Graduation address given by Dr John O'Sullivan

Dr John O'Sullivan gave the following occasional address at the Faculty of Science and Faculty of Engineering & Information Technologies graduation ceremony held at 9.30am on 18 May 2012 in the Great Hall. Dr O'Sullivan is a research scientist and engineer, and recipient of the honorary degree of Doctor of Engineering.

The photo of Dr O'Sullivan is copyright, Memento Photography.

Dr John O

Graduation address

Deputy Chancellor, Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Professors, guests and Graduands

I would like to congratulate you all for what is a major milestone in your lives. Graduation is the culmination of what has been a long and considerable effort.

I am also extremely proud and honoured to be receiving this honorary degree.

I was already overseas at the time of the graduation ceremony for my PhD and missed that ceremony but more importantly, it is wonderful to be back here at Sydney University because of what I got out of my time as an undergraduate and a postgraduate student at this institution. My professors and lecturers, my fellow students and teammates on the sporting field all contributed to the overall learning experience during that time. I hope you too in the future will look back and reflect on some important lessons learned from your time in university.

Engineering and science in particular are subject to continual change. Technology is ever more dependant on tools – ranging from computer design to all sorts of tools for diagnostic, measurement and construction purposes. It is also all about building the tools taken for granted by others.

Technologies change, tools change, methods change, projects change and products change. I dare say so will you change along with the nature of your jobs and roles throughout your career.

We all hear often how this is to be the new world of continuous change but in my experience, it is as it ever was – valves gave way to transistors which gave way to integrated circuits, to personal computers to imbedded computers and so it goes on in all branches of engineering. The pace of change and level of competition does however seem to be continuously accelerating. We all learn to adapt or get left behind.

I left university eager to learn new things and embrace change and that was a magnificent gift I received along of course, with the solid understanding and theoretical underpinning on which to build new learning. I am sure it is one of the important characteristics you have also picked up along the way to your degrees and it will stand you well to keep adapting to the changing world out there.

At CSIRO, my boss and mentor was Bob Frater who had been previously Prof of Electrical Engineering at this university. When I arrived back from a 9 year stint working in radio astronomy in The Netherlands, Bob challenged me to find commercial applications of the skills and technologies that had been built up in radio astronomy. Somewhat later, we formed a new team with fresh ideas not afraid to try for a very ambitious goal of making wireless networks go every bit as fast as the best wired networks at the time. The combination of fresh ideas resulting from accepting a change in field of endeavour and the ambitious goal were a substantial ingredient in our success. That single goal of matching the speed of 100 million bits per second of the best fibre optic computer network of the time meant we had to come up with something quite different.

I would advise you to not be afraid to “reach for the stars” or in other words to set ambitious goals. One does need to be mindful of the fall back positions but striving to do something you are not sure at first that you can do brings out the best in us. A corollary would be: Don’t be afraid to tackle an area outside of your current comfort zone – the interfaces between different domains of expertise are especially fertile.

Our successful wireless network technology invention was partly attributable to an earlier failed attempt to detect the electromagnetic pulses from exploding mini-black holes which were thought to be made at the beginnings of the universe.

That attempt was inspired by Stephen Hawking, the revered wheel chair bound British physicist who had just controversially developed a new theory where black holes could not be completely black and would in fact slowly evaporate. Their final moments would be kind of like a small nuclear explosion in space.

A subsequent much more complex attempt to detect fast pulses followed but that failed to find anything as well. As a result I decided there must be a better way and started looking at fast digital processing methods. A few years later I grabbed the opportunity to build a team to make a Fast Fourier Transform integrated circuit to do just the sort of processing needed very, very fast. So fast in fact that it bettered one of the best super computers of the time!

This transform technology and the theoretical willingness to see problems from various perspectives lead us to part of our wireless network solution. The trick of looking at a problem from multiple different ways until you find the most simple view was, by the way, yet another important message from Bob Frater when he was one of my lecturers at Sydney University.

Increasingly we find now that projects require substantial teams and this means more difficulty getting approval and funding, more management, more inefficiencies, more oversight etc. It also brings positives. Teams comprised of members with diverse skills who respect each other and feed off each other can be very powerful. A team, bringing together engineers, physicists, a mathematician and a computer scientist who had worked in a range of areas was another essential ingredient to the wireless network technology invention. It was above all a team effort as ideas were bounced around and solutions found.

There is much more to the wireless network or WiFi technology story including further teams and a company Radiata which was started by some of the researchers and which made the first wireless network chips using the invention.That was also an exciting and successful time for both myself and the other members of that team. The ongoing and courageous support of both the original research and the later legal efforts by CSIRO was also vitally important.

I hope some of you might be encouraged by my experience of change and also look to work in a variety of environments from research through to the commercial world. I have found it both fruitful and enjoyable as I continued to learn.

Success comes in many forms and I would like to close by congratulating you all on your achievement which is being recognised today and by wishing you all rewarding and challenging careers. So, best wishes and success!

Thank you.