SIAM News Blog

Moving SIAM to the Forefront of Technology in the Information Age

By James L. Goldman

As SIAM’s inaugural director of information systems, James L. Goldman helped launch our first steps in this area. Upon his retirement after 30 years, Jim leaves us with his thoughts and musings on working for SIAM and on how far the organization has come both in terms of technology and as a society.

James L. Goldman is retiring after 30 years as SIAM’s inaugural director of information systems.
It all started on a Tuesday.

When I began working for SIAM in 1985, as a young graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, the SIAM office was much smaller than it is now. We had a staff of around 20, less than one-third the size to which it has grown in 30 years.

Because of then-managing director Ed Block's experience with the early numerical computers at Burroughs, he was very sensitive to how these machines might be employed in business, going beyond their early role in scientific research.

In the early 1980s, the office used three approaches to computing architectures: a DEC VAX minicomputer for the membership database and journal subscription orders (the bulk of the business at that time), CP/M-based microcomputers for specialized office tasks, and increasingly, MS-DOS-based personal computers for general office work.

SIAM’s primary business system was a timeshared DEC VAX 11/780 running the VAX/VMS operating system, having replaced an earlier Burroughs B-700 computer in 1979. VAX computers were large and costly, and needed constant tender loving care. At the time SIAM's relatively small staff had no formal information systems department, so Ed chose to contract for time sharing and support from a local provider. The same provider also designed and custom programmed database software for SIAM's needs using Fortran and VAX assembler. This was before the Internet of course: Our connection to the VAX computer was via (gasp!) a 9600 baud leased private telephone circuit! (At a time when specialized packages for associations like SIAM were not yet readily accessible, especially for such small offices, having a custom-tailored system that handled memberships, journal subscriptions, book sales, and accounting in an integrated fashion was truly leading edge. SIAM was, for many years, way ahead of the curve in its use of business information systems.)

This VAX-based membership and subscription system was augmented locally in the office by five so-called microcomputers. The office acquired three CP/M-based computers, which were used for various office tasks like word processing, mailing list management, and registration lists for  meetings. CP/M-based microcomputers presented the first opportunity for companies to own and operate less-than-room-sized machines without dedicated support staff, so Ed seized that opportunity early on.

However, these computers were quickly eclipsed by the IBM personal computer (PC) running Microsoft's "Disk Operating System" (MS-DOS), and the SIAM office began acquiring PCs not long after their introduction in 1981, with two PCs in use by 1984, and more to come soon thereafter.

It may be a faded memory, but 30 years ago each personal computer required a substantial investment of thousands of dollars, and, therefore, the office staff shared these few computers. We rolled them around on carts, and scheduled time for each person to use one. Hard to imagine today! 

In the academic world in the 1980s, Unix-based computers, particularly the SPARCstation from Sun Microsystems, were making significant inroads against VAX/VMS machines. Most SIAM members were doing their research using Unix machines, and many questioned why the SIAM office was not likewise transitioning from VAX/VMS to Unix for business database processing. This led to a series of Board-level discussions about the future of business systems at SIAM and eventually the formation of the Board's Systems Oversight Committee whose first members were appointed by Board Chair John Hopcroft. The Systems Oversight Committee (still in existence) gathers the Society's best talents in information systems and technology, and focuses on technology issues on the Board's behalf.

But really the question was not one of operating systems or architectures. It was a question of growth. The business was growing, and the office was soon to outgrow the capabilities of its own custom-designed system, as were  the resources of the company that programmed it.  However, at that time off-the-shelf commercial systems for membership-based societies were still rudimentary and immature and not a close match to the facilities that we had developed for ourselves. Replacing custom-made systems with standardized ones would emphasize such limitations. But thankfully, through the 1990s, standardized association management packages evolved quickly, and by 2000 we transitioned to one such system called "Association Plus." Finally, the SIAM office was able to break its fragile reliance on a custom solution, while taking advantage of the rapid pace of innovation in a package used by multiple associations.

Unix nevertheless found its niche in our office. We learned from many in the mathematical community about TeX, Donald Knuth's then new system for typesetting that was especially suitable for publishing works in the mathematical sciences. Longtime SIAM volunteers Jim McKenna and Eric Grosse, then at AT&T, helped the office secure an AT&T Unix microcomputer with the latest TeX software and fonts, and we started down the road to in-house composition of TeX-based (and later LaTeX-based) submissions to our journals. Of course, this is standard practice today with SIAM's editorial and production departments handling thousands of journal papers annually in-house with LaTeX, but in the late 80s and early  90s, this represented a big shift from the prior practice of sending out work to specialty (and expensive) mathematical typesetting shops.

In 1989 we moved into our current location in the University City Science Center. That growth was concurrent with the evolution of both the Internet and the World Wide Web. Like most enterprises during that time, we went from using a handful of shared microcomputers to having at least one computer on each desk top, from using shared connections to the Internet to having multiple high-speed links, from using one FTP server to having probably two dozen (we lost count) web servers, and so on. Again, like many others in scientific publishing and association management, our business operations have become so intertwined with and dependent on the technology, that it's rare to see anyone do anything without a computer's assistance. And there's no doubt that our society would never have sustained the growth that it did without that technology. It is fun to look back and remember how far we came so quickly. Our information systems department grew from just one person in the 1980s (me!) to eight people today, and we are still facing a long backlog of technological needs and wishes from staff, officers, and volunteers. It's a great problem to have. 

Through these past few decades, there are some pivotal SIAM people who played important supporting roles in our technological growth but who are seldom recognized in that particular context. Numerous members have served on the SIAM Systems Oversight Committee, bringing their own industry or academic computing expertise to bear on the guidance of our office's information systems development, including such notables as Cleve Moler of Mathworks; Eric Grosse, then at Bell Labs and now at Google; Margaret Wright, then at Bell Labs and now at NYU; Bill Gear, then at NEC Research; Sam Gubins, then at Annual Reviews; and apologies to many others whom I have overlooked. Also, great credit goes to both (only two!) of SIAM's executive officers since its founding: Ed Block for the wisdom and foresight that he had in imagining how the then-emerging technologies could be put to use to effectively support the organization's operations, and current executive director Jim Crowley for his perseverance in seeing that information technology priorities are properly focused, funded, and implemented. Finally, much praise to our current director of information systems, Ted Kull, who succeeded me in that position and who has brought to SIAM a perspective on networks and computing from a much larger enterprise (the Educational Testing Service, or "ETS") that has enabled us to take on some pretty large initiatives in recent years.

I was extremely lucky to have come to SIAM 30 years ago and to have been able to maintain my association with such a great organization through my career. To have been hands-on in a small organization, working at the frontier of what information systems would become, and at the forefront of putting scientific publishing online in the dawn of the World Wide Web was an amazing experience. Our first website went online in 1994, only three years into the life of the web. SIAM’s journals went online in 1997, making us clearly one of the earliest adopters of that approach to publishing. In 2003, our Dynamical Systems activity group transitioned from a traditional website to a collaborative and community-driven shared-contribution model. It is called “DSWeb,” and while shared authorship is fairly common today, in 2003 it was an early example of this type of collaboration. It should be gratifying to all in the SIAM community just how often our society has led the way in employing technology to support its mission.

The SIAM office is a wonderful place to work, and those who might have any doubts about my claim need look no further than the percentage of our staff who have been with SIAM for 10, 20, or more years. Clearly, we are able to hold on to some very talented and motivated people. Having the chance to work with our officers, committee volunteers, SIAGs, members, editors, and authors as well as with our peers at other scientific societies, with subscription agencies and index database publishers, and with conference sponsors and interdisciplinary leadership committees is very rewarding. Few realize just how much the SIAM staff is intertwined with all aspects of the international scientific community on a daily basis.

Retiring from a long career at SIAM doesn’t mean I’m retiring from a life in technology. I continue to serve on the IEEE Computer Society’s Digital Library Committee and as an active volunteer in the world of amateur radio, where my focus is on low-speed, long-distance wireless data networks and remote control applications. I also lead a college-level educational foundation, and I serve on the boards of two national historical societies. But the big bonus of retirement is that I will get to spend more time in, around—and sometimes under—airplanes. An active pilot since 2003, I have more recently gotten into the mechanical/maintenance side of aviation, and these two interests are enough to make me wonder how I ever found the time to work for SIAM!

As a longtime SIAM member, I continue to support our society and the evolution of its pivotal information systems infrastructure.

   James L. Goldman served as SIAM’s inaugural director of information systems from 1985-2015.
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