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The Cybec Foundation

Newcastle University: Occasional Address


Dr Riordan

After Graduation Ceremony 19.4.05

University of Newcastle. Graduation Ceremony 19.4.05

Occasional Address.

[This is Roger's address to the students, following the conferring of an Honorary Degree of Doctor of the University of Newcastle. The students were all from the Faculty of Health]

Thank you, Chancellor, Vice-Chancellor, Members of the Council, Staff of the University, families and friends of the graduates and graduates. Congratulations to all you new graduates for achieving a very important milestone in your careers. I imagine you all have some concerns about what may lie ahead, and some of you will be worrying if you have made the right decision. So I will tell you how I come to be standing before you today.

I was born in 1934, and when my mother decided I was on the way, she went to the local nursing home. The matron had a feel, announced that I would not arrive for at least a week, and told my mother to go home. My mother, who had some experience in the matter, refused point-blank, and eventually the matron rang the doctor, who said "Oh, give her a shot of morphia, and put her to bed".1.

At half-past one the next morning the woman in the next bed was woken by a baby crying. I had arrived.

When I was about four, the family doctor removed my adenoids on our kitchen table. The anaesthetic was administered by dripping ether on a face washer spread over a kitchen sieve, over my face. I don't think the doctor used the kitchen carving knife!

In 1942, with my father in the Army, we moved to a holiday house at Mount Dandenong. My mother didn't know anyone in the district, and we had very little social life. I went to the Mount Dandenong State School, and then the Upwey High School. I did well academically, but I had little in common with most of the children, and spent most of my spare time exploring the hills alone.

I had been brought up a Christian, but one day, probably when I was in Year 12, I was wheeling my bike up a dirt track on a steep hill, when I noticed a Jumping Jack Ant's nest.2. I gave it an idle kick, and watched the ants come scurrying out. Then I thought "There are untold millions of people on Earth. Would God care any more about each one of us than I care about each one of these ants?" And immediately my logical mind answered "Of course not. How ridiculous -- and how conceited a notion!"

At that time we thought that atomic power was going to solve all our problems, and I determined to become an expert in this wonderful new source of energy. I studied Electrical Engineering at Melbourne University, and arranged to do a Graduate Apprenticeship with the English Electric Company, one of the few private firms working in the field. But towards the end of my final year the first signs of trouble began to appear, and about the time I left for England the only atomic power station English Electric ever built suffered a disastrous failure.

When I arrived in England, I found that the attitudes and skills of the company were positively mediaeval, and when I eventually saw the Atomic Power Department in its barbed wire cage I decided that that was not how I wished to spend the rest of my life.

So, at 21, I was alone and desperately lonely, in a strange and seemingly hostile country, with no personal faith, and with my hopes for a career in ruins. I moved to a Department where I worked on governors for water turbines, and I desperately courted one of the girls in the office. But, inevitably, I soon frightened her off, and I was thrown into the depths of despair.

On several occasions I have looked down the barrel of a loaded rifle, and been very tempted to pull the trigger. If I had had one in England I would almost certainly have used it. But eventually I began to rebuild my personal faith and to learn how to relate to other people. I returned to Australia, and joined CSIRO, and after some years I married and raised a family.

I gained international recognition for some work I did on electronic filters, but most of my bright ideas got bogged in the bureaucratic morass. In 1973 I was approaching 40, and thought " if I don't get out now, I will be stuck here till the end of my days". So, with little experience of life outside CSIRO and little business sense, I resigned, and started Cybec Electronics, in partnership with my late wife. A few months later the Government removed the tariff on imported electronic components, and the formerly thriving Australian electronics industry promptly collapsed.

I did a lot of very interesting work, but people only came to me if no one else could do the job, and they always wanted a fixed-price quote for it. I would not have the faintest idea how long it would take, because it had never been done before, so I would think of a seemingly very large number and double it, then double it again, and invariably when the job was done I would find that I should have doubled it again.

We never made a profit, and in 1982, in one of our periodic recessions, our spare money ran out, and I had to move out of our small factory. I went on the dole, and we had some very worrying months, before I got a job as a Lecturer in Electrical Engineering at Chisholm Institute of Technology (now Monash University Caulfield Campus).

The students were poorly motivated, and before long I managed to upset the management over a point of principle. So in 1989, when I turned 55, I felt I was locked in the academic equivalent of Siberia, with only a very inadequate pension to look forward to, after another 10 years of slavery.

Then a virus struck the College Computer Labs. It was not intended to be harmful, but the computers were nonstandard, and it destroyed everything on the hard disk. It took the technicians 20 minutes to reinstall everything, and the next student a moment to destroy it again, so we had a problem.

I got a sample of the virus, analysed it, and worked out how to remove it. I wrote a program to do it, called it Vet, because you vet a document for errors, and gave it to the students as shareware. Soon money started to appear, and at the end of the year I decided to resign. One of my former students talked me into giving him a job, and I had to rent an office. For a few anxious months we struggled, but then we started to grow, and 9 years later we were employing about 90 people around the world.

In our first child's final year at school, his best friend was gifted academically, and we had a girl staying with us who was gifted athletically. At the school speech night his friend went on stage once, as Science Dux of the school, to collect an armful of books, to polite applause. But the girl returned to the stage again and again, to rapturous applause, as member of this team and that, and captain of the other.

I reflected that we were not allowed to praise the academically-gifted, as that would discriminate against the less-gifted, but, as I was all too aware, we showed no such concern for the feelings of the athletically handicapped. I resolved that I would do what I could to restore the balance. At the time I was on the dole, so it seemed a vain hope, but when Cybec started to make money, we set aside a percentage of our profits to endow scholarships.

In 1998 an American company made an offer for our business. I did not want to sell, but I was approaching 65, and finding managing the company a considerable strain. And the price was good! So we accepted the offer. A large part of the proceeds went to the staff under our profit-sharing scheme, and we decided to use most of the rest for charitable purposes.

In 1999 we paid for a plane to be fitted out as an aerial ambulance for the Royal Flying Doctor Service, and we have since funded a major project each year. Most of our remaining funds are used to endow scholarships, and today more than 60 students have held scholarships of ours.

If I had gone into an employment office when I was 55 and said "I'm looking for something exciting and different -- something that has never been done before", they would have laughed at me.

But I was 55 when I started a new and successful business, and helped to found the new profession of computer virologist -- a profession which would have been totally inconceivable when I was a student. And we based our business on honesty and integrity in all our dealings; with our customers, our staff, and even our competitors.

Congratulations once again. I hope you find satisfaction and joy in your careers and your personal lives. Be honest in all your dealings, have courage and compassion, and never give up, even if things do seem hopeless.


Good luck!

1. Unfortunately this story has been embellished a little over the years! In 2010 I was given a copy of a letter my mother sent to an aunt shortly after the event. She wrote:
    "I have been wonderfully well the whole time and had a marvellous confinement. When I went into hospital I told the doctor I would need him about midnight. However, he and the matron both said, "No, not before seven in the morning!", so gave me a sleeping injection. The matron was up to another case and thought she heard something in my room, and sure enough she had to hold the baby back till the doctor could get there! He came running down the back lane in his pyjamas! Roger arrived at 12.45 so I was not far out! I woke just as the doctor arrived."
2. Jumping Jacks are moderately large (~1cm) black ants with a vicious sting that live in vast numbers in mounds in the bush.
3. As of 19.11.14 we have helped about 315 students, composers, playwrights and so on with scholarships of one form or another, our very successful “Community Bubs” program has helped well over 300 young mothers, and we have given away more than $14 million.

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