At last. This year, computing was the fastest growing A-level subject – nearly 30% more students took the exam. At university level, applications for computer science degrees are up 3% – a small increase perhaps, but a big improvement compared to declines of 13% in 2011, 19% in 2012 and 11% in 2013.
Have we finally turned a corner, for encouraging young people to study technology?
Let’s not get too carried away – those A-level figures correspond to just 5,383 exams out of 850,000 – but after years of consistent decline in interest, this year’s sharp increase is a positive sign.
One important underlying concern remains – only 8% of those computing students were female. At university, the proportion of women students is just 13%, down one percentage point since 2010. Some hope is offered by the fact that since 2010, the number of females taking A-levels in science, technology, engineering or maths (Stem) subjects has risen by 16,000 – but clearly there is a lot more to be done to make girls interested in technology early enough for it to become an option for A-level and degree study.
We must be grateful for any increase, but the industry has to build on this and re-double efforts to develop the next generation of digital workers. The battle to convince leaders in IT, business and government to support moves for more children studying Stem has been won – but the battle to convince those young people is ongoing.
IT leaders need to step up and help. There is hardly an IT manager that does not complain of problems recruiting the skills and talent they need. Getting kids to study computing won’t change that today – but IT chiefs have a responsibility to help ensure their successors don’t face the same difficulties.
There are more and more ways to help – organisations like the Tech Partnership, the BCS, Founders4Schools, Future First or the BBC’s Make It Digital campaign can help engage with schools. Or take your own initiative – offer work experience or apprenticeships, go back to your old school, or to your children’s school, and offer to help in careers days or talks. Sell what a great career the technology world offers.
We need to secure the next generation to build the UK’s future digital economy. We’re going in the right direction at last, but IT leaders need to step up and contribute too.
Within minutes of Mike Bracken announcing his departure as the government’s digital chief, Twitter was full of tributes from people in his team at the Government Digital Service (GDS), and from the wider digital community across Whitehall and beyond.
There is little doubt Bracken inspired huge loyalty – but according to insiders, that hasn’t always been mirrored outside the digital community. For now at least, Bracken’s leaving inevitably prompts speculation about what happens next for GDS and the management of digital transformation.
Sources suggest that Bracken has not always seen eye to eye with his boss, civil service CEO John Manzoni. We know from Manzoni’s public pronouncements that he favours giving power to departments, not the centre – “The good stuff happens when you put great people out in the departments. It doesn’t happen when you put great people in the centre,” he has said – a model that doesn’t suit the current shape of GDS.
Bracken said on Twitter soon after the announcement: “My last challenge will be to set up digital centre of Govt for next Parliament”, which seems to suggest that the governance of digital government is going to change, and that the role of GDS is set for a rethink.
In an email to Whitehall technology chiefs, seen by Computer Weekly, Bracken singled out deputy government CTO Magnus Falk who runs the government tech leaders network – but didn’t mention Falk’s boss, CTO Liam Maxwell, who originally set up the cross-Whitehall group. It’s easy to read too much into these things of course, but multiple sources have said that Bracken and Maxwell fell out with each other. It’s equally important to say that Bracken himself absolutely denies any rift with Maxwell.
Further speculation suggests that Bracken’s plans for government as a platform (GaaP) have not received the backing at Cabinet level that he hoped; and that Manzoni wants to cut GDS down to an architecture and policy unit and go back to the days when IT suppliers did most of the delivery. If any of this speculation is true, it will be a huge disappointment for the many people who support what Bracken has been trying to achieve.
The Cabinet Office highlighted Bracken’s achievements in delivering the Gov.uk website, and the so-called digital exemplars – the high-volume public services redesigned and redeveloped to be digital-by-default. But critics say that many of those digital services are little more than an aesthetic overhaul – it’s easy to find people keen to say that much more could have been delivered.
And then there’s Verify, the high-profile identity assurance system that has been frequently delayed, and is being rolled out with varying degrees of success. There are even rumours that HM Revenue & Customs and the Department for Work and Pensions – the two biggest intended users of Verify – are considering building their own identity systems.
From my perspective, Bracken’s biggest achievement was in changing the conversation about technology in Whitehall – recognising the broken nature of IT delivery he inherited and making that the common view.
Bringing IT and digital skills back into government has been the single most important improvement in Bracken’s time, changing attitudes and organisations to put digital and technology much closer to the heart of government decision-making. His successors must retain that knowledge in Whitehall – surely, hopefully, government has accepted it cannot outsource everything to Big IT and needs to be a more intelligent customer.
Let’s not forget how hard it is to drive change in Whitehall and, compared to the past, Bracken achieved a huge amount in a relatively short time – even if some people inside and outside government feel a certain frustration that even more could have been done. I suspect Bracken shares that frustration.
But attitudes and organisations are easy to unwind, and that is the fear. Bracken leaves government with a report card showing mostly positive reviews, and his missionary zeal for digital transformation of public services will be missed.
The biggest test now will be to see how deeply embedded are the changes Bracken led. He leaves a strong legacy, it must not be wasted.
Government digital chief Mike Bracken has announced his shock departure from government, four years after taking on leadership of the Government Digital Service (GDS). There is already much speculation about the reasons for his departure and what it means for the future of GDS – all of which I write about here – but for now, Computer Weekly has seen a copy of an internal email Bracken sent to the cross-Whitehall Technology Leaders Network announcing he was leaving, which in itself makes for interesting reading…
I’m writing to let you know that I will be leaving government on 30 September. More on what I’ll be doing is to follow, but I wanted to take a moment to thank you all for the tremendous help you’ve given me, and the cause of Digital Transformation, over the years.
There has been advice, support and hard work all across government, from Perm Secs [permanent secretaries], to all the digital people we’ve helped to hire, to the front-line staff who’ve been generous with their time as I poked around their systems, to the digital teams in departments and agencies who’ve actually knuckled down and redesigned their services around their users.
And there’s been kindness and encouragement from outside government too, our early conversations with Tim O’Reilly and Jen Pahlka in the US have blossomed into shared practises and mutual support with the USDS and 18F. Governments across the world have acknowledged the pioneering work we’ve been doing and have decided to join us on the journey. Our Digital Advisory Board has listened, advised and nudged us forward. The wider government technology/digital/open data community has been a fantastic critical friend, holding us to account and helping us improve.
You lot, though, deserve a special word of thanks, because you’ve got one of the hardest and most important jobs in government.
You’re a newer group than the digital leaders so you’ve got more work ahead of you and you’ve had less time to gel. And you’re in the engine room of transformation – facing the important decisions that will really drive the way government serves its users. All I can advise is keep collaborating, keep talking back and don’t go back to the closed, secretive days of five CIOs in a room making all the decisions for government. The Whitehall game of big departments doesn’t work for users – it works to sustain an image of relative size in a closed system, while users of our services don’t care about our internal IT budgets. We are at our best – whether it be making decisions about software warranties or open document standards – when we do it as a collective. You’ve got the chance to demonstrate that large-scale technology transformation is possible and that cross-government working can be effective – in fact it’s the only way to get it done. Please continue to support Magnus [Falk, deputy CTO] and to work with the Digital Leaders together you’ll be unstoppable. Chris Ferguson will chair of the Digital Leaders Network as Kathy Settle moves to take up her post at DCMS – please support him and please keep collaborating.
With you, with Digital Leaders, with the Advisory Board and with GDS I believe I’m leaving government’s digital delivery in enormously capable hands. The GDS leadership is strong, our plans are clear and focused, our people – and digital teams across government – are rolling up their sleeves to continue the work of transformation.
Again, thanks, good luck and please stay in touch.
With Windows 10, Microsoft has built a fine sail, but has the ship already left harbour?
If anything encapsulates the change in the technology world in the last 20 years, it’s the relative reactions to the latest versions of Windows. Two decades ago, Windows 95 was unveiled to an enormous hoopla, with The Times newspaper sponsored by Microsoft to promote the software, the Rolling Stones brought in to sing Start me up as the theme tune for the big event, and a huge buzz around the launch.
When Windows 10 came out this week, outside the core IT commentators, the response was a general “Meh”. So what? And this was despite Windows 10 receiving far better reviews than its recent predecessors, especially the awkward, clumsy, uncomfortable hybrid of desktop and mobile that was the unlamented Windows 8.
On the positive side, Windows 10 shows us a Microsoft willing to learn and admit its mistakes for the first time in a while. Gone is the bluster and arrogance of the Steve Ballmer era, replaced with a thoughtfulness and humility under new CEO Satya Nadella.
Microsoft has been forced to accept that operating systems are now seen as a commodity, thanks to Apple and Google giving theirs away. Windows 10 is the first free version ever – albeit only for a year. Nadella has understood that Microsoft exists in a multi-vendor world and cannot rely on creating an all-Windows lock-in any more. And the regular updates promised to Windows 10 – instead of huge service packs every few months – is also a response to the iterative changes users of iOS and Android are accustomed to.
But none of this takes away the fact that in the space of just 10 years, Microsoft has seen Windows go from running 95% of all the world’s computers, to just 14% now.
The chances of Windows disrupting the dominance of Apple and Android in the consumer mobile market are slim to non-existent. Microsoft has lost the developer community targeting that sector – just look at the paucity of the Windows app store compared to its rivals. So have we really reached a point where Windows is now all about protecting Microsoft’s corporate base?
The promised seamless integration of software across mobile, tablet and desktop is clearly designed to appeal to IT managers looking to offer users more flexible working and greater choice of devices. And appeal to them it will – many big Microsoft shops will look to push users down the all-Windows route.
Windows 10 is both the last hurrah for the operating system as the centrepiece of enterprise IT, and the start of a new Microsoft. Nadella is clearly preparing for a time 10 years away when Windows is no longer the company’s most significant product – perhaps even no longer a significant source of revenue. A multi-platform Office 365 and Azure cloud services are the future of Microsoft.
Corporate IT was the making of Microsoft and the base from which Windows went on to dominate the world. Now the company has come full circle, and has to build again from its heartland in the enterprise.
If, like me, your childhood featured the joys of Scalextric, then you can’t fail to feel a frisson of excitement at the prospect of controlling the racing cars from your smartphone, and sharing race data with your friends.
This is just one of the innovations being considered by Hornby, the owner of Scalextric and Airfix models, as well as the iconic model railways brand. That’s a lot of childhood memories encapsulated in one sentence.
For anyone of a certain age with fond recollections of those great toys, you can hardly think of a more traditional business than Hornby. Yet the hobbies company is investing heavily in digital to maintain its relevance to children (and some adults) otherwise infatuated with video games and the internet.
It’s a great example of a seemingly old-fashioned firm embracing the digital age. And it’s what every established company in any industry needs to do. Industry watchers often get somewhat blinkered by shiny digital startups and the ballooning share prices of internet companies, and forget the opportunities of taking everyday products and services and transforming them for the digital consumer.
In the next five to 10 years, there are going to be lots of household names that fail to make that transition, which will simply disappear. Many of us won’t just be indulging in Scalextric nostalgia, we’ll be reminiscing about the high-street names we used to buy from that didn’t adapt in time. The list already includes the likes of Comet, Woolworths and Blockbuster, and they won’t be the last.
In contrast, government isn’t going bust anytime soon, but it’s refreshing to hear the new Cabinet Office minister Matt Hancock describing digital government as “a chance to build a new state”. There’s a growing recognition among senior politicians – at last – that technology is at the heart of reforming the public sector.
Even notorious technophobe Tony Blair said in a speech this week: “Technology and its implications for everything from the NHS through to government itself, is the single most important dimension.”
Digital leaders reading this article might scoff and say, “Tell us something we don’t know”. But don’t underestimate the number of companies – and IT managers – that still don’t get it. The race is there to be won – on a Scalextric track and in the digital revolution.
Telecoms regulator Ofcom has formally put the future of BT’s Openreach subsidiary into play – and hence the future structure of the UK’s critically important broadband infrastructure.
Over the coming months, you can expect to see some robust opinions from broadband providers such as TalkTalk and Sky, as well as smaller rural networks, about why BT’s network infrastructure should be fully split away from the telecom giant’s ownership.
Expect also to see an equally robust defence from BT about why retaining Openreach is the best option – but also some compromises on BT’s behalf to address the justified concerns about what Ofcom called BT’s “incentive to discriminate” against competitors.
I’ve written in this blog before that separating Openreach from BT is the right thing to do. I’ve also speculated that BT secretly wants this to happen, knowing the immense investment that will inevitably one day be needed to replace most, if not all, of the copper national network with fibre.
By creating Openreach 10 years ago, Ofcom helped to establish the most competitive broadband market in Europe at a consumer level – at least, for consumers in reach of BT’s network. The move has stimulated demand and turned broadband into a utility – a must-have for most households and small businesses. BT points out that, by the time its superfast broadband roll-out has completed, high-speed connectivity will be available to more households in the UK than the gas network. But we need to make changes at a wholesale level too, to make the next step.
BT will continue to get as much performance out of its copper network as it can – but inevitably, at some point in the future, the UK needs fibre. Copper can be pushed further, that asset can be sweated for all it’s worth, but a world-leading digital economy is going to need the capacity that only fibre can offer.
TalkTalk and Sky are happy to criticise Openreach and campaign against the status quo, but perhaps the big question they need to be asked is how willing are they to put their money behind their anti-BT rhetoric.
The Openreach network is a national asset – among the most critical of our critical national infrastructure. It will never come into public ownership and never again should. But it should be owned by the industry, with shared risk and shared investment.
BT’s rivals ought to propose a new ownership structure for Openreach. BT deserves to be compensated for its stewardship, and if the likes of TalkTalk and Sky are serious, they should put up the cash to do so. Shares in Openreach could be sold to BT’s major rivals – for example, TalkTalk could own a proportion of the company corresponding to its market share.
A shared network, with shared investment and shared profits, is fair to all players, fair to BT which as market leader would still be the largest shareholder, and fair to rural broadband firms which can take a small share and be protected by stock market rules that prevent discrimination against minority shareholders.
It would be a hugely progressive statement from BT if it were to propose such a solution. It would be the acid test test of BT’s rivals if they were willing to stump up the cash. The future of the UK’s digital infrastructure is at stake, and the big players need to find innovative ways to secure it.
Computer Weekly’s annual event to announce our list of the 50 most influential women in UK IT has become our most popular event of the year. We’re delighted with the way the IT community has engaged with the programme to recognise and promote the amazing female role models in technology.
The programme goes from strength to strength. This year, we had nearly 150 women nominated for the list – three times the number when the list was first put together in 2012. Our online reader vote attracted over 7,500 votes – 50% more than the previous year. And the social media activity around the announcement this week generated more than 10 million Twitter impressions from over 1,100 tweets.
At one stage, our event hashtag #CWwit50 was trending as the sixth most popular Twitter topic in the UK. If it weren’t for the Budget, the Ashes cricket, Wimbledon and One Direction, we might have been number one.
That’s a huge endorsement of the need to encourage more women and girls to consider a career in technology – and a massive nudge to recruiters to actively seek to employ more women in IT.
The reality remains that the proportion of women working in UK IT continues to fall – some surveys put the figure as low as 14%. Even if you consider the wider definition of people working in digital jobs, the proportion of women has dropped consistently and is now just 26%.
These are figures that continue to shame and humiliate technology employers in the UK. It is a brutal fact that the UK will fail to make the most of its opportunity in the digital economy unless it can find the near half a million people estimated to be required to address skills shortages in the next five years. We will not fill all those jobs by only recruiting from half the talent pool.
Furthermore, as the digital revolution increasingly touches every aspect of our lives, the UK needs a technology workforce that reflects the full diversity of the people who use that technology.
But frankly, we’ve written exactly those sentiments every year, and nothing has really changed, despite the growing awareness of the problem. As one senior female IT leader said at our event – we need to forget the past, and work out what to do in future instead.
So that’s our intention – to build on the broad support and huge engagement we received for this year’s influential women list to identify some specific ideas that might, hopefully, finally, make a difference if employers and government take action.
Please get in touch if you have ideas. There is still a lot to do, but wouldn’t it be great to be able to report substantial progress when we convene again in 2016 to celebrate the vital role of diversity in UK IT.
The political climate in the UK makes it difficult to talk about immigration and its effect on the IT sector, given the wider sensitivities around the subject. But it’s a topic that needs to be considered if the UK is to make the most of the opportunity to become a world leader in the digital economy.
In line with its policy to reduce non-EU immigration, the Conservative government wants to change the criteria for overseas workers brought to the UK by companies operating in this country. In particular, it wants to raise the salary threshold for staff brought in using a special category of visas for intra-company transfers.
The most obvious effect of such a move would be to make it harder for offshore outsourcers to bring lower-paid employees to work on projects in the UK – especially given that the main reason UK companies contract with offshore providers is for access to highly skilled but lower-paid IT experts.
Many tech startups also complain that it is too difficult to bring in overseas talent to help their growth – while the government has to an extent treated startups as a special case, the measures introduced so far have not made any real difference.
And IT departments suffer too – recruitment agencies report huge demand for software developers as digital needs grow, with not enough people available. Ten years ago, there were thousands of Australian, New Zealand and South African IT experts working in the UK to help fill the gaps – but it’s become too difficult for them to get the necessary visas, so they go elsewhere instead.
Does this all matter? Surely it’s right to keep these jobs for UK workers rather than relying on foreigners? Well yes, we all want to see a skilled British IT workforce developing and growing our digital sector – but the reality is that we simply don’t have enough people with the right skills to fulfill the growth ambitions of the UK tech sector in the next five years.
Everybody knows this, from government to employers – it’s estimated that we will need as many as a million new entrants into IT in the next five years. There are more initiatives than ever intended to address the skills shortage, from schools to apprenticeships – but these are almost exclusively long-term efforts that will not address the problem for at least five or more likely 10 years.
When are the international stakes in the ground going to be placed in the global digital economy? In the next five years, that’s for sure. It’s critical for the UK’s long-term success that we have the people needed to deliver growth and development to 2020 to make sure we have the essential foundations in place.
Just look at what we’re up against. Computer Weekly recently visited Huawei, the Chinese networking firm making great inroads into Europe and the UK. At its Shenzhen HQ, the canteen feeds 50,000 meals to workers in the space of 30 minutes. Forget the mass catering challenge – just look at the potential of a technology firm with those resources and that determination to be a global player.
Visit any of the big Indian IT firms and you see a similar situation – hundreds of thousands of first-class degree standard science, technology and engineering graduates entering the workforce every year. We can’t match those numbers, but can match and win in skills, innovation and competitiveness – but only if we have the people in place in these critical next five years.
For IT, the immigration question is not one of taking home-grown jobs – it’s about making sure those jobs exist in the first place. If we miss this digital opportunity, the economic growth and the new jobs created take place somewhere else, sucking the best of UK talent away. That is, at least, one way to solve the skills shortage – but it’s not a solution anyone wants.
The government needs to accept that digital skills have a specific short-term – and short-term only – immigration requirement and make exceptions accordingly. IT employers need to play their part too by committing to training and development for the skills we will need in future, while acting responsibly in their use of IT immigration.
The next generation of UK digital talent – and the UK’s digital economy – is depending on it.
The term “legacy IT” is, in reality, something of a misnomer. It’s recognised by every IT leader to represent the old software and hardware in their infrastructure, especially where it’s since been superseded by newer technologies. Some 90% of IT chiefs say legacy systems are holding them back and hindering their adoption of digital strategies.
But in effect, every bit of kit or new application becomes “legacy” the day after it goes live – at least, under traditional IT management methods. Legacy IT is sunk cost – hopefully, it’s an investment, one that no matter how much it seems out of date, cumbersome or complex, is still delivering a return. Otherwise, why not just switch it off?
As the big retail banks have found, legacy IT still runs the business, and the cost and risk of replacing it still just about outweighs the risk of keeping it going. There are ways to extend the useful life of legacy IT – not least by wrapping it in a layer of APIs – but the ultimate goal for any IT leader has to be to eliminate legacy IT completely.
That’s not as daft an idea as it sounds.
Ask yourself this question: Can you invest in technology that doesn’t become a legacy? If you were starting from a greenfield site today – as startups do – you would design legacy out of your IT architecture. You would use cloud services widely if not exclusively – no more worries about hardware getting old. You would develop software iteratively using agile methods, and manage your infrastructure using DevOps principles, so that corporate applications are constantly updated and never become legacy. If you encourage staff to use their own mobiles and laptops at work too, then you avoid the need for regular end-user device updates.
Of course, it’s never quite as easy as that, and we’re a long way from reaching a point where everything in your IT infrastructure is constantly refreshed. But it’s increasingly feasible to move your IT strategy in that direction.
Instead of dealing with the problems of legacy IT, how about making the elimination of legacy IT your personal legacy as an IT leader?
If you believe everything the IT industry tells you, then by now “big data” should have resolved all your decision-making problems and presented executives and employees with the insights they need to do their jobs better.
It hasn’t? What’s wrong with you? The reality is, of course, that only a handful of early adopters can claim to be using big data at sufficient scale to transform their business.
There’s no doubting the potential for making much better use of the vast amounts of data being generated by our digital world, nor the opportunity that modern analytics tools present. But perhaps IT leaders need to rein in the enthusiasm from business chiefs that has led to such high expectations. There are a lot of basics that need to be addressed first.
Look at the government, for example. The Conservatives have bitten the data bug – and good on them for doing so. The new Cabinet Office minister, Matt Hancock, called this week for a “data culture” in government, instead of a target culture. He said data can help make better, more objective decisions on where to invest in public services and how to deliver savings – using data analysis to “guide service in real time”.
He’s not wrong – he’s just a long way from being able to do so. Only last year, Computer Weekly revealed that the government’s open data programme was being held back by problems with data quality and a lack of standard, usable formats. Let’s see ministers making real-time decisions based on the sort of “dirty data” sloshing around in Whitehall databases.
But let’s not be critical of the intent – it just needs the aims to be realistic.
Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) – a company not without its share of IT problems – says it wants to use big data to deliver levels of personalised customer service not seen since the days branch managers knew their account holders by name.
But when RBS started to look at big data, it realised it had the same sort of problems the government faces. “When we started, everything was a mess, things were terrible. There was a conclusion: your data quality is terrible,” said the RBS head of data analytics.
As a result, the company first targeted small initiatives that could make a big difference, such as warning customers who were paying twice for identical products, or texting people who forgot to take their cash out of an ATM.
As more organisations tackle the big data challenge, further best practice along these lines will emerge. But the message at this stage for most IT leaders is: if you want big data, start small.