Brian Runciman, BCS managing editor, interviews Elizabeth Sparrow, who wrote the introduction to 'Developing the Future - A report on the challenges and opportunities facing the UK software development industry' - published by BCS, Microsoft and Lancaster University.

BR: The introduction of the report says that the software development industry in the UK has opportunities to generate wealth and have a profound impact on society - what will this impact be in your view?

ES: Software is embedded in so many of the devices we use today but sometimes we just don't realize it - it's so much a part of everyday life: working, resting, playing games, travelling. A lot of people don't appreciate how dependent we are in the modern world on software because it’s not visible. Our use of software will only increase, so we need to prepare for the future and build up the IT industry to meet the opportunities this presents.

BR: The figures are impressive - 1 million people in the software industry, a Gross Value Added contribution to the UK economy of £30 bn per annum, which is 45 per cent of the UK total.  The report sets the goal of making the UK 'the pre-eminent place for software development' - where are we with that?

ES: One of the interesting facts, and not well known, is that today the UK has got a very healthy trade surplus in IT services. We actually export far more than we import. We all know that Ireland has done very well in exporting IT services, as has  India, but it is little known that the UK has the third largest trade surplus in IT services in the world ! We are doing well - and we are known for innovation and creativity - like games technology.

So we are good today but we need to develop that for future. The industry adds value and, interestingly, the Treasury recently redefined how they calculate the value that comes from software. Previously it was counted as a cost of running the business - but now it is recognised as an asset that can earn the UK value - and that has given us a much more accurate picture of the importance of software development to the UK economy.

BR: A keynote of the report is not being afraid of offshoring; lower end jobs may go but our core skills of creativity, project management and so on will stay. But one of the five challenges mentioned in the report is the problem of attracting new skills and talent for the future. What is the key to that?

ES: We shouldn't be afraid of offshoring - but we can't sit on our laurels and assume that jobs will automatically stay in the UK. We do have good creative skills but we can't be sure they'll remain. We need to be clear on the sorts of skills we need - right from educating school children, to university courses and the way we structure further education and the subsequent professional development - these need to nurture the skills we'll need in the future.

The report indicates that the UK has no problem with creativity - but we do seem to have a problem turning that into something worthwhile in the commercial environment. Surely that's vital if we are to address the fifth key challenge - ensuring the UK is at the centre of European software development. This is a difficult area - turning ideas into a viable business proposition. The UK has always found that difficult.

BR: Can we learn from the US?

ES: We can. There's actually a lot of work going on, particularly at the Centre for Innovation in IT based at Lancaster University - an organisation  that, along with BCS and Microsoft, sponsored this report. We need to look at all the barriers that seem to prevent the UK from being able to turn ideas into profitable businesses. It's a complex mix of government policies, tax breaks, venture capitalist attitudes towards investment in ideas and the general culture. It's no one thing - but it's certainly worth looking at what works in other countries. This is going to be where we in the developed countries with higher wages have to look for success in the future.

BR: Nigel Shadbolt, the new BCS President, is looking at engaging with the public on IT and expanding their understanding of it. That fits in with one of the other key challenges - adjusting the image that the industry projects. There was recently a bit of research from the US which claimed that IT workers were twice as likely to wear t-shirts with the names of heavy metal bands emblazoned across them than other workers. Trite, perhaps, but a good example of the image problem - what can be done?

ES: This is a big issue. It affects the number of people we can recruit into the profession but BCS has some interesting initiatives underway in this area. In some recent research in schools we got comments back that were fascinating. For example, the media portrayal of IT is not helping the recruitment issue as demonstrated by one comment: that the hackers are the cool ones - they get drunk and have sex, but not the IT professionals!

IT is regarded as boring and dull. We've got to explain that IT lies behind the fantastic technology that kids love using - iPods and so on. Kids are using IT every minute of their lives, almost, but are not realizing that what lies behind it is pretty clever technology.

On the social angle maybe we've lost sight of what the NHS Connecting for Health Programme can do to actually help people who are sick. This is about bringing technology back to human stories; how people are helped to live much more enjoyable and healthy lives through the use of technology. It's linking technology to what we enjoy doing in life. Engagement with the public is fine - but a more pressing problem is that students are not going into IT.

I noticed a success story in the report from Peter McOwan from University of London who says that although there has been a massive drop-off in applicants for Computer Science courses in the UK as a whole, his organisation has had an 85 per cent increase. He puts this down to the Computer Science for Fun magazine they've produced and the image they portray. As this is basically a marketing job, who should drive it?

BCS has a role to play here. I think the work we are beginning to see, led by the Education and Training Forum, is significant. The schools’ survey is important – we need to take an objective look at  why children aren’t studying in this area. We all have subjective views - but we need to look across the board. The findings at the moment indicate that children find the subject boring and dull, and believe IT  is about little more than using spreadsheets. So we need to help school teachers understand what a career in IT is really about.

We also need to join up the education from school to university and into the work place. Today it is sometimes disjointed - there's a gap between learning to use  spreadsheet  packages at school and the study of  computing or IT at university, which in itself is not as closely related to what commercial environments demand as it should be. Unfortunately in the marketplace many employers say the last person they want to employ is a computing graduate. There's real work to do here. 

Pilot programmes are being planned to market IT as enjoyable and relevant to school kids. The problems are not just about the wages being a bit flat at the moment or offshoring concerns, the big issues for schoolchildren are about fun and an interesting career.

BR: The report mentions the tension between what business requires and what universities provide. But at the same time there seems to be a communication problem because universities do change their approached based on what business tells them - then when change is implemented they are told that these skills are no longer wanted. It seems that business has a short-term view. How can we address that?

ES: I was lecturing at Intellect recently, who represent some of the employers, and we touched on these issues. There needs to be give and take on both sides. BCS accredit  university courses. If we understand what employers want  we can help colleges get accreditation for appropriately designed courses to meet future business needs.

Business needs to understand that training university students according to what you need this year is no good - because that will have changed by next year. University education is about principles - to give someone a good understanding of the principles underlying IT and of business management. It's down to later training and development to teach about specific technologies and applications, because they change very fast.

BR: That brings us back to differentiating the jobs we have here from what will inevitably be offshored. Karen Price says in the report that there should be more business skills taught in technical degrees. The trend toward architect roles is also mentioned - are these the types of roles that we will want to keep, to specialize in?

ES: The architecture roles are one of a number that will become increasingly important. Software is now put together as a set of components and it is the service architecture that holds it together - this a relatively new discipline and could well be relevant for UK. Another important UK-based skill  is devising sourcing strategies, determining where you source IT services, learning how to manage them and so on.

Many contributed to the report, which is in itself a good start. It concludes with a core message that government, business and academia need to cooperate more closely to address these challenges. Is that happening? It's a long road. Gordon Brown has regularly talked about the challenge of India and China. A lot more work is needed by us all. The second BCS offshoring report has played its part - that drew on contributions from Intellect, trade unions, e-Skills and a number of individuals working in the offshore industry. So we are recognising the issues.

BR: Is there a quick win that could benefit the software development industry?

ES: A bigger push from BCS and others to get across the message that IT is exciting and matters. Unfortunately IT doesn't  have a good image but there're so many stories to tell of what IT has done for society and to capture and promote those would generate discussion. BCS have appointed a public engagement manager and that will help us get the message out. This is not about bits and bytes and security scans but why IT is good for the world.

BR: There was an episode of the Simpsons where someone was having a dream about a world with out zinc - not realizing all the benefits it gave.

That would be interesting - a world without technology would fall over very quickly. What would be the reaction if we removed just the software? People wouldn't be able to text anymore, use their car's climate control, talk with their friends on MySpace and so on. If we could portray a world with no software it would show how reliant we really are on it. We do take technology very much for granted, even the net because it's just there; providing access to freely available information. We don’t really stop to think how these things got there.

BR: Are you positive that we will achieve what we want to achieve with the UK software industry?

ES: I think we will, because we are looking at this with our eyes open. In the past, with manufacturing, there was complacency; a feeling that somehow the UK had a right to retain manufacturing and that other countries really couldn't do this very well. This time we are much more alive to the global competition - we do have great strengths and as long as we don't ignore what's happening in the world we'll succeed.

BR: So as long as we don't fall into the trap of the England football team and assume we have a right to win we’ll be fine?

ES: Absolutely.

BR: Thanks for speaking to us, and for not wearing your AC/DC t-shirt.

About the author

Elizabeth Sparrow is the author of the BCS book A Guide to Global Sourcing - Offshore Outsourcing and Other Global Delivery Models.

She was chair of the BCS Working Group on Offshoring, which published its second report in May 2006, 'Embracing the Challenge, Exploiting the Opportunities: Building a World Class IT Profession in the Era of Global Sourcing'.