Managing IT and tutoring for AU
October 04 2011
When Martin Kempton began his career, computers were enormous machines that filled rooms, and university-level distance education was a concept just beginning to gain traction. But Kempton dove into both fields. He landed his first computer job in the late 1960s at age 16, and in 1970, he was among the first students to enrol at a new distance learning university in his home country of Britain.
Over 40 years later, Kempton is still on the frontlines of both computer science and distance education. After 11 years as chief information officer (CIO) for the Alberta Motor Association (AMA), he recently retired and is devoting more time to tutoring computer science courses for Athabasca University. He's now been tutoring for AU for 30 years.
The art of computer programming
Kempton's initial reason for joining AU was pragmatic. It was 1981, and he and his family had just bought a house. Interest rates were in the teens. To finance the house, he needed a second job, and he heard AU was looking for tutors. "I'd received my bachelor's degree from The Open University. Having been a student of distance education, I thought it would be interesting to sit on the other side and be involved in its delivery," he says.
Initially, Kempton planned to tutor only for a year or two. "But I came to enjoy it so much ... I find a very real pleasure in helping students understand a subject I am passionate about."
"We call [computer programming] an engineering science nowadays, but as much as anything, it is an art ... You are writing something, and there is a beauty, an elegance, in the same way that mathematical formulas have beauty to them."
When Kempton was starting out, he thought his future was in programming, but he was soon asked to be a supervisor. "I fell into the role of looking after a couple of people. And then a couple of people became five. And then five people became 10. And so gradually your role changes," he says.
The unexpected benefits of tutoring
Kempton says his AU tutoring helped him to develop skills that served him well in quadrupling his IT department at AMA from about 25 to 100 staff.
When he joined AU, the university trained him on communicating with students over the phone. "The three Ps: pace, pause and pitch," he says. "You listen for those and you try and ... sense the mood."
"You really learn how to listen to people," he continues. "We have two ears and one mouth for a purpose. We should listen twice as much as we talk."
Kempton says the skills he acquired in listening and reading people helped him become adept at recruiting high-calibre staff who would stick around. "You can recruit in haste and regret it later," he says. "I really did learn how to read people and recruit people for the long run."
Tutoring has also provided him with another unexpected benefit. "Computer languages have changed dramatically over the last 30 years," he says. "[To tutor AU courses] I've had to learn programming languages, which, normally, somebody who's an executive would never have to learn." This has kept him up to date with technology and given him intimate knowledge of the IT work he's managed.
Although he's loved keeping up with computer science and programming at the nuts-and-bolts level, what's really kept him tutoring all these years is the students. "What I enjoy most is the interpersonal -- working with students and moving them forward," he says. "The Athabasca University student typically is motivated ... There's something different about teaching people who want to learn."
And ultimately, it's the human component of both tutoring and managing that has rewarded him the most in his career. "As complex as computer programming is today, people are much more complex, and therefore more rewarding. Debugging people is so much more rewarding than simply debugging code."
School of Computing & Information Systems
Visit AU's School of Computing & Information Systems website to learn more about the computer science courses and programs offered at Athabasca University.
By Erin Ottosen