VSJ – July 2007 – Work in Progress

As readers will know, we broke with tradition for this year’s spring event. However you can’t throw out all your customs at once, so we prevailed on Council member Paul Lynham to write his usual report.

This year’s meeting of the IAP membership was held on the famous WW2 cruiser HMS Belfast, now permanently moored in the River Thames just by Tower Bridge. The Spring Seminar is principally a networking event, providing members with the opportunity to meet and discuss matters of professional interest with like-minded colleagues.

Mike Ryan, the Director General of the Institution, welcomed delegates aboard over coffee and biscuits, particularly mentioning, among the attendees, David Morgan, the Vice President, bouncing back after a recent heart bypass operation, and Peter Ashby, a Companion of the IAP and one of our longest serving members. Mike explained that the highlight of the day would be an exploration of Belfast’s nine decks and exhibition areas. These give a fascinating insight to life on board a warship 60 or more years ago and to the technology available to the Navy in those days. But before that there would be some presentations by guest speakers.

Mike said that in the past some of those responsible for Government IT programmes had been reluctant to risk fielding questions from IAP members. Thus it was a particular pleasure to welcome Mike Manisty, the Director of Offender Information Services at the National Offender Management Service, part of the Home Office. Coming from a Naval family, Mike had been a submariner and had a lifelong interest in Naval history. In his view there were parallels between the organisational failures that had afflicted some sea battles in the past and those that afflict Government computer projects today, particularly in their failures to process and interpret information correctly.

Although constrained as to what he could reveal about progress and plans for Government computing at the Home Office, Mike had some very pertinent general comments and conclusions. Some of the Government’s failings in this respect had received huge publicity, in the NHS for example, so there was no point in trying to be secretive about them. He felt Government was inclined to believe over-ambitious consultants and commit to huge programmes that would never be made to work.

These serious points were illustrated with humorous references to Naval procedures. For example a potential recruit might be asked “are you related to Admiral Nelson?” then told “so you must be related to Captain Collingwood” etc. until the recruit got fed up and said that he was not related to anybody, at which point his presence was no longer required. Should he get past this stage he would be asked even less pertinent questions such as “what was the number of the taxi that brought you here today?” If the recruit said he hadn’t come by taxi, or couldn’t remember the number, again his presence was dispensed with. But a cunning recruit would invent the number, and, duly employed, would most likely rise successfully through the ranks.

Mike finished with a quiz relating to signalling using flags. For this he felt it appropriate to dress up as an admiral of Nelson’s time. Comparing signalling to XML, he challenged those present to interpret trial messages. Some delegates demonstrated a surprising aptitude!

Rum punch was served while members stretched their legs before lunch or joined the President, Jim Bates, for a smoking break on deck. Then members moved in to the Wardroom where five large round tables had been laid for lunch. The food and wine, efficiently served by the Belfast’s catering stewards, were well up to IAP standards. Then, while coffee was served, we listened to our second speaker.

Cliff Le Quelenec, an Engineering Officer, had served from 1962 until Belfast was taken out of active service. He explained that the ship came to her present home in 1971 and is now part of the Imperial War Museum.

The Belfast was built in Belfast in 1936. When war came she was assigned to patrol northern waters to blockade the German fleet. While leaving the Firth of Forth one day she passed over a magnetic mine and was badly damaged. This incident led to the decision that all ships should be “degaussed”, to avoid them tripping such mines in future. The repairs took so long that it was decided to incorporate some newly invented technology – radar. This was a key factor when, later in the war, Belfast played a heroic role in the tracking and eventual sinking of the Scharnhorst.

Finally, to conclude a thoroughly enjoyable day, members and guests were let loose to explore the interior of the Belfast. Many seemed to disappear down various ladders and corridors, never to be seen again. Though eventually, judging by the messages of appreciation received at the IAP office during the following days, it seems all resurfaced to put their names down for next year.

[Interesting project or development? Let us know at eo@iap.org.uk!]

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