Peta (or Pepita to be formal) Walmisley is well known to many in IT through her association with important industry institutions, seemingly popping up wherever there is an organisational challenge to be sorted out. Peta worked for the British Computer Society (now the BCS The Chartered Institute for IT) from 1968 to 2004 in various roles, most recently as External Relations Manager. From 1987 to 2001 She was also secretary of the The Council of European Professional Informatics Societies (CEPIS, the representative body of national informatics associations throughout greater Europe). From 1987 to 1992 she helped found The Worshipful Company of Information Technologists as the clerk. With 50 years in pivotal roles around the industry she has some unique insights into its history.
Peta’s previous experience perhaps explains how she found this part in the IT industry; conjuring up an image of an accomplished and formidable multi-talented manager, with finely honed interpersonal skills and a diverse range of interests. She trained with Hardy Amies in Savile Row, and worked for an Australian Americas Cup Team in Newport, Rhode Island (and is a keen sailor). As an Aspen ski lodge au pair she was known as the Red Bomber on the slopes and in a California bank put out fires (in the photocopier room).
Early Life & Education
Peta Walmisley was born in Ryde, Isle of Wight, in 1944, where she lived until the age of six when the family moved to Lincolnshire, where her father, a navigator and instructor in the RAF was posted. Peta is the older of two girls. Peta says that her grandparents were among her early life influencers. Her grandfather, like her father, was in the RAF, having joined in 1914, following his service with the British Army in India. Peta says of him: “He organised the air show between the two World Wars at Hendon. And had several qualifications from the Queen.”
Peta went to the station school at RAF Hemswell and then on to a local private school. When the family moved to Copenhagen, where her father worked with NATO, she spent two years at a French convent. Following the family’s return the UK, Peta attended St Anthony’s convent school, located near Sherborne in Dorset. She says: “I loved it. The nuns were very, very caring. My sister hated it, but then she would have hated anything that was discipline. I did a lot of reading. I made the mistake of having one year in sixth form and not doing my A Levels.”
After leaving school, Peta took a domestic science course at the local college, the Isle of Wight Technical College. She says: “At the end of the first year I still didn’t know what I wanted to do, so I did another year. I got a Distinction in needlework: dressmaking. I joined Hardy Amies in London, in the couture showroom, helping the vendeuses. That was amazing. The Queen came in for a visit when she was expecting Prince Edward.” In the evenings, Peta studied bookkeeping and typing and in 1965 she sailed to America on the Queen Mary to become nanny to a family in Aspen, Colorado.
Peta then moved to San Francisco where she worked for The Chartered Bank. It was here she saw her first computer, she says: “They used the Wells Fargo computer.
Although I wasn’t involved in computers, we had to do the microfilm to go on to the computer.”
After San Francisco, Peta moved to Newport, Rhode Island, where she worked as a waitress. She then took a summer job as secretary for the Dame Pattie syndicate, America’s Cup challenger from Australia, before returning to the UK on the Queen Elizabeth.
British Computer Society (BCS)
Upon returning to the UK, Peta was offered a job in the publications department of the British Computer Society (now known as BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT). She says: “I started on the 16th of March 1968, which was the day the British Computer Society voted to have professional qualifications.”
Peta says this was her first real introduction to computers. “HRH The Duke of Kent, as Patron of the BCS, opened the new Computer Department with an ICL 1903. ICL also donated a 7700 word processor, which was my (somewhat limited) introduction to computers.
“I got very much interested because I then started being production editor of the Computer Bulletin. After that I moved on to information, then technical, and then on to external relations. It was while I was working in external relations that we started CEPIS.” The idea for CEPIS was a result of some of the European secretaries attending a computing conference in Brazil. Peta adds: “I think there were five of them, and they decided that they were going to organise this European association. It was Jim Brookes at the BCS who was the starting point of that. At that point David Hartley, who was head of computer services at Cambridge University, was my vice- president. He is now a past Chairman of the Computer Conservation Society.”
Peta was part of and witnessed the evolution of BCS from 1968 when she joined through to 2004 when she left. She says: “In 1968, when I joined BCS, they voted to have professional qualifications. The branches and specialist groups were very, very active, and prominent. I’m not sure how prominent they are in the consciousness of the BCS, because, it went from being a secretary general in charge of the BCS to being a chief executive. I think the whole ethos changed from being a professional organisation to being something that had much more of a financial idea, publications, etc. They’ve developed their professional courses and things, but not to the same extent as they were, I think.”
Of her working relationships, Peta says: “I’ve been very fortunate, I don’t think I ever thought of them as professional relationships; they were much more friends.”
Worshipful Company of Information Technologists (WCIT)
The WCIT’s founding Clerk, when it was founded in 1985, was Derek Harding, Secretary-General of the BCS and Peta’s boss at that time. Peta helped him set up the first list of members to be invited to join. When in 1987, Derek Harding moved on to a new role, Peta was invited to be Clerk of the WCIT by Alan Benjamin and Barney Gibbens. The organisation had 100 members at that time.
Peta explains the workings of the WCIT, saying: “We started with 100 members, who had to contribute a certain amount of money, because, under the rules of the City of London, you had to have respected people as members, and finance to invest in charitable projects. That’s the basis on which the Company is founded. There are four different strands: the computer work, social activities, the educational support, and the fundraising and charitable donations. It’s regulated by the Court of Aldermen of the City, which is headed by the Lord Mayor. Barney Gibbens was the first Master, Sir Robert Reid was the second. He was the Chairman of British Rail in those days. He was charming, but you could see that there was an iron will behind that. Then came Alan Roussel, who was European Director of ICL. We had a big dinner when we became a livery in Guildhall when Alan Benjamin was the Master and then in ’92, Steve (Dame Stephanie Shirley) took over from him as the Master of the livery company. She was installed in the chapel of the Mercers Company.”
In 1987, Peta also took on the role of secretary for the Council of European Professional Informatics Societies, CEPIS which saw her travel around Europe.
She says: “We started with about five or six countries; the UK, Italy, France, Germany, and the Netherlands. From then we had other people asking to join, so, by 1990-92, we probably had all the countries of the European Union, as it was then, which was twelve to start with.
“Gavin Kirkpatrick, who was a dedicated European, drafted the Constitution for CEPIS in English; it was then translated into Dutch and back into English, when it looked very different!
“We then adopted the Finnish Computer Driving Licence, and created it as the European Computer Driving Licence, which was very attractive to the Eastern European members of Europe, because they could make some money from that.
“There was a battle about that, because, when we formally established CEPIS, the European Commission advised us, a) to establish it in Holland, because we could then have a profit-making subsidiary to work in English, which caused some problems to the French. When the Computer Driving Licence came along, the Danes and the Norwegians insisted on it being a separate organisation which would pay royalties to CEPIS, rather than it being a subsidiary of CEPIS, where they would have got the money. ECDL now has been overtaken by Microsoft and all sorts of other organisations, but at that time it was quite an important establishment to encourage a basic level of computer skills for people working in offices.”
Peta says of the evolution of CEPIS, “It turned from being a friendly family into being an organisation when the Eastern Europeans came in. Before that it was quite small, and friendly, and much more about personalities and computer people. Whereas with the ECDL and the Eastern Europeans, they were much more interested in developing, not professional qualifications, so much as the financial side of it.”
CEPIS – Personal reflections on the formative years
by Peta Walmisley, Secretary 1988-2000
Picture Shows the Attendees of the 10th Anniversary Lunch in 1998
Computer Conservation Society
Peta joined the Computer Conservation Society in 2004 when she retired from BCS. She joined the committee and has acted as administrator for the Tony Sale Award when it is held. She says: “Tony Sale was Technical Director and my boss at the BCS, for a short while. He left to build Babbage’s Difference Engine with Doron Swade; they founded the CCS together. Tony also saved Bletchley Park for the Nation as well as setting up the National Museum of Computing.”
Having had to cancel the 2020 award due to Covid, CCS is currently seeking a sponsor for the 2023 award. She says of the organisation: “A lot of the people involved, I’ve known going back 20, 30, 40 years, 50 years even. A lot of my vice- presidents have ended up as presidents of the BCS and chairmen of the CCS. It’s an interesting organisation, and they do a lot of good work, maintaining and collecting the artefacts as well as holding meetings and talks.”
Mission of Seafarers
Since retiring, Peta has also joined the Southampton Branch of the Mission of Seafarers when she and her husband moved to Southampton. She became a committee member and then chairman in 2015. She says: “It is very rewarding, and, I have had a lot of good contacts there. … I’ve been very fortunate, because, I’ve just fallen in to all these things. I never made any decisions; they just happened. My sister said that, at the age of seven, she could control her own destiny. I don’t know if she has, but she thinks she has.”
Asked about her proudest achievements, Peta says: “Forming CEPIS, and being Clerk to the Information Technologists. I’ve been involved with the WCIT since I retired from the BCS. I helped do some fundraising at one point, and get more members.
Now, I’m just a member, attending events, and loving it. Through the WCIT I’ve been Commodore of the City Livery Yacht Club, which is a club for members of livery companies of the City of London.” She also highlights her positions and awards including: Liveryman of the City of London, British Computer Society 25th anniversary celebration, and her outstanding service for the Council of European Professional Informatics Societies.”
Women in IT
Peta notes that the proportion of women in IT was greater in 1968 than it is today. She says: “I think it’s because in those days they were systems analysts, and programmers. Steve Shirley, for instance, set up FI and employed women who weren’t able to get away from the house. Now of course, computing is into everything, so there are a lot more people in the IT industry anyway. I think, women have a particular skill in communication. The problem is that it’s quite difficult to encourage women to think of computers as being something that women can do. Possibly because careers teachers aren’t aware of it. Maybe it’s just that, they look at these screens and they think I don’t want to be sitting in front of those all the time.”
To change the situation, Peta says: “People have tried, but it’s got to start quite young. I can’t remember who it was, but there was a Catholic saint who said, if you get them at seven, they’re there for life. Maybe the same thing with IT.”
Asked what was her favourite computer during her career, Peta says: “Apple. Barney Gibbens gave WCIT an Apple Mac for me to work on in 1987, and I was converted to that. I had PCs at BCS but Apples are so much easier, so much simpler.”
Interviewed by Elisabetta Mori
Transcribed by Susan Hutton
Abstracted by Lynda Feeley