At the heart of IT

September 2014

Paul HulaBCS Multimedia Editor Justin Richards recently spoke to IT consultant Paul Hula about project management, the current state of programming and his work in health informatics.

Can you provide some background on yourself, especially regarding any IT-related qualifications you might have?
I did what used to be called a BND in computer science; I don’t know what they call it now. It was like doing three ‘A’ Levels in computer science - that was the only qualification I had and then I went into my first junior programming job for the NHS.

So was that a job you saw advertised in the papers?
I think it was advertised in the Evening Post; there was that one and there was one for British Gas and they both had aptitude tests and I never heard back from British Gas, and then I heard back from the NHS.

What attracted you to IT, why not another industry?
I don’t know - I guess I was of that generation that was programming on a Commodore 64 and playing games on a Mattel Intellivision; it was just something that’s always been there, I guess.

What would you say is your main specialism?
My main specialism is integration, but that’s a bit of a woolly one as you can do lots of integration by ‘gooey’ (GUI) now. So I’d probably have to say I’m a programmer... just for now. That’s something that’s changing a lot now. There’s a lot more use of gooeys with integration, but if you want to do something properly you still have to go down to the code level - so it’s probably best to start at code level anyway and stop giving me all this gooey crap. Get me to the code!

Can you tell us about your work in health informatics over the years - how did you find working for medically-orientated organisations?
Because I had no experience of any other sector it was fine. It was quite eye-opening, when I was 19/20 years old, going to loads of hospitals and talking to the relevant people. I was working in pharmacy for the first two to three years so I was working with pharmacists; I came to the conclusion that the sector was relevant and that IT is IT, wherever it is.

What do you think went wrong with Connecting for Health, the government health informatics programme?
In my unprofessional opinion I don’t think the people who designed the programme really understood the integration requirements to integrate all these different things in one go. People used to dismiss integration as file in - file out, but it’s usually quite complex. I just don’t think they considered all the technical implications.

Tell me about Client Xerox, and your part in the Digital Nurse Assistant mobile app.
I think they’ve renamed it now, and I can’t remember what they’ve renamed it to. They created a small group, within Xerox, because someone had written this kind of iPad app, which lets you record the temperatures of people and how much pain they’re in (it’s all graphical) and they needed that integrated so that it could send all the data to where it needed to go, otherwise it would be completely pointless, and the system was unable to receive all of the data. So you’d have some lab results, which would be flagged up by a warning. We were brought in to write the integration part, so we had to design how it would work and then work with their offshore team - who were brand new to integration language - we had to train them on those integration languages and also had to train them on methodologies so that they could support it in future.

You’ve worked in finance, legal and healthcare - which area do you find to be most satisfying and why?
Well, legal was quite interesting; I worked for a very large solicitor’s firm (I hadn’t heard of them before). They had massive budgets - if you rang up and said: ‘my monitor’s not working’, ten minutes later someone would run up and replace your monitor; everything was done really efficiently, but when you looked at their software it was old and rubbish and they had people there who’d been there for twenty years doing it the same way! What’s the difference between the sectors? Not much. They all had their hang-ups...

... And what about the NHS?
I tend to find, in the NHS, that people have been there a long time, and a lot of them are quite set in their ways, but then I’ve found similar attitudes in retail and finance as well so maybe that’s a global thing to everyone, for anyone, who works in larger organisations. I’ve mainly tended to work for larger organisations and it’s those larger organisations that tend to have that issue. So I don’t think it’s really about sector, more about size.

One thing I hear all the time, regarding large organisations such as the NHS and the MOD, is that they tend to work in silos and these silos don’t really communicate with each other...
Yes, that’s true. I’ve found that in larger organisations, like Xerox. We were working completely separately from some other company that they brought in to work on some other product; we could have merged things so they would have worked better, but we were kept completely separate and I think that can be completely counterproductive, but then I’m not a senior IT manager...

What are the biggest issues health informatics faces now and in the near future?
I think security and data protection will always be big issues; it’s getting very iffy! I’ve worked for a number of US companies and over here you’d give anyone your national security number, but over there people can only give the last three or four digits of their equivalent social security number; people get very protective about it. I mean, what do they think I’m going to do with it?

Security is going to be a very big issue and availability of stuff, working out who’s done what.

Regarding programming, do you share IBM’s Grady Booch’s thoughts when he said that there was an inner beauty to programming? What do you think he meant by that? Can you relate to that?
I wouldn’t call programming beautiful, but I do think it takes a lot of experience to write something that has consistency and can be reusable. I’ve worked with lots of programmers over the years, maybe a thousand, and I would say that only three or four of them were really any good!

Why do you think there’s a lot of poor programming out there, and why do you think security often seems to be a bolt-on extra?
Poor programming is probably due to people’s education and training. People are taught to programme, but I can teach anyone to programme and print their name on the screen and put it in a ‘for loop’, but that doesn’t explain why it’s good to do it a certain way, why it’s good to think ahead and ask: ‘What am I going to do in five years’ time?’ I find offshore teams have that issue; they’re all got 1:1 degrees in computer programming - they can write programs - but they haven’t got the experience to write it in such a way to make it a good program, if that makes sense. I think that should make sense to programmers.

Do you think the trend for offshoring is reversing, as certain newspaper articles seem to imply or is the demand as strong as ever?
I’ve heard that it seems to be reversing, but in my experience, every situation I’ve come across, they seem to be outsourcing more or have a steady outsourcing programme so in my experience everyone does seem to have these offshoring teams. But then I’ve heard lots of stories where they get massive issues, where they have 60 offshore programmers, but you need still need ten inshore programmers to make it look good and keep it well maintained and ensure that it’s released on time.

What are your biggest IT security concerns going forward over the next few years, particularly in view of the changing landscape of security threats and who are behind them, for example professional criminal gangs?
Mmm, or so the media says! I’m sure there are crime organisations behind some attacks; there always has been, even as far back as the 1980s. Some of it is being sensationalised by the media. It’s always been around and no matter what security you have you can’t stop people being ‘stupid’, for lack of a better word. If people are unwise enough to open dodgy emails or click on phishing links, then even with the best will in the world, systems are only as secure as the people who use them. That’s my opinion on any hackers or security; the weakest link is always the person, without a shadow of a doubt. The weakness to any system is usually the person in the system.

My dad, for example, phones me from time-to-time saying he’s had an email, reputedly from eBay, so why wouldn’t he click on it, and then put in his username and password, and then he’s scammed. It doesn’t matter that eBay has told their customers to ignore such emails, people will still do it. They don’t understand. Often it’s a generational thing.

I think even this generation that’s coming through now, they still don’t understand how computers work at a low level; they understand the face of it, and clicking through menus, but they don’t understand what’s going on underneath, that by clicking on this link to YouTube could infect them. Kids are stupid! (Laughs)

Project failure seems to be a big subject in the UK. What do you think are the secrets to good project management? What have you learned from your involvement in various projects that could benefit our members?
Yeah, my advice to project managers is: Don’t be a project manager! My personal opinion is that most dedicated project managers are pretty pointless and it just adds an extra layer that just isn’t needed; it’s often middle management for the sake of it. I despise dedicated project managers (laughs) - you should perhaps delete this!

Is it often the case that project managers don’t know the IT well enough to really be able to talk to the IT teams that they’re managing?
Yes, that’s often the case. Yes, they definitely don’t know it enough. They just want to know - can you have this done in three days’ time, and if not, why not? And you can give any description that you want and they have no idea what you’re on about. They just move their little box on their project spreadsheet... I have to admit I don’t have much luck with project managers - I just hope my current client doesn’t read this! In all my years of expertise, I have found that they are usually just another layer of bureaucracy that you’ve got to learn to wade through. Everyone with Prince 2 should be fired! How to win friends and influence people in IT (laughs)!

BCS is pursuing professionalism in IT and trying to encourage the industry to have a code of conduct. What are your thoughts on this? Should government get involved or should we leave it to the industry to have a voluntary code of conduct?
Ideally, yes, the IT industry should be more like the medical profession, but not so sure about government involvement. I mean you wouldn’t get a doctor just issue an Aspirin to someone who’s got a broken leg; just the same way I could write a code that’s any old crap, that’s 2,000 lines in length, but which only allows you to print your name on the screen; you just wouldn’t know. I think a voluntary code is a good idea, but I wouldn’t want the government to get involved because then it would just end up costing lots of money each year, and there might be somebody who’s really good, but hasn’t got the qualifications to show that they are good, who gets turned away from a job they’d be good at.

Do you think organisations should take a bit more responsibility to self-regulate themselves?
Yes, possibly. That might be a good idea.

Your CV indicates that you were involved in some Y2K projects. What was all the fuss about?
Well, before it all happened, anyone who knew a little bit about it knew that the Y2K thing wasn’t going to be as big an issue as many were making it out to be. It was so comical and they spent so much money. It was a non-entity; it was never going to be that big an issue. But it gave me a job for a year, just to make some changes. I mean the reason for it was obvious, as people said, storage was short, with only two digits, but nobody thought these systems were going to be around in twenty years’ time. I don’t think there were any claims made in the end and no one died from it; I think it had a minor effect on a few people, that’s all.

Looking back is there anything, with regard to your career, that you would do differently given the chance?
Yeah, I would have become a contractor a lot earlier (not that I’m a contractor anymore) and become very rich! I’d be living in a big house with a Porsche on the drive by now if I had… That’s what I would have done earlier, definitely. I would have done that when I was twenty and retired when I was twenty five. Actually I’ve only met one really rich contractor, all the others have been flat broke, and I don’t understand that at all. There’s only one I know of who did well.

Why do you think the IT industry, as a whole, has a bad image? Why do you think, relatively speaking, there are so few girls taking up IT as a career?
I think it’s because, historically, it was the nerdy, geeky thing to do, and girls tend to shy away from that. Boys of our ilk tend to go for IT and other intellectual pursuits; boys who aren’t playing Rugby and don’t particularly like their sports tend to be attracted to IT. I think each sector attracts different types of person; for example, HR departments always seem to have lots of women working in them. There are more women in certain areas of IT, like IT training, but I haven’t met many female programmers and I haven’t met any good female programmers; in fact I’ve never spoken to anyone who knows a good female programmer. Oh dear, this is coming across like I hate everyone, and that’s not the case (laughs)!

If you were to give advice to someone who was thinking of working in IT what would it be?
Err, are you any good? IT encompasses a lot of things now; I think it’s very different now. Even in programming, you can’t just know C, you have to know XML, you have to know the style sheets; you have to learn so many things now, just to be able to do the smallest of jobs. I think it’s very different nowadays. Yes, I think you should go into IT, but don’t expect to be rich off of it because there’s a lot of competition. Everyone’s doing IT; I know I’m contradicting myself where I said no kids are doing IT, but there are a lot of people working in IT now.

What developments in IT do you think have been the most exciting / most ground-breaking in the last five or six years?
JSON (JavaScript Object Notation) was interesting. It’s basically so you can send objects to a client and not have to worry about recreating the object. So if you wanted to, say, send your object from FORTRAN (can you have objects in FORTRAN?) and wanted to send it to a webpage, you’d normally have to write your own ‘handler’ for it, but now you can say I’ve got this object and it will appear in Java Script in the same format - JSON allows you to do that. That’s quite good; it makes my job a lot easier, with passing things around to the client, which we’re used to doing all the time so that our webpages look pretty. That’s when I’m doing web development, which I also hate doing!

I liked XML, but that was 15 years’ ago and I like Oculus Rift, but I think that’s going off on a tangent! I had the development kit version, but I sold it. And then I had pre-ordered the development kit 2, but then cancelled it when they sold it to Facebook. I stamped my foot in protest, and posted it on Facebook. Maybe that’s irony?

So what have you got against Facebook?
Invasion of privacy; they cut everything off. It’s like all massive companies, when they get to become so big they become ‘evil’. Like Google. Google used to be the nice small search engine and now they’ve turned 'evil'; they take all your data and sell it on. Microsoft too - basically if you’re big, you’re probably 'evil' (laughs)! They’re just after money. It’s sad, but true.

What are your thoughts on the cloud?
Well, I hate it that so many people don’t really understand what is meant by ‘the cloud’. It’s a very woolly thing people understand by it. I think it’s both good and bad. When you move to somewhere like Cornwall and you have no internet access you’re completely knackered. Until we have global constant, fast internet access, it can only ever be an option. It’s certainly helped though with continuity of data storage as now everything is stored digitally there are less and less continuity issues. People are often unknowingly storing their data on a physical medium so it makes it easier as individuals, and organisations, as the responsibility for that side of business continuity ends up with the cloud providers themselves. And one other thing - I hate that word: ‘cloud’!

What do you think the industry can do to rectify its bad image?
It can’t! I have no idea, you’d have to ask an expensive media expert and pay them £15 million to create a nice new logo. I’m so cynical! Although IT has a geeky image, geeks have become a lot cooler recently, helped by programmes like The Big Bang Theory so there’s a bit more cool to it than there has been in the past. But then of course you get people who think they know a lot of IT and are really cool, but in actual fact they don’t know anything.

What is the hardest part of your job and what is the most rewarding?
The hardest part is the timescales. For example, I might be given a project where I don’t know about the technologies involved or have very little knowledge of them. Like ‘jQuery’ that I recently came across, which I knew nothing about, apart from Google searches, and so you have to learn new technologies or languages in really short timescales and end up getting really stressed out; initially I can’t do it and then manage to do it just in time. But it’s satisfying once a project’s finished and delivered. And they’re happy with it. But until that point it’s not satisfying, because I’m worried that it’s not going to work.

Do you enjoy playing computer games yourself and do you have a favourite?
I used to play an awful lot, but I don’t get as much time these days. My favourite was called Time Bandit on the Atari ST.

What was so good about that?
I can’t remember; this was 25 years ago. It was multi-player and was a really long game. There were two screens and it was co-opted. I’m sure if I played it now I’d probably think it was awful.

Have you ever developed your own game or is there a game you would have liked to have developed yourself?
When I was unemployed for a little while I did download Unity and played with it a bit, but then I ran out of time. I would have more of a desire to do it if I could have a year off and had the money to afford to have a year off. I did a little bit of game development in Basic and RISC when I was young, but that doesn’t really count. But Unity looks really cool; I really liked Unity.

What do you think of the Raspberry Pi?
I think it’s really good. I got one, installed XP on C onto it and then switched it off! It’s really good if I had something that I wanted to use it for, but, yes, I think they’re great. I think for teaching programming and for learning basic programming on, like Linux - so you’re not just setting up on Windows and understanding things slightly more - I think it will be great. But I guess you’d probably have to be doing IT already to come across something like that.

Who in the IT industry inspired you / was a role model for you?
I met a contractor, who’d been a contractor for ten years and is now a multi-millionaire in a £4 million house, which made me think should I become an 'evil' contractor again and rip everyone off. I mean obviously I looked up at people like Steve Jobs, until he created the iPhone, and Steve Wozniak, Tony Crowther (he wrote video games for the Commodore 64 - he did the music and the graphics and the games themselves, which was quite impressive in nineteen eighty... whatever? He was like the John Carpenter of the gaming community... Rob Hubbard; I always liked his music - these are obscure names no one’s going to have heard of now. I can’t think of any particular figures besides people I read about in magazines and such like. I’m not going to say Bill Gates!

What do you think the future holds for computer games, for health informatics, and programming?
Well, virtual reality is definitely going to be the next thing. And even though I hate the fact that when I type on my iPad it takes me longer than it does when I type the same thing on a key board, I always think it’s odd - people used to use green screens and they could put in data really quickly, without all the filters, whereas if you use Windows it takes a lot longer because you have a gooey, but now it’s going back slightly, so with an iPad you need less input, but where are we going in future? - I’m not sure, but it will be somewhere different and it will be somewhere which annoys me, because it probably won’t have a keyboard! It will be less mouse and more touchscreens, which just annoys me... I have a new laptop and it’s Windows 8 with a touchscreen and it gets confused - no, I don’t always want to touch the screen to do it. Even virtual reality will probably end up being annoying (laughs)! I’m sure some smart people will come up with some good uses of virtual reality in the health arena, which will make doctors and surgeons lives easier, but I can’t tell you what those advances will be.

Apart from working in IT and playing computer games, you also run a board game business. Can you explain how that came about and how business is doing in these Playstation and Xbox dominated times?
Well, it came about through necessity really. When I was a contractor I had a lot more disposable income and so I invested in lots of board games to satisfy my consumer nature!  However, when Lana (my wife) came along we realised I'd purchased too many (20,000-ish) and that if we ever moved, we would need to sell them all! Hence ‘Hula Gaming’! It has evolved to become a real business and we specialise in selling harder to find, out-of-print games and also in buying in other people's collections that they no longer require. In these Playstation / Xbox days we've seen a fair few board games get converted to iPad / Xbox (e.g. Ticket to Ride, Carcassonne etc.) and that the desire for actually holding little wooden pieces is stronger than ever.

Quick questions

Open source or proprietary?
Open source, because the source is open - you can see what’s going on; you can amend it. Proprietary - what are they hiding? If I was allowed to, I would release everything as open source, but sadly I’m not.

Apple or PC?
I should really say Apple, but I’m going to say PC, just because there’s more software available for it if you want to do something specific, plus it’s easier to pirate! Apple is more stable, because there’s less third party stuff going onto it, but I have to use PCs a lot because of the software I need. Plus PCs are cheaper.

PlayStation or Xbox or Wii?
Is this the latest version of Playstation and Xbox or is this question 10 years’ old? Actually I think they’re both rubbish! I’d say Playstation 4 is better though; the Xbox One - there’s just nothing good behind it. Playstation 4 is a lot slicker; it has a better interface and you can tell they’ve put more into it, whereas with the Xbox One it still comes across as a PC with a nice gooey on top. Plus it’s heavier and noisier.

What about Nintendo and the Wii?
I think the Wii was fantastic - it had the best console that ever came out. The Wii-U - not so much. But the Wii was the one we played most in my house. It’s more accessible for the whole family - the kids love all the cute games. It was a huge hit in our house.

Are you a geek or a nerd?
Definitely a geek because I always thought the definition of a nerd was someone who talks a lot about a subject, but really knows nothing about it, whereas a geek is someone who actually knows something. But I don’t know that for sure. Nerd sounds too derogatory. Geeks are cool.

Blackberry or Smartphone?
Smartphone. But then I do like the Blackberry keyboard. But then I did have a Nokia with a keyboard. With Smartphones you can download all the good apps; not that I download that many as there’s just too many. The last App I downloaded was reddit so I could read reddit on my phone. I used to download loads on my iPad, but then hardly ever played or used them. There’s nothing really new. And everyone should delete Candy Crush because King are devils (laughs)!

Have you ever come up with an idea for an app?
I’m sure I have. I came up with a good idea for a game. I thought you could do a zombie version of the plants game so you could have Plants-vs.-Zombies where you could squish them. I thought about it, and even looked at getting a program to do it on, but I was too busy doing proper work, which ‘probably’ paid money.

What would you like to be remembered for (IT-wise) - words on headstone?
‘Paul came, he didn’t say much, but he laughed’. I have absolutely no idea. I’ll probably be cremated and not have a headstone. I want to be scattered in the cat litter tray. Basically, I have no idea!

There are no comments on this item

Leave Comment

Post a comment