CIO interview: John Harris, Corporate IT Forum chairman on skills development

John Harris, chairman of IT director's group The Corporate IT Forum and VP of global IT strategy at GSK, talks about IT skills and apprenticeships.

Youth unemployment is at an all-time high. Prime minister David Cameron insists that, “Apprenticeships are right at the heart of the kind of economy we want to build.” But can such an approach work for closing the IT skills gap?

While the government has set out plans it hopes will help employers take on apprentices and ensure the UK workforce has the skills that businesses need, there is a reality gap and this gap appears impassable in the IT sector, where technical skills are in high demand, but young people are not being hired or trained effectively.

John Harris is chairman of IT user group The Corporate IT Forum and chief architect and vice president of global IT strategy at pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline. He is working with members of the Forum to make skills development a major focus for the IT director's group. He says, “We are trying to make apprenticeship a hot topic. Unanimously everyone sees this as important.”

While most organisations are used to graduate programmes and see value in bringing in graduates and rotating them through various secondments, Harris says there is less of an appetite for training younger people. 

“Similar principals can work on a younger demographic. But this is not about bringing on the next CIO,” he says. 

Harris feels there is a genuine shortage in certain IT roles, particularly in areas like IT architecture. Such knowledge cannot easily be picked up from a text book, he says: “You need a certain amount of real experience. You can't just pick up a book.”

Pitfall of outsourcing skills

For Harris, years of outsourcing commodity IT skills has much to blame for the lack of grass-roots IT talent today. “It is important to feed the pipeline at the bottom end,” he says.

“While outsourcing did bring value, people moved jobs that should not have been moved. We outsourced our skills pipeline.” 

This has meant the IT prospects for young people were effectively hamstrung. He says young people were not being given a chance to come into the industry.

“Yes, it may be more economical to outsource to India, but such a job may be the type of work that gives an apprentice a real grounding [in IT],” he says.

By developing skills in-house young IT apprentices who progress into future IT architecture experts will have a thorough grasp of the businesses. It may be regarded as a long game, but Harris believes clear career planning and progression can ultimately deliver high value to a business.

“I think there is a strong argument that the economics do add up as trying to fill senior critical roles where demand outstrips supply gets very expensive. And that is before you even get into the opportunity cost of not having continuity.”

Harris hopes the industry will take a more thought-through approach to outsourcing, where the long-term implications are fully considered. He says, “At the start of the 21st century, we had a few years when outsourcing and offshoring were ends in themselves, as long as the cost line was reducing.”

The industry considered this a good thing. But Harris believes people are now better informed, and take a more strategic approach to outsourcing. Offshore sourcing is still a valid weapon in the armoury, but it is no longer the sole answer or the answer in its own right. There is recognition that leveraging smart people earlier in their careers, either through graduate programmes or apprentice schemes, can also be a valuable tool.

He says, “When you play the longer game out around talent development and retention, the possibilities are compelling. If you are driven quarter by quarter, the decision is harder. But if you are able to look out strategically over three years, five years and sometimes even 10 years, then we can make a good case for more investment in folk just starting out on their careers now.”

However Harris warns IT leaders that such an approach to make the case on a longer time frame takes courage.

School education

Harris welcomes the government’s recent U-turn in ICT education in schools, with thescrapping of the GCSE ICT curriculum

“Why are we teaching kids to use Excel and cut and paste?” he asks. 

When he was at school, Harris learnt programming on a ZX Spectrum home computer in his bedroom. He says, “You had to type in the syntax from a magazine code listing.” 

While it was a laborious task, typing in the listing was a learning experience for the young Harris. As he recalls, “This was something I built and made it work.”

In January, education secretary Michael Gove, said, “The best degrees in computer science are among the most rigorous and respected qualifications in the world… and prepare students for immensely rewarding careers and world-changing innovations. But you’d never know that from the current ICT curriculum.” From September, ICT education will no longer be managed from Whitehall.

Harris agrees with the minister. He says, “We need to get school kids excited. The government is relaunching the curriculum. We want children to be passionate about technology.” 

For Harris this is more than a sentiment, he urges members of The Corporate IT Forum and IT professionals to get out and spread the good word on IT: “You can't just sit behind the desk all day.”

He says one of the members of the Forum is looking at low-cost computers, to help children to get excited about technology and how it can be used in business, exploiting the fact that IT has a bit of “cool factor” going for it with products like the Apple iPad. “The demographic most savvy with this technology is the young,” he says.

Harris  is involved in a judging panel at Brunel University: “People are giving up their time to see what is happening at university."

Harris says corporates can learn a few things by looking at IT within universities. He says, “We are hearing lots about bringing your own device into work. Universities have been doing this for years. Students expect to use their own devices at university and corporates need to catch up with this message.”

Looking at his own employer, he says, “We must to get young people understand they can have a great career in IT. It is not only about working at Google.” He believes companies like GSK and other large businesses are all great places for a career in IT.

As STEM (science, technology engineering and mathematics) education extends to cover IT, Harris hopes young graduates will visit schools to encourage the next generation to pursue a career in IT.

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