‘Back in My Day’ is an Information Age series profiling some of our older ACS members and Information Age readers speaking about their early days in IT.

This week, we speak with Matthew Clarke, aged 60, from Maitland in New South Wales.

When did you first become involved with the IT sector?

I studied a Bachelor of Maths at the University of Newcastle in 1980, and I majored in computer science. By the end of my first year I’d fallen in love with computers. In my first class at university, the whole first year cohort of students had access to one computer. It was in the basement of the library, and it had a card reader and a paper printout, with no screen or typewriter.

I first came across computers in high school. After finishing at university, I worked at the Digital Equipment Corporation for six or seven years in the 1980s. I then worked in software development and artificial intelligence with them for a while, before going into lecturing at university.

How did you fall in love with computers?

It was the problem-solving and puzzles element of it. I always liked doing logic and mathematical puzzles. I was never really interested in hardware, it was software development that was interesting to me. Computer programming is a fascinating example where you have a strict set of rules and tools at your disposal to work within those rules, and that provides a shape within which you can do an enormous amount of creative things. That rules-based and creative aspects, that combination is what I really love.

What was your first job at Digital Equipment Corporation like?

I started there as a computer programmer, I was 21 years old and straight out of university. They had a software development commercial arm, which was hired out to customers to write computer programs for all sorts of commercial contexts. I arrived at that job in Sydney and was told that most of the programming was in COBOL. I’d never studied that – I was given a manual and told ‘you’ve got a week to teach yourself COBOL’. Two weeks later I was hired out to CSR as a COBOL expert. I was working on my own, I was sent out as a consultant to help them with their programming needs and wrote some programs for them.

We developed a few expert systems here in Australia. One was with the CSIRO developing a system to give advice to farmers about what pesticide to use on cotton crops. Another was working with Lendlease to duplicate the expertise of a man about to retire – he was the one person who knew how to estimate the time and cost of building high-rise office blocks. He was about to retire and there was no replacement. So, they wanted to capture his knowledge in a computer system and use that to generate new quotes.

Another was for the Australian Coal Industry Research Lab to give advice when there was an underground emergency in a coal mine, for the first few hours before the experts arrive.

What was it like being involved with AI in those early days?

There was a huge amount of excitement then about AI, and it was in a different direction to what people now call AI. Then, it was much more about handcrafting complex systems of software that reflected human expertise, whereas AI today almost exclusively means machine learning through advanced statistical processing. There’s very little that’s intelligent about modern AI – I’m not a great fan of machine learning in terms of the philosophy behind it. To call it intelligent is a mistake.

What was it like making that switch to lecturing?

After working for six or seven years with DEC I realised I didn’t want to spend my life just dealing with technology, I preferred dealing with people. I wanted to find a way to be more involved with people rather than computers. Education seemed like a good opportunity for that. The first couple of years weren’t that exciting – then I went to South Africa doing computer science lecturing, and that was far more interesting.

When did you return to Australia?

I was in South Africa from 1991 to 1999. I came back with a couple of part-time jobs, and doing some research with UNSW. I did some commercial training for a couple of years, and did a fair bit of technical writing with CorVu. They were taken over by a larger US company, and they made me the primary product manager for their suite of products worldwide. I was the head of sales and marketing and customer service for Asia-Pacific.

What are some of your career highlights?

I’ve most enjoyed lecturing. I enjoy taking complex ideas and making them accessible to other people. Doing a lecture at a conference or in a classroom with university students – communicating well enough to grasp a complex idea, that’s what I love the most.

Have you needed to be constantly training to stay up to date in the industry?

That’s always been a theme right from the beginning, and I’ve always enjoyed that. I’m not really an early adopter but I like keeping up with what’s happening, and then make a deliberate choice about which directions or which tools I want to invest in. It’s also good to be part of ACS, with the requirements for continual professional development.

What has surprised you about the IT sector?

I’ve been more surprised in recent years. Twenty years ago, it was never predicted about some of the things that are happening now. I’m quite amazed in the last six months about how far some of the machine learning outputs have impacted common human tasks like language translation and the automated generation of artwork is quite staggering. It’s unbelievable.

The way that’s going to affect us as a society is going to scare graphic designers, but issues of deep fakes and how to authenticate anything these days is really tricky. That’s a huge problem today, not just in computing but throughout society, a lack of trust. You can no longer trust something you’ve seen or heard, we don’t have any way of telling where something came from or if the source is reliable. The speed of change is staggering.

What advice would you have for someone just starting their career in IT?

Don’t get stuck in particular technologies or tools. You need to be a broad thinker, and you need to have situational awareness. You’ve got to be able to not just focus on one thing but have eyes on all the stuff happening and be willing to keep learning and training. It’s about not being misguided or putting all your eggs into whatever the current hype is.

People should still see the importance of fairly broad education – you need to understand a bit about psychology, linguistics, business management, sociology, history – these are all important to give you a framework for interpreting and acting in the IT space.