The best piece of advice Roger has ever been given and gives to others is:
‘Things will always go wrong. Don’t worry if things go wrong, but just tell me that they’ve gone wrong. All I want is no surprises.’
Roger was the first person to book a flight on the World Wide Web with British Airways and has a certificate and set of photographs to prove it!
Roger was born in London, in 1947, and grew up at Woking in Surrey. His father was a schoolteacher for thirty years, and then he moved to Surrey County Council, as their first Health Education Officer, and was responsible for the promotion of health education messages throughout the community. His mother didn’t work during his childhood, but she had worked previously and during the Second World War as a shop assistant and became a manager of several shoe shops as she followed his father from RAF station to RAF station as a physical training instructor.
His mother’s grandfather was born in the middle of the nineteenth century, and became a carpenter and joiner, moved to Sheffield in the 1870s, and then became active in the early trade union movement, and eventually he became the General Secretary of the Union of Carpenters and Joiners. His father’s father was a very committed individual and went off in the First World War aged nearly 40 as a Red Cross volunteer to the Western Front, and, was invalided out, after, after being caught up in a gas attack.
Their fathers gave both Roger’s parents a strong sense of commitment to causes and, although he was never directly taught the lesson, he thinks he followed their examples. He comes from a background of people who were active in a variety of causes that mattered to them.
Roger went to Woking Grammar School and his A Level subjects were pure maths, applied maths and physics. In 1966 he went to University College of Wales Aberystwyth and was there for three years. When he got to university he discovered he doesn’t have the talent for pure maths at that level. Fortunately, he had discovered both statistics, which he did have more ability at, and computing, which he met for the first time in the second year of his undergraduate course
Roger thinks that the person who had the biggest influence on him was the head of the computer unit, Professor Peter King, who gave the lectures on computing, and who subsequently became his PhD supervisor. Roger moved with Professor King to Birkbeck in January 1970, as his research student, and found computing in London was on a completely different scale from that in Aberystwyth.
Computer Analysts and Programmers (CAP)
In 1969 Peter King suggested to him that he apply to CAP, Computer Analysts and Programmers, which was a major UK software house, for a job, and he actually had a job offer, starting in the summer of 1969. However, he had declined it to do his PhD, and then in 1972 was able to persuade them, again following Peter’s advice, that, having turned them down once, that this time he would go and work for them, which he did for four years.
His first project with CAP was for the Phoenix Insurance Company, where he spent about six months and it was the first time he had anything to do with the City of London at all and found it fascinating. That project was followed by a very different project for Decca which lasted about a year and they built an order processing system for them. There was a project linked to the Department of Trade and insurance fraud and then a project for Barclays Bank and it was towards the end of that project he left CAP to go back to academia.
Roger was finding that, although CAP was writing software that was robust and reliable, he was interested in more esoteric questions, “is this the best way to write software?” This sort of question. By then Peter King who had connections with Thames Polytechnic had approached Roger saying, ‘They’re looking for someone with industrial experience who is interested in moving into academia.’ And, Roger said, ‘Well I’m interested, that’s an interesting thing to do.’ And, so he said, ‘Well, why don’t you go there, and basically learn your trade as an academic, and then, take it from there. See whether it’s what you like.’ It was an interesting experience, learning the skills you need to lecture and, the industrial year, which was a feature of all of the polytechnic degree programmes, gave him contact with industry. He was teaching application design, and drawing on his experience from CAP. He started doing research on database management, again, partly encouraged by Peter King, who was working by then on that subject. He spent seven years there. First as a lecturer, fairly rapidly moving to senior lecturer, which was more or less automatic and, then, was appointed a principal lecturer, which was the top academic grade in the polytechnic.
In 1983 Roger moved back to Birkbeck where there was a lectureship available under a Government expansion scheme. The Government had decided in 1983/84 that IT were the skills that the country needed, and, universities needed to expand their computer science departments. The department had changed very little from when he had known it, there had only been one addition to the staff since 1972. Roger stayed at Birkbeck for 27 years, 23 of those as Dean. He arrived there, and was appointed as a lecturer, and, after two years was promoted to senior lecturer in the department. There was then an internal reorganisation in the late 1980’s and he was asked if he would become the head of the faculty that was created, and, he agreed to do that. Being Dean was regarded as a half-time activity, and alongside, in the other half of the time, he continued teaching. He also had a succession of research students down the years, and research grants, and published, 50 to 60 papers over the years.
Roger was pleased with how he successfully managed the growth of his department at Birkbeck from seven or eight people to around 24 when he left. It had good research ratings and courses that were well respected with good levels of student enrolments. He also managed to revive the maths department by linking it with the School of Economics.
Roger feels that staff development and management is very different in a university compared to a business. When you employ an academic, for their first job, there’s an element of, of talent-spotting. You are trying to pick winners, people who will go on to be the equivalent of Nobel Prize winners but those are very rare. You ask academics to teach particular subjects, but, an academic may teach, three hours a week and the rest of the time is research.
Roger’s management strategy was basically complete openness and transparency, with heads of department. He would say that’s what we can give you as a college for the coming year, and these are the ways you can make your life better, if you can exceed our expectations of you. This meant they learnt about financial accountability and it was obviously a successful strategy as he was reappointed as Dean five times until he retired.
Roger joined the BCS in 1970. It is something else he owes to Professor Peter King, who encouraged him to join, and go to meetings of the Advanced Programming Specialist Group. In 1976 he became Treasurer of that group and as Treasurer he used to go along to the Specialist Group Board meetings in the BCS. He was spotted there and ended up on the Specialist Group Board Finance Committee, administering the finances of the Specialist Groups. That led by 1987 to his being the Chairman of the Technical Board in the BCS, with the title of Vice President, Technical.
In around 1990 there were some financial storm clouds building up over the society and it was not a particularly appealing time for people to come forward to be President. Roger was asked by then President Alan Roussel if he would consider becoming Vice President with a view to becoming President in the BCS year 1992/3. The Master at Birkbeck agreed to his taking this on so Roger became President and had an enjoyable year, but, it was against a very difficult financial background.
Roger’s theme for his year was that of software developers being invisible engineers; that nobody realises how much computing is going on behind the scenes and, that when we are successful we are invisible.
Council of the European Professional Informatics Society (CEPIS)
Roger was President of CEPIS from 1997-1999 and was one of the first four signatories to the establishment of the European Computer Driving Licence Foundation, the ECDL. A computer driving licence had been run in Finland, and the Finnish Information Processing Association offered it to CEPIS members as a project so that, CEPIS member societies could share right across Europe. The BCS agreed to be part of that project at the beginning of 1993, and, Roger then continued to work in CEPIS on the development. The basics were there, in that, the Finnish society ran examinations against a syllabus, but they didn’t teach the syllabus. They started by getting help from the European Union to translate the Finnish version into English, French and German. Then there were two activities within CEPIS. One was to extend the syllabuses while another slightly smaller group, struggled with how to raise enough money to be able to launch the thing. And, it was a difficult problem to solve. What emerged by chance was, the idea of a franchise, that CEPIS would take the examination scheme, the driving licence and would basically sell little booklets (Skills Cards) in which you could record your progress through the examination topics, until you had passed them all, then you had the driving licence. They sold the Skills Cards and once you had got a Skills Card, then you could enter for the examination when you had done appropriate study. CEPIS charged a euro for a Skills Card, and training companies sold training plus the Skills Card to the students. The trainers were licensed by the national computer societies, licences were provided by CEPIS to the national societies, and each national society was guaranteed that CEPIS would only licence a CEPIS member society.
So, you had CEPIS, the National Societies, and then the trainers. And, they stumbled to this arrangement, more by good luck than anything. They thought if they got 100,000 people to do it, in the lifetime of the whole project, they would be thrilled to bits. So when European Union Commissioner Bangemann, who was responsible for IT matters, got the millionth ECDL Skills Card, they kind of, pinched themselves, and they’re now past ten million.
International Federation for Information Processing (IFIP)
IFIP had always had in its objectives the promotion of professionalism. Roger’s predecessor as secretary of IFIP was Graham Morris, a past BCS President, who told Roger when he took over from him as the British representative around 1993 that one of his unfulfilled ambitions for IFIP was for IFIP to have a professional stream of activity. Roger agreed that this indeed was an omission, and it was in IFIP’s objectives. So, at the world congress in Chile in 2006 he promoted a stream where they invited about six representatives from national societies around the world to talk about professionalism in their country.
Charles Hughes, who was the BCS President, and had made professionalism his theme for the year spoke about the BCS view and understanding of professionalism. The group who attended the session in Chile agreed to meet again, and, we had a meeting in Cape Town where they formed a loose association to operate under the IFIP umbrella, to promote IT professionalism, worldwide. They went for a scheme of accreditation that became known as IP3, the International Professional Practice Partnership. The BCS was very supportive, initially, as were the other societies, and, they had six societies who each made a significant financial contribution to set the programme up. The BCS subsequently decided to withdraw but the others have continued. The Japanese are in the process now of going through the accreditation process, and the South Africans; the Dutch society has recently joined, the South Koreans have been involved. They are seeing a slow, gradual evolving process by which societies are willing to be accredited as having a qualification for individuals which meets a “global gold standard” as Charles Hughes originally christened it.
Computer Conservation Society (CCS)
Roger was a founding member of the CCS in 1988/9. The two founders of the Computer Conservation Society were, Tony Sale, who is best known for his building of a replica of Colossus, and Doron Swade, who was the curator of IT, computing, at the Science Museum. They came to Roger, because he was then the Vice President of the Technical Board in the BCS that was responsible for establishing Specialist Groups. He agreed with them that it would fit very well as a Specialist Group and it was subsequently approved. Roger had an interest in the early days of computing and so, he went along to the first meetings, and, partly as the BCS Vice President, supporting the, the launch meetings and so on, but also, with a personal interest and commitment to it. From those early days, they had support from both the Science Museum, and also the Museum of Science in Industry in Manchester, and the Conservation Society maintains its links with those museums, but their principal focus is now the National Museum of Computing (TNMoC) at Bletchley Park. Most of the projects there are linked to the Computer Conservation Society. The EDSAC replica that’s being built is a CCS project; the WITCH; an early electromechanical relay calculator; the ICL 2966, which runs there, and has been steadily restored. The CCS is unique worldwide in the skills of its members in restoring these machines to working order.
The CCS publishes a quarterly journal called Resurrection, which keeps its around 1500 members informed of their activities and it makes a major contribution to public awareness of the history of computing.
One of the things that has completely changed in Roger’s working lifetime is public access to computing. When he started, users had punch cards; online systems removed the punch cards and the line printer paper, so that in an office you were directly connected to the company’s computer, and then with the coming of the Internet, came direct access to computers in the home. Latterly with mobile computing on our mobile phones, even as we travel, we are connected to huge amounts of computing power.
He thinks that people generally do not realise just what is going on when they use their phones and all the technology and work behind it. He had hoped that computer literacy would spread understanding. But in practice, what computer literacy has done is to provide basic IT skills, like the ability to provide PowerPoint slides, to construct simple spreadsheets, to type letters on a computer. It really hasn’t helped people answer the question of, how things like an ATM work and the technology behind that. It is just accepted and what’s forgotten is that it’s actually real people who built those systems, and who keep them running, and who modify them and enhance them and so on.
Roger thinks the challenges to the industry are growing. We are entering an era where social media is becoming a challenge. We created it, or, enabled it. And, we have a role, not a sole role, but we have a role, in ensuring that IT is good for society. The BCS’s slogan ‘Making IT Good for Society’ has, he thinks, never been timelier.
For youngsters there are issues about around cyber bullying. There are issues around cyber security, huge issues around privacy, the new EU directive on data protection, the issues of regulating a society, in which instant communication between individuals, has been enabled in the way it has, we have to find ways of ensuring that we don’t inadvertently do more harm than the good.
Roger thinks that anyone entering the industry must recognise first of all the huge power of IT to transform people’s lives. He thinks they should commit themselves to using that for good, and to be continually alert to the need to ensure that it’s not abused by others, and therefore to look for ways of ensuring that they can put their hand on their heart and say the systems I can build, are built to an ethically as well as a technically professional standard.
One message that Roger took away from his team leader on the Phoenix project is something he has said to many people who have worked for him and tried to apply to himself as well. It was ‘Things will always go wrong. Don’t worry if things go wrong, but just tell me that they’ve gone wrong. All I want is no surprises.’ He thinks that was probably the best piece of advice that he ever had in his career. And, he has been able, as a manager in the university, with hundreds of staff, been able to say to people, ‘Things will go wrong, we’re human, but no surprises.’
Andrew Donald Booth 1918 - 2009
Donald Booth was a crystallographer, which involves a lot of arithmetical calculations, and he had been involved at the end of the Second World War with the crystalline structure of certain explosives. He had had groups of assistants who used mechanical calculators to solve the required equations. And he felt that the future had to involve building, specialised devices, single-purpose devices to speed up the calculations, and he then became interested in very early calculators and automated calculators. Booth had been appointed to Birkbeck by J D Bernal a very distinguished crystallographer who had been part of Churchill’s wartime panel of scientists. Towards the end of the war, Bernal was planning his return to Birkbeck to the chair of crystallography and he was going to have four teams, to look at different aspects of crystallography. One of those was going to be a team devoted to the automation of crystallography and Booth was appointed to head this group. Booth spent time in 1946 & 1947 with John von Neumann and visiting other computing pioneers in the USA.
The result was that Booth moved very early from mechanical calculators to a computer, something that had a memory, and a processing unit, and the program stored in the memory and by 1949 was building a computer called SEC. Booth then produced another machine, called APE(R)C, All Purpose Electronic Computer, whose design was provided by Booth to BTM, the British Tabulating Machines Company.
Two things came out of his work, and which are the main reasons why Booth deserves to be remembered:
- He developed a quite simple, but nonetheless very efficient hardware multiplier. This was the original Booth multiplier, and with a minor adjustment proposed by a colleague, the modified Booth multiplier is what is in almost every chip that is being manufactured today.
- The other thing he did was that he was the first man to successfully connect a rotating storage device to a computer. He attempted to build a disc but this proved too difficult so he built and was the first person to demonstrate the use of a rotating storage device connected to a computer.
Despite the innovations that Booth made and the huge difference they made to the computer industry he never really benefitted financially from what he had done.
This is an abstract from a fuller description of the work of Donald Booth made by Roger Johnson in this interview.
To view another article about Donald Booth click here
Interviewed by: Jonathan Sinfield on the 12th January 2018 at the WCIT Hall
Transcribed by: Susan Hutton
Abstracted by: Helen Carter