IT Department

Jul 14, 2015

by Karabo Baloyi

Observatory IT Department


“It is not only astronomers and scientists who work at the Observatory, computer nerds are welcome too!” – IT Department.

Leadership positions in any career field are often revered for the benefits that they come with. What is often forgotten is that these positions bring with them a lot of challenges and responsibilities.

Hamish Whittal is the head of the IT department at the Observatory and he is no stranger to these responsibilities and challenges. His duty entails co-ordinating all the things that need to be done by the IT department in order to ensure that the entire organisation functions properly. He says that his job is “rewarding but challenging in keeping the pieces together” and that it is important to conform to the standards of best practice.

There are many different areas which the IT department is involved in: from handling data infrastructure to managing the software that controls all the telescopes, to processing the streams of data which scientists are creating.

In order to be able to work in the IT department at the Observatory, one has to have a clear understanding of Mathematics and IT as subjects. While tertiary education is important, Whittal says that there are people who only have a grade 12 qualification and are still doing very well. “It is all about how well you understand your work and how dedicated you are to it. University qualifications definitely help when you want to move up the ranks in the department, but a lack of them will not stop you from being a part of the team.”

It takes a lot of skill and an understanding that being a leader is not about making people happy or doing what they want you to do. It is, among other things, about ensuring that the tasks and challenges that the entire department has are handled in the best possible way to produce the best possible results.

Mistakes happen, and that is something one cannot run away from. However, as the head of the IT department, Whittal does need to ensure that those risks that come with handling the huge amounts of data that the astronomers collect are mitigated as well as possible. He was glad to say that no data had been lost ever since he was the head of the IT department. “We ensure that we have back-ups and copies of the data and through that, we have managed to avert a possible crisis.”


From left to right: Garith Dugmore, Simon Fishley, Chantal Fourie, Nimrod Matotong, Hamish Whittal, Lucian Botha, Briehan Lombaard (absent Jean Bernardo)

Believe it or not, the team does have hobbies they enjoy outside of work. Here are a few they shared:

Garith Dugmore: When I am not breathing life into new exciting projects at SAAO I enjoy playing with funky electronic goods (cubox, raspberry pi), mountain biking, cycling, running, wetting my throat with the awesomeness that is craft beer, gaming on my Play Station and going on adventures in the beautiful city of Cape Town with my girlfriend.

Simon Fishley: Ultimate Frisbee, Yoga, cooking and oenology.

Chantal Fourie: Camping, hiking and photography.

Nimrod Motong: Going out for a beer with friends, exploring new restaurants, playing with my electronic components and reading & watching movies.

Hamish Whittal: Kiteboarding, trail running, riding my bike and walking on the beach – in between working on my house and in my garden

Lucian Botha: When I’m not at the office, I enjoy time with my family. We do lots of fun things , visiting cool sites around Cape Town, taking long drives around the beautiful coast, catching up on things to do around the house. Ideally refresh and stay away from my laptop, but I’m also studying towards my Master’s in Computer Science at Wits, so keeping up with that too.

Jean: I like new technologies, phones, building computers and cars. And don’t forget the games, I like playing games 😉