Saturday, 12 June 2010

Computer Science Unplugged - The Show

To start off a series of post on promoting computing in schools, this video shows an entertaining way to introduce computer science to school students. It's given me a few ideas.

For more details of the initiative that gave rise to this see CS Unplugged. Worth a look.

There will be more of these videos posted in the future. Some of them are quite good, others not.

Sunday, 6 June 2010

Public Sector CIO Pay: Are we comparing like with like...?

There has been something of a moral panic regarding the pay of some senior civil servants, including some government CIOs getting paid more than the Prime Minister (who appears to have been given a pay cut). I'm not about to make moral or value judgements - this is not the place.

The real issue for me is whether we are comparing like for like. In executive recruitment, you need to consider the whole reward package: pay, perks, use of hotels/residences, memberships, pensions... For example, the PM gets the free use of two 'grace and favour' residences (No. 10 and Chequers) plus associated maintainence, cleaners, servants. I somehow doubt this is matched by the civil service CIOs.

The above applies to making comparisons with private sector peer CIOs too. We also then need to consider the benefits side, i.e. what they deliver. At that point we can start to look at costs and benefits somewhat more objectively, before discussing the value judgements.

All this reminds me of comparisons made routinely in the press about goods being cheaper in the US than in the UK (currently fluctuations aside). These claims don't always stand up to scruitiny as they invariably quote US prices excluding sales tax but UK prices including VAT and/or compare US out of town prices with central London prices. But hey, don't let the facts get in the way of a good story!..:-)

Thursday, 3 June 2010

The Recession != Dot-com Crash

Prior to this recession, the (informal) consensus has been that the IT job market is recovering from the dot-com crash whose effects of widespread IT job losses hit a nadir in 2003. Looking at Figure 1 below that looks at the rate of advertised IT positions, it would appear that the recent recession had the same effect.

 total demand for staff
Figure 1: Advertised IT vacancies as of 29 March 2010 (

This is not the case this time round. Unemployment has been felt across the wider economy, and it was the financial services sector that bore the public brunt (although public sector looks like being the vanguard of a second wave after the election). But is the IT profession shedding jobs in large numbers? There have been no high-profile press reports and official unemployment statistics lag behind a dynamic situation, especially when close analysis under the headline figure is needed.

Closer analysis of the available vacancies data paints an unexpectedly positive picture. Figure 2 looks at trends in advertised IT salaries. If widespread IT job losses were in the offing we would expected advertised salaries to fall in response to supply exceeding demand (as was the case in 2003). This has clearly not happened.

 Trends in the annual rates offered for all jobs
Figure 2: Advertised IT salaries as of 29 March 2010 (

Closer analysis of the available vacancies data paints an unexpectedly positive picture. Figure 2 looks at trends in advertised IT salaries. If widespread IT job losses were in the offing we would expected advertised salaries to fall in response to supply exceeding demand (as was the case in 2003). This has clearly not happened.

This is not to say that there have not been some job losses due to the recession (e.g. the IT staff at Woolworths), but loses have not been widespread and appear to have be consequential of business failure in other sectors of the economy. The drop in vacancies is most likely due to ‘churn’ being taken out of the job market: employees are not risking job moves, and employers are cautious about hiring. As noted above there are signs this is bottoming out.
The recession is therefore qualitatively different for IT professionals, than the dot-com crash. Could IT be seen by the wider world as a relatively safe bet? For sure, the credit bubble has more than wiped out the memory of the much smaller dot-com one! Given the widely-reported problems in recent years of some computing departments being unable to recruit the numbers of students they did at the turn of the millennium this must come as a relief.

Wednesday, 2 June 2010

Cutting Costs and Public Sector IT

My colleague David Chan, Director of the Centre for Information Leadership has written two challenging articles on cutting costs and public sector IT: Cut deeper - but spend more on ICT and City academic calls for IT cull. We now need to develop and support the transformational information leaders who can deliver.

Tuesday, 1 June 2010

BP: When an IT failure really isn't one

A number of articles have arisen around the role of IT in the tragic BP oil spill (i.e. BP oil spill ‘slows’ but serious IT failures come to surface and BP oil spill slowing but IT failures revealed).

I have to say I'm rather concerned at these stories in IT publications that I hold in high regard. The reason is that when you read the story and look at the report, it does not back up the claims about IT failure in these articles. They claim that:
"...the US government released a summary of BP’s own early investigation into the problems. The document contains some damning facts about IT at the rig, ..."
Except that it doesn't: the Congressional memorandum makes no mention of IT, or for that matter the words 'information', 'computer' or 'software' (go on, click the above link and see for yourself). The memo does however make plenty of mention of procedural and (non-IT) equipment failures.

There were references to robots and supercomputers in the articles, but in the context of the clear-up (and so are not relevant). The only other part of the two articles that seemed to support their narrative was:
"BP has said the accident “was brought about by the failure of a number of processes, systems and equipment”..."
The problem with leaning on this (unattributed) quote is that it does not specifically apply to IT. In fact the above form of words is so generic that it could apply to anything. The plain English translation would be 'stuff went wrong, we don't know what, but we wish to sound like we do!'.

In short, the content and sources of these articles do not support their title or overall narrative of an IT failure: in fact they point to likely non-IT causes.

Why should this bother me? The reason is that ensuring that an informed public debate on issues as serious as the BP oil leak is important, as is the role of IT in society more generally. Given the blame that will doubt arise as a result of the tragedy, the easy route of blaming IT for the sake of expediency is not the responsible or moral one.

Ade McCormack on Visionary CIOs

Ade McCormack, a Honourary Visiting Fellow of the Centre for Information Leadership writes in CIO UK Magazine on the need for CIOs to be visionary. Two points in the article caught my attention.
"But isn’t it the CEO’s role to be visionary while everyone else focuses on strategy? Where does this leave the CIO? Surely he has insights into the fast-moving world of technology that will not only shape the vision but seed it?"
My first observation would be that if a CEO felt they were the only source of vision, the likelihood is that they would not be very good. That aside, to an extent wouldn't it depend on the dynamics, personalities and culture of the board, and the perceptions of the information leader within it? When I studied governance on my MBA I came away with the feeling that culture and personality drove much of the effectiveness of boards.

In any case, it's clear why the dynamics of boards and how to work with them is essential for any information leader to master (which is why we cover it in the Master of Information Leadership).
"But it’s simply not happening – a security nightmare, you say. So rather than being the hero of the hour you are known as the person who rains on other people’s parades. The Chief Visionary ‘Stiflement’ Officer."
The next point Ade raises implies a tension between the information leader as an enabler and their stewardship role around risk, security and compliance. In a litigious and risk averse culture it is perhaps not suprising that some information leaders feel that they cannot ever fail and so seek to lock systems down tight (leading to the complaints above). So If I may, I'd like to suggest the term 'stewardship trap': information leaders need to work in an environment where there is a mature understanding of stewardship, in order to allow them to manage risk and deliver vision, rather than just being managed by risk.

Of course, it may be argued that other members of the board (such as the CFO) also have a stewardship role. How do they balance the tension between vision and stewardship? Or are they not expected to major on both? There may be lessons to be learned here.

If there is a conclusion to draw from Ade's thought-provoking article it is that not only does it fall on the information leader to address the actions Ade suggests, it also falls to the organisation to have a culture that allows such efforts to grow and thrive.