Alan has had a long and varied IT career, with a background in research, innovation, technology assessment, and large scale contracting. He has held senior technology management appointments in both public and private sectors, and recently has specialised in highlighting the growing business impact of emerging technologies.
He has been responsible for many major projects and investment decisions, and has considerable experience of IT-supported and IT-driven business change programmes. He is very familiar with the difficulty of implementing change that affects workplace culture and tradition, a challenge that’s still very much with us today.
Alan is a Chartered Engineer, and has served as a member of the Advisory Board of the Intel Corporation, and as a Council Member of EURIM and of the Parliamentary IT Committee.
Early Life and Education
Alan Shepherd describes his younger self as a bit of a geek. He says that he did OK at school, but got through his homework as quickly as he could so that he could concentrate on his hobbies. These included building scenic model railways, something he still does today: nowadays every locomotive has its own computer! He was keen on photography and did his own developing and printing. This led to an interest in chemistry, and he had a home chemistry laboratory at an early age. Unfortunately chemistry at school was a major disappointment, as practical work was very limited.
Alan also developed a love of electronics after reading an article on how to build a crystal set. He went on to build and later design radio equipment of all kinds. He passed the transmitting licence exam at the age of 14 and then taught himself Morse code after his O levels. His love of electronics was supported through the Cadet Force at school where he had access to old radio sets left over from the Army and the Air Force which could be used to talk to other schools around the country. He updated these in various ways to improve the quality of the transmission.
In his studies, Alan concentrated on sciences and says that left to his own devices he probably would have ended up doing engineering. However, he ended up reading mathematics at Oxford, having gained an open scholarship. Alan says that he wasn’t passionate about maths, just conscientious, and this gained him a good degree. While at Oxford he continued with his hobbies, running an amateur radio society, and doing model railways, planes and boats.
After his degree, Alan moved to Lancaster to complete an MA in Operational Research and was then “leant on heavily” to do a PhD, where he created computer simulations of consumer markets.
Early encounters with computers
His first encounter with a computer was in the scholarship class at school when, following an induction day at Leo Computers, the class were given programming aptitude tests which they all completed with ease. Alan’s interest in computers then led him to take a short programming course during his first-year vacation at Oxford where he learned to programme ALGOL 60. His next encounter came on through his work experience at the Ford Motor Company in the US in his second year at Oxford. He visited the headquarters in Dearborn and was shown the basement which hosted row upon row of the newly introduced IBM 360s, plus 1401s and 7090s. He explains: “It was incredible. There, as far as the eye could see……it must have been hundreds. Just lines and lines and lines of these computer boxes, and in the other direction, as many rows of young ladies sitting at punched card machines.”
“At Vickers my major contribution was to take their computing beyond the accounting department and to start introducing real time systems to their commercial operations and to production control.”
Despite seeing computers as a means to an end, Alan, with his background in electronics, found himself interested in the technology, which he says explains how he ended up taking a role at Vickers in 1971 when he finally completed his studies.
Vickers, at that time, was an enormous company with shipyards in Barrow, tank works on the Tyne, printing presses and plates in Leeds, plus plants in Dartford, the Spitfire works in Swindon, and a share in the British Aircraft Corporation. Alan was recruited to its headquarters, but visiting its various plants to do operational research. He explains: “The first thing that really came to my attention was that practically all the things that they could do, in the sort of area that the Director had in mind, were going to need computers.”
This was a relatively new thing for Vickers; the computers that they had at the time were only capable of batch processing and were owned by the works accountants.
Alan continues: “The first thing I had to do was to find a way of getting computers that were sufficiently powerful to do the kind of thing we wanted to do, and had online capabilities too. I was the young lad from head office, who was ‘here to help you’, but also with a fairly strong brief to get things done differently. I ended up with a project to decide how we were going to get these new computers out into the works.”
Alan’s solution was distributed computing. He says: “The computers to do that were only just starting to become available. So, in the big works, they still had a computer which would do the accounts and so on, but it had a capability to support online terminals, and it had an online link to a big computer centre which we built up in Newcastle.”
Vickers hired Phil Fellows to head up the project, with Alan as his Assistant in addition to his role running the Operational Research group within the new Management Services Department. Phil had been at UNIVAC as a project manager and had been their project lead on the building of the Beacon system, BEA’s online reservation system.
This was Alan’s first experience of a massive change programme which included some of the first online shop floor data collection terminals and some of the first programmable VDUs. Alan says: “They were programmable in a rather crude sort of way; it was assembly language type programming. It meant you could do quite a lot within the terminal itself, which was quite important, because at that time, getting good, high-speed telecommunications to these places was not that easy. I remember in those days you had to take the general manager from the Post Office out for a very nice lunch, and talk to him very sweetly to get the sort of priority you wanted! If you were really lucky you got a line that would just about support a 9.6 kilobit modem, which was the height of available technology at that time.”
The Home Office 1978 - 1981
The Home Office approached Vickers to recruit Alan on a two-year secondment as a scientist for their Police Scientific Development Branch. The role involved helping them develop and deploy new real-time computer systems in the 43 police forces around the country. Alan explains: “At the time, Vickers were doing a very difficult negotiation to get their share of the proceeds from the nationalisation of the British Aircraft Corporation, of which they owned half. Industry Minister Tony Benn had come up with this extraordinary formula by which the compensation that was paid was based upon the market capitalisation of the company concerned on the day when it was announced in the House of Commons that the British Aircraft Corporation was to be nationalised. This had the extraordinary result that although we owned half the shares, and Arnold Weinstock owned the other half, he was going to get about three times more for his half than we were going to get for our half. So, Vickers were trying to be rather nice to the Government, because they were wanting to renegotiate this particular deal, and, I was part of the deal. I wasn’t actually employed by the Home Office, but I had the Civil Service rank of Principal Scientific Officer.”
He adds: “I had a difficult negotiation to allow me to keep my company car, which at the time my peers in the Home Office were not entitled to. But I did really need it to get around a lot of these places; although, I did learn fairly early on to ‘let the police do the driving’ wherever possible, because they did go in for rather alcoholic lunches, and I didn’t want to be picked up afterwards! This would have been rather embarrassing for both parties, particularly as the Police Scientific Development Branch was also developing breathalyser machines, cameras and so forth.”
Alan’s secondment was extended by six months and at the end of it, it was suggested to him by Vickers’ Finance Director that if he could find something better elsewhere, he should take it, as Vickers was shrinking, and so too were the opportunities.
Rank Xerox 1981 - 1984
“At Rank Xerox my major achievement was to put the changes in place that enabled them to make the move from massive and cumbersome batch processing computer systems to real time computing, and that was really central to the business changes that they needed to make at that time.”
Alan looked at various options before settling on Rank Xerox in a role he describes as “a computer strategy job”. Alan was responsible for Europe, with counterparts in North and South America, the Third World and Far East. He developed a strategy which was welcomed by his US counterparts, but saw some resistance from some of the more conservative elements in the UK. He says: “I had a similar fight to the one that I had had at Vickers, because their computing was all batch. They had massive projects: incredibly complex commercial systems, because Rank Xerox did a different deal for almost every customer.
These systems were all different in each different country, and they were trying to bring them all together: this meant Europe-wide applications. There were also opportunities for new on-line systems, and this was really the main justification for what I proposed. It was all about transformational change for the business, rather than particularly about saving money. And the solution was not that different to what I had done at Vickers, and it worked for very much the same reason. I sold it to the local computer managers in the big operating companies, because they were going to get their own computers instead of remote batch terminals, but they would all be talking still to the central data centre in the UK.”
The backbone of the system was the new at that time IBM 3081, plus some older UNIVAC machines.
Post Office 1984 - 2003
“As Research Director at the Post Office, a major part of my role was to make senior decision makers aware of the massive technical changes that were on the way, and the threats and opportunities that they represented for every aspect of their businesses.”
In 1984 Alan was headhunted to join the Post Office, just after organisation had been split to create Post Office Telecommunications, a prelude to what became British Telecom (BT). His new role would see him in charge of setting up the new systems for the Post Office Counters network. He explains: “They wanted it to be a funds transfer based system. We still owned Girobank at that time, and the pilot system that we implemented in 250 offices had the capability to do online fund transfers from any bank account to a Post Office, so you could do deposits and withdrawals from Post Offices.” It was a technology leader at the time, however, the business case for rolling it out nationally to over 20,000 offices required the cooperation of all the organisations that transacted business across Post Office Counters such as the National Savings Bank and the Department of Social Security. Alan says: “They just weren’t ready. So unfortunately, it was shelved, and I went off to do other things within the Post Office. The project was revived some five years later in a completely different guise. The Treasury insisted that it was done as a PFI. I was no longer directly involved, although I did sound many notes of warning, which unfortunately were not given as much attention they should have been, and which eventually proved to be only too valid.”
Alan moved back into the central IT department, which was being run by John Handby, and operated essentially as a service provider to the Post Office business units. It had strategic responsibilities, and also analysts and programmers, and it ran the communications network and data centres. Alan explains: “I got pulled in as one of the board members of that organisation, and, ultimately I ended up as Deputy Director of Information Technology.”
The department had around 1,000 people working in it and a budget of £100 million a year. Alan focused on developing the technology strategies for networks, the communications data centres and the terminals. He says: “We were probably the biggest buyer of personal computers in the UK. I was responsible, not in a financial sense, but on the technical side, for purchasing all of that technology for the Post Office. I was also responsible for quality. We got ISO 9000 certification for the organisation; we were probably one of the first in-house IT organisations to do that, I think. I was also responsible for major projects as well, for the really large projects.”
Alan mentions projects such as running the TV licensing system for the licensing organisation in Bristol, track and trace development, the postcode system, and being internet ready. He adds: “It was obvious then, things were starting to happen which were going to represent quite major threats and opportunities for the organisation.”
He says that many of the projects were among some of the biggest in IT outside of the Civil Service and those conducted in-house were usually successful. Some of those outsourced were less so.
In the mid-nineties, Alan became Director of Research, establishing a new department to look ahead to future developments. He explains: “It was technology-based research, but it included the engineers as well, all the postal sorting stuff and so on, which was starting to get linked to the online computers. Although the IT and Engineering organisations had been very separate, those sort of things were starting to bring them together. They brought in a really interesting system whereby all the character recognition and address processing was taken out of the sorting machines and put into a central computer that talked to the machines in each sorting office. This enabled them to take advantage of much more powerful computers and software as they became available, without having to upgrade the machinery, but it was a massive technical challenge at the time because it required really high-speed telecommunications.”
With the internet posing both a threat and opportunity to the Post Office, Alan’s research department established an innovation fund and innovation lab, where people from around the business could bid for money to pilot their ideas and also join forces to do computer-assisted brainstorming, look at the potential impact and find solutions. Alan also ran study tours for Directors and senior management. He explains: “At one time they called me a high-class travel agent, because we took board members and senior directors from around the organisation, and arranged for them to visit other organisations that were more advanced than we were in using computers. We also took them to talk to some of the suppliers that were developing this technology and see how they were using it themselves, and how they saw their markets developing. We were fortunate, because we were so large; our projects were so big; we were major customers of some of these people. So, we were actually able to get an hour with Jeff Bezos at Amazon; Steve Ballmer at Microsoft; Lou Gerstner at IBM, and so on. They were really impressive people and we had some really interesting sessions.” As a result, he says that they were able to implement some important changes, including an organisation set up by MD John Roberts to deal with the Post Office’s first websites.
Despite all of the changes, the Post Office did not move quickly enough in some areas, and had some financial difficulties in the early 2000s which lead to a reorganisation. Alan moved back to Head Office in various roles, including a period as Director of Information Systems and Engineering, but in the end decided to take the opportunity of redundancy. He semi-retired and spent some time in the mid-2000s advising organisations on the adoption and use of new technology. He explains: “I did some consultancy for various people over a few years. I got involved with the Worshipful Company of Information Technologists, took on a role on some of their panels, and essentially took it from there.”
One area he became interested in was quantum cryptography, providing seminars for major banks and so on, to show them the potential of this technology, and how they might get used to it. He adds: “I don’t know quite what happened, but I have heard that the security forces stepped in at this point, and the commercial products that were becoming available in the marketplace took on a rather lower profile.”
Managing IT enabled business transformation
On the subject of creating and delivering IT enabled business transformation in large scale organisations such as the Post Office, Alan describes his role as less an implementation project manager but more of a start-up person. He explains: “I was about selling the initial idea, getting enough money to get it started, then selling it to the people who had to implement it and the people who had to embrace it. A lot of it was really managing quite big information campaigns of one sort and another, just to get people to see what this stuff was and why it was.”
He says he learned a lot while at Vickers from Phil Fellows who saw himself as a businessman rather than a technologist. His message was that, to be successful in implementing change, you needed the detailed functional requirements for the application specified by people from the business unit, rather than just by professional systems analysts. Alan says: “So one always had to teach these people enough about the technology for them to be able to tell the systems analyst people who did the technical bit, how this stuff was actually going to work out on the ground. I did try to follow that pretty hard on most of the other applications that I was involved with.”
Having implemented IT business transformation projects throughout his career, Alan offered the following advice to those starting out now: “You do need to think about how you are going to cope with change, both from a point of view of how you are going to manage it and how, from a personal point of view, you are going to stay up with what’s happening. Because, what you learnt at university last year, or a couple of years ago, is probably not going to be all that relevant in a few years’ time. In any case, it is going to have moved on a long way, and you need to have moved along with it, in whatever direction you are wanting to follow your career. Whether you see yourself more as a technologist or more as a business person or a marketing person, or as a manager or an entrepreneur, whatever you want to do, you need to think about how you’re going to manage that over a period of time. Because, sadly, the days when you could join the Post Office, or Vickers, or someone like that, and expect them to offer you a career right the way through to retirement, are gone.”
For those with aspirations to be entrepreneurs, Alan advises: “If you see yourself as an entrepreneur, if you’ve just come out of university, and you want to set up a start-up and think you’ve got the basis of a wonderful idea, then, you really do need to get some financial skills, and some business management skills, and you need to think a bit about your personal attitude to risks of both a personal and a financial nature.”
Whatever anyone’s career paths he adds: “I think the thing that I would say is, certainly for me, it has been terribly important that you should have something that you’re interested in outside of your main career. For me, it was always my hobbies, and when I retired, I took the exams at the Wine & Spirit Education Trust and am now involved in organising events for the International Wine and Food Society. I think it is important for people to think about what they’re going to do outside of their main career.”
Interviewed by: Mark Jones on the 9th January 2019 at the WCIT Hall
Transcribed by: Susan Hutton
Abstracted by: Lynda Feeley