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Awards Presentation – Information Technology
I presented this speech on behalf of the Australian Computer Society to the
I'm going to talk about four topics tonight:
The IT industry
I don't really think that there is any one such thing as the IT industry. Unlike other professions which have been around for centuries, it's not really clear what you have to know or what you have to do to be part of it. In other professions such as medicine and law, everybody sort of starts out the same, although they may specialize in some obscure area later. If I had the letters MB,BS or LLB or B.Arch after my name I would not have to say more than that I was a doctor, a lawyer or an architect. When I say I am a computer consultant, people look bemused. When I tell them that I have a degree in cognitive psychology the bemusement turns to confusion.
The IT industry covers an enormous range of activities and areas of knowledge. There are the engineers who design the hardware, the materials scientists who figure out how to get more and more stuff onto the same area of silicon, the people who package the hardware components to make useful things – not just computers but telecommunications equipment, PlayStations, fuel-injection systems and the now-forgotten Tamagochis. There are the programmers who tell the machines what to do, the sales people who convince people to keep buying more things, the trainers who teach people how to use those things, analysts who dream up new uses for computers, and consultants like me who clean up afterwards.
That leads me nicely into talking about job opportunities in the IT business. Everyone has heard that there is a contraction in the IT job market at the moment and there are lots of people looking for jobs, particularly since the collapse of all those dot con companies. Simultaneously, we are being told that there is a shortage of skilled people. I've been in the business for a long time and there has always been a shortage of good people. The rate of change has also always meant that there have always been changes that have had people looking for new work. It might be the fastest changing business the world has ever seen, but some things are constants. It's called an employment cycle because it cycles.
There are two groups of people who always suffer when the industry goes through one of the low points in the employment cycle as it is at the moment. These are young people, who are discriminated against because they do not have many years of experience, and older people who are discriminated against because they have many years of experience. (I'm just reporting the facts here – not justifying the logic.) Of course, nobody is actually discriminated against because of age – that would be illegal.
Don't be discouraged by this. There is work out there, although it mightn't be exactly what you want to do at the moment. Anyone coming out of an educational institution is at the beginning of the road, but it isn't a highway that goes on forever in the same way. It's more like the entrance to a strange city with lots of streets, roads and alleys that can take you in all sorts of unexpected directions.
As I am here representing the Australian Computer Society, you can't get away without hearing something about it. The ACS is the professional body for people in the IT industry. It offers continuing education for members, a chance to meet and network with other people who do what you do, and the intangible benefit of recognition by association with a like-minded group of professionals. The ACS lobbies governments on matters related to the use and abuse of computers and is a voice for the concerns of people in the business – concerns such as privacy, safety, education needs, immigration matters and so on. If you want to know more, I have some brochures which you can take afterwards.
It was suggested that I talk about the future, but I have been around this game long enough to know that if anybody knows where the future is going they aren't going to tell me about it until it happens. Either that or they make me sign non-disclosure agreements so I can't talk about it anyway.
Instead of the future, I am going to talk about the present and how it reflects the past. Remember how I said that this is the fastest changing business that the world has ever known. Some things, however, reach back into the distant past.
When you turn your computer on, the screen starts up with 80 columns across it. This is built into the circuitry in the screen. The reason that a native computer screen has 80 characters across it is that punched cards had 80 columns, and the first screens were used to replace card punches. The reason that punch cards had 80 columns was that this was a convenient number to be reliably punched into cards of that size. The reason cards were that size is that when Hermann Hollerith was about to use punched cards for the 1890 census in the US he was trying to save money so he looked for storage systems that already existed for large numbers of small pieces of paper. The first punch cards were the size of 1890 US currency notes because this meant that Hollerith could use the same storage systems as the banks did. So, that brand new 19 inch screen on your desk has a link back to the size of 19th century money.
But, it gets even better. This is a Zip disk, which can hold 100Mb of data. You can get other disks the same size that hold a gigabyte or two. The zip disk was deliberately designed to be the same size as a 3.5 inch floppy, and the floppy disk is the size it is because Sony wanted to make something that could fit into a shirt pocket. The standard size for a shirt pocket was established because it it was convenient to carry money in it. It was no coincidence that a punch card fitted nicely into a shirt pocket when you wrote a lunch list on it and went out to get the sandwiches.
So, now we have two modern standards in the computer industry based on the sizes of shirt pockets and ancient money.
Need I tell you why my Palm Pilot is the size it is?
To finish, I would just like to return to the topic of job opportunities.
There will always be a need for skilled, trained, enthusiastic people to enter the IT industry. New problems appear all the time, turning themselves into new opportunities. The increasing power and capability of computers make old impossibilities into things which can be done. This same progress in the technology allows people to dream up new things to do. All of this requires people with the right skills and attitudes to make it happen. Places like this institution are where the IT workers of the future get those skills and attitudes.
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