Oral-History:Jiří Zlatuška

From ETHW

About Jiří Zlatuška[edit | edit source]

Jiří Zlatuška graduated (with honors) from the program called Mathematical Informatics and Theoretical Cybernetics in 1981. In 1994, he became professor of informatics at the Faculty of Science of Masaryk University and in the same year, he founded the Faculty of Informatics at Masaryk University and served as its first dean until 1998. From 1998 till 2004, he served as the rector of the university. While in that position, he introduced comprehensive electronic Information system as an effective backbone of the university. It is still used (and improved) nowaday. While in office, he also secured a construction loan for extending the University, which was then the biggest educational involvement of the European Investment Bank outside European Union.

His official CV may be found at https://www.muni.cz/en/people/1777-jiri-zlatuska/cv

In this interview, he recalls his early (high school) experrience with computers and programming, the high-quality SOFSEM seminars, which helped form the community of Czechoslovak programmers, his years as a rector, and reflects upon what it was like to introduce an information system as university infrastructure in the late 1990s Czechoslovakia.

Copyright Statement[edit | edit source]

This manuscript is being made available for research purposes only. All literary rights in the manuscript, including the right to publish, are reserved to the IEEE Computer Society. No part of the manuscript may be quoted for publication without the written permission of the IEEE Computer Society.

It is recommended that this oral history be cited as follows:

Jiří Zlatuška, an oral history conducted in 2020 by Helena Durnová, IEEE Computer Society

Interview[edit | edit source]

Interviewer: Helena Durnová

Interviewee: Jiří Zlatuška

Date: 24 November 2020

Durnová:

Let me first introduce myself. My name is Helena Durnová and I'll be interviewing professor Jiří Zlatuška, founding Dean of the first Faculty of Informatics in Czechia, a computer scientist active in Masaryk University management, but with a lasting passion for research in informatics. I'm doing this interview for the IEEE History Committee. I'd like to start by asking you a question from your young age, from when you were choosing what to do, whether you felt restricted. You definitely couldn't study informatics, it wasn't a field back then. Is that true? So how did you happen to become a computer scientist?

Zlatuška:

Thanks for inviting me for this. I think I did study, at the university, I already studied informatics. There was already a study discipline. There was theoretical informatics and... No,no,no mathematical informatics and theoretical cybernetics, that was the name of the discipline I studied. So when I entered university, it was already like that. Before that, within elementary or secondary school, it was a bit different, but even today, I don't think that, one could study informatics as such at the secondary school.

During my secondary school, I believe that my interest in computers... Oh, I'm not quite sure how it developed at the beginning, what was the starting point, but we had a small group of classmates within my secondary school. We had the idea that they would like to just play with large mainframe computer which was installed at the Technical University of Brno at that time, and we decided to set up something like a club of programming, we were three classmates, who just sent an application to the technical university of Brno and they replied that we were free to attend, to have the mainframe computer for ourselves each week, every Thursdayay, I believe from six o'clock in the evening till 10, when that shut down. So we basically played with that. In parallel with these efforts, with these activities... (you caught me, apparently...)

Durnová:

May I just ask a supplementary question? This activity at the university of technology, that was with the Tesla computer?

Zlatuška:

Yes, that was the TESLA 200 computer.

Durnová:

And that was in the 1970s?

Zlatuška:

Sorry. I‘ve just messed up my sums. Let me repeat it

Durnová:

Right, so the playing with the (as you called it) TESLA 200 computer, that was in the 1970s?

Zlatuška:

That was in the 1970s. Yes, my secondary school studies started 1973. So 73-ish, 74-ish, yes.

Durnová:

So then you entered the university having that...

Zlatuška:

Well, and in parallel with that, there used to be the engineering trade fair in Brno, where one part of the trade fair was devoted to personal computers, mainly Hewlett Packard, and we would go there and just sit at that exhibition, as youngsters.

There were not too many people at that time.

And we programmed, I believe, I played with programming tic-tac-toe, at that time, just entertaining ertaining the state of the art, the technology of that class. And still within secondary school, I was able to already use that knowledge to actually work as (as one would say today) a research assistant at the faculty of mechanical engineering. We were two of those classmates from that programming club. We programmed isometric curves within some material based on data on that. And I believe in my final year, within my secondary school studies, that was 1977. I started to work as a research assistant at the Institute of Physical Metallurgy (Ústav fyzikální metalurgie) of the academy of sciences, where I did some calculations in connection with Mössbauer spectroscopy and just analysing that.

Durnová:

So you were quite experienced when you entered the university.

Zlatuška:

Sure. Yes. And still within my secondary school, I would attend at least two years of informatics seminars, which were given by the department called... Let me think: there was applied mathematics, and its section of informatics. These were just the public lectures every week.

And during those times, still, there was yet another source of knowledge from that area. It was impossible, during that time to buy books in English, but essentially, all the English technical scientific literature was translated into Russian and I would regularly buy those translations. So I had, for example, Donald Knuth’s The Art of Computer Programming in Russian and things like that. And that was an extremely important source of technical information still within my secondary school, because when I started to study at the university, it was already possible by the university to access the originals in English. So that was easier.

Durnová:

So you „met“ Donald Knuth’s books even before you entered the university?

Zlatuška:

Oh, sure. Yes. Not only met, but I bought them, in those Russian translations, and the only thing that was not easy was the limited number of copies, which would arrive to the Brno store. So I would actually stand as one of the first present in the line.

Durnová:

So there was a run on the bookshop.

Zlatuška:

Yes. We knew what would be published and so on. So that was quite interesting.

Durnová:

Right. So you would be able to study from the Russian books and then from the English textbooks, at the univeristy

Zlatuška:

Yes, yes.

Durnová:

And at the university. Do you remember any remarkable figures?

Zlatuška:

Definitely docent Hořejš one of the IEEE computer pioneers of that time.

Křetínský is still my colleague at the faculty and a couple of others.

During my university studies, I would start to work as a programmer incidentally for that Tesla 200, which was also used by the, informatics section of the applied mathematics at the university.

And I started to be employed for programming some simple system for student assignments to be handed in into the computer.

The mainframe computer would run the tasks and deliver results to the students.

And some simple apparatus for remembering the..., for storing the study of the student's programs and a simple text manipulation based on the request of the students.

Then I did some report generation program for what was called ASŘ, that is the automatic systems control (ASŘ – Automatické systémy řízení).

That was also for TESLA 200 computer, but that was actually a program for the university, and because I did this, within the freshman and sophomore years of my study, I actually switched to what was called the individual study plan, and I finished the studies about a year faster than what was supposed to.

And because of that, my contact with some of the faculty was fairly limited. I recall one of those, whom I only met when I took the oral exam. I was not even sure who the teacher was.

Durnová:

That's an interesting point. Was it difficult for students to arrange, to make the studies faster than expected by the official plan?

Zlatuška:

I am not sure whether it was difficult. I just filed the application.

Durnová:

And you had a good reason, so it was approved.

Zlatuška:

I'm not quite sure whether I disclosed the reason, because the reason was a bet for ten bottles of wine. So I'm fairly sure I did not disclose the reason. But in any case, it was not that difficult

Durnová:

But it was an exception.

Zlatuška:

Yes, it was an exception. I believe I was the only one within the study year at that time.

Durnová:

May I return to Jiří Hořejš? He was later your supervisor, and 15 years after you graduated, he received the IEEE Computer Pioneer Award. Did you think politically when you were suggesting him for the prize? Do you remember anything around that?

Zlatuška:

Oh, yes, I was approached by IEEE Computer Society to help with suggesting possible candidates. I think that my short list was slightly longer than what was eventually awarded, but essentially, Bruce Shriver at that time approached me to help him with this, that is with identification of possible candidates, both within the Czech Republic, and in Slovakia, but there were also other people who did this, but I saw all the nominations and participated in making the shortlist.

Durnová:

Right. So there were around five to 10 people who were nominated?

Zlatuška:

Yes, and six of them were awarded three in the Czech Republic and three in Slovakia.

Durnová:

Can you remember the others? Was it Jozef Gruska, Norbert ...?

Zlatuška:

Jozef Gruska, he's still a colleague of mine at the faculty. He was a dual nomination, both from Czech Republic and Slovakia.

And then, Antonín Svoboda, the founder of the Institute for Computing Machiners, he then left Czechoslovakia in ...

Durnová:

In 1964?

Zlatuška:

I do nor recall the year, because that was too early for me.

But then he was very successful in the U.S., doing some researching, parallel architecture, parallel hardware and even within Czech Republic, at least two of the Czech mainframes were to some extent designed originally by Antonín Svoboda and one of them, SAPO, computer, had a very interesting decadic arithmetic and encoding of numbers within the system.

But these were, these were sort of old techniques when you needed elaborated error corrections and so on. Nowadays it's much easier.

Durnová:

Right. So that was in 1996, that was at a time when the faculty of informatics in Brno was already in existence. Did it help you in any way as a faculty of informatics to have these people with awards?

Zlatuška:

I'm quite sure whether it really helped us, I would mention it frequently that this is, well... a sign of recognition. Jiří Hořejš died very shortly after that; and again, I do not recall the exact year. Only Jozef Gruska remained, and of course the fact that a person of this caliber works at the faculty of informatics, that thing I did use from time to time as a kind of advertisement for the institution.

Durnová:

So maybe informatics was gaining in respect from the other faculties.

So when, when you were choosing the six people for the nominations, you had a group of Czech and Slovak, computer scientists who would be suggesting their own names, and then you would make the shortlist.

Zlatuška:

Yes, it was somethink like that. I don't recall particulars, it was a long time ago.

Durnová:

So you made the short list and then sent it to IEEE and they made the final selection.

Zlatuška:

Yes, Bruce Shriver communicated with me this, so I was a kind of contact for that.

Durnová:

Right. Do you remember, during your university studies and perhaps in the 1980s, did you hold in high esteem the computer scientists from the West and from the East equally, or did you have a somehow geographically-based preferences? Do you remember something like that?

Zlatuška:

I don't believe so. I don't believe I made any distinction based on geographical location.

I was lucky enough that I was able to regularly participate in the SOFSEM series of conferences, which was a very unique entertainment within Czechoslovakia at that time.

Durnová:

Shall we stop there for a bit, because the audience may not know what a SOFSEM is?

Zlatuška:

Yes. SOFSEM, was each year, two-week long conference, for top both researchers and professionals from informatics, mainly from Czechoslovakia, but quite a few invited speakers from abroad, most of them from the West, just a few of them from, from the East.

The profile of these conferences, or the main body of the program, consisted of six-hour long invited talks for particularly interesting topics within informatics, both from theoretical informatics, and some applied informatics.

It gave quite a unique perspective for the participants, as far as the discipline was concerned, because there was something which did not exist anywhere else.

And one of the interesting features of the seminar was that it always took place in some secluded place.

Durnová:

It was held in big centers, with the rooms for...

Zlatuška:

No, no, no. That was, well, ... Zotavovna ROH

Durnová:

Recreational objects of the trade unions?

Zlatuška:

Yes. The mountain hotels used by the then trade unions, for either a summer or winter recreation of the trade union members. And the timing of these seminars was always end of November and beginning of December, so just before the winter season would start. There were also some jokes that it usually does not go below a thousand meters of altitude.

Yes, so it was essentially held in remote places as far as any other attractions were concerned.

So it was also a place for various discussions during the evenings. on various topics, both from informatics and from sort of political area.One a year, I recall there were 10 participants who signed the Charta 77.

Ivan Havel, brother of the former president Havel of Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic, was a regular participant, and a couple of other people of this kind.

Quite a few of those people were researchers or development engineers for operating systems who were not allowed to work in the profession of their choice, but they were able to work in technical areas, for example, Jan Sokol, the former candidate for president of the Czech Republic, he was also one of the regular attendees of these conferences, and later, quite a few of them actually later moved to political area, when communism ended, so they became members of parliament, members of government and so on. So the group of people there was really unique and that created a very special special environment. And within that environment, there would be guest speakers, both from the stand from the West.

Durnová:

Were you there in 1984?

Zlatuška:

Yes.

Durnová:

Because in 1984, I have a photograph, from SOFSEM with Jiří Hořejš standing next to the picture of Dijkstra. Did you invite Dijkstra himself?

Zlatuška:

I think that it was just Dijkstra‘s picture at that time. I don't think Dijkstra was aware, or able to come, I don’t know.

And that [picture] was apparently [there] because of the topic of the talks which were there. I would have to look at the guides, I believe that was something with the structured, disciplined programming at the time on the program, so it was like.. sort of... Dijkstra‘s gospel was spread around, but without Dijsktra himself [being around].

Durnová:

You said that, at the end of the 1980s, you were for a year and a half in Delaware at the university in the U.S.

I wanted to ask you what surprised you most, or perhaps also, what inspiration did you take from there for your later carrier?

Zlatuška:

Oh, just the American, you know, the environment that, I thought was something, wonderful: the way of communicating with students, the, sort of multi-disciplinary talks, which I was quite frequent to attend and just the life, the selection procedures for new department members and so on. So, in my later years as a university rector, I tried to be ecclectic enough to incorporate at least parts of what I saw there. I'm not quite sure whether I was completely successful.

Durnová:

You also mentioned another topic in another interview, namely libraries.

Zlatuška:

Yes, library.

The library at the university of Delaware, that was the first library, which I saw with actually free access to the books, open access to the books. Because otherwise, our libraries used to be that you would go to the catalogue, select an item which you wanted to borrow, submit the request, and they would deliver you just that book. There, the possibility of actually going to the place where the book was, the book, which I was looking for, just looking around and seeing other titles, of which I did not have any idea that they existed before, that was something wonderful.

Durnová:

Is that what you actually kept at the faculty of informatics? You still have an open-shelves library.

Zlatuška:

Oh, yes, sure. But in our case that's fairly small, and that's what I did not succeed to do even during my years as a rector, to have one centralized library for the university, where the readers would have access not only the discipline they are looking for, but also to other disciplines, and thus the possibility to somehow step outside of one area of knowledge, because that was also something absolutely amazing in Delaware.

In our case, in the library, I would only find informatics books. The sort of books from the areas which we order, but in Delaware, I could read books from computer science, but I could also go a few shelves away, and I recall I took Václav Havel’s letters to Olga in English from the shelf, for example. That kind of breadth would not be accessible in our case, unfortunately.

Durnová:

What was the primary reason for the founding of the faculty of informatics in the 1990s?

Zlatuška:

Maybe there's still one interesting involvement with computers that was just before I went to the U.S. During that stage, I did some programming of the first text editor, which was used for underground publishing of some stuff. So that was a rather interesting part of the story of my involvement with computers.

Durnová:

That is an interesting part, indeed.

Zlatuška:

Several pieces were published before the end of communism, using Donald Knuth’s typesetting system, printed on laser printer.

Durnová:

So that was the TeX system?

Zlatuška:

Yes,sure, yes! Becase I brought it with me when I returned from the U.S. I bought a laser printer and, for example, Roger Scruton’s Dictionary of Political Thought, the first edition, which was published by the Atlantis publishing house in Brno, had already been printed on paper in my home, before 17th November 1989, because they thought this would be one of the Samizdat publications, but the communism ended and they took it and just made it camera-ready into a book. So things like that.

Durnová:

So it's a real book instead of a Samizdat book.

Zlatuška:

Yes. But it was printed in my home, still during the communist times and all the editorial work, like the running heads, the index and so on, was already generated by TeX, and that went fine.

Durnová:

Perfect. So that was a Czech translation?

Zlatuška:

Yes. And a couple of issues of the journal Sociologický obzor, which was also published underground.

Durnová:

So the sort of „computer freaks“ from the mid 1970s then in the 1980s spread the word through these machines and through the publishing system.

Zlatuška:

Yes, exactly.

You asked me about University of Delaware, and I actually forgot the most important thing, that there was, of course, the Internet, because when I came there, it was possible to use the Internet. That was something remarkable, because that opened other possibilities for communication, or just downloading interesting information, but it wasn't as easy as today, but even the FTP downloads, or the UCP newsgroups, that was something which was quite interesting for me.

So when I returned back and the communism ended, during early 1990, one of the most pressing things that I wanted to achieve was to have the Internet at Masaryk University, or a computer networks. That eventually worked out with the help of IBM at that time, who installed IBM -- that was an academic initiative - they donated big mainframes to Czech universities in Prague and connection to network, the European equivalent of BITNET. At that time in 1990, I was already able to have one of those terminals connected to that academic network in my office, and very shortly after that, it also connected to the Internet as such. So that was actually the most important thing, because that was even more important than the library.

Durnová:

Okay!

Then, you were a rector in the late 1990s, early 21st century (more exactly, from 1998 to 2004).

Zlatuška:

Who would remember this, these days? That was a long time ago, it was twenty years ago. Nobody remembers...

Durnová:

Well, it‘s only twenty years ago.

Did you meet with any opposition when you were helping to design the information system of the university?

Zlatuška:

No. If you're that high in the university hierarchy, you don't have any opposition.... No, I'm kidding.. a bit...

It wasn't difficult at that time, because when we founded faculty of informatics, we built, that is, Mr. Brandejs and his colleagues, built a small administrative information system just for the faculty.

That means just for the limited number of students, staff and so on, just to facilitate the information flows of that kind, which in these days flows through the information system of the university.

When I became the rector, I thought this was a good time to try to do something like that on the university scale and on a different technological basis, because for the faculty, it was enough to have just some short tables, text files that with the abilitiy to search within them, and so on, while for the whole university, we needed a real database system and so on.

I did not have any opposition at that time because I was able to start the project just with the small group of academics and students from the faculty of informatics. And as a rector, I did not even have to negotiate for separate budget for the project. I simply asked them to prepare the first version. That was around, it started around the end of October 1998, approximately. Next year, that is next semester, already in February, all the registration for the courses were already done in this system.

That was very fast. No one had the time to realize what was being prepared. I came to the rector’s position from the faculty of informatics. A few people knew that some system of that sort was used and that it was good in some sense, but they did not realize that it would actually hijack all the university and change it completely. So before they were able to see that what I'm doing will be something which will completely change the way how all the administrative tasks are performed, like the communication with students and so on, the system was already up and running. One thing which was an extremely important and clever move, but especially by Mr. Brandejs was that it was already in 1998 conceived as a general interface based on web interface.

So there were no specialized clients for the endusers, it was all just the web interface, which is quite common today, but in 1998, this wasn't, something which one would find in other applications: usually, you would always prepare some special client obligation for the enduser computer. And because we did this, we knew that we will not have any necessity to make some installation of specialized software for the end-users, to have special users‘ training and so on, because I assumed that if those staff members would have any problem with using that, they would always find some students around, and they would be able to already use this kind of technology. And that worked fine.

Durnová:

Actually, you say it's two decades ago, but it still has consequences, because through the information system, we have the electronic election, and we are doing this interview in 2020, when a regulation was passed in Czechia saying that the university parliaments should have their terms extended by a number of weeks beyond the end of the lockdown. And at our university, there is no need for that.

Zlatuška:

Yes. There is really no need for any adjustments to the special act of the Parliament, which was passed because of some „backwards“ within the system. But the problem was that our system was extremely inexpensive.

For one,, as I said, I started that without any budget, even then, even years later, when upgrading for a better system, the total cost was about one third of the sum of all entrance fees from the new applicants. So actually, only that was sufficient for completely financing the system at that time.

Later, when e-learning was added, then we needed some more staff to help the teachers with that, but before e-learning was incorporated into that, it was extremely inexpensive. I wanted to say cheap, but that wasn't what one might expect under „cheap“. It was high quality, but inexpensive.

Also we did not have any possibility to bribe bursars from other universities to adopt this system. So they would use completely different systems, which are much worse and so on.

We do provide our system as a service to quite a few schools, but most of them are private, secondary educational institutions because... I'm not quite sure... we may have two public universities as customers, one definitely, and I think one more, if I'm not mistaken, I am not sure.

The rest of them, they simply don't care. I mean, they are not interested in having these possibilities and as a result of that, when it comes to, for example, elections to academic senates, the parliament has to adopt special-purpose regulation, because they are unable to get it done.

Durnová:

That's interesting.

Zlatuška:

It's sad, though...

Durnová:

Hopefully we don't have to comply with that rule.

So when you talk about the information system, you decided to make your own rather than use assistance from another university?

Zlatuška:

Yes. The reason why I prefered a system of our own was that I knew that I had a small group of people who were able to put all of themselves into that. I knew that they would be able to do that within the university environment, using rapid prototyping tools and not to be involved in some sort of long-term planning with specific applications, and so on.

My explicit idea was that the system should grow with the university, tailored to university needs, not to force the university into some structure, which would be otherwise somehow imposed by the system, which the university would buy. And I believe I had a talk about this approach sometime around 2000 or 2001 at Salzburg seminar at one of the higher education sessions. There was somebody from Vienna, from, the Uuniversity of Vienna in Austria.

They claimed that they have a project for building a similar system. The timeframe in those days was 10 years. The first five or six years was just preparing the specification how the system should be implemented. And my reaction to that was that, well, if six years is just a phase for preparing the specification analysis, and so on, my two terms, which were at the time three years long, would already expire and nothing would be done. For practical reasons, anything like that was not possible because it would not work. I mean, if the university management within our conditions changed, nobody would continue with a project like that.

So, in my case, it was actually easy to have it up and running so fast that by the time my second term as a rector ended, the system was already something without which the university could not possibly exist.

Durnová:

I thought that the Czech characters also played a role, the alphabetical characters?.

Zlatuška:

Oh, no, that's easy.

Durnová:

Okay. So I'm over estimating the difficulty.

Let me end with that note and thank you for a really interesting conversation. Thank you very much!

Zlatuška:

You're welcome!