“Innovation is 1% research, 9% development, 20% production engineering and testing and 70% marketing. Government programmes which focus purely on research without looking at development and the processes for bringing market are not just a waste of money, they help destroy UK industry and benefit overseas investors”
“PITCOMs success was from telling MPs what users thought, they heard from the suppliers all the time. One of the reasons that the IT industry today punches well below its weight, compared to above its weight in the early 1980s, is that the lobbying of MPs comes all the time, from big dominant players, usually overseas owned.”
Philip Virgo was born in Lewisham, in 1946. His father was an executive officer in the Ministry of Agriculture, doing night school at the London School of Economics, because his education had been disrupted by the war (most of which he spent as a Japanese Prisoner of War in Thailand). His mother was from a farming family in Norfolk where all of the family until her father had worked for themselves. Her grandfather had run the largest steam threshing operations in Norfolk. but the family fell apart when he died shortly before his eldest son was hit by a sniper on the Western Front. In consequence her father was running the home farm for Alex (older brother of Roland (Picasso) Penrose). This meant that Philip’s mother and her siblings were at the heart of the 1930s jet set, with access as teenagers to the latest thinking of the age.
Philip was brought up to be a servant of the Crown. His father knew that the mission of MAFF (Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food) was that Britain should not starve to death if World War 3 started with a submarine blockade not a Nuclear Strike. Ministers came, ministers went but the mission did not change.
Philip was brought up in south London during the days of rationing. They were the only family in the street that did not have sugar, chocolate or the other luxuries of the day. They were on a street of dockers and his mother had it all on offer to her. But she could not figure out how to accept it and explain to her husband where it came from. He was helping plan, run and enforce the rationing system.
Philip got an LCC scholarship, which his father traded for a place at Dulwich. He was there under the Dulwich Experiment, started when Christopher Gilkes was Headmaster and it was a very socialist idea to give the best available education to the brightest of the working classes. The Estates Governors could not afford to repair the bomb damage to the school buildings (a V2 had taken out the science block and a V1 had damaged much of rest) but the grounds were covered in RAF hutments. So Gilkes kept the hutments and used them to double the size of the school with scholarship places paid for by the London County Council, to the horror of the Governors – who not consulted. That was the start of the Dulwich Experiment.
Between school and university Philip spent a gap period in Farnborough Hospital, as a kitchen porter. He saw the waste, inefficiency and corruption of the National Health Service from “the arse end upwards.” Around the same time, he joined the Young Liberals, he was living in Orpington at that time, but, then discovered that the Young Conservatives had more and prettier girls. Then when he went up to Cambridge he joined all three parties and became politically active via the Conservatives.
Philip read history at Peterhouse, Cambridge with Maurice Cowling as his tutor. He learned to be far more ruthless and rigorous in testing the evidence that supported what he thought, than with that of his opponents. He also learned that much of what we are taught about the past does not fit the original sources. Thus, the great “liberal reformer”, John Stewart Mills can equally be seen as a racist, semi-fascist, imperialist who caused the Indian Mutiny by imposing western ideas on a sub-continent that was previously run for profit via an eclectic mix of modern technology, corruption and patronage by the East India Company. The interpretations of “reality”, past and present, change over time with the prejudices of the period.
Philip saw his first computer when he went up for interview and wandered into the old Cavendish Labs, looking for a loo. He went downstairs to what were obviously the old toilets, and found the Gents full of racks of electronics, with the old urinals behind them. He later discovered that that was the University’s great secret computer and the door should have been locked. When he first went up, he was hit with a barrage of intelligence and aptitude tests. This was an experiment to see what correlated with students’ degree results. After graduation they faced the same barrage to see if anything had changed.
As a historian he knew that knowledge meant power and thought that computers would sooner or later have something to do with knowledge, so he applied for jobs in the new computer industry. He found that he had done all the aptitude tests he faced, bar one, at least twice before, so got phenomenal scores and landed a job with Standard Telephones and Cables (STC), in the Microwave and Line Division as their first trainee computer programmer. They were working on the first-generation microwave network to go across mountain tops in Brazil and on airborne microwave. He worked on an IBM 360 30 on the production control systems and helped reverse engineer IBM Bill of Material Processor to shoe-horn a 56 hour week-end rescheduling run into a 90 minute extended lunchtime slot. While he was there, STC Microwave and Line went technically bankrupt. They had spent £3 million in bribes to get the £15 million Brazilian contract and then realised they couldn’t build it for less than £26 million. It cost another £1.5 million to get out of the contract. At that point the chap behind him was ordered to crash the year end payroll, to give credibility to the failure to run the bought ledger and pay the bills – thus enabling them to hide the bankruptcy from ITT, the parent company. An interesting lesson in how computing was already at the heart of corporate politics.
When Philip joined STC, they had talked about a couple of years, then going to business school to move up the management tree. It then became apparent that a six weeks diploma in management studies in Chelmsford was more likely. Then with the financial problems all training programmes got the chop. Despite being well-paid Philip decided it was time to look elsewhere. He had some interesting interviews with Plessey and with De La Rue. However, the most interesting of all was with ICL, David Firnberg’s IMIS, integrated management information systems division. They were not going pay him any more but appeared serious about his business school aspirations.
Philip joined ICL in 1969 only a year after it had been formed in 1968 from English Electric, Leo Marconi, Eliott Automation and ICT. He found himself taking over the merged sales ledger system that had been created for ICT by the credit control manager of Powers Samas reporting to the credit control manager of BTM. He then had to merge this with the systems of English Electric, Dataset and Dataskil and put in a series of new analytical facilities. His task was to merge and upgrade four different sales ledgers over four different technologies, to the hard stop of decimalisation.
His reward was that ICL did indeed sponsor Philip to the London Business School where he did an MSc, now an MBA, programme from 1971 to1973. The deal was that he had to stay at ICL for eighteen months after the course, but they had problems finding a role for him what he went back. So he was put on to one of the industrial strategy projects of the day – that into the computing needs of the Water Industry: where a kaleidoscope of Water, sewerage and sewage boards and river authorities were about to be merged to create the Regional Water Authorities. He was initially the financial systems analyst but quickly found that the project manager was out of his depth and had taken to drink. He was allowed two weeks to read his way in and used this to apply the LBS variation on the Harvard Business School approach to strategic analysis. Within another four weeks his analysis was adopted, and he effectively became programme manager, with no clear reporting line above or below. The project manager post was never refilled.
Philip found it great fun, because he was using a wide variety of the latest business school techniques, to very short order, to not only make sense of a confusing situation but to enable those around him (particularly the senior managers in the Water Industry who were intrigued by what was he up to) to reach consensus on viable ways forward – so that this could be written up as recommendations which would be adopted and implemented. This was the time of mainframes and the beginning of minicomputers. The original expectation was that the study would recommend centralisations around some all singing, all dancing mainframe systems. However, it became quite clear that the systems were far too complicated and there was no way that new industry would be able to afford the staff needed. So instead, the strategy was for a devolution with to pan-industry co-operatives, to develop systems that would link together, many running on minis or regional mainframes. It was built round the people they’d got and the people they could afford. Philip thinks it’s probably the first and last big strategy built round the people, not the technology.
Philip feels ICL was destroyed by the Inland Revenue. Geoff Cross, who was brought in from America to turn around ICL, did nothing in his first 100 days except walk round the company, seeing everybody and everything. He then swung the axe, chopping one third of those who reported to him. Three months later, the axe swung again. A third of the next tier went. The consensus in the company was that if the axe swung a third time the company could be fully turned round. However, at that point, Inland Revenue ruled his contract illegal (it guaranteed him an after-tax package of salary and expenses). They gave him six weeks to leave the country or be bankrupted. So, Cross left. ICL fell apart. And that was the point at which Philip decided to leave ICL.
In 1982 Philip joined the Wellcome Foundation – the heart of Sir Henry Wellcome’s legacy (the Trust was then merely funding the University research programmes from which the Foundation recruited those to staff its development programmes, such as that into the immune response system which ran for over 30 years before it began to pay off). It was a UK-owned, global pharmaceutical company and he went there mainly because he had been unable to move into corporate planning to help turn round an ICL which was now going nowhere. His first job was forty-eight hours to report on the risk factors on a big turnkey operation in Saudi Arabia. He had never done anything outside the UK but knew a couple of people who experience of big programmes that had gone pear shaped in the Middle East and he had done risk reduction exercises in ICL. He mixed the two and learned that he was to be in charge of the costings, reporting via his new boss (the Corporate Planning Director) to the Chairman. After that project he acquired responsibility as the corporate planner for Export Division (the Middle and Far East), the European subsidiaries and the UK R&D budgets, with all the studies, e.g. from the use of technology to support an aging population in the UK to Wellcome’s inputs to the Indonesian Health Strategy, that went with the role.
In 1979, Philips second year at Wellcome Foundation, there was a sea change in British politics with the election of Margaret Thatcher. When Philip left ICL and started working for Wellcome Foundation, he became more trusted politically – he no longer worked for a supplier lobbying for support or business and could put UK issues into global perspective. He quickly found himself putting together the Conservative Party’s list of contacts with the computer industry and, with Michael Spicer, created the Conservative Computer Forum to try to get agreement on the need for a policy and, if so, the content. He soon found himself on Ian Lloyd’s team producing the Conservative Computing and Communications policy study for Sir Keith Joseph at the same time as being a levy-paying ASTMS rep on the TUC studies, during the run-up to the ’79 Election. The Conservative strategy was for Philip to produce a fiery paper to stimulate discussion while Adrian Norman drafted the policy in light of the response. But the Callaghan government collapsed four months earlier than expected. The discussion paper was therefore published as “Cashing in on the Chips” after the Election. Derek Broome was intellectual driving force behind telecoms liberalisation (not just privatisation) and privatisation. Adrian Norman contributed an awareness campaign – which became IT Year. Philip’s contributions included what became the Micros in Schools programme.
Philip feels that Britain has never managed a well targeted or implemented strategic intervention in anything. The water industry study was the only one of the 1970s industry strategy projects, inspired by Tony Benn but implemented by Peter Walker, to achieve its objectives. However, that was because it was not run by a consultancy. They would have “known” what to recommend, instead of distilling the hopes and fears of those running an industry that was about to be re-organised – regardless of whether they were in the running for future top jobs. The parallel study on police computing, with a similar budget, produced a much glossier report and no change whatsoever. Most UK industrial strategies have been a total waste of space and most interventions have been economically disastrous. He includes the Alvey programme from 1983 to 1987. Alvey was all about the one per cent research, with no concept as to how that was to be developed into product or be brought to market by UK-based businesses. Without attention to the later stages it was doomed to produce research for other parts of the world to bring to market and destroy what was left of the UK computer industry.
He thinks that the same applies today. UK civil servants and academics have yet to get their heads round what is involved in bringing innovation from University to market. MIT and Stanford are wealthy beyond the dreams of British universities because, for over a century, they have been deriving royalty income and dividends from spin-offs run by the alumni who the professors introduce to the venture capitalist who will help turn their PhDs into business plans. In fenland Cambridge, departments and colleges began to copy the process 40 years ago and are beginning to reap the rewards. Few other UK Universities and almost none of the Catapults yet understand how the Stanford process, for example, drives Silicon Valley.
PITCOM, Parliamentary IT Committee
The core concept for PITCOM came from Ian Lloyd, who felt, after the 1979 Election, Parliament needed informed discussion and a policy research operation. Philip’s group running the Conservative Computer Forum wanted to go all-party, and Labour MPs wanted to help, so they created the Parliamentary Computer Forum, to run neutral briefing sessions on hot topics. Ian Lloyd created a conventional all-party group: half a dozen MPs and the speaker of the day. The obvious thing to do was to put the two together. The core concept was that it was Parliament and Industry, working together. Philip was the first industry vice-chairman; partly because he worked for a user not a supplier and partly because he had been given an allowance of public service time to work on issues that would benefit computer users – Wellcome thought that sooner or later he would stand for parliament and had the same support package as for one of their senior Shop Stewards in mind.
A key principle was that PITCOM wasn’t allowed to lobby for anything. It could only provide a platform. “Mother and apple pie are all very good, now let us hear from Satan for her point of view”. During the meetings and conferences a number of proposals emerged with which PITCOM could not itself be involved other than to provide opportunities for events to discuss or launch. One was the campaign to extend copyright to cover computer software. Another was the first Women into IT campaign.
That led to the idea that PITCOM needed a para-military wing – to “ensure” action where it found consensus. The then chairman of PITCOM, John McWilliam, had been the Post Office Engineer in charge of surveillance on the IRA and had in mind the relationship between Sinn Fein and the Army Council of the IRA. Hence the formation of EURIM, now the Digital Policy Alliance.
PITCOM organised a number of international trips; including one in 2000 to California, (Silicon Valley, Menlo Park, Sacramento and Los Angeles). The Californian view of the UK was that it was even more out of touch with the real world than Washington. Meanwhile US public-sector computing, including in California, was as big a mess as in the UK and big was not beautiful. Small states, many no bigger than UK county councils did IT better.
They also discovered true, the importance of the UK’s secret weapon: the “Cambridge Computer Club”, well known in Silicon Valley but unknown in the UK. This was organised by Matthew Bullock, the young Cambridge graduate assigned by Barclays to look after their troublesome high-tech accounts. With the help of Hermann Hauser and others he supported a programme of meetings into which he slipped the occasional meeting on how to run a business. He also enabled the participants to book discounted group flights to Los Angeles via Barclays, thus giving them an image of organisation and backing that belied the informality of the reality. Over time image became reality and Cambridge became powerhouse, not just a cluster, with Hermann and ARM at its heart.
Public Sector IT
Philip thinks the prime reason that the UK public sector is so bad in its use of IT is that decision taking is passed to those who listen to experts not users and rewards those who centralise or outsource. The consequence is loss of the flexibility to handle either local needs or change. Implementation and responsibility should be devolved to municipal enterprise, using publicity to reward the best and allow local voters to crucify the worst. From 1906 onwards, we’ve been centralising on London and we’ve created a world fit for the 1920s. Philip is a believer in Victorian free trade.
He believes that great tranches of Google’s current position are the exploitation of patent and copyright laws, which should never have been granted, and would not have been permitted in the UK when it was the workshop of the world: the Statute of Anne (1709 first Copyright Act in the World) limited protection to fourteen years and that out of print could be copied. Also, if you did not bring product to market, you lost your patent protection.
First, when they discussed the extension of copyright to cover computer software, they had a long discussion as to what their criteria for success were. The conclusion was that, if, looking back, fifteen years out they were still pleased with what they had done, then they’d probably done a good job. Fifteen years out, he was still pleased. Today, he is profoundly ashamed because of the way in which Google and others have been able to use a mix of copyright and patent to achieve and enforce dominant positions that should never have been permitted. He feels that Google has been able to use patents and IPR that should never have been granted in the first place, because they were prior (albeit secret to GCHQ and NSA) knowledge and the US and EU patent and copyright systems are rotten to the core.
Second, the splitting of the governance and administration of EURIM (European Information Market) from PITCOM. Had the situation been kept where EURIM, as a company limited by guarantee, reported to PITCOM, this could have swung the debate about the governance of parliamentary groups in a different direction. Today PICTFOR (Parliamentary Information Technology Committee) and most other APPGs are now run by and for suppliers. By contrast, for most of its existence, PITCOM was dominated by user interests and was concerned with the effective use of technology, rather that its promotion as an end in itself. Philip feels that his mistake was to not only go along with the view that the reporting loop was superfluous, but to go further and suggest that because PITCOM needed new blood, not only should he not be involved in the restructuring, but nor should Kate Norman and Emma Fryer, who were helping run both PITCOM and EURIM programmes. Had he allowed them to bid to run PITCOM he suspects that the way ahead would be been very different and he could have retired five years earlier leaving a much healthier legacy.
A constant theme of Philip’s is support for the user, listen to the user and don’t trust the experts who know that their product, services, technology is “the answer”, without listening to the question. He thinks that suppliers who listen to users may well be trustworthy, but suppliers who “know” what the users want and need, are not. His first chief programmer in STC tasked him to help assess first generation software packages with the firm instructions: ‘Don’t try and understand the jargon they use. Ask them to explain what it does in basic Anglo-Saxon, and if they can’t, tell them in even more basic Anglo-Saxon what they can do with it.’
Interviewed by: Richard Sharpe on the 8th May 2018 at the WCIT Hall
Transcribed by: Susan Hutton
Abstracted by: Helen Carter