At UTS, we talk about innovation a great deal – in curriculum, in pedagogy, in the use of technology – the list goes on. Many of our alumni also blaze a trail of innovation. However, sometimes, it’s easy to forget that educators and schools have been testing boundaries and trying new things for – well – forever! Recently, I had the good fortune to meet alumnus Greg Gulyas ’67 (inset below). He shared with me the following story.
- Rosemary Evans, Principal
Fifty years ago this year, I left UTS with a terrific academic background and many other wonderful benefits from the range of experiences the school had to offer. However, even though I didn’t realize it at the time, one event set the course for my professional career. Not only was it not part of the curriculum, but I also didn’t recognize it as an example of leading-edge teaching.
My Grade 11 math teacher, Mr. Ridge, loved his subject, taught it with enthusiasm and had the ability to get many of us to like quadratic equations, Cartesian geometry, trigonometry, and even logarithms! He also found time to teach us computer programming.
Every week we had to write a program to solve a math problem. It would be punched, one line at a time, into cards. These would then be fed into a Burroughs computer at a nearby organization to which we were provided access thanks to the help of Larry LaFave – a pioneering Professor of Computer Studies at the then-Ontario College of Education (the precursor to OISE, U of T - Ed.).
In our current era of personal computers, tablets, the internet and smartphones, this may not sound remarkable - but in 1965 it was! Stored-program electronic computers were invented in the late 1940s and didn’t enter the business world until the 1950s. Mainframes, like the computer we used, became popular after 1964. They were huge and very expensive beasts that filled an entire room – and because of the demand for use, were nearly impossible to access. Even by the time I graduated from Engineering at U of T in 1971, undergrads did not have access to computers. In fact, general access to computers by high school students didn’t happen until 1981 when the personal computer era took off, a decade and a half after Mr. Ridge had introduced us to the art of programming.
In the summer of 1970, when I was working for Texaco Exploration in Alberta, I began to realize the value of my UTS programming experience. After two months in an oil field, I was assigned to the Edmonton engineering office where my job was to prepare graphs of the properties of the rock in oil wells.
There were 2,000 data points for the permeability and the porosity of the rock at different depths for each well. With no memory sticks or small disk drives, these two important properties were represented by punched holes in a computer card for each specified depth. The data would tell the reservoir engineers how much oil the well might yield. But those engineers didn’t want to look at cards; they wanted to look at nice, coloured graphs – which I had to produce by hand!
By the third day on the job I was starting to lose my mind and was very tired of graphing. I knew that a computer could read a box of 2,000 cards in under three minutes, and that a plotter would produce a much better graph than I could by hand. More importantly, I knew how to make a computer do that!
I had worked as a computer operator at IBM during the previous summer, so I called my former manager and secured permission to use the equipment at IBM’s Edmonton data centre. Sensing a breakthrough, I spent the rest of that week writing and testing a graph-producing program. That weekend, a colleague and I took the many boxes of cards to IBM’s datacentre.
On Monday morning, I took my beautiful graphs to the engineer in charge and said “I finished the graphs for all the wells; may I please have something interesting to do now.” He could not believe that the job was done and he had two other people check my work!
Looking back, I like to think of my first exposure to programming at UTS as a diamond that was buried in five years of education. Like diamonds, which occur only at the rate of about 0.1 grams in 1000 kg of kimberlite ore, it wasn’t obvious to me at the time. Nevertheless, that diamond eventually led me to an interesting and rewarding career in the information technology industry.
Greg Gulyas graduated from Engineering Science at U of T in 1971. A long career at IBM followed that included the introduction of the first supermarket point-of-sale scanning system in Canada, the announcement of the IBM Personal Computer, and the management of IBM’s hardware business in Canada. Prior to retiring in 2009, he was Senior VP Business Development and Outsourcing Sales and an Officer of the Company. He now consults to large businesses; he has also been an advisor to Ontario’s Ministry of Research, Innovation and Science, and to Ontario’s universities on High Performance Research Computing.
Photo of mainframe computer courtesy of Wikimedia.