BCS talk to Sir Maurice Wilkes, BCS President 1957/60 and Nigel Shadbolt, BCS President 2006/07.

What were the original motivations for starting the BCS?

Sir Maurice Wilkes:
Principally to provide a forum for the spreading of information about computers and for the exchange of experience. It was by no means intended to create a new professional society along the lines of existing societies. To do so would have been redundant, since most of the early active members of the BCS were already members of at least one such society. 

I was an electrical engineer. Others were chartered accountants. We had at least one actuary and altogether a wide range of professions were represented. It was only later, when the growing number of younger members who had no such affiliation began to make its weight felt, that the BCS added the conferring of professional status to its roles

What BCS achievement are you most happy about?

Sir Maurice Wilkes:
The fact that the Society met a clear need and attracted people with a real commitment to developing the art and science of computing in this country and elsewhere

Nigel Shadbolt:
50 years after our formation we still retain our original energy and commitment. IT and computing has been transformational - it has changed our world. We can look back with real pride to the contribution that the BCS and its members have made. But because IT and computing is now so ubiquitous we need to embrace a broad spectrum of individuals and organisations who use, develop and deploy systems in a multitude of contexts and a wide variety of sectors.

Where should the BCS now be expending its energies?

Nigel Shadbolt:
Maintaining our momentum. Understanding the relationships between the various species of IT and computing. We also need to develop and execute our professionalism program.

The original charter of the BCS states that we exist to teach and research computing for the benefit of the public. I believe passionately we need to explain our subject, its impact, excitement and opportunities to a wider public. This will help attract our brightest and best youngsters into the subject. Frankly we are not very good at conveying the excitement of our subject.

Too often our subject is seen as a clerical or simply a vocational set of skills. IT literacy is important, but it doesn't produce the next generation of researchers. Teaching IT literacy does not produce individuals able to think and deploy problem-solving skills. Were we to teach computational thinking more rigorously we would focus on just such problem solving skills.

Computational thinking is about teaching students to ask questions such as what can be computed, what kind of solution works, what form of representation best serves problem solving, how can a complex problem be abstracted or else decomposed. Jeanette Wing in the US has argued that these skills are as important as numeracy, reading and writing.

Sir Maurice Wilkes:
I like your comment about maintaining our momentum. This will not in itself achieve success, but it is very necessary.

What will / should the professionalism program achieve?

Nigel Shadbolt:
It will provide a framework within which we can be confident as to the competence, experience and ability of individuals. This is particularly importance in the application of information systems to business and organisational contexts.  A key to this is the CITP standard - we want employers to see this as something positive, a qualification that gives them confidence in the skills and capabilities of those who have it.

It should be seen as complementary to the other chartered qualifications the BCS is able to confer - CEng emphasises engineering competence and CSci focuses on the analytic and formal underpinnings of our subject.

Our discipline has benefited enormously from the input of engineers, physicists, mathematicians, human and social scientists. Professionalism is as much about knowing the limits of ones own competence and calling upon the knowledge and ingenuity of others. We need to recognise the interdisciplinary character of modern information systems.

How has BCS changed in your time?

Sir Maurice Wilkes:
The industry has grown up and matured. The BCS has become more complex in consequence. We now have a larger HQ staff than we did and we rely heavily on their efforts. But we must never forget that, in the last resort, it is our volunteers who provide the energy and enthusiasm that the BCS needs to thrive. They also provide much of the technical expertise.

Nigel Shadbolt:
One big change for BCS has been in its finances, HQ have built products to enable us, as a Society, to do the things we think are important. It is so much easier to focus on your objectives with sound finances. Another recent change is in the average age of new members - it's gone from 38 to 28 in recent years.

Dame Stephanie Shirley recently said in an interview that BCS had grown less dramatically than she expected - what's your perception of this?

Nigel Shadbolt:
There are well over 1 million people in the UK IT sector. I don't think even the BCS can expect to sign them all up! 60,000 BCS members is a substantial increase over recent years. And we aspire to attract many more. We think there are tens of thousands more people who can benefit from and contribute to the BCS.

If we look at the academic segment I represent, about half of university computer science faculty are in the BCS but only 10 per cent of the students (7,500 out of 75,000). We should make it very easy for those studying computer science to become members at an appropriate grade and then work hard to convert them to a more senior grade of membership when they enter the workplace.

What IT developments have struck you most?

Sir Maurice Wilkes:
There was the development of minicomputers, which made computing power much more affordable. It made it possible for an organisation to have one - or perhaps several - computers per department instead of one mainframe for the whole organisation.

By the 1970s, powerful desktop computers were beginning to appear and by 1989 one of them outperformed the most powerful minicomputer on the market. The result was  a complete collapse of the minicomputer industry. Many companies suffered severe downsizing and some eventually went out of business altogether. Viewed as a whole, the industry may be said to have made a remarkable recovery, but it is a very different industry from the one we were used to.

Nigel Shadbolt:
As Sir Maurice says increasing power for decreasing cost has changed the industrial computing landscape. From when I was a student, processor power has increased a million fold. This has meant that a series of problems we felt would not submit to brute force techniques can now be solved using just such methods.

The construction of a worldwide information fabric - via the internet and web has been revolutionary. We are still struggling to understand how this new resource is likely to evolve, how some of its emergent properties work, but the existence of indexing and retrieval engines searching billions of pages of content for hundreds of millions of individuals is remarkable.

But as it has become ubiquitous it has become unremarkable. It is worth reminding ourselves just how far we have come in such a short time.

Who were your role-models, if any?

Sir Maurice Wilkes:
I think we should differentiate between people who influenced us at the beginning of our careers, and role models in the strict sense. A person who influenced me greatly as a graduate student was J. A. Ratcliffe, who was head of the ionosphere research group in the Cavendish Laboratory, and my PhD supervisor. Later, I was influenced by Sir Edward Appleton, and Prof Douglas Hartree.

When, after the war, I found myself head of a very small, but ambitious, department of Cambridge University, I naturally looked towards experienced heads of major departments, especially towards Sir Lawrence Bragg, head of the Cavendish Laboratory, and Sir William Pope, head of the Department of Inorganic Chemistry. These were my role models in dealing with the complexities of university life.

Nigel Shadbolt:
My undergraduate interests were in philosophy and psychology. I was attracted to computing because it seemed to offer new ways of understanding some long-standing questions. So I have always been drawn to people with an interdisciplinary caste of mind. Early on it was my tutors in philosophy - Geoff and Mary Midgley. Later it was someone like Herbert Simon - a computer scientist, psychologist and Nobel Laureate in economics. I admire Tim Berners-Lee - not just because he invented the web although that is pretty significant - I admire him because he has been passionate about open standards and promoted the web as a means to empower people.

What should BCS be doing to improve public engagement?

Nigel Shadbolt:
This is a huge challenge. The subject doesn't thrive without the support of the public. We need to go right back to the start of education: what do schools teach? What should we do to support teachers?

We need to promote IT success stories, whereas at present the media tend to focus on the negatives. There is an issue around how we orient the stories. After all, despite the popular perception, people are intrigued by technology. Popular science TV programmes and books do very well; people like to understand the world around them.

We have not bridged the gap between the public’s perception and the reality of our discipline. We need to invest time and effort to intrigue and inspire people.

Sir Maurice Wilkes:
I am much concerned that so many large, publicly funded, IT projects seem to run into trouble. I do not know whether there is anything that we, as a Society, can do about this, but perhaps we should try.

The future?

Nigel Shadbolt:
I think it was the physicist Neils Bohr who said: 'Prediction is very difficult, especially of the future'. For the BCS I think the future is a bright one. The particular challenge of our subject is that everything is changing so very quickly. We need to ensure that we can react to these changes and offer the right kind of help and advice, benefits and services to our members and the public.

Our discipline will increasingly interpenetrate the way all science and engineering, business and commerce is transacted. Although we can foresee the sorts of memory densities, processor speeds and software capabilities people aspire to in five or 10 years - in truth we are always surprised by the way a new use of the technology emerges, or how a service can generate whole new forms of economic revenue.

Sir Maurice Wilkes:
I entirely agree about the folly of trying to predict the future...

Final comments?

Sir Maurice Wilkes:
I think that I should leave the final word with the current President.

Nigel Shadbolt:
The BCS should be proud looking back over the last 50 years. Britain's contribution to the ideas, concepts, technologies and application of IT and computer science have been immense. The most important thing we should seek to do is maintain the present spirit of the Society. One in which the professional body and learned society aspects are equally valued and complementary to one another.