The future is ours for the making

Dame Stephanie Shirley We should be proactive and shape the future, rather than suffer it as it comes, believes Dame Stephanie (Steve) Shirley.

Her career spanned successfully founding the company that is now Xansa plc and being the first female President of BCS. She now runs her own charitable foundation, and spoke about her activities and ideas, past and present, to Helen Boddy, BCS assistant editor. This interview also appears in the ebook Leaders in Computing.

What made you decide to join the BCS 50 years ago?

I joined the BCS on its foundation. It was a clear declaration to my employer that my future was in computing and not in mathematics.

Originally a mathematician, I had then fallen in love with computing. There is no other way to describe it - it was overnight: this is what I want to do. It proved to be the right choice for me.

Why was computing more appealing to you than mathematics?

I’d always wanted to be a mathematician but it was soon clear that my intellectual capability was insufficient to solve Fermat's last theorem (then one of my aims), whereas computing was new, a virgin field. Ten years earlier or ten years later I wouldn’t have been able to contribute to computing. So it was all a question of timing.

And I was able to contribute. Following the late Professor Mumford, I got more interested in the social and economic aspects of computing, than in the technology per se. And in doing that could move things forward and get the satisfaction that innovators have of being the first to see or do something.

What was BCS like in the early days and how were you involved?

When the BCS started it had an age qualification and so although I had been working for four to five years - I started work at 18 - it was only possible to join as a student member. I was irate about such ageism.

I attended BCS's inaugural conference at Cambridge, and without exception all its monthly meetings, which were in London. So I must have gone to 10 professional presentations every year - lectures in all sorts of things, from a thesaurus in computing to computing in aerodynamics.

That excellent professional development was the only training I had, apart from actually working in the field. In those days there were no programming manuals, it was untrodden territory. So BCS was important. We all learned from each other. Some of the early members have become icons in the industry.

BCS was also useful for networking, particularly once I'd started in business. People knew and therefore trusted me enough to give work to the fledgling company.

So IT, or computing, has been very important, not just to society, but to me as an individual. As now a Life member, BCS has been very much a part of my life. It has been an enormous privilege to head my professional body. To become its President in 1989-90 was a most wonderful opportunity and I was thrilled to receive is Lifetime Achievement Award in 2004.
 
What have been the main changes in the BCS over the years?

The move to professionalism was important. It was the early 1980s when we really started that idea, when I was the BCS Vice President (Professional) and we were re-structuring under Past President Professor Frank Sumner.

I like to believe I introduced the concept of continuous professional development, the idea that you shouldn't just be qualified once, but skills should be kept up date. Professionalism and continuous professional development were movements over time.

As President I deliberately introduced marketing concepts to the BCS, which had started off very academic.

To a certain extent BCS has grown less dramatically than I’d hoped, but it is still there and doing good stuff and will do yet more over the next 50 years.

In the early days it had a sort of senior common room concept. It was the elite. Such elite bodies will not exist in 50 years' time. You can already sense the tensions between the professional and the hobbyist.

The shift is toward the guild concept with overlapping Venn diagrams. With the Worshipful Company of Information Technologists, for example, there are practitioners, journeymen and apprentices.

When you were BCS President did you have a particular mission?

Very much marketing, and moving IT into the board room. I personally commissioned some surveys that absolutely shocked the largely academic Council of the day - about 40 strong then.

I probably didn't do then what I could do now in making Council more effective via a different corporate structure. All societies need to reinvent themselves every now and again.

Was there still prejudice against women when you were President?

Most people were clearly astonished to have a female President. Women have operated as a minority for a very long time. Even as we began to get opportunities, we didn't behave as if we were 51 per cent of the population. Some of us did achieve but we were the fighters, the feisty ones. We tried not to upset too many people, but we obviously did.

Did they purposely seek a female President?

No.

Do you have any thoughts about BCS's role in the coming years?

A forward strategy for the BCS may be to think of a simple process of imaging the future of IT. We are where we are, and as professionals, we have to try and shape the future. That is the role of BCS.

People think that the industry moves very fast but the time delay between concept and happening is much slower than imagined. For example, I was writing about outsourcing in 1978, but it wasn't until 1998 that my company implemented it big style.

One talks about the generational change of hardware but most of the important things in this sector, or nationally, are managerial or financial, rather than hardware. Absolutely fantastic equipment only gains importance when it is applied and there's some market. It is the market that best drives the way in which things develop.

Rather than just documenting and systemising whatever has happened, the BCS should always be conscious of opportunities to help inventors and innovators into the future. I don’t hear much about BCS doing that.

What do you think BCS and the IT industry should be doing to improve its image and engagement with the public?

BCS should be leading the profession and trying to invent a more secure, informed society, steering away from the surveillance society that we seem to be hurtling towards.

IT is absolutely bubbling over the web. The schools are one tool that isn't being used because computing in the schools switches children off. Partnerships with the big search engines, the Googles of the world, is another area through which I could see BCS improving its impact. Image is important but follows engagement with the public.

Nigel Shadbolt's current Presidential mission is absolutely splendid.

What do you think has been the most groundbreaking development in IT or computing over the last 50 years?

Miniaturisation was the thing that I lived through. You have no idea how big computers used to be, you could warm yourself on them in the valve days. Physically smaller, functionally more powerful, plummeting costs.

What has given you most satisfaction in your career?

My company, now called Xansa, began as a manifestation of me as a mature, rounded person, a fighter for all I consider just and true. It started so small that most people would say my main achievement was its economic survival through the 70s recession. The credit for the later development of the company must be shared with many people.

But what I am most proud of is conceiving and taking it into co-ownership. At one time 65 per cent control of the company was held by staff. Over the years, decades, that holding is much reduced, to below 20 per cent, still extraordinarily high for a PLC. I'm very proud of that. Pioneering at that corporate level gave me enormous satisfaction.

Would you have done anything differently looking back?

At any age one can only do the best of which one is capable of at the time; there's no point in looking back to wish I'd done something else.

It would have been wiser had I mastered finance earlier. It was over 20 years before Xansa got a finance director so I kept matters simple in order to understand them.
 
What sort of measures did you take in setting up your company to be family friendly?

The whole concept of Freelance Programmers, which I started in 1962, was based on an employment policy of providing 'jobs for women with children'.

As I became conscious of professional development, training and career development, it soon changed to 'careers for women with children', and later on, as a lot of women were looking after not only children, but disabled partners or eldercare, it became 'careers for women with dependents'. So it was a social mission, a crusade, something to do nationally to get women opportunities in life generally.

I even investigated whether to set it up as a charity - sensibly and thank goodness, it became a commercial organisation. Originally it didn't pay my expenses and it was several years before it paid me a salary.

It was 25 years before it paid a dividend, so you can see how slow its development was. But it had a big impact on work styles and the position of women, particularly in high tech, in Europe.

It now has 8,000 employees - more than half in India - it has moved on.

Are you not concerned that outsourcing could threaten jobs in the UK?

Xansa was one of the first to outsource software development - it was very deliberate - and outsourcing is now one of the many things that makes Britain have 5 per cent of the world's GDP for 1 per cent of the population.

Each party concentrates on its own skills and learns to partner with the other so that outsourcing brings the desired benefits. When we first talked about outsourcing (in 1978) it was quite clear that India would provide cheap labour. But by the time it happened it had a skilled labour force in short supply.

Today, Xansa has more people in India than in the UK. Is it what I expected or planned? No. But it’s good on an international basis, and the City seems to have adapted to it well.

Did your family friendly practices inspire staff loyalty?

Yes, there was mutual loyalty. I supported them and they trusted me. It wasn't just that they contributed to the company's financial success, but they were essential to the company's development. To ease cash flow - which cripples many startups - we geared payments, so that a freelancer was only paid when the customer paid.

Things like that made it a collaborative, even collegiate, culture. Is that a female thing? I believe it was just my style to work in teams. You and I each gain when we respect each other’s area of expertise and together produce better work than individually.

I also led the way in terms of managing flexibly so that time spent by programmers, analysts and consultants was always their best quality time, rather than 9-5. In those days all computing was very creative. You need people’s best work if they are to innovate.

Our productivity was significantly up on others, even though homeworking had inefficiencies because of not working through a central office. IT now facilitates all that.

We did a lot of self management and could genuinely say that we delivered on time to cost. Those are weaselly words. Because through early risk analysis we were looking at work still to be done, rather than thinking this is 100 units of work, we’ve done three so 97 to go. We would re-estimate all time, so that one could shift targets and therefore do things differently rather than rigidly plodding on predetermined routes.

The other thing is that since no one else was employing professional women, we had the pick of that workforce. IBM, one of the largest employers, didn't allow part-time systems engineers, as they called them, and so were a wonderful source of well trained, marketing-oriented women.

We also were training women in the career gap of what we used to say was seven years. At one time I was conscious that we then had people leaving. But I looked round the sector and realised that nearly all the female managers were trained by us.

How do you rate family-friendly ideas today?

Some of the ideas are mainstream now, people talk about 'family friendly', but we’re still counting few women on PLC boards, so it can’t be taken for granted in any way.

Women have a lot more confidence and are performing better in schools, in universities and in some sectors, like medicine and law, they outperform the men. But in most career patterns that is far from the case. And it doesn't seem to be happening in information science.

I admire BCS past President Prof Wendy Hall for really taking the theme up and pushing it forwards. The mere fact that someone needs to do that says that I only nudged it forward a bit.

But presumably in your time that was quite a quantum leap.

Oh yes!

What advice would you give women in a male-dominated IT environment?

Simply to go for it! Aim high, nothing is closed. Nothing in the industry is dependent on physique or the timbre of our voices, or innate physicality in any way. It is a personal choice whether to pursue a vigorous professional career or just fiddle around.

You are now involved in much charity work, some in the IT arena. What made you decide that your Shirley Foundation would support the Oxford Internet Institute?

The Shirley Foundation decided to concentrate on the two things that I know and care about, and one of those was IT (the other was my late son's disorder of autism). £15million has gone to IT in big strategic slugs, for example to The Worshipful Company of Information Technologists of which I am a Past Master.
 
With the Oxford Internet Institute our patronage was reactive. Two fellow liverymen came to me with the idea and asked for support. With philanthropy you get as much as you give, and I wanted to remain linked to the industry from which my wealth came. By being one of the initial two sponsors (with HEFC) I have been able to remain, at a strategic level, close to the sector.

How tremendously fortunate I am that 40 years after the brilliant idea of starting what is now Xansa as a company for women to be involved with such a different startup organisation - a multidisciplinary research institute, concentrating not on the technology but on the social, economic, legal and ethical aspects of the internet. It is very appropriate for me.

I am on the OII strategy board, which meets every few months; was engaged at a corporate level in the initial set up; and continue to be proud of being involved with people doing extremely exciting things, yet things that I can understand. Such as? Oh, eGovernment, the concept that humour on the internet is different to hard copy and so on.

The Oxford Internet Institute has now become an important part of my life and many of my thoughts have been triggered by those clever people at the OII.

The hard part of the sector is not the technology - though I admire people who can do it - but to make the consonant changes in institutions and social structures to synchronise everything. One can see that the Internet can be dangerous, in the way of the asymmetric threats of terrorism.

Is it involved with other initiatives such as the Web Science Research between MIT and the University of Southampton?

Yes the OII is partnering with them, and has been involved for two years now. One of the OII professors, Jonathan Zittrain is on its advisory board. 

What the Oxford Internet Institute is strong at is in validating the importance of social research. I suppose its future and underlying aim is to get the social, economical, legal and ethical issues as mainstream, not something that is thought of afterwards or not at all. Its mission is all the non-technical issues.

Do you think other charities are currently using IT to their full potential?

I notice that IT is only just starting to being used in fundraising. It has a very important future there, not only in qualifying potential donors, but also in giving over the web, so people can make small donations. In financial terms it is ineffective to rattle a tin in front of people, although reasonable for promotion.

The Worshipful Company of Information Technologists, which was initially sponsored by the BCS, is a centre for charitable activities in the IT field. It has a number of major projects, which it has initiated or picked up from government. If only I could list them all now but they can be seen on its website.

If BCS members want to get involved in charities, is that a good place to go?

It's a good place to start. But with charitable giving people concentrate very much on money. Everyone has time and skills to give, and charities also need help with fairly routine administration. Just walking down the road to your local charities, you will be greeted with open arms to come in with some acceptable professional skills.

What has been the success of the web service, autismconnect, which your foundation supports?

autismconnect grew out of Autism99, the third ever virtual conference on the web (the first concentrating on disability) which 16,000 people 'attended'. At the end of the conference, a good bibliography in the field of autism had been built up, which led to setting up the portal. With now 30,000 registered members it hasn't been a resounding success but it is international (only in English, unfortunately), and people from places so remote that I have to look them up in an atlas, access it as the only independent site of its kind.

Nothing stands still, and my interest has morphed into research into the causes of autism, and autismconnect is likely to extend in 2007 to include researchers worldwide as users and have a research bibliography. Research has to translate into the real world, the sooner the better, and categorising good research quickly and exploiting it is important as is, conversely, making sure the bad research gets thrown out.

Is there much research into autism worldwide?

The vast bulk of it is by governments worldwide. Overall still far less than that dedicated to less frequent disorders such as childhood leukaemia or cystic fibrosis. Autism Speaks, sponsored in the UK by the Shirley Foundation, is the largest private funder.

Can IT help research into autism?

Focusing on autism, a neuro-developmental disorder affecting 1 in 166 children, IT is very important for research into causes. There are two particular things: the human genome project and the ability to data mine.

I was still in the industry when data mining appeared but now we are mining down into vast databases to find the susceptibility genes for autism. There are major projects involving 170 researchers in 80 research establishments and when you can use their data intelligently, things move forward faster than perhaps we ever dreamed.

Does the Shirley Foundation have any more IT-related projects in the pipeline?

The mission of the Shirley Foundation is now more focused on autism, so probably not. The rationale is that my co-trustees and I felt there were lots of generous people concentrating on IT projects, and we could make more impact in the autism field.

There are hundreds of small disparate organisations working in the autism area, but no other charity putting serious money into strategic developments.

What do you think could be the next major leaps forward for computing?

I believe the best way of predicting the future is to invent it. Nothing is inevitable or pre-determined. The future will be shaped by the actions of the computing industry.

Yes, we can see a few months ahead but our predictions may be wrong. Last time I seriously tried to predict the future, it turned out nearly everything already existed in BT's research laboratory. The technology is all there - it's about what we do with it.

It can take generations for new technology to be implemented in society. We used to talk of a paperless society, but it's still not here. Telephony took nearly 100 years to be implemented in society. Every innovation brings new social issues.

Unless we work for a better future we are destined to endure what the future brings.

Are there specific developments you'd like to see pursued in the next few years?

The internet has transformed how organisations know their customers and treat them differently. But that has not happened generally in government. An exception is in transport areas such as Transport for London.

Different approaches are needed by Government to its e-services. A prime example is the ID card. Could not mobile phones could be used in some way as an ID card? You can tell who and where I am with a mobile phone, and 40 per cent of the population have one. I'm not saying that it would work - just that innovative thinking is needed.

I also see the need for the computing industry to be the infrastructure - less visible and more critical - to everyday life. You can see technology changing, going forward, going backward. When people lived in small villages we knew our neighbours but technology allows you to re-define who your neighbours are. Outsourcing to the unpaid consumer is everywhere. You can see work going back into the home.

At one time I would have said everything would be easier thanks to technology but in the past we predicted a decline in the working week, and yes, we do now have more leisure time but many people work multiple jobs. There's also a sort of harried leisure class, which isn't what we thought would happen at all.

As individuals or groups in society, we should concentrate on pro-active activities, so that we make the future, rather than suffer it as it comes. BCS should be frontline in that area.

Useful Links

BCS is not responsible for the content of these external sites.

Dame Steve Shirley's own website
Oxford Internet Institute
The Worshipful Company of Information Technologists
Autism Speaks
autismconnect

A shorterned version of this article first appeared in ITNOW in March 2007

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