Michael Grant first entered the technology field in the flight simulation industry. He then spent 35 years working in a variety of international marketing and corporate communications roles at director and vice-president level within six IT companies: Gateway, Lotus Development, Commodore, ICL, Prime Computer and Wang.
In recent years, Grant has worked in IT recruitment, having founded his own pan-European IT headhunting company. Today, he is an associate director of Harvey Nash, one of the world’s leading IT services and recruitment organisations.
As his inauguration approached, Claire Penketh, BCS’s Senior Press Officer, met Grant and talked about his life, his desire for accessibility and his passion for education and professionalism. Addressing is presidency directly, Grant said: ‘It is a huge honour to be elected as our new President and to represent our IT profession. The role comes with many challenges, not the least of which today is to strive and ensure that IT is good for society, as required by our Royal Charter.’
Tell me about your involvement with flight simulators.
Well, flight simulation, in those days, was an extraordinary business because it was the bleeding edge of technology. In the early days - when machines cost about 20 million a go - I worked with the Evans and Sutherland Computer Corporation in Salt Lake.
The whole area of flight and travel and technology was totally fascinating. I was given the opportunity, at an early age, to do North America press tours every year. I was lobbying four-star generals in the Pentagon, trying to get business for England.
Let’s just go back a bit though: your origins were quite humble?
Yes, they were. I lived for much of my life in a council house. My mother was a secretary and a widow. My father had been a corporal in the Royal Air Force. Really, my prospects were not too great until the Royal Air Force Benevolent Fund stepped in when I was seven-and-a-half and I was sent away to a cathedral boarding school for the next ten years.
So what did you do then?
I worked initially for Heinz as a management trainee. It was an extraordinary company and I learnt so much working there - things that I’ve used later in life. For reasons that I’ve never quite understood, I got selected to work with the Heinz family on their annual shindig - 2,000 guests at Ascot week! So, I got to meet Jack Cohen - the founder of Tesco, Paul Getty, Princess Margaret and more, and I did it every year.
Each year, I’d get back to my desk and, as a very junior management trainee on my £12 a week; Mr Henry J Heinz would write me a personal handwritten thank you letter from Pittsburgh, the company’s global headquarters. It’s an attitude to reward and recognition which has stuck with me throughout my life. It was a great lesson.
You then left and started travelling?
In those days, Brits didn’t travel. So I was with American draft dodgers and people who probably weren’t able to stay in their own countries. I did a year-and-a-half of travelling. I had a bus ticket to India because that was all I could afford. I lived off my wits because I didn’t have any money. I would buy and sell stuff from one country to another. All legal I hasten to add. My best start was buying gold rings from the bazaars in Istanbul - in the days when nobody even went to Turkey - and then selling them on into India, Iran and Afghanistan.
So, why BCS? Why did you get involved?
From a very early age as a ‘child of charity’ I’ve had a big social conscience. And, I had such an amazing time in the IT industry - far better than any dream I could ever have come up with. I just loved the international aspect of it and the fact that it didn’t matter two hoots where you came from. You could be of any religion, any colour, any background and people just didn’t care. You had an equal opportunity and, in my case, it was always upward because I started at the bottom. The industry gave me extraordinary opportunities that, in my wildest dreams, I could never have thought possible.
You met Steve Jobs?
In my very early days in the industry I worked for a company called Prime Computer. They were basically the inventors of super-mini machines. I think I was about the 50th employee outside of America. Anyway, Steve Jobs was struggling to put his exhibition stand together. I was quite good at that by then. So, I wandered across the corridor to shovel a couple of bits together for him and at the end of the show he came up to me and said: ‘I’d like you to come to my launch party for Apple, my company is Apple’ which, of course, I knew because I’d been helping put the Apple signs up.
Talk to us about the importance of diversity in technology.
I just think of my own family. I have a Down’s syndrome son, James, and I have a Down’s and autistic grandchild in the United States. Because I see, and I work with a lot of people with disabilities, I’m very pleased that we’re beginning to focus on designing products in a way that, right from the word go, are made for people from all age groups, from all types of mental ability or disability. That, to me, is the exciting change that has happened.
As President, what’s your priority, your focus?
My priority will be the fundamental line of trying to make IT good for society. Let’s be fair about it, there’s a lot that isn’t good for society presently. BCS is a remarkable organisation and we need to try and turn that lack of goodness around as much as we can.
We have the world’s leading professionals in so many different areas. We’re independently minded and we have groups of people who want to give back to society and make society a better place. We are very well positioned to influence government, to influence education and to influence all levels of the industry. We need to try hard to take IT to where it should be.
Also, in my year as President, I’d like to focus on our strategic aims in the organisation. I very much want to see our membership increased dramatically. We should have at least 200,000 to 250,000 members. I firmly believe there are ways in which we can get many good professionals in the IT industry into BCS.
What’s going to appeal to them? What is it that’s going to bring them in?
Firstly, there’s a great pride in being a professional, knowing you’re a professional and knowing that you’ve earned your professionalism. Secondly, I think, increasingly, we’re going to find, in our industry, that people will be expected to have appropriate qualifications.
BCS is perfectly placed to provide people with those - from their early days right through to becoming chartered IT consultants, specialists and professionals. That alone can help people in their careers to get better jobs, to grow, to mature and fundamentally to provide a safer environment for IT people and for society.
How many times do we all cringe when we hear of another IT issue or another IT problem on television or on the radio and think, ‘Oh no, not again.’ All we hear about in the media are the things that go wrong.’ There are definitely ways of reducing the things that go wrong, like by having more professionals.
Professionals who are experienced and who can reliably be counted on when they are recruited… people who know what they’re talking about, know what they’re doing because they’ve got the credibility of the qualifications. I’m absolutely determined that, in my year, we’re going to push that whole area.
Clearly education is going to be massively important too. BCS works extremely hard in this, not just at school level by helping 8,000 teachers on the new curriculum - but by the apprenticeships that we’re providing. We’ve got nearly 9,000 digital apprenticeship starters. I am passionate about education, from the days that I helped found and build new schools with the IT livery, to the 13 academies of the University of Chichester Academy Trust of which I am a trustee.
And we’re celebrating a real milestone: our 1,000th apprentice completing their training.
Excellent! I came through an apprenticeship with Heinz so I’m a great believer in that as a route. There’s a great opportunity to impact and affect people at all age groups in the educational system towards a successful digital and professional career.