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10 Insights After 40 Years of Digital Development Progress

By Guest Writer on October 11, 2018

fao career digital development

I’m going to retire in 2019 after 40 years of working in the IT industry, from 1978 to 2018, and after 35 years of dedication to Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations as an Information Technology specialist.

I started working in IT at the university when I was 20 years old and preparing my master degree thesis on a demographic study about the possible causes of child mortality based on relevant countries’ national statistics. That was the first time I met with information technology and UN world.

A Short History of FAO Computing

In the late 1970s, the most innovative IT machine was the famous IBM System/370 (S/370) which was a IBM mainframe. Statistics were only available on printed UN or World Bank publications and data had to be entered manually through punch cards.

I duly punched together cards with my Fortran program code to make my data be statistically elaborated by the mainframe. It was so exciting to see this almost magic passage of data from paper to a terminal screen as well as complex inferential statistic calculated at once!

And more exciting were the beginning of the 80s when in the basement of a crowded Rome condominium I used to program in Assembler or Pascal, the software for a microprocessor connected to an electronic control unit, which was expected to turn on the central heating system at planned programmable daily hours through a controller display. I felt so pioneering!

In the mid-80s I started working in FAO in the IT Team dealing with FAO statistical databases. In 1986, I worked on FAOSTAT (known as AGROSTAT until the mid-1990s), which is still considered the world’s most comprehensive source of agricultural information and statistics.

Then the late 80’s with the personal computers … I still keep my first MAC … Look at it!

Macintosh computer

And the beginning of 90s with the Object Oriented Programming languages and the tremendously innovative UNIX OS system written in C which became the platform of our new FAOSTAT and the first Codex Alimentarius Databases entirely written in C++.

Then the Internet revolution of late 90s, our third version of FAOSTAT and Codex Alimentarius Databases written in Java with XML/XSL components and running on a Linux platform.

That was the time when we abandoned the ASCII code for Unicode UTF-8 and we finally had all our GUI components in the 6 FAO official languages including non-Latin languages such as Arabic and Chinese. Not to mention the beauty of the CD-ROMs able to contain the run-time version of the FAOSTAT and Codex Databases as well as FAO publications and digital assets for quick and easy distribution to member Countries users and in particular to Developing Countries.

Finally, in this the new millennium era with the recent IT history of mobile devices and apps as well as cloud computing and robots… and I’m still here asking to myself and try to guess or visualize the future. So, what’s next? And what I will keep on doing in retirement?

10 Insights After 40 Years of Digital Development

Here are some reflections on the 10 things that I learned over my 40 years in computing technology for the FAO that I will bring with me after leaving the IT world:

  1. Finding a sense of joy in helping others and making their life quality better by providing IT support to the FAO colleagues in their daily work as Statisticians and Agricultural Technicians as wells as Food Safety Experts in fulfilling the FAO mission to eliminate hungry and malnutrition in the poor countries
  2. The “how can I help you” mindset oriented towards customer support which has always been my every day mantra
  3. The passion for the technology and the innovation. As Steve Jobs concluded his speech at Standford quoting “Stay Hungry Stay Foolish” and as the actor Tom Hiddleston said, “stay hungry, stay foolish, stay young, stay curious” … and I would add for us older IT generations, “Stay open to the younger generations”
  4. The habit of considering change as the most stable aspect of my work life and personal life.
  5. The beauty of having UN guiding principles for my work, and striving to always adhere to them.
  6. The sadness sometimes of not reaching the expected results, but the willing of never give up if that implies a better service and life quality for others.
  7. The sense of being part of the world through communication technology and the UN community, and how the “world is small “ – different countries, different culture, but the same emotions and human behaviors.
  8. The consciousness by personal experience that gender diversity and within that the contribution of women’s perspective not only empowers the UN capacity to achieve results through IT, but, if I’m allowed to play with words, “make IT work better”
  9. The positive adrenaline of taking calculated risks in particular when experimenting something new in IT, and recognizing that the biggest risk is not taking any risk. “In a world that’s changing really quickly, the only strategy that is guaranteed to fail is not taking risks,” says Mark Zuckerberg
  10. The sense of duty of not wasting the resources generously offered by the UN Donors


Is it really possible for me to retire from IT and from UN world?

I guess it is practically impossible to retire from both of them. Technology is part of my everyday life, the same as anyone else in the world, and being a UN Civil Servant is a mission which will continue to permeate my life forever.

By Donatella Mori, IT specialist at FAO. The views expressed in this post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).

Filed Under: Agriculture
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2 Comments to “10 Insights After 40 Years of Digital Development Progress”

  1. Kairu says:

    Thank you for sharing your insightful story. It is interesting to see how IT has evolved over the last 4 decades and as you put it, who knows how it will look like in the next 4 decades onward? Therefore, as IT professionals and any other profession for that matter we should “Stay open to the younger generations”

  2. Kerry says:

    Interesting for reading. Who would have thought that progress would reach such a condition. Good job.