Management: Silicon Valley's secrets

The Impact Programme, a personal development network for IT executives, takes a group of UK e-commerce and IT directors on a tour...

The Impact Programme, a personal development network for IT executives, takes a group of UK e-commerce and IT directors on a tour of Silicon Valley in California for a week each year. This May, the group visited technology companies in and around San Jose. Ross Bentley spoke to three participants

Phillip Webb
Chief information officer of defence research organisation Qinetiq

Why did you go?
I visit Silicon Valley and the Boston area on a regular basis. This time, I was interested to see the retrenchment taking place among companies as a result of the recession because the likelihood is that we will experience it in the UK at some point.

What were your impressions of Silicon Valley? Why has it become a hotbed for technological progression?
The US development cycle seems to be more sophisticated. They are more successful at moving a vision to reality. In the UK, there is a tendency for new technologies to reach a hyped peak and then hit a trough before they are adopted by the masses.

In the US, the funding model is far more amenable for taking projects forward. Investors over there are far more patient. In Europe, investors want a return on investment too quickly.

Is there anything you saw that you would like to incorporate into your job or business?
Compaq showed us innovative solutions. I was impressed by breakthroughs it had made to cope with large-volume transactions. It is now delivering client/server wide area networks that can cope with workloads associated with mainframes.

In San Francisco, we visited several companies working at the forefront of knowledge exploitation technologies and the tools to extract knowledge. But they were still struggling with the issue of how to integrate structured and unstructured data in an intelligent manner. The demand for this will grow.

How will this experience help you in your job?
We are essentially a research and development organisation so a big part of my job is getting out and finding out about the latest and best technologies. As chief information officer, I have to translate to the business how we can exploit these and make opportunities for ourselves.


Jennifer Allerton
Chief information officer of financial services company Barclaycard

Why did you go?
I joined Barclaycard in 1999 and wanted to see what ideas were coming out of Silicon Valley from the view of the credit card industry.

Is there anything you saw that you would like to incorporate into your job or business?
In terms of up-and-coming technologies, I was interested in some developments in voice recognition. In the US, they are looking at using it to stop fraud from catalogue and TV shopping. I am looking at its potential to curb credit card fraud.

Internet security firm Exodus, which does work with the FBI, had some interesting things to say about "social engineering". That's not the nuts-and-bolts of Internet security but the things companies can do to stop breaches of IT security through non-IT related activities.

Compaq demonstrated what it calls "non-stop computing" - this is real-time processing of accounts and gets away from the need for batch processing where a window has to be made available every 24 hours. This is of great interest to financial services companies.

Banking is far removed from the nine-to-five, Monday to Friday industry it used to be - the Internet has taken it global. Being open at all times gives a real competitive advantage.

How will this experience help you in your job?
In the US, people don't waste time planning projects, they get on with doing it. There is also less of a stigma related to failure. It is even good to have a "crash and burn" on your CV - it shows that you are willing to take risks, to think outside the box.

Bringing that entrepreneurial spirit to a company with the resources that Barclaycard has is very appealing. We are slowly developing this culture and have brought in American colleagues, who help to instil fresh ideas.

Neil Wells
Group IT director of construction company Wates

Why did you go?
The Impact trip to Silicon Valley combines several key elements of a good fact-finding trip. Going to the "horse's mouth", which is California, with a team of your peers is very instructive. You get to see new technologies but you also get a synthesised view through colleagues and fresh perspectives from senior IT people working in such diverse industries as financial services and government agencies.

What were your impressions of Silicon Valley? Why has it become a hotbed for technological progression?
There are several reasons why California has developed as the centre of the technology world. San Francisco is liberal and encourages thinking out-of-the-box, while the area is a financial centre with good business links.

There is a genuine community of like-minded people, all sparking off each other which has created a certain impetus and an ideal climate for thought leadership. In the UK, I feel we haven't reached this critical mass.

Is there anything you saw that you would like to incorporate into your job or business?
I was interested in the way application service providers are moving forward. At Wates, we already use this business model for some applications. The building industry is waking up to this model, which I can see becoming popular as companies aim to concentrate on their core businesses.

I also picked up tips about collaborative working using the Internet. This would be very powerful in the building industry where there are many disparate functions that come together on a project. Working collaboratively allows everyone to know at what stage a project is - it makes the relationship between all the fragmented parties richer.

We also saw niche players in the knowledge management market. Knowledge working is easy to explain but difficult to implement. For many companies, the early game is expensive while the business imperatives aren't clear enough yet.

How will this experience help you in your job?
It is important to keep abreast of the up-and-coming technologies as it helps you to anticipate when you might adopt a new technology. It helps colour your roadmap for the next couple of years. One is always under pressure from well-informed users who want to know where the IT department is heading.
This was last published in August 2001

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