22 - CONFERENCES AND SOCIETIES
by BERNARD A HODSON
I had attended a variety of conferences as a visitor (e.g. Guide and Share being the organisations devoted to IBM business and scientific computer users). This chapter portrays the work I did in helping to organise conferences and societies. First off to one society I had a lot to do with.
In Calgary a number of us (mainly from the University and from the oil companies) decided to form a society to discuss together what was going on in the computer industry. We formed what was known as the Calgary Computer and Data Processing Society, the first president being John Peck, a professor of mathematics at the University. We would meet on a monthly basis. One of our members had a relative who was in the government with responsibility for company registration and we decided to become incorporated. We were the only such society for many years to be so incorporated.
A society with similar aims had been established in Eastern Canada, with groups in Toronto, Hamilton, Waterloo, Kingston and, I think, in Montreal. They were quite interested in becoming a national society and were very interested in Calgary becoming associated with them. Our view in Calgary was that we had not much to gain from any fees that we might pay to a national society, due to the 2000 miles of separation. After a year or two of Calgary resistance to the idea I was finally given approval to negotiate. Negotiations included having a Calgary member on the national Board but, more importantly, we would only agree to join if the next annual national conference was held in Western Canada. The Eastern group were very reluctant to agree to such a move, fearing it would be a financial disaster. Up to this point their conferences had been held at Eastern Universities, attracting from 200 to 250 participants. However they finally agreed to hold the 1964 conference in the West.
My boss from Imperial Oil, Ken Marble, was appointed Conference Chairman and I was delegated to the role of Program Chairman. We also had support in many other roles from various members. Calgary has a general reputation for organising things (e.g. They built the International show jumping complex of Canyon Meadows (the founder Ron Southern, at that time associated with Imperial Oil, invited us to a barbeque in the Meadows shortly before building commenced). They also run successfully the yearly Calgary Stampede, always a roaring success, and more recently as was the Winter Olympics, again a resounding and profitable success.
The first thing we did was to take the conference away from a University setting and arrange for it to be held at the Banff Springs Hotel, a major resort in the Canadian Rocky Mountains, much to the Easterner's chagrin.
My role was to arrange the program, which I set about with interest. The initial task was to get some key speakers who would attract people from the East. The first person I called was Bob Fano, who was busy pioneering time sharing research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). I mentioned where the conference was to be held and before I got in any other words he asked "can I bring my wife" to which I agreed. We then discussed why we were inviting him. My next call was to the Channel Islands where I asked Parkinson (of Parkinson's Law fame) if he would care to join us. He expressed real sorrow that he had another engagement at that time. We were offering fare reimbursement but no fees to these people, and had no rejections other than Parkinson. I also invited the NORAD organisation to make a presentation. Apart from the invited speakers the rest of the program was by the submission of papers which were reviewed by a small committee.
We figured we could break even at around 250 attendees and did not see any problem in reaching that figure. When the conference was announced, intending participants started to arrive by every post, until 650 had been received, by far the largest Canadian conference of its kind to that date. Fortunately the conference was held early in the tourist season, otherwise we might not have been able to accommodate them. Just six weeks before the conference was due to begin there was threat of an airline strike, which would have torpedoed all our efforts. After a few anxious weeks on our part the strike was averted. One amusing incident was in relation to the final banquet, where we had specified Rock Hen as the main dish. The hotel gave us a desperation call to say that they could not find 650 Rock Hens in the whole of Alberta, so we agreed that those who did not get that item would have Alberta steaks instead. Alberta and the Amarillo stockyard restaurant in Texas probably have the best steaks available anywhere in North America, so this was no real problem.
The conference itself was an overwhelming success and forever changed computing conferences in Canada (hardly ever again a dull University setting), also establishing Western Canada as a major player in the game. One of the presentations was by NORAD and they outlined the threat to North America from the Soviet Union, and how they were defending against that threat. It was a typical, smooth, professional presentation. After the presentation I was confronted by the Soviet Scientific Attache, a conference attendee, who said that he would be protesting to the Canadian authorities, unless an apology was received. The following day I made an apology and the matter was dropped. In discussions with NORAD people later they said this was their 21st presentation and the 9th protest by the Soviets. So much for the cold war.
About the same time there was a presidential election for the national society coming up and the only people really known would be in the East. I remedied this by getting nominated and circulating a profile of who I was and what I proposed for the society. This infuriated the "computing establishment" back East, as elections were normally by gentleman's agreement. They introduced legislation to prevent future lobbying for positions but it was too late, I was elected president. Later the society allowed every person in such situations to distribute a profile. The president normally went on a tour of all the branches, which I did, bringing Western influence to bear on what traditionally had been dominated by the Eastern groups. The society was never the same again.
One of the efforts of my year as president was to try and bring professionalism to the computer practitioners, and I initiated a no cost study led by Urwick Currie, a consulting firm, as to what might be done in this regard. There was a great need to have some discipline in our profession and they produced a report indicating the feasibility, but my ideas did not take hold until almost twenty five years later, so much for the "progressive" stick in the mud groups within the society. In later years I tried for president once again, and once again was elected, serving as president twice being somewhat unique within the society.
When later I moved to Ottawa to work on orbiting satellites I became involved with a user group that worked with Digital Equipment computers, called the Digital Equipment Computer Users, Canada, group, or DECUS. This held an annual conference which was rapidly going down hill, with only a small number of around 50 or so attending the conference held annually. I became involved and, with a member of the Digital Equipment Company called Yolande, revived the annual conference. We did this by having Yolande handle the arrangements while I took over the role normally done by committee, arranging for speakers, deciding which papers to accept following a "Call for papers". Attendance for the next two years jumped to around 200 and we saved the conference. After that I moved to a position not involving Digital, but believe that the conference continued on a successful basis.
I was involved with other conferences in some capacity, including helping to organise an international conference in Ottawa on the topic of smart cards, which attracted a small audience. I also helped with one in Montreal on the subject of parallel computing systems.
At the Montreal conference I agreed to help organise the next one, to be held in Ottawa. This involved the usual things of getting a committee together, arranging a hotel, publicity, call for papers, paper review committee, seeking funds and so on. We arranged to have all the papers placed on a CDROM, which involved a fair expenditure, in part provided by a local research organisation. Gifts for invited speakers were bought at a local "Canadiana" store, being mainly totem poles of one kind or another. One of these was also involved in a draw, one by a speaker from Germany, who said that it was the first thing he had ever won.
The conference went over quite well but did lose a small amount of money, which was covered by a local research organisation.