BCS PRESIDENT’S DINNER 2016
Speech Given by Jos Creese, BCS President
Your Royal Highness, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen, welcome.
It is true that there is no such thing as ‘a free lunch (or dinner)’ .. I’m afraid part of your price this evening is to listen to me for a short while!
Many of you will have helped me during the year, and you will all have an interest in the IT profession – whether through family, friends, a professional association or as an active BCS member.
And that is what I want to speak about tonight – the IT profession.
In fact, I want this to be a call to arms – a change in how we see ourselves and how others see us.
Official data from the EU says 5% of the UK workforce work in IT. That’s over 1.5m people. This is an underestimate – many people do IT roles but are classified as other professionals.
But we have a IT skills shortage and it will only get worse unless we can attract more people into the profession. Young people and women are under-represented in particular. That is why I chose IT apprenticeships as my Presidential theme this year – and I will continue to support it after my presidential year ends.
This is a bigger issue than simply trying to get more people trained and working in IT. We have an image problem.
The public image of the IT worker is pretty much like the TV show the ‘IT Crowd’ – geeky, socially inept blokes, maybe technical competent, but certainly best kept out of sight in the Data Centre below stairs – and getting older (present company excepted of course!). At best we are seen as technical engineers.
Yet it is ironic that the world’s most well-known businesses are IT-based – led by and created by IT people with business skills: Amazon, eBay, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Apple.
These organisations are the richest, the most successful, the most powerful businesses that have ever existed on the planet. Apple surpassed Exxon-Mobil as the world’s most valuable company in 2012. The Walmarts and Pfizers are now behind the curve of the top tech companies.
No sector ever has had more impact on our lives. And some of the best known (and most powerful) people on the planet come from IT: Bill Gates, Larry Ellison, Alan Sugar, Mark Zuckerman, Steve Jobs – and our two DF tonight of course (and some of you in the room).
IT is transforming our health and our wealth. It is emancipating people, creating greater equality of opportunity, enabling social cohesion and better understanding. It can give security for communities and families. It offers new opportunities for universal education and better use of scarce resources and energy.
Technology is giving us more leisure and freedoms. It is transforming and spreading democracy. It is central to pretty much every area of research, development and business transformation.
So the growth in demand for IT skills is understandable. But the apparent inability to encourage more young people and women into the profession is less so.
The U.K. has a global reputation for technology – eCommerce, open government, technology invention and inventors – from Alan Turing to Tim Berners-Lee. Yet the public understanding of the role of the IT profession in the UK is as low as the rate of growth in new entrants.
We are just not selling ourselves well enough, and that impacts not only in a skills gap, but also can result in under-investment in IT in business and research – despite the fact that the fastest growing companies and economies are based on technology.
All this is odd for another reason.
Just a couple of years ago the ‘I’ Newspaper ran a survey of primary school children, asking them what they wanted to be when they grew up. There were 20 choices:
No.1 place was ‘teacher’ – no surprise there.
The next 5 places went: – Vet, Doctor/Footballer (joint), Police Officer, Nurse – again, rather predictable perhaps. Then guess what? …. “IT Specialist” came next … yes, really! Ahead of racing driver, Fireman, Pilot, Scientist …oh, and Princess.
Yet by the time these primary school children go to secondary school, most already are put off IT and few want to pursue IT jobs or a degree in IT. It’s a tool, nothing more. They continue to choose the often less well-paid, less flexible and less future-proofed roles in the classic professions. And, dare I say, less interesting and diverse?
I confess, I never chose to join the IT profession. In fact, I wanted to avoid it. Frankly I was not much good at programming (patience and accuracy were not strengths as my wife will attest).
My eyes were opened whilst working in the Department for Health in the 1980s when I saw the transformative power of technology – I found myself doing exciting and relevant work, using technology to collect, analysis and reporting on data, to advise the medical profession and to support the NHS delivery teams.
And whilst Health Informatics sadly appears to be tackling the exact same issues today I was dealing with then, IT just gets more and more exciting as a career to pursue and a topic to study – in any field.
When I left my full-time employment last year to set up on my own business, one of the computer journals reported that I had ‘retired’. Apart from all of you recognising I am far too youthful to ‘retire’, why would I want to stop working in such an amazing profession?
Or, as the BCS vision puts it: “making IT Good for Society”?
There is certainly much work to be done, not just in IT but in other professions which increasingly depend on IT skills and on technology.
Just this week I had a phone call from my uncle. He is a lawyer working in the design, tutoring and course evaluation for overseas students studying English Law. He wanted to pick my brains about the impact of ‘digital content’ on contract law and consumer rights.
Well, I told him it would have a massive and complex impact on the legal profession – not just in sharing data but determining what is admissible in court and what represents a binding contract.
And let’s face it, does anyone every actually read the small print when we buy on line? Frankly, we need to care about this in terms of our rights as citizens.
And then there is the Finance profession – one of the biggest challenges for auditors is the ability undertake effective analytical investigations of systems, tracking data flows. Data science is becoming a big thing for accountants. It won’t be long before even the smallest companies are largely digital in the way records are kept, supply chains managed, contracts let and payments made and received.
In the recent banking crisis, despite sophisticated IT and data analytics, there was a failure to manage risk, or to effectively regulate and to audit. In fact, IT systems were giving the wrong risk ratings.
There continues to be a difficulty for the traditional banks with legacy systems to modernise underlying technology because of the fear of what I call ‘Jenga law’ – that replacing system components (some of the bricks) and eventually it will all come tumbling down.
I could go on. But in every field from medicine to manufacturing technology is fundamentally reinventing what we do and how we do it, often giving us as individuals much greater control and responsibility.
IT is also changing the relationship and for the better between government and all of us as citizens – not just in the government digital service, but in all public services. – our democratic voice is louder, better informed and involved. Our health services and our local councils and being transformed by technology – albeit because there is not enough money to do otherwise.
But we are only at the start of the journey – tinkering at the edges of the change ahead.
We know the future of health care depends on technology for improved data handling, records and systems to integrate with social care. But things are currently so fragmented – data, systems, finances even language. Clinical technology excellence is being choked back by weak administrative systems.
Kent County Council have produced a series of video clips about social care. These are personal stories– putting vulnerable people more in control of their treatment and care packages, helping them to be more independent, ensuring help is there only when wanted or needed, and then appropriately provided.
Technology lies at the heart of their vision and I want to see it embedded across the UK before I need it!
We know all this. But we don’t have clear ambition for the future of the IT profession and the role of the IT professional in this brave new world. It must be more than building IT solutions and fixing them when they break.
Through the BCS and its size and influence, we can help make a real difference. We can champion Broadband and mobile coverage in the UK on behalf of business, communities and individuals. We are not a world leader in this essential service. We worry about high speed trains to improve business productivity, but as I travel round the UK the biggest benefit would be uniform high speed mobile coverage.
BCS is championing the rights of citizens to own our own data and to control how it is used and shared. We should promote the opportunities of ‘Internet of Things’ and so-called ‘big data analytics’ for retail, manufacturing and transport in the interests of the UK economy. But also be advocates for interests of citizens in how this develops in practice.
These are all areas where BCS is already active and engaged with industry and with government, supporting IT professionals in what is expected of them. But we need all of you and your peers to be part of this.
In my opinion, we need to be seen more like the medical profession – a range of different skills, interests and professional groupings that work together for the common good of the patient – for us that means the business, the research project, the government service and ultimately the citizen.
There is no point, I believe, in trying to invent a professional model for IT based on the existing professions such as finance, engineering, legal … these were set up in a different age for a different set of circumstances.
We need an IT profession for the modern age – an age that is dominated by technology opportunity and risks.
One issue is that we really have not been good at ‘marketing’ as a profession. I think we’ve been complacent in assuming everyone must ‘get’ IT because of the fact we all use it and mostly like it.
BCS has an enviable reputation for encouraging technical research and specialist IT work, but this does not suit everyone as a career. After all, most people I know who work in IT are business analysts, project managers, system designers, consultants, account managers and CIOs – no offence, but you certainly wouldn’t trust most of them to take a back of a PC.
But that’s not all. We are facing a bigger challenge than just selling ourselves better. Despite all the good that IT can and does do, technology also has a dark side that is growing.
The growth in dominance of technology companies has often polarised wealth, not shared it. Technology can disenfranchise communities and individuals, and depersonalise services. It has brought new risks and can make us less safe, for example if data is leaked, lost or abused.
It has also opened up new moral dilemmas as we learn more about ourselves through new technologies that monitor us.
I am not going to tell you all about the ‘Internet of things’ and the predictions for its growth – or the associated cyber security risks it brings You know that.
I’m not going to tell you about the power of wearable tech, or about the advances in medicine which allows you to swallow pills to monitor and detect vital changes in our bodies.
You know that car insurers are monitoring our driving habits by sex, age – offering lower premium in return for data and conformity in driving habits. You want to be reckless? You will pay, one way or another. Most people are OK with that.
You know that the smartphone in your pocket is hardly a phone any more. It’s a tracker, a monitor, a data store, a key, a wallet, a camera and a window onto the world. The problem is that you can be seen through that window as well.
There is an increasing cost of being anonymous. Refusing to have a tracker in the car or to give credit card and personal details on line has a cost, and it is increasing.
And in the future, how do we feel about having to wear a monitoring device that checks diet and exercise habits, in order to get health care, insurance or even employment? Whether you care or not about the data you share, it should be a personal choice and you have a right to privacy.
We also know that technology can be used to exploit scarce resources and can damage our environment – modern technology used for intensive farming practices account for many environmental challenges. Worse, IT can be used to falsify data – as in the VW emission scandal. And of course the variety of data leaks, such as TalkTalk recently, risk our personal finances and security.
These incidents affect the reputation of IT. Yet in them I see a glimmer of hope. More than a glimmer in fact. Both TalkTalk and VM suffered hugely from adverse publicity, loss of share value and customers.
Companies everywhere sat up and took note of the VW incident. It was not just VW that suffered – the wider car industry has come under scrutiny and even Germany’s reputation for engineering quality has been shaken.
Now we see the ripple effect through a wide range of household goods being checked for their claimed environmental and energy credentials – much to James Dyson’s delight, now doubt!
That is how it should be – the public need to trust technology and IT professionals, especially in how our data is used and held, whether in dealings with government, or with business.
So our role is more is so much more than helping to exploit the power of technology for commercial advantage. We design new ways of working. We solve business issues. We have a moral obligation to “make IT good for society”. We are helping to shape the world in which we live.
It was not IT which created the environment which made a part of VW think that it was acceptable to use IT systems to falsify emissions data. Neither was it TalkTalk IT teams who deliberately let personal data leak.
I worry therefore that technologists have been marginalised in some sectors as back room engineers and with technology seen just as just a utility (albeit an important one).
I worry that, as negative incidents of technology impact continue to grow, we could become the scape goats.
If we oversell the IT benefits, hide the risks or exploit the power of IT for the wrong reasons, or if we are simply complacent and ‘just follow orders’, then we could become the estate agents of the 21st century (not that I have anything against estate agents of course).
I believe this wider role for IT professionals will be welcomed by CEOs. My work with CEOs in public and private sector indicates that they understand the opportunity of digital, but are not convinced their IT teams can delivery it.
It is the failure of IT professionals to bridge the gap between technology potential and business opportunity which has resulted in a new breed of Chief Digital Officers.
It’s not about putting the ‘’CIO on the board’ – it’s about the ‘impact of technology’ being key boardroom strategic issue – risk, reputation, opportunity, productivity, customer service, efficiency, competitiveness – and indeed culture.
Many large companies get the message but are shackled to legacy systems – this is where, for example, a new breed of emerging banks have stolen a march on the traditional high street names. It is also where IT professionals need to lead – IT must be an enabler, never a blocker, and legacy systems have to be dealt with.
I believe the UK can set a world lead in tackling the opportunities and the risks of technology in the 21st century, in the interests of commerce, government and society – indeed I think we have to, if we are to retain public trust and our leadership position in digital government and eCommerce.
This is where BCS and BCS members can make a difference, alongside our outstanding historic credentials in technology research and innovation.
I want us to be a household name, as a champion for the profession, in business, in government and in society.
I want people to join BCS not just for the value of professional accreditation, training, resources and connections, but also because of the value it brings to UK society.
And I want us to make a difference by working with others – other professions, with media, with research organisations, with business leaders and with our politicians. We must be an outward-looked and an open profession, sharing freely.
You all have a part for play in this – hence my call to arms.
- Portray the profession in its widest sense, making connections to value as well as to technology.
- Advocate professionalism in all we do and support the BCS in our new strategy and programmes, whether you work with government, in research or in industry.
- Work with others in promoting BCS and sharing openly and widely our ambitions and work.
- Encourage others to ‘wave the flag’ – we may be the Chartered Institute, but many non-members work with or in IT, and we should support their good endeavour, wherever it lies.
That is what ‘making IT good for Society’ means.
That is the heart of our purpose and of our Royal Charter.