Charles Hughes, is one of the best known and highly regarded managers in the UK information technology business, with a career stretching back to 1967, much of it spent in ICL, the UK’s one-time computer flagship. He has also been a Government adviser, at critical times in the development of the UK IT industry.
Charles Hughes shared fascinating insights into his life and career in IT with Dr Alan Cane at the WCIT Hall in London yesterday.
Charles was born in 1946 in Manchester. His father was a British Railways clerk and both his father and his mother had a strong belief in education.
Charles feels he was fortunate that his parents sent him to Stockport Grammar School, a direct grant school at the time and one of the oldest schools in the country, and they managed to pull together the fees to send him there from 1952 to 1964.
He ended up being the first member of his broad family, to go to university. He went to Manchester University, not knowing what he wanted to do ultimately. He had been good at maths at school so applied to universities to do a maths degree. Manchester was at the time the leading university in the world for computing and you couldn’t do maths without getting involved in the computing, so he learnt Atlas Autocode. Charles was a year ahead of where he should have been all through school and university and thinks sometimes that he would have been better off at university if he had been the same age as his contemporaries.
He was looking to do two years of Voluntary Service Overseas at the end of his university degree, which would have enabled him to put off the decision as to what to do. However, he found VSO at the time a very difficult organisation to deal with and he likes things to be clear, so he decided to get a job.
Charles applied to a number of computer companies, as they were in those days, because he thought, it would be interesting and exciting. He applied to ICT, English Electric, IBM, and UNIVAC and got graduate trainee offers from all of them. So, on the basis of the best defined, and as far as he could see richest training programme, for two years, he chose ICT, and started with them on the grand sum of £1,050 a year.
He started off at the training establishment that ICT had in Cookham, Moor Hall, for six months covering everything from basic programming, systems analysis, sales, and a bit of financial understanding. The aim was to translate the graduates into business people and then at the end of six months let them loose into a sales region where Charles discovered that, having believed he knew pretty much everything, that he was starting from scratch. His initial training as a graduate trainee, as with everybody, was to become a systems engineer. But, very quickly during that two-year period he was asked if he would transfer to become an assistant sales engineer. And from then on, over the next few years moved quite rapidly through to being a sales engineer, account manager, all the way through to account director. From ’69 to ’75 he was a Sales Executive selling to, to Government and research establishments. Around 1976 Charles was asked to take the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority and British Nuclear Fuels under his wing.
In 1978 Charles was seconded to the Managing Director of ICL Dr Chris Wilson and asked to work directly for him with a team of eight directors spread across the company, to put in place a significant change programme, for their interface and responsiveness to central government to be changed – GRIP (Government Relations Improvement Programme)
Charles went on to become Marketing, Business Planning and Strategy Manager for the UK division of ICL.
Charles got various offers from outside ICL which he turned down. He liked and respected the people and thought ICL had a very bright future. He relished a challenge and found that pretty much every role he did was doing something slightly different, he was learning more, and meeting new and interesting people.
In 1980 Charles became Manager of ICL Education and Research Region which involved pulling together the two existing sales regions to end up with a more effective and efficient operation. This involved letting about 40 percent of the workforce go which was not something that he enjoyed at all.
In 1981-83 Charles was responsible for relations between ICL and the MoD during the Falklands War which meant ICL did everything it could to assist. It took nearly six months sorting out the paperwork afterwards
From 1983-’85 Charles was a General Manager for the PERQ business centre which was part and parcel of a significant, intended extension, of the range of ICL’s activities. In 1985 he became Director of Marketing and Business Strategy
In 1990 to ’91 Charles was Director of Purchasing and once he got into the job, he found it fascinating. His sales background was extraordinarily helpful and the ability to work with people and negotiate was a great help. He had a significant team, 250 or so, both direct and indirect, and a spend of some 700 million.
In around ’91, ’92, ICL moved from being exclusively a hardware manufacturer to a provider of services. Charles was a champion for services, and, in the role of Sales and Marketing Director for the customer service organisation, did many things including putting an overall strategy together. He pulled everything together under a single banner, and, built up overall a team of a couple of hundred. Because of this, they managed to get the software and professional services businesses, growing something in excess of 30 per cent per annum.
In 1995 Charles was seconded to the DTI for two and a half years. On his return to ICL he became Marketing Director for the Corporate Services Division. He was a bit disillusioned when he went back as although he had a contact in ICL, a director who he spoke to on a regular basis just to keep in touch there had been a very thick Chinese wall and he was disappointed to discover that nothing had changed. Despite this he got everything pulled together with the Services Division continuing the sorts of work he had been doing before.
Then, two years later, in 1999, he had the opportunity to leave which he grasped with both hands
Department of Trade & Industry (DTI)
In 1995 Charles was approached by Martin Rumbelow from the DTI who he explained were in the process of launching a programme to investigate whether the Internet and World Wide Web would have any impact on businesses in the United Kingdom, and if so, what was it, if anything, that DTI and Government should do? They wanted him to consider a secondment to Department of Trade and Industry and after conversations with Peter Bonfield (ICL CEO) and Martin Rumbelow it was agreed that it could be a helpful proposition for DTI, ICL and him.
The Information Services Initiative (ISI) team, in association with the Minister, Ian Taylor MP put a whole series of programmes together, to help businesses in the UK, particularly SMEs, understand what the opportunities were and what it was possible to do with all this capability. They launched ISI in February 1996, in Canary Wharf and the programme itself took off with large numbers of people involved and significant industry support.
Because of that success, the Government decided to launch a programme to tell the public what was happening and how useful all of this would be to them. And, because DTI had run this programme so successfully, they were, ‘invited’ to run the programme, to brief the general public. Charles ended up as the programme director for a programme that turned out to be called IT for All. That launched in December 1996, with a big do in Victoria, at the DTI headquarters, headed up by the Prime Minister, John Major, and Martine McCutcheon, who at the time was a star of, EastEnders. Then, in spring that year there was in prospect a General Election and Charles stayed on in central government for that and found it fascinating to see it from the inside. He then, ended up briefing the Labour ministers who came in, about these two programmes and they believed that they were both good and successful, and both were continued by the Labour government..
In 1999, at the age of 53, Charles left ICL, with his pension, and set up eManagement Limited. He had proven skills in leadership, sales, marketing, and a really good understanding of the interface between the industry or business in general and Government and could talk to and understand both sides. He started undertaking a variety of tasks, typically on that interface working with organisations such as BT, Reed Publishing and Mantix and, in government, HM Treasury, DTI and the Department for Education and Employment. Charles decided early on to run the business on a project basis. So, when he was running a project that required additional resource, he hand-picked the people he wanted to work with, and they worked together for the duration of that project, and then, went on their various ways.
In 2002/2003 Charles became a mentor and adviser to a small IT recruitment company, Outsource UK Limited, working with the chief executive, who was the founder of the company. After the Millennium, the company was struggling with only a small number of employees and about 30 contractors out with clients. He helped guide it from that position, becoming Chairman a few years later, a post he still holds such that it celebrated 25 years of the company last year. The company is now 70 plus people strong, has over 850 contractors and is headquartered in Swindon, with offices in London, the Midlands and Manchester. It curates specialist talent in IT and engineering and has a turnover in excess of £70m. This is his sole remaining fee-earning activity and will be the last one before full retirement apartfrom voluntary activities.
Real Time Club
Founded in 1967 the Real Time Club is an iconoclastic dining club with eclectic membership. Charles joined in 1989, served on Council for several years and was Chairman for two years, 1999 – 2001. During this time the Club made its permanent home at the National Liberal Club, membership doubled, the Constitution was streamlined and began the innovation of formal debates to complement the usual single speaker format.
British Computer Society (BCS)
Charles had been a member of the BCS for decades when in the 1990s, he was invited to join the group working out their new strategic direction. Then he was invited to join the Council and become Vice-President of Member Services where he did a lot of work supporting the branches and the specialist groups. He also discovered that there was a significant international flavour, and spent some time in Mauritius and Sri Lanka, managing, being the figurehead at graduation ceremonies and at meetings with the Presidents and Ministers.
From there, he went on to rebrand the BCS and was then invited to stand for election as President. He had already committed himself to professionalism as his theme, and over the years as Deputy President, President, and then Immediate Past President, he committed significant time, and the society committed significant resource, to the Professionalism and IT programme to raise the perception and level of professionalism across the IT industry.
International Professional Practice Programme (IP3)
Building on the success of the BCS professionalism programme Charles collaborated with the International Federation for Information Processing (IFIP) to launch an international programme, IP3. Charles chaired the Programme which was enthusiastically contributed to by computer societies from around the world. IP3 made a significant impact and Charles was awarded an Outstanding Service Award by (IFIP) (2009) and was presented with an International Influencer Award by William Gates III at a private lunch in Florida.
Worshipful Company of Information Technologists (WCIT)
The tenets of City of London livery companies of support for your trade, education, charity and fellowship attracted Charles and he joined the 100th company in 1996. As Chairman of the Industry Committee he organised major conferences in Guildhall concerning the impact of ICTs on the City. He became Chairman of the Communications and PR Committee and joined the Court. In 2007 he became a Warden and was elected Master for 2009/10.
Charles led the team to acquire the Royal Charter which took the best part of three years and required a complete restructuring of the governance. By a quirk of fate Charles ended up as Master of the Company to receive the Charter from the Earl of Wessex at a banquet in Mansion House following a dedication service at St. Paul’s Cathedral.
Charles is proud of his record at ICL and enjoyed the variety and the opportunities. Memorable times include supporting the armed forces and MoD during the Falklands War and, as Purchasing Director, developing the partnership sourcing programme which was expanded as a national programme by CBI.
The DTI ISI programme brought business awareness of the benefits of ICTs and is credited as one of the reasons the UK being a world leader in their utilisation.
He is very proud of becoming President of the BCS and developing the Professionalism in IT initiative and for taking that international.
Of being Master of the WCIT, restructuring the governance and the acquisition of the Royal Charter
Contributing to the development of the IT industry and the profession with roles in the Institute for the Management of Information Systems (IMIS), the Spectrum Management Advisory Group (SMAG), Intellect (now Tech UK), Parliamentary IT Committee (PITCOM, now PICTFOR) as well as the RTC, BCS and WCIT.
Helping grow and transform Outsource UK Ltd into a strong and successful independent recruitment company.
One regret that Charles has is that he never worked abroad despite having various opportunities. He has been on the boards of companies in the United States, Germany, UK and was on the board of ICL Australia, so has travelled extensively, but never worked abroad for a significant period. He does sometimes wonder whether that would have changed things.
Charles looks back on Dr Peter Aylett, not as as a mentor as such but as somebody that he respected and looked up to, and who offered a number of tips. As did Peter Hall, who was the person Charles was working alongside on the GRIP programme, and, who he had a lot of time for.
From Peter Aylett he picked up that, in many cases you’re probably better making a decision, even if it’s not the perfect, or the right one, rather than letting things slide.
From Peter Hall, he learnt a lot about relating with people, and the use of words and vocabulary. He was an absolute artist with putting words on pieces of paper to express meaning in different ways.
Charles would start off by saying, whatever you do, give it your best shot, and be professional. And that includes being ethical, and includes collaborating and working with others. And, following on from that, develop a political sensitivity. That becomes a sixth sense and can be very helpful. He would also strongly recommend people to spend some of their early career on the interface with the customer. There is nothing to beat sitting down and understanding the customer and working with them to know what it is your organisation needs to be delivering. And finally, he would say, get involved outside the day job.
His advice to a manager who has to let large numbers of people go, in the course of their work is twofold. First, be frank and honest. There is no point whatsoever in trying to prevaricate, or to hide the issues. And surprisingly, you do find that for some people it comes as a big relief, for all sorts of different reasons. Second, communicate really well, and put in place as much as you conceivably can to help them understand, find new opportunities, develop further skills, and so on.
One message Charles learnt earlier on is that there is no such thing as an IT project. All projects are business projects, or ought to be business projects, which are facilitated by information and communication technologies. And the moment that people try to implement a pure IT project, then, without exception they end up with results which do not meet the business need.
Interviewed by: Alan Cane on the 12th December 2017 at the WCIT Hall
Transcribed by: Susan Hutton
Abstracted by: Helen Carter