Systems People

Tony Travis ajt at uk.ac.sari.rri
Thu Jun 25 09:16:33 EST 1992

In article <Fri.19Jun92.1625.bionet-news at uk.ac.daresbury> you write:
: With respect to the systems discussion, I agree with Reinhard, Dave and Bruce. 
: You will be far better served to be looking for systems people than by 
: trying to manage a system yourself.  What you get when you look for someone 
: with a Computer Science background is expertise and a skill level that is 
: extremely hard to find or develop.  Trying to do it yourself would be like 
: trying to create a molecular biologist out of an English Lit background: it 
: can be done, but...

What an emotive thread this is ;-)

Long ago, when I was a student, I worked in a government department
where they employed a 'comptometeress' to do calculations on an
electro-mechanical 'comptometer' (calculator!).  They considered it
necessary that someone with specialised skills should operate the
machine and no-one else was permitted to touch it.

Nowadays, everyone has their own calculator, PC, Mac or Workstation and
computing has been 'democratised'.  This is what the so-called micro
revolution was all about.  The 'ivory tower' mentality that used to
dominate large computing installations still persists, but it must be
clear to all of us by now that distributed computing environments are
the most successful.

I studied agricultural botany as an undergraduate and, as a part of the
_botany_ course, I was taught how to write statistical programs in
Algol and run them on the computer.  It was accepted as 'normal' that
we would do our own statistical calculations etc. on the computer and
we welcomed the opportunity to use it.

I agree that a particular type of person *is* needed to manage a
computer installation of any size, but I do not agree that CS graduates
are the best choice.  What is needed is _motivation_ and many of the
responses in this thread are from people like me who feel motivated to
use (and help our peers to use) computing technology to solve
biological problems.

CS graduates *are* motivated, of course, but in a different direction.
As others have pointed out CS graduates, in general, have a theoretical
knowledge of computing.  Running a computer installation is largely a
matter of common sense and good organisation.  In the past, I managed a
site consisting of two large VAXes, an SIMD parallel array computer and
several pdp11's without much effort and I now help to manage a network
of Workstations, PC's and Macs.

It does take TIME to manage facilities and support people who want to
use them, but I think a computer literate biologist can more easily
help biologists exploit the technology than a non-biologist.  In short,
we should help each other and bionet is a good place to ask for help if
you need it.

What, I hope, everyone accepts is that systems *do* need to be managed
and resources must be allocated to the task.  A common mistake made by
computer illiterate policy makers when allocating funding is to assume
that the system will "run itself".  It will not, but the task of
managing your own system is compensated for in many ways by an
increased understanding of what _can_ be done with the system.


Dr. A.J.Travis,                       |  Tony Travis
Rowett Research Institute,            |  JANET: <ajt at uk.ac.sari.rri>
Greenburn Road, Bucksburn,            |  other: <ajt at rri.sari.ac.uk>
Aberdeen, AB2 9SB. UK.                |  phone: 0224-712751

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