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Nick Tate has built radio telescopes, weapons, bank computer systems, university networks and is now in the process of creating a 100 petabyte national storage cloud. In his spare time he’s president of the Australian Computer Society.

Tate will turn 60 later this year, but shows no sign that he will, or wants to, slow down. His wife has instructed him not to retire, and as he notes; “you retire if you don’t think there are interesting things left to do – there are interesting things to do.”

Tate’s latest grand project, outside of the ACS, is directing Australia’s $50 million Research Data Storage Infrastructure (RDSI) programme which will deliver a 100 petabyte storage cloud by 2014 to house important data collections that can be accessed by research and citizen scientists.

Born in Calcutta, the eldest of two boys (Tate’s brother is a journalist with Al Jazeera), Tate spent the first seven years of his life in India before moving to England and a peripatetic life – which required him to attend nine different English schools, one twice - courtesy of his businessman father’s career. Tate’s mother was a high school teacher.

“I wanted to be a radio astronomer. I’d had a long interest in astronomy and we built radio telescopes at school, I was a great enthusiast. Patrick Moore introduced me to it,” he says. Patrick Moore is to the English what Julius Sumner Miller is to Australians, albeit with a somewhat narrower (astronomical) scientific focus.

Tate was introduced through a family friend, and Moore fired his interest in astronomy, eventually proposing Tate as a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society in the UK. Although Tate contemplated becoming a professional astronomer after graduating with a degree in physics from St Andrews University in Scotland, he recognised the rather limited market for astronomers and physicists in the UK.

What people were crying out for in 1974 when he graduated, were computer programmers. “I asked people to stop offering me jobs after the first eight – it was a great time for people with any skill at all in IT.” And Tate was skilled having learned to programme while at school and then during holiday jobs during his university years.

“So it crystallised – computing’s going to be where it’s at.” Tate’s first role was as a weapons system engineer developing Seawolf anti-missile missile systems for the Royal Navy involving some Boys-Own style adventures testing the weapons out at sea. After three years on the Seawolf project with Ferranti he moved to Plessey Radar, working on the secondary air traffic control systems for Kuwait and Jersey airports.

By 1979 changes were afoot in the UK. Margaret Thatcher swept to power as prime minister (coincidentally the same year that Tate himself was elected as a local borough councillor) and the world’s financial markets took note.

Tate joined the United Bank of Kuwait as chief programmer in London. For a programmer the work was demanding – “Arab banking appeared to have variable settlement days depending on whether a public holiday was declared in Mecca,” he notes. Tate was charged with keeping a legacy system running until a new system he developed to run on DEC Vax machines was ready to go live in the early 1980s.

“I stayed there until 1990, and was there for the first Gulf War when Kuwait was invaded (and annexed) by Iraq. I was sitting at breakfast one morning and as I was eating my cornflakes watched the TV with the tanks rolling into Kuwait.

“I thought ‘oh this will be a bit of a problem’, mentioned to my wife I’d be a bit late home and went to see what could happen.”

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Beverley Head

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Beverley Head is a Sydney-based freelance writer who specialises in exploring how and why technology changes everything - society, business, government, education, health. Beverley started writing about the business of technology in London in 1983 before moving to Australia in 1986. She was the technology editor of the Financial Review for almost a decade, and then became the newspaper's features editor before embarking on a freelance career, during which time she has written on a broad array of technology related topics for the Sydney Morning Herald, Age, Boss, BRW, Banking Day, Campus Review, Education Review, Insite and Government Technology Review. Beverley holds a degree in Metallurgy and the Science of Materials from Oxford University and a deep affection for things which are shaken not stirred.

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