the managers actually said they were now doing more things themselves), and how their data bases had been developed and were being used. I took the opportunity to also illustrate to the Bank how it might develop its office automation structure in the future, and how the organisation might change as a result. I felt that this latter aspect was more important than the survey itself.
The United Nations Development Program in New York then required my assistance for two projects. On occasion I commuted from Ottawa to New York, and occasionally stayed in New York or nearby New Rochelle, going in to Central Station by commuter train. The first task I was asked to complete was to suggest which microcomputers should be selected for installation in UN offices overseas. While I did not visit overseas locations I determined from people who had been there what conditions could be expected overseas. From this I learned that in some locations it was very humid, in other locations blowing sand was a continuous hazard, electricity availability was hit and miss (so there should be batteries of some sort) and there was little expertise to repair things if the microcomputers malfunctioned. Moreover it was necessary that the computers be capable of generating data on floppy discs that could be mailed to New York for processing. Out of all the vendor offerings at that time there was only one which could meet the expected conditions overseas, those of NCR.
Another request was to develop a Database course for government auditors. Having developed one previously, given at Community College level, all I needed to do was adapt it to government needs, at the same time updating the technology.
There were many other assignments but this gives a flavour of what a consultant in high tech gets involved with. I preferred to work only on assignments which were of interest to me personally.