Through the Mill (and out the Other Side)

Hal Miller is not a name that many of you will have heard but his nomadic life and contribution to the IT industry both here and overseas is full of interesting anecdotes and notable achievements including being the founding father of SAGE-AU - the precursor to ITPA.

Hal Miller is no ordinary Systems Administrator. In fact, he is no longer a systems administrator at all. Instead, Miller - who started his career in the US Navy and has also worked as an attorney and in many technology roles as well as studying to become a rabbi - now classifies himself as an author, editor and translator.

All his work today is undertaken on two old laptops, he does not use a smart phone and his ancient cell phone has SMS capability disabled. He also does not own a television and his lifestyle eschews gadgetry, mainstream media and social media. Refreshing?

“My travels have included living in 20 US states, plus four years in Melbourne and the last three in Israel where I thought I had retired to write,” Miller said. “However, I am now employed full time as an editor of legal transcripts. I am in good health, take long walks with the dog a few times every day, and write.

“I have published volume 1 of what I expect to be a 40-volume translation (Hebrew to English) of the works of a rabbi from 500 years ago. I have two complete, but unpublished novels, and another 15 or so in various stages. I also have some non-fiction works on tap.”

Where did we go wrong?

So, what has all this got to do with ITPA? Well, back in 1992, Miller started an Australian systems administrators guild and support group known as SAGE-AU, the very organisation that transformed into ITPA in 2016.

Hal remains connected to many of those who were part of the early days of SAGE-AU and claims a great pride in the current organisation as it today takes the battle up to Government by championing sensible technology policy and laying bare the failure of our NBN.

He is also very disappointed with the direction that technology has taken over the years with too much focus on foolish applications and profit matched to too little focus on improving the lot of communities and humanity.

“I am quietly sickened by the course technology development took after a promising start,” Miller said. “Despite my past career in technology, I now use a very low-tech 'computer' for this - more automated processing than a computer by my definition - and I may very well be the only person in Israel who does not have a smartphone, send or receive texts, or have voicemail.

“We are now applying too many development resources to such junk as is out there now. I miss the old days when we had to hand-build, hand-code, etc., but I don't miss much of the rest. The only area where I've seen technology provide any real value to society is in medicine and even that has been a fraction of what it could have been if the right amount of resources were applied.

“Technology has to make money to fly, and that is sad because there was so much promise for technological advancement in the world. Instead we got job losses, Big Brother, Facebook, online shopping and selfies.”

Where it all began

So speaking to the man who started SAGE-AU all those years ago, it is possible to learn about the origins. He said it all started when he relocated to Australia in 1990.

“Back then, system administration was not a field,” Miller said. “It was a task that someone at each site ended up doing because it needed to be done, and that particular individual's assigned work required inter-system standardisation.

“I worked in protocol development for data communications, probably the field that most requires systems to work well. At the time, a group of guys throughout the country were trying to standardise internetworking in Australia including Robert Elz, Bob Smart, Geoff Huston, Peter Elford, and so many others.

“Bob hired me into CSIRO to work on it, as well as to tend to the needs of the other computer users in the office who had been interrupting him all the time for his systems expertise. That made me a sysadmin, but a sysadmin with more questions than answers. There was no place to go for answers in those days.

“This group ran an annual (or so) gathering they called NetWorkshop and I was invited to attend. At the last one, 1992 in Brisbane, they decided to disband, having achieved their goal of implementation of AARNet.

“Since I had been relying on these chaps to help me, I was suddenly lost again. I figured that if I needed help, others across the country might also, so at that conference, I called a BoF (Birds of a Feather session) to discuss forming a sysadmin mutual support group.

“There were only 60 or so attendees at the conference and despite there being another BoF topic at the same time, I had over 50 of them in mine. There looked like a real need for collaborative effort, so I created a mailing list, and promised to create an organisation. SAGE-AU was born.‚Äč”

Hello sailor

Miller’s first interest in technology was sparked by wanting to join in on shore leave when his fellow crew members in the US Navy got off the ship. As a Navy officer, in the mid-70s he had become the repair officer in addition to other shipboard responsibilities.

“I was responsible for getting job order paperwork completed correctly so the shipyard would be able to make repairs in a timely fashion when we returned from sea,” he said. “This paperwork consisted of a huge stack of (NCR) forms, most of which asked for the same data in slightly different presentation.

“Messy forms were unacceptable. I got tired of being the only one on the ship who never had time to go ashore when we were in port, as I had to meticulously fill in each block of each form in triplicate.

“A young sailor offered to help. I accepted not knowing what he had in mind. The two of us built an ECL technology chipset (Intel 4004), later replaced with Z-80s, into a multiprocessor, multitasking CP/M based database management machine, which was eventually fielded to every ship in the US fleet and all the shipyards.

“I recall being able to successfully log in to the shipyard machine with our 110/300 baud modem merely by whistling! Whenever we came into port, the right shop technicians, with the right parts and schedule were waiting on the pier and I got shore leave.”

It's been a hoot

Miller said that he has received innumerable benefits from his involvement with SAGE-AU and now ITPA over the many years since foundation. He remains a member despite being overseas and is still contributing to and getting value from the advice forums.

He related a story about how the work that had been undertaken on a code of ethics helped him to remove himself from the disreputable actions of a one-time employer.

“I was working at one point for a very large international tech company, heading the sysadmin team in their software development house,” Miller said. “Management wanted to evaluate what was (and may still be) the largest personnel software package out there, which would have cost the company at least half a million dollars to purchase.

“We had a 90-day evaluation period. At the end of that period, they directed an end to the negotiations as they didn't want to buy it. However, they told me to leave the system in place.

“We went back and forth on that for about a week with both they and me getting quite angry that this was a debate at all. I felt that continuing to use the system without license was both unethical and theft before they finally directed me, in no uncertain terms, to leave it operational.

“I printed off a copy of the SAGE-AU Code of Ethics, dropped it on their desks, said ‘I quit’, walked out the door and never looked back. I don't know how they felt, but I was able to sleep at night, and didn't have any trouble getting another job when I explained why I'd left the previous one.

“The amount of technical information and answered questions I garnered from the members’ mailing lists is not quantifiable. Over the years, it got me out of many a jam and was easily worth the price of membership.”

A proud father

After founding SAGE-AU, being the first President and drafting the original organisational structure, Hal Miller had many great yarns about his 25-year involvement with the organisation but feels the greatest joy from:

“I derive immense satisfaction from the way the organisation is today holding the Government to account on issues such as fraudulent practices within the skilled overseas workers visa system and the disastrous current status of the NBN,” he said. “This is a long time after my active involvement in the organisation and I have had nothing to do with it but I am very proud that the organisation I started is leading the fight for right and didn't need my guidance to do so.

“My ‘baby’ is standing up all on its own and working to make things better. That was the initial vision then and it is still the mission today.”