IT Life: We All Live On A Nuclear Submarine

Steve McCaskill is editor of TechWeekEurope and ChannelBiz. He joined
as a reporter in 2011 and covers all areas of IT, with a particular interest in telecommunications, mobile and networking, along with sports technology.

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Neil Thomson is currently the CTO of Microgen, but he was once an academic and worked on control systems for nuclear submarines

Neil Thomson has been in the IT filed for more than three decades. Emerging from an academic background, he worked on the control systems of nuclear submarines, before starting his own company and eventually becoming the CTO of Microgen. He loves his Range Rover, admires Amazon and has a particular dislike of standards bodies.

Academic Background

Can you tell us about your company and your areas of expertise?
I’ve been in technology for over 30 years, and these have been times of rapid change in IT – not that it’s slowing down now.

My working life began at the Cambridge APU (Applied Psychology Unit). After a PhD at Sussex and then Stirling University, I became a research fellow working on human memory, thinking and reasoning. During a lectureship at York University investigating language perception and linguistics, I became involved in collaborative work with the computer science department on man-machine interfaces. This led me to move to the Admiralty, to work with the research unit on the design of control systems in nuclear submarines. It was this work that really started to shape my views on computer interfaces.

In the early 1980’s I left academia to start a small software company in York. And so began my life in business and commerce, culminating in my position at Microgen, one of the few fully listed public software companies left in the UK.

What has been the favourite project in your work so far?
Building the Microgen Aptitude platform. It began with a request from a major investment bank to write a “Rules Engine” that would enable business people to write and understand the rules used to translate front office business events into back office debits and credits, which would then be posted to a ledger.  We reduced a process that previously took six months to three weeks! The other highlight of the project was the development of a user interface based on a data flow model that accountants could use themselves, without having to call the IT department.

What technology were you involved with ten years ago?
A huge amount has changed in ten years, and yet issues that were important for businesses then still remain a challenge for many companies today!

Ten years ago, there was the need to provide business applications much more quickly, and one way to achieve this goal was to develop a software interface that allowed business people to build and modify programs in collaboration with IT.  However, this leads to the use of “high level” languages, which is at odds with the other pressing business requirement – faster and faster transaction processing.

Traditionally, these two have not worked together very well, but in my opinion our proudest achievement to date has been to break this barrier between the two. Performance no longer has to be compromised by business-friendly language.

Design and Technology

What technology do you expect to be using in ten years’ time?
IT is increasingly being shaped by business needs – to be more agile and stay ahead of competitors. The future of IT will be in using high level languages whose performance is not compromised by large volumes of data. Similarly, business units and the IT department will increasingly merge, as business user interfaces empower less technical business team members to develop IT applications and control software that serves their needs.

Who is your tech hero and who is your tech villain?
My tech hero is Jonathan Ive at Apple. He has shown the world the importance of design and user interfaces. Previously, tech companies didn’t appreciate the art of design, and designers didn’t get involved in technology. It has been great to see these two things come together.

My technology villains are Standards Bodies – they’re either too good and humble, and want to accommodate all suggestions – and, hence too slow to bring about the standards, spending years on research. Or they simply reflect the most dominant voices in the group and hence, vested interests.

What’s your favourite technology ever made? Which do you use most?
The Range Rover is my favourite piece of technology. It’s the only car you ever need. If badly implemented, multiple functions in a single device can give you the worst of all worlds, like with the Swiss Army knife. But the Range Rover, it’s beautifully done; it’s perfect for all things from transporting sheep to my daughter’s farm to taking my wife to the theatre.

The iPhone is the technology I use the most.

Four Wheel Drive

What is your budget outlook? Flat? Growing?
Flat. We see a strong demand for CEOs and CIOs to invest in technology that directly helps their enterprises to develop new services or to optimise existing operations. The economy is pretty unpredictable, though, and spending will probably remain restrained for a couple more years.

Apart from your own, which company do you admire the most?
Amazon. The company is extremely innovative and has proven that it knows how to execute its projects. Amazon has deployed technology in a very business-focused way. We all see how it manages and processes Big Data to provide us with book recommendations. I am constantly impressed with its ability to deliver any product within a day.

What’s the greatest challenge for an IT company/department today?
The greatest challenge for IT companies is adapting to new service and sales models. From the cloud to freemium business models, IT companies need to adapt quickly.

IT departments are challenged to manage their own extinction with grace.  As business people bring their own devices to work and source their own business tools (e.g. CRM systems), IT teams need to relinquish control. Their other main task, developing in-house applications will also diminish as development tools, such as Microgen Aptitude dramatically reduce the staff and time needed to develop programs.  In the “I want it NOW” generation, the standard IT development times will not be tolerated and people will buy their own tools.

To Cloud or not to Cloud?
The cloud changes the economics of technology spend, transferring CAPEX into OPEX and removing the need for companies to maintain IT departments that are the size of Brazil.

What did you want to be when you were a child?
An adult.

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