Answering the odd query

March 18, 2004, vol. 29, no. 6
By Roberta Staley



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It's inevitable - being on call 24/7 means fielding some peculiar requests and queries - sometimes in the dead of night.

One of the oddest was the call Bob Spratt, supervisor of computer operations and technical support (the help desk), received one evening. It was a panicked co-worker. The university's giant, fireproof metal vault had vanished like cold beer at a student pub on Friday night.

An engineers' prank? Common sense said no. The vault, which is kept off campus, was too banal a target for engineers. It stores backup tapes containing a week's worth of information - administrative and academic - that has gone into the university's computer system.

The tapes are a priceless precaution if a disaster like an earthquake were to wipe out the university's computer system.

The multi-tonne mystery was soon solved. Before Spratt had finished tying his shoelaces to drive to campus to investigate the vaultnapping in person, he received another, slightly embarrassed, phone call.

A movie crew, which was filming in the building where the vault stood, had simply concealed it behind a temporary false wall.

Spratt, who retires in March after three decades as SFU's computer operations troubleshooter, never minded such late-night emergencies - real or imagined. It was all part of a challenging career that was always on the cutting edge of technology - the computer revolution. SFU's first computers were installed in 1966. Spratt worked part-time in computer operations starting in 1970, earning a few bucks an hour while completing a biochemistry degree.

Back then, Spratt supervised a large pool of keypunch operators, all women, who would perforate cardboard cards that would be read by a computer program. The program would process this stream of data and record it on tapes or discs. The women, says Spratt, “would be working away and carrying on a conversation at the same time. It was pretty amazing how accurate they were.”

The computers of the time were enormous - the size of several refrigerators, but with less power and memory than a modern laptop - and required constant nurturing, says Spratt.

“We would have an IBM representative on site during the day to repair equipment.”

Spratt, 58, played a key role in assessing computer technology as it evolved over the years on campus. “We had to assimilate the new technology when it came around and decide whether it was the right technology for us.”

The transitions remained fairly steady until the 1980s, when there was a revolutionary leap to the world wide web. Suddenly, everyone had to be connected, which meant being part of a major engineering undertaking - hooking every work station up to the fiber optic-based network.

Now, of course, the average person comes into daily contact with 250 silicon-chip computers that run everything from telephone systems to palm pilots and vehicles.

But the ubiquity of computers doesn't eliminate the need for troubleshooters to deal with emergencies - real or imagined. Spratt's replacement, Burkhard Kraas, points to the Web's modern-day anarchists, who plant destructive viruses and trojan horses for the sole purpose, it would seem, of creating global disarray and upheaval.

Spratt, meanwhile, will be far removed from such front-line battles, renovating his Maple Ridge home and making plans to travel with his wife. But he's never far from a computer. Spratt has three - two old PCs and a new one. “The older ones are good at some things and the newer one is good at other things,” he smiles.

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