After 12 years at the helm of the BCS, chief executive David Clarke retired at the end of June.
He presided over the UK’s biggest membership organisation for IT professionals during the greatest ever period of change in the technology sector – the rise of the internet, the growth of consumerisation, the emergence of cloud and big data.
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He leaves an organisation that doubled its membership during his tenure – from 38,000 to over 75,000 – and grew revenue by 150%.
Yet he also departs following years of tension with senior members, and with a sense of frustration about how much more he feels the Chartered Institute for IT could achieve.
Even with that growth in membership, the BCS still represents fewer than 8% of UK IT professionals. But in his final interview, Clarke told Computer Weekly how much worse things were when he became chief executive in 2002.
“I met a lot of people from the IT profession before I joined and asked for their opinion. Most of them had never heard of the BCS, and those that had said it’s totally irrelevant to what they do,” he says.
“So I came in thinking I have to make this organisation relevant to the IT profession. The profession was seen as a bunch of cowboys by many people. It was about showing how important the IT profession and the people in it are.”
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Professionalism in IT
Early initiatives include starting the Professionalism in IT programme and creating the Chartered IT Professional accreditation. That led in 2009 to the rebranding of the British Computer Society as 'BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT'.
“You don’t have to explain what the Chartered Institute for IT is – it does what it says on the tin,” he says. “We have more members, and more large companies are taking on our membership schemes. There is a lot more awareness of us.
“We have made a lot of progress. But when I look at what else we could do, there is still a long way to go. The IT profession still gets blamed for everything that goes wrong.”
Clarke has initiated work on a new certification of Registered IT Technician as a step towards chartered professional status, which he hopes will broaden the BCS’s appeal more widely.
“We’re nowhere near the number of members we should have. We have a significant proportion of people at the chartered level, but we need more levels and more standards that people can meet. That’s why we need the registered IT technician – it has a potential market four or five times that of the chartered status,” he says.
But those accreditations should be about more than just attracting BCS members. Clarke would like to see more employers using them as means to judge the quality of potential recruits.
“Unless you’re required by law to have a qualification, it’s hard. Do they need chartered status to get a job? If they don’t it’s harder to make people participate,” he points out.
“We have a core competency element to being a chartered professional – you have a specific area you have competence in, and it has to be reassessed regularly. It shows that people are competent in this particular area of IT – I don’t see any other way that employers can find that out.
“Most of the growth recently has come from large companies signing up to make their employees chartered professionals. It’s not just about individuals; you have to get companies behind it.”
The influence of the BCS has certainly grown while Clarke has been in charge. The organisation was heavily involved in developing the new computing curriculum for secondary schools that starts in September, and it has been leading efforts to train more computing teachers. He says that work will eventually help to change perceptions of the IT profession.
“There is a still a view that anything to do with IT is the Wild West – and that people in IT don’t understand business. That’s not the profession we are, but that is the general perception. There is a lot of work to be done to change that,” he says.
“You need role models of people who are not like that. Most of the role models have been geeky people, like Bill Gates. We need role models that are real people. There are real people in the profession who are high quality. We have to change those perceptions.”
There is a still a view that anything to do with IT is the Wild West – and that people in IT don’t understand business. That’s not the profession we are. There is a lot of work to be done to change that
But it is Clarke’s internal changes at the BCS that have caused the most controversy.
Most recently, a new commercial subsidiary set up to deliver training and development got off to a bad start, eating through a significant amount of the BCS’s cash reserves.
“We didn’t get the management of that right,” admits Clarke.
“That business has done very well this year, and we have got back in control of it. We had a hiccup, no question about it, but it was a short-term thing and we got it fixed. We have a new CEO in there and that business is growing again. I don’t see it being a major issue now; it was one of those things we got wrong at the time.”
But Clarke’s biggest frustrations stemmed from disagreements with some of senior BCS members over the direction of the organisation. His critics say it is wrong to turn the BCS into a business, and it should remain focused on the needs of its members.
Former BCS president Gerry Fisher has been one of the leading opponents of Clarke’s reforms. “The board has lost sight of both what the society is about and where its significant funds come from,” he said earlier this year.
A small minority
Clarke, however, is scathing about what he sees as a small minority intent on preventing much needed change.
“We still have elements of the old BCS who think it’s a gentlemen’s club, and they get in the way of moving forward,” he says.
“They hold you back and take up a lot of time. They are so disconnected because most of them are old and retired and out of the profession as it is now. We spend an awful lot of time having to manage those situations when what we should be doing is moving forward with today’s professionals. It really is a small element. It is frustrating that they can still have such an impact.”
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His ire is targeted mostly at certain members of the BCS Council – a membership representative body that advises the trustees on the direction of the organisation, which operates as a charity under royal charter.
“I don’t think there is any need for the BCS Council. We have a membership board which should represent the members’ interests,” Clarke says.
“If there was no council there would be no friction. That needs to be replaced with much more direct contacts with members. I’d like to see a major conference every year that all members are invited to and can participate in.
“The council apparently represent the members – but they don’t do that. They stop other people doing that. The vast majority of members have no idea who the council is. They don’t vote in the council elections – we have a decreasing number of votes every year. It does get in the way. I would say, let’s forget that.”
Clarke’s critics want more of the membership’s subscription funds to go back to support member activities – the regional branches and specialist groups, where members meet and discuss issues affecting the profession.
But Clarke is adamant that should not be the core of the future BCS.
“Less than 10% of members participate in a special interest group activity. We are in contact with our membership all the time and we know exactly what the vast majority of members want from us. And it’s not what these people say they want. Members want a modern professional organisation that supports them in their professional life,” he says.
It would appear that Clarke’s successor – Paul Fletcher, currently group managing director for education technology at supplier RM, who starts on 1 September – has plenty on his plate. But the former CEO sees the new CEO's key challenges as lying elsewhere.
“The profession is changing all the time, even faster now,” he says, citing the pace of change in mobile, cloud and the web and its effect on the people who work in IT. “The question of where to invest is always a difficult one. The choices are getting harder. It’s going to be difficult for the new CEO to determine which way to go.”
Clarke leaves the BCS after more than 30 years in the IT industry – before that he was a professional footballer, on the books of Leeds United until injury curtailed his career. He went on to be a marketing director at DEC, then Compaq in the 1980s and 1990s. He set up one of the UK’s first retail ISPs and was CEO of Virgin.net, becoming head of digital media at newspaper publisher Trinity Mirror before joining the BCS.
He says he is working on a few projects now his time at the BCS is over, but knows it is the right moment to go: “I’ve been there long enough. It’s time for someone else.”