James R. Cordy, Queen’s University

Lifetime Achievement Award

When James Cordy embarked on his university studies, his goal was to graduate with a degree in physics. A half credit course in computer science changed his life and the lives of thousands who have benefitted from his teaching and research over the years.

As the descendant of 14 generations of coal miners in Southern England, he was the first in his line to graduate from high school. Gifted in math, Cordy knew he was destined to become a scientist. As he began his studies at the University of Toronto, he selected a challenging program that combined mathematics, physics, and chemistry.

“At the end of my first year, I did ok in physics, and I barely survived mathematics. I got my best mark in chemistry, but I hated it with a passion,” says Cordy. “The side course in computing was the greatest thing.”

A summer job working as a research assistant cemented Cordy’s passion for computer science.

“We were working on programming languages – it was a hot topic, and everyone was exploring new ideas in languages. It fit perfectly with what I loved – and I was intrigued with the idea of inventing a new language.”

A focus on helping others learn

Cordy’s focus on programming languages continued through his master’s and PhD under the supervision of Ric Holt at UofT. While his studies focused on compiler technology, he and Holt began a side project to design Turing, an educational language that has introduced many thousands of university and high school students to programming.

“Ric’s son had just turned six, and he wanted to introduce him to programming as early as possible. Our goal was to design something that was simple and powerful,” says Cordy. “We spent our lunch hours designing Turing and another two years refining it. Turing was eventually adopted across Canada and all over the world.”

Becoming a Visionary

A chance encounter at a conference in Germany transformed Cordy into a visionary and changed the course of his career.

“I had just finished presenting on Turing when a senior colleague asked a question that led me to question everything,” says Cordy. “He stood up and asked ‘Why are you wasting your time on these old ideas?’”

Cordy took the remarks as a challenge and returned to Queen’s, where he had just begun teaching and supervising graduate students.

“I presented the challenge to my grad students and asked them to think about what we could do differently. I wanted to dream about the future. We started to look far ahead to when computers would be faster.”

At that point, Cordy’s research began in earnest on source transformation, which led to the development of the TXL tool to translate new languages into existing languages. This new tool allowed researchers to explore and analyze software structure and eventually became a fundamental part of model driven engineering.

“It turns out we were way ahead of the curve. When we first tried to publish our research, we were rejected because the reviewers didn’t believe it was possible. So instead, we were able to conduct research that others simply could not.”

Cordy gained attention for his research, and in the mid 90s, he was tapped to work on an issue plaguing computer scientists – coming up with a solution for the Y2K problem, where computers were not coded to deal with dates beyond December 31, 1999. He left Queen’s to form a private company and used TXL as the tool for combing millions of lines of code used in financial and government institutions. His work helped avert disastrous scenarios for many organizations and for the financial sector in particular.

A focus on the students

In 2002, Cordy was invited to return to Queen’s to head the new School of Computing, where he remains today as Professor Emeritus.

While Cordy has received many awards over the course of his career, he credits his success to the dedication and research of his graduate students.

“So much of the research is done by a long list of wonderful students, whose work I end up taking credit for. The research has always been important to me, but my real job has been working with students. I’m really proud of the success of my students. They have always been my first priority.”

Cordy also credits Ric Holt for providing mentorship and guidance.

“I’m acutely aware that I owe any success I’ve had to my supervisor and mentor Ric Holt, who infected me with the research bug early as an undergraduate. Among the many valuable things Ric taught me, perhaps the most important was that the secret to research success is to recruit the very best students, point them in a promising direction, and stay out of their way.”

“I’ve been privileged to supervise more than 70 exceptional research students in my career, and I’ve had to do an awful lot of staying out of the way.”

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