Canadian Information Processing Society (CIPS)



Michael Williams (BSc, PhD, DSc), World-Renowned Computing Pioneer, Past-President (2007) IEEE Computer Society, Professor Emeritus University of Calgary

This week, Stephen Ibaraki has an exclusive interview with Michael Williams.

Michael WilliamsMichael R. Williams (BSc, PhD, DSc), Past-President (2007) IEEE Computer Society, Professor Emeritus University of Calgary, graduated in 1964 with a BSc in Chemistry from the University of Alberta and in 1968 he obtained a PhD in Computer Science from the University of Glasgow. In 1969 he joined the University of Calgary, first in the Department of Mathematics then as a Professor of Computer Science. It was while working at Glasgow that he acquired an interest in the history of computing, something which has developed over the years into his main research and teaching interest.

He has participated in the publishing of 11 books, 92 articles, 58 technical reviews and 72 invited lectures and has been involved in the creation of 10 different radio, television, and museum productions. During his career he has had the opportunity to work for extended periods at several different universities, and at the National Museum of American History (Smithsonian Institution), and as Head Curator at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View California.

Besides his work as Editor-in-Chief for the journal The Annals of the History of Computing, he has worked closely with the IEEE History Committee (serving as its chairman in 1994 and 1995), the IEEE History Center, is past President of the IEEE Computer Society, (serving as its President in 2007), serves as a member of many different committees of the IEEE and is a member of editorial boards concerned with publishing material in the area of the history of computing.

He has received several awards, the most interesting of which are:

  • C.C. Gotlieb Award - "In recognition of Outstanding Contributions to the Canadian Information Processing Society and to the Profession on CIPS behalf." Presented by the Canadian Prime Minister, May 17, 1990
  • University of Calgary, Faculty of Science, Award of Excellence for Consistently Outstanding Contributions in Teaching, April 1993.
  • In 2005 the University of Glasgow, Scotland, awarded him an honorary Doctor of Science degree for his contributions to computer science, particularly the history of computing.

To listen to the interview, click on this MP3 file link

The latest blog on the interview can be found in the IT Managers Connection (IMC) forum where you can provide your comments in an interactive dialogue.


Interview Time Index (MM:SS) and Topic

:00:44: Michael shares what triggered his initial interest in computing.

:01:54: Can you profile your areas of research early in your career?
"... I can remember a session in his (John Peck) office when he was describing an area of mathematics known as graph theory and how colouring of these graphs might actually help him produce an exam timetable. At that point I got very interested in this particular branch of mathematics and how computers might actually help to solve what was an intractable problem...."

:03:49: Michael comments on the roles he undertook while at the University of Calgary and his experiences there.
"....I had an administrative appointment (Chair of the new division of Computer Science), albeit a junior one, early on in my career. That led to all sorts of interesting experiences and eventually I took other administrative jobs, as well as my teaching...."

:08:31: While at Glasgow, what was the catalyst for your interest in the history of computing?
" turns out that our professor had somehow acquired the library of the people that he worked with in London and had brought this library to Glasgow....There was a book there that was written by Charles Babbage, a very early computer pioneer (pre-electronic days in the middle of the 1800s) and I started flipping through this book....I got very interested in this book and the sort of things that Charles Babbage was trying to do. That was really the beginning of my interest in the history of computing....purely by accident...."

:10:44: How did you to come to be at the National Museum of American History and can you describe your contributions?
"....That museum is part of the Smithsonian and they had a very early exhibit on computing (from about 1980s).....They decided that they had to refresh this exhibit and to start over again to create a proper exhibit for the then developing information age. They were looking around for some help. One of their advisors happened to know of me and so I got this phone call one day asking me to come down to talk with them. In the end they asked me to arrange with my university to take a leave of absence for about four months to help them get the ideas together and to look over their artifacts and see how they could be arranged into a proper story...."

:12:42:  What notable moments can you share as Head Curator at the Computer History Museum?
"....This is the world's largest collection of computing artifacts - if you take everything in the Smithsonian, in the London Science museum, in the Deutsches museum in Germany and a few others and combine then altogether - this collection in California is still much larger. It's everything from tiny microchips to various Cray supercomputers that weighed about nine tons and these were all jammed into a number of these leaky warehouses. Trying to organize the movement of this collection of artifacts into the new building and to arrange them in some sort of way so that we could at least tell a preliminary story was a very interesting task and quite frankly it's one that I don't ever want to repeat. It was very hard work...."

:16:08: Can you share your insights as Editor-in-Chief for the journal, The Annals of the History of Computing?
"....The early days of that journal were basically the computer pioneers discussing their own work. The reason for starting the journal was that a lot of these stories were being lost as these people were passing away - in particular the inside stories (those little interesting anecdotes). It has now shifted because there is now a thriving community of technical historians who are writing historical papers for publishing in that journal....It has certainly served to preserve some of the stories about the creation of the computer and how it was used in the early days, and the journal is now thriving. It has a long waiting list for things to be published and has a very lively group of both subscribers and authors...."

:18:35: Looking back, what were key initiatives as Chairman of the IEEE History Committee?
"....One of the things they did was to have a series of milestones; for example, the first electrical power generating plant, the things that had been instrumental in the development of technology, and the electrical engineering field. They would place a suitable plaque on the site. One of the things I proposed was to broaden it out from power engineering so that it also included slightly more modern things such as the development of various computing facilities, things like the first Canadian satellite for radio communication....We managed to erect plaques so that the general public could see that there was a historic site in the neighborhood and that might twig their interest to investigate things slightly further...."

:21:31: From your lifetime of researching the history of computing, which contributions can you share as particularly meaningful to you-that resonated with you personally?
"....I think what I found the most interesting about the history of computing was the people. This included not only the early pioneers but people like Charles Babbage....and going back as far as 4000 years ago....the scribes in Egypt who left records of how they actually did computations. It's the stories of these people rather than the actual physical things they created that I found by far the most interesting...."

:24:00: As a computing pioneer, you have participated in the publishing of 11 books, 92 articles, 58 technical reviews and 72 invited lectures and have been involved in the creation of 10 different radio, television, and museum productions, plus much more. Which three specific events or personal interactions standout for you and can you provide the context?
"....As I was trying to document the history of computing I would deliberately go out and try to meet the people who had done it and I would try to find out their motivation and contributions in various ways. This led to meeting such eminent pioneers as Conrad and Wilkes....There were a lot in Canada including Kelly Gotlieb in Toronto, and various other people at the University of Toronto, and another one at the University of Saskatoon - Andrew Donald Booth. All of these people have lived fascinating lives and they were desperate to try to develop computing in some way and each approached it differently. They often had almost no resources and the effort that they had to make just to get things started was wonderful lesson in overcoming all sorts of problems...."

:29:37: You received the Award for Excellence for Consistently Outstanding Contributions in Teaching. Can you share some lessons from this distinguished career?
"....First of all, I love teaching....You have to be prepared....You have to have plan, you have to have examples all prepared and have everything laid out rather than just leaving it to chance...That I think is the biggest lesson I learned very early on in my career...."

:32:07: You have many remarkable achievements in your life and you have received the C. C. Gotlieb award and also a Doctor of Science degree. Can you provide some background on those accomplishments?
"....I think there are many, many others who deserve these awards and I was suitably humbled to receive them. I certainly never expected that I would ever get either one. They both came as tremendous surprises...."

:34:49: From your time in 2007 as President of the IEEE-CS, what compelling tips can you share from this time as president? I know it was a very interesting time for you.
"....That was a lesson in trying to look at a large organization and to see where the organization was not as efficient as it could be. Then to sort out what our actual priorities were and to drop things that weren't a first priority in order to get our financial situation back in order....The major lesson I took away from that is if you take a job of that nature, (of course it's a volunteer job), you've got to be interested in people because it is people who actually do the work....All of these are very interesting learning experiences and unfortunately once you've learned them, you can't go back and do the job again...."

:38:56: The UN-founded International Federation for Information Processing or IFIP has their Professional Practice Partnership Program which received full ratification at the world general assembly in August 2007 with their first implementation meeting in Montreal hosted by CIPS in October. This marks an historical inflection point and speaks to IT as a recognized profession with global standards, profession-based code of ethics, and widely adopted professional certification-all happening in 2009. Can you comment on the benefits of this global initiative? Can you provide your perspective on IFIP, IP3, and then the global professionalism and certification program?
"....As with other industries, various groups have set up certification programs so that people can take these certifications and have some sort of standard that they can compare themselves against....It is now beginning to be recognized that there are several different kinds of certifications that are needed. Different national groups as well as IFIP are starting to offer these different kinds of certifications to bring not only those people who classify themselves as software professionals, but also the class of IT professionals that competes in the day to day business of computing, working in industry or business, to get them some sort of international recognition from international standards and things like Code of Ethics...I think that the industry is now maturing to the point where these certifications are both necessary and desirable and I hope that this will continue to develop along this line that has been started...."

:43:43: Mike shares some interesting stories centered around the following themes: Amusing, Surprising, Inspirational, Disruptive, or Historical that will give the audience a feel for some of the things that he has done or some of the people he has met.

:57:25: If you were doing this interview, what questions or topics would you ask of yourself and what would be your answers?
"....Background?....Hardships?....People sometimes ask me what can they do to advance their career....If you accomplish anything at all you have to collaborate both with staff and with other volunteers, as well as friends and colleagues. The biggest thing is you have to treat them well if you want to be treated well yourself...."