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UKtech50 interview: ARM Holdings CEO Simon Segars

The UKtech50 most influential person in UK IT 2016, ARM Holdings CEO Simon Segars, shares his thoughts on the consequences of Brexit, access to skills and the importance of security in a world full of connected devices

This article can also be found in the Premium Editorial Download: Computer Weekly: UKtech50 – the most influential people in UK IT 2016

UKtech50 winner 2016 Simon Segars has had a busy year. The CEO of chipmaker ARM Holdings has led the company through a series of changes, including an expansion of its internet of things (IoT) security team, dealing with Brexit and, perhaps most notably, Japanese tech firm Softbank Group’s acquisition of the company.

When Segars took over as CEO of ARM Holdings in 2013, following Warren East’s departure, the company had seen tremendous growth driven by the age of smartphones. In the past three years, it has experienced another growth spurt, this time led by the ever-growing field of IoT. 

But dealing with the mass of connected devices calls for true management. In October, ARM partnered with Advantech to accelerate the deployment of IoT systems.

ARM’s mbed IoT Device Platform is intended to serve as an end-to-end management solution, encompassing operating system, cloud and a developer ecosystem, making it as easy as possible to safely manage the development of IoT at scale.

“There are endless ways IoT devices can be used,” says Segars. “With so many connected devices in areas of business and personal life, it’s even more important to manage them properly.”

The distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack on DNS firm Dyn in October highlights that need, Segars adds. The attack was one of the largest ever to use the Mirai IoT malware code, which was released on an underground forum and takes advantage of the generally lax security of IoT devices to compromise those that still use factory default or static usernames and passwords. 

The hackers used the collective connectivity of devices such as routers, security cameras and DVRs – something that has played on Segars’ mind.

“It’s a potentially scary world,” he says. “All of these connected devices in homes and businesses could be exploited by hackers and that is something we want to avoid.

“Look at the [Dyn] attack – the security on those devices was pretty horrendous.” 

IT leaders should worry

Segars says business leaders, CIOs and CDOs should put cyber security at the top of their agenda and “worry about it”.

“It’s not perfect, but the industry has got pretty mature in terms of conventional security, such as firewalls,” he says.

“But in a world of connected security cameras, there is a new attack space for hackers and a lot of people and companies have not taken that into account.”

Segars believes all connected devices should be managed and updated throughout their lifetime. “We are trying to develop the underlying technology to make that come to life,” he says.

Earlier this year, ARM said it was expanding its IoT engineering team at the Kfar Netter design centre in Israel. The centre aims to develop technologies that will influence advanced system-on-chip IP for IoT and mobile computing. 

“We have been working on some of the underlying security features that are needed in chips and products, so an IoT device becomes a managed device that can be updated in its lifetime, like a web browser. All connected devices should do that,” says Segars.  

Brexit and the skills shortage

But the IoT isn’t just about security, it’s about access to people with the right skills.

“Innovative technology isn’t just about an object – it’s got to sit within a broader environment and we only get the benefit of it when it’s working with something else – which requires a whole set of new skills in our industry,” says Segars.

“The topic everyone is concerned about is access to people with the right skills.”

Segars has taken a stance on Brexit since before the referendum, and is not shy about saying the UK would have been better off staying in the EU.  

“One of the benefits of being in Europe is access to labour,” he says.

“The topic everyone is concerned about is access to people with the right skills.”

Simon Segars, ARM Holdings

Cambridge, where ARM is headquartered, has grown an exceptional amount, he says, “because it’s been a great place to come and work if you’re in technology – not just from the UK, but in Europe”.

It would be disastrous if tech companies suddenly lost easy access to the European talent pool, he says. “It’s a real concern. We want to encourage easy access to people from across Europe.”

Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond and Prime Minister Theresa May both keep reiterating that “Britain is open for business” and that Brexit will be an opportunity for UK industry, but that doesn’t alleviate the fear held by many in the tech world. 

Segars concedes that it isn’t very helpful “bemoaning” the decision to leave the EU, but he stresses that lobbying is very important. “We are a long way from knowing what Brexit looks like,” he says.

“It is important to make sure the interests of the industry are heard and that we get an outcome that works in favour of the technology industry.”

Industry has a responsibility

On the other hand, the industry has a responsibility to encourage people to get into technology at an early age, says Segars.

“Another thing is that tech companies need to make investments in the education sector to make sure there is an indigenous supply of skills anyway,” he adds.

“It’s not just about tech for the sake of tech. Yes, the world needs more computer science graduates and mathematicians, but most, if not all, jobs can benefit from technology, so I would like to see technology embedded in the education process.”

Read more about the UKtech50

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Segars is not necessarily talking about teaching kids how to code, but to show how technology can be used to benefit every area. He gives PE as an example. Children could use activity sensors during their PE sessions and then analyse the data.

“Bringing technology into the classroom will lead to people comprehending the benefits of technology,” he says.

IT leaders have a responsibility to be part of driving the education agenda, says Segars, but it should be a collaboration.

“The government is there to create the right environment, but we can’t expect the government to know what every industry sector is going to need, so companies need to set up opportunities and be involved in it,” he says.

ARM is playing its part. It has teamed up with several organisations, including the BBC, to create the BBC micro:bit, a microcomputer the size of a credit card. The computer, together with an online platform and tools, are aimed at getting kids interested in technology. 

So far, one million computers have been given away to year 7 schoolchildren in the UK and a separate foundation has been set up to drive ongoing skills development.

Committed to the UK

If there is one thing Segars is clear about, it is that despite the challenges ahead, ARM is committed to staying in the UK.

When the company was acquired by SoftBank earlier this year, some saw it as the UK losing one of its biggest tech businesses to Japan, but ARM and its new owners will  continue to be based in Cambridge. In fact, SoftBank has announced plans to more than double the company’s UK workforce, as well as increasing its headcount outside the UK.

“We really are a global business,” says Segars. Although headquartered in the UK, most of the company’s business takes place outside the country.

The firm is constantly thinking about what is happening around the world – where is the technology that will dictate the future?

“Running a company on a 24/7 basis means there’s always something going on,” says Segars.

One of the reasons SoftBank acquired ARM was its strong capabilities in global semiconductor intellectual property and IoT, as well as its proven track record of innovation. So how does its CEO make sure the company stays ahead of the game?

“We’re all about pushing and expanding our ecosystem and building relationships with as many as we can up and down the supply chain,” he says.

“It’s also about making sure we’re not just cooking up things in a darkened back room, but doing things hand in hand with our key partners.

“Building partnerships and building relationships is how to keep on top.”

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