A lifetime in technology

Tom Wills-Sandford, deputy director general of Intellect, the trade body for the technology industry, retires at the end of 2011 after 49 years in the industry. Computer Weekly invited him to look back on his career and what has changed.

Tom Wills-Sandford, deputy director general of Intellect, the trade body for the technology industry, retires at the end of 2011 after 49 years in the industry. Computer Weekly invited him to look back on his career and what has changed.

The UK technology industry today is dominated by US multinationals, with a few star exceptions. Having worked in a start-up, it is regretful that we do not have more of a Silicon Valley culture. Nothing less than a change in culture is needed, but there are promising signs in Cambridge, Shoreditch, Bristol and other locations of an increasing entrepreneurial spirit.

A lot has changed since I took my first steps into the technology industry in the US as an engineer, less than two years after the microchip was first commercialised. Since then I have worked in a wide variety of technical, non-technical and management roles in Bell Labs, IBM (in US and UK) and for a UK start-up. For the last 14 years I have been with Intellect, as the industry went “bang” and we emerged into the connected world.

Although brought up in the UK I went to university (in 1959) in the US at Cornell, where I earned an engineering degree.

My first IT project was to build a “two-bit adder” which is a circuit that will add together two numbers of three or less. The maximum result is six and so you need a carry or third bit. It is a matter of some satisfaction that my technology/IT career started with the design and building of the most basic computer building block of all, requiring maybe 10 individual transistors. 

I joined Bell Labs in New Jersey where a few years earlier the transistor had been invented, surely the defining invention of the 20th century. One reason I joined Bell Labs was that they agreed to send me to Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) for a Master’s degree. At MIT I learnt Fortran and so in the space of a few months I was an IT expert; I had designed some hardware and had written some software.

I subsequently became bored with life in New Jersey and I joined IBM, based near Wall Street supporting the New York banks for three years before returning to the UK with IBM.

In the 1970s & 1980s, IBM was forever talking about increased price-performance and of course the changes have been extraordinary. From the first IBM mainframe that I worked on and the first disk drive (7MB, 3ft high and 4ft square) that ever stored some of my software the price-performance improvement factor is in the billions; so large that it is almost meaningless to calculate a real number.

Up to the 1990s the industry grew rapidly but in what was a linear or straight line way – the computing was done within the walls of the corporation and even then for a select, if growing, number as the glass house reached out to more users. 

The occurrence of a “big bang” in technology has changed the world. The 1990s saw the commercialisation of three initially unconnected technologies – most obviously the World Wide Web (WWW), but also digital mobile telephony and broadband over copper wires to the household. The three technologies began to converge and the world of technology went bang and has never been the same since. We now have a generation who live their lives through the connected world.

My career has spanned two eras separated by a big bang – linear progression, then the big bang and now the connected world.

The latest phase, consumerisation of technology, is now having a major effect on corporate IT. I am told now that IBM does not supply end-user devices to its employees; the choice is theirs.

Since leaving IBM in 1991, I have influenced more outcomes and achieved more than I might ever have done in a corporate world. I joined a start-up, surviving an interview by the venture capital investor who asked me whether I would expect “three secretaries and a plush carpet”, after leaving IBM.

I joined a predecessor of Intellect in 1998 and helped found the Broadband Stakeholder Group, became the spokesman for the mobile phone industry on the alleged health effects of mobiles and joined Gordon Brown (and 100 others) on a trade mission to India. It happened to be the same week as the Big Brother episode in which Jade Goody insulted Shilpa Shetty. Gordon Brown had to spend much of his week on TV defending UK television programming.

For many years I campaigned successfully for the creation and then the improvement of research and development (R&D) tax credits. We persuaded HM Revenue & Customs to treat software claims just like other claims.

The technology industry must continue to play an important role in UK, as a sector on its own, as an enabler of key industries and deliverer of government services and in enhancing individuals’ lives. I am not yet convinced the government understands the importance of our industry.

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