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From Calcutta to the cloud

  • 06 July 2012
  • Written by 
  • Published in Profiler

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.”

What happened was that there was a run on the bank, assets were frozen and the Kuwaiti currency was abolished overnight. These were interesting times for an IT manager.

Tate helped sort out the mess from the systems side of things and stayed on until early 1991 then had a stint at Citibank before moving to Global Asset Management, an investment business established by Gilbert de Botton (the father of famed philosopher and author Alain de Botton) which routinely spent 25 per cent of its operating budget on IT.

If it seems a lavish amount, that’s because it probably is, although as Tate notes; “these companies are all about information.”

Gilbert de Botton, however was a polymath who read Byte magazine for fun, and sent Tate emails at three in the morning. “He was a very exacting boss as you’d expect ... he had an interesting Adam period dining room - the book cases revolved to produce Reuters screens. There was a lot of expenditure in IT in all ways.”

Tate and his then young family (he has two sons) decided to move to Brisbane to be nearer to his Australian wife’s family. Tate had visited Australia a couple of times before – once as a student when he spent some time working at CSIRO – but this time he was staying, and his first role was working as the head of infrastructure at Macquarie Bank under then chief information officer Gail Burke. While Macquarie Bank was a great place to work, especially in IT, according to Tate, the weekly commute to and from his Brisbane home palled and in 1999 Tate took a role as the IT Director of the University of Queensland, where he remained until 2010.

It was quite a transition from one of Australia’s fastest moving financial companies to a Queensland university. “They’re not exactly the same. One of the (interview) questions was about the difference between Macquarie Bank and the University which I thought was a perceptive question from the vice chancellor at the time.

“The answer then and now is that they do a different trade off - a Macbank or any investment bank is moving at that pace trades off money for time – time is of the essence. I remember there was one company they acquired and they wanted us to integrate them and bring their systems up to our standard in two weeks.

“They said ‘we’ve been very kind – do it in a month’. To do that we paid more than we would to do it in more time. In universities they have a fixed financial arrangement – so they take longer to do things but more cheaply. No uni moves at the pace of an investment bank and nor could they given their legal structure.”

Where universities were also starkly different was that they offered the opportunity for intra-sectoral collaboration. Australia has a very active Council of Australian University Directors of IT (Caudit) – with which Tate become closely involved, and eventually chaired. Caudit not only manages university procurement negotiations with major vendors, it has taken on a significant role in shaping the IT discussion and policy in tertiary institutions.

During his 11 years at UQ Tate also took on the role as director of Auscert; was involved in UQ’s commercial internet business UQ Connect which provides internet connectivity to hundreds of schools in the State; was the chair of the Queensland Regional Network Organisation; and also the principal investigator on the Australian Access Federation Network which is the mechanism which allows travelling academics to sign on to use other universities’ networks when travelling, and handles all the security and access rights.

He also found the time to complete a PhD in computer security, and serve as adjunct professor in the school of IT and electrical engineering.

In 2010 he left the UQ role to take on a one year gig as associate director of the Australian Research Collaboration Service, before taking up his current role as director of the RDSI programme and presidency of the ACS which he sees as his opportunity to “give back” to the profession.

“The more I get into it the more I’m convinced that many of the issues we see in project failures and project overruns are the result of having people who don’t know what they are doing,” says Tate who says he is passionate about encouraging people to develop IT skills, and to commit to ongoing professional development and certification.

“IT is a profession like engineering or medicine, we have got to promote that message – and the need for sensible certification, sensible professional development.”

Certainly he expects IT skills will be in high demand for years to come, buoyed by a national high speed broadband network, and Australia’s success in global science initiatives such as the square kilometre array radio telescope project, which bode well for the nation’s ability to become a truly digital economy.

While careful not to be drawn on the politics of the National Broadband Network and NBN Co itself, Tate says that he knows of no-one who disagrees with the need for high speed broadband access across the country; “It’s an absolute requirement of a digital economy. I welcome any outcome that gets more capacity into homes around Australia – that will drive the digital economy - the high speed and ubiquity.”


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