Professor Jim Norton is an independent director, policy adviser, and public speaker. He is a Fellow of the UK Royal Academy of Engineering, an external member of the board of the UK’s Parliament Office of Science and Technology, otherwise known as POST, a governor of Coventry University, a Visiting Professor of electronic engineering at Sheffield University, a board member and trustee of the Foundation for Information Policy Research, FIPR, a past special adviser to the UK House of Commons Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee.
Jim was born in 1952 in south-east London, in Lewisham Hospital. His father was a chartered mechanical engineer, and he spent his life in the pulp and paper industries, particularly, designing and manufacturing the machines to make paper, for paper mills. Jim remembers from an early age explaining to him that, with the coming of computing systems and so on, we’ll be paperless fairly soon, and why was he still bothering with all this paper stuff? 50 years on, he’s still completely wrong. His mother was a temporary civil servant during the Second World War, working for the Ministry of Agriculture, Fishery and Foods, in Blackpool, and his father had grown up in Manchester, and the two of them met in Blackpool. They married there, and eventually moved back down to London in the, late 1940s. As a boy Jim read Practical Wireless and Wireless World avidly from the age of about seven.
Jim went to an indirect grant grammar school, Roan School for Boys, which is still there, on Blackheath, but isn’t an indirect grant grammar school any more. He had a good time there and was particularly interested in mathematics, and, physical sciences. He did his compulsory ten O Levels, and then, three and a half A Levels, because at that stage they were trialling an examination called Nuffield Physical Science, which counted one and a half A Levels. In the end, he got an A in pure maths, an A in applied maths, and an A in physical science and became an exhibitioner from the school on going to university.
Jim joined Sheffield University, which again has a very strong engineering background. Although he was reading engineering, he was able, during one of the vacations, to go on a course, that was actually for staff, on the basics of computing, and in those days programming in FORTRAN. He came out of Sheffield with the best First-Class Honours engineering degree of the year, and a Mappin Medal.
He feels that one of the lessons he learned was an understanding that, the interesting things happen at the boundaries of disciplines, not in the core of disciplines. He had good lecturers and they indulged him in developing things that were probably a bit beyond what would normally have been done at undergraduate level.
Post Office Telecoms
Jim was sponsored to university by what was then the Post Office Telecoms, he wanted someone to pay him through university and of the two organisations that were happy to do that, the Post Office paid better. Jim decided that what he really wanted to do was to go and design the next generation telephone systems, called System X. But the computer systems division of the Post Office, where Jim had worked the previous summer, decided they wanted him and displaced the chap he had shaken hands with, in terms of System X.
Jim’s first posting was as the clerk of works resident at Ferranti Computer Systems in Wythenshawe, looking after a project called the Experimental Packet Switch Service (EPSS) where his background from university was helpful in that in terms of the computing training he had done in his vacation. Jim did his main job during the day, then went back to the Ferranti plant at night, and wrote a series of programs to turn their packet switches into generators and sinks of packets so he could test them. And no one had done that before. Being an engineer, Jim got the manuals for the computer he was using, and looked at what it could do, and wrote an entire real-time operating system, largely in assembler, for the Ferranti Argus 700, which ran roughly ten times faster than the one that Ferranti used.
The Post Office Telecoms became British Telecom and was floated. And, it went through a very radical rethink of how it managed staff. After seven years Jim passed to become a head of group; within, eighteen months he had become a head of section, and six months after that he had become a head of division. But none of that could have happened without the transition, or the pending transition, towards being a quoted company, and away from the Civil Service as it was in those days. These promotions took him away from his love, engineering, and he ended up running organisations and businesses, which was a new sort of skill and round about the early 1980s, he was responsible for the marketing of the advanced networks and a series of software houses and consultancy. After seventeen years with one employer he felt he had become rather one-eyed he had to leave to understand what he couldn’t see.
In 1987 Jim joined a company called Butler Cox. He spent three years working on things that would not conflict with BT, because he knew all of their business development plans. He had an agreement with a friendly BT board member regarding what he would do and what he wouldn’t do. He worked for a lot of other European public operators and set up a practice in Butler Cox, providing consulting to suppliers of information technology: they had previously been focused on users. He spent three years at Butler Cox but it was never his intention to make a life in consulting.
Cable & Wireless
Partway through his final year he did a consulting job for Cable & Wireless (C&W). When he presented the report, the then head of C&W Europe asked if he believed it enough to come and implement it. And, he did. He left Butler Cox and went to be the second employee of Cable & Wireless Europe. It was a slightly chequered time and so having spent two years helping to build C&W Europe, he then spent a few months, with others, shutting it. He found it a very sobering thing telling the people he’d hired that you don’t want them anymore.
At the end of 1993 Jim was headhunted by the government and won the role running the Radiocommunications Agency. The Chief Executive of the Radiocommunications Agency at one extreme could sign into law international treaties at the UN. Because that’s how radio spectrum is allocated globally, through international treaties. At the other extreme in Jim’s time they were carrying out 800 raids a year, with powers under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act (PACE), against illegal broadcasters, including forcible entry. And in between they issued a quarter of a million licences a year. It was made clear by the Treasury when he started that it was a five-year non-renewable contract. Six months from the end of it, his then deputy secretary came to him and said, ‘You will take an extension of the contract, won’t you?’ He said, ‘No. I’ve done everything that I’m good at in the five years. I’ve got the new legislation pretty much through. I’ve relocated the agency at Docklands, recovered it after the IRA bombed our headquarters, back to central London. Driven through fundamental change. There are more things need doing, but they’re not my particular skill. And so, I’m not going to take an extension.’
They agreed that he ought to spend some time, paid for by the department, but strictly speaking not gardening leave, he wanted to find something to do. And the something he did was, was to work with someone who had worked for him in the Radiocommunications Agency, in the Future Unit in the Department of Trade and Industry. And he wrote them a report about converging technologies. Jim then became part of what became the Performance and Innovation Unit at the Cabinet Office, later the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit. A unit that was set up specifically to carry out tasks dedicated by the Prime Minister, but not reporting to him, reporting instead to the Cabinet Secretary
Jim became a Commissioner in the Institute for Public Policy Research (ippr) work on a national security strategy for the twenty-first century. Looking at the vulnerabilities created by new technology was of particular interest.
Jim spent a very happy couple of years in the IoD working three days a week promoting the Government’s report on email@example.com. He thinks he probably did more than 300 presentations around the country on the joys of electronic business.
Jim also went into the semiconductor technology business, largely through the Christmas Lecture he gave for the Royal Academy of Engineering, on e-commerce. Sitting in the audience was the CEO and, also the chairman, of a company called Telemetrics, who were out with a headhunter for a new non-executive director, and they went to the headhunter and said, ‘That’s the one we want.
Jim has very broad interests admits to also perhaps a low threshold of boredom. This has taken him into areas such as, advanced semiconductor manufacturing, into investment trusts, onto the board of what was then Securicor, before it became G4S. And he felt that if he was going to sit on these boards, he’d better know what he’s doing. He took the Chartered Director examinations, and, was eventually elected a Chartered Director. He thinks that’s probably the only area in which he has retained current competence. He thinks he is a competent Chartered Director. But is pretty sure he’s not a currently competent information technologist or engineer.
Jim is involved with Coventry University which he thinks is by far the most successful of the old polytechnics, the post-1992 universities. It has a very strong diversity agenda, both in terms of diversity of students from all sorts of backgrounds, but also, access to foreign students, access even to refugees who don’t have any particular qualifications, wouldn’t normally get anywhere near a university. Jim chairs the Audit and Risk Committee of what is essentially a £300 million multinational business, not just a university.
He is also a Visiting Professor at Sheffield, having always retained some degree of contact with Sheffield. It’s his old department and not only that but his son went to the same department, and was taught by some of the same people. He still gives occasional lunchtime lectures there and serves on the Industrial Liaison Committee.
A couple of key events in Jim’s career were: first, having the opportunity, which was provided by Post Office Telecoms, to just go away and develop that world’s first in the automated compliance, and load testing system for the packet switch networks which underpin today’s the global Internet
The second was initiating the field of spectrum economics in the UK, and driving through that first reform in legislation of radio spectrum management for some 48 years.
In terms of achievements, one that Jim recalls, was rather sad one in many ways, and was the way in which his agency reacted to having its headquarters destroyed by the Provisional IRA. They had moved to South Quay in Docklands in December of 1995. On a February evening in 1996, Jim got a phone call about, just after seven o’clock in the evening, from his finance director, who was still in the building, saying, ‘We’ve just been blown up’. There was huge disruption, but the agency pulled together on and got new accommodation in London very quickly. They then spent some years in New Kings Beam House, sharing space with Her Majesty’s Customs and Excise. A tremendous amount of work was done by a management team of people and the agency pretty much hit its target in that year, even though they had been blown up and relocated. Jim feels that although the Civil Service gets a lot of criticism there are some very good and dedicated people there too.
Another was when Jim was at the Radiocommunications Agency with his team, they were concerned that the development of what is now recognised as satellite broadcasting would be very problematic for the BBC and the terrestrial broadcasters if they were not able to compete. What they managed to do was to pull forward the normal planning timescales in Europe for terrestrial digital broadcasting despite there being myriad different decisions to be made nationally and internationally. This had a great influence on television that we see today.
One in terms of financial outcomes happened when Jim set the legislative conditions for the third-generation mobile auctions. The first use of auctions was for cellular mobile. The advice at the time was that the licences were worth £200 million a licence. Five licences, a billion pounds for the Treasury on a good day. What happened, was that people bid up to, four and a half, five billion pounds a licence, and the Treasury pocketed twenty-two and a half billion pounds. When Jim’s team had set up the original project, they had hired Rothschild’s, the merchant bank, to promote it around the world. And being cautious people, his then head of mobile coms, said to him, ‘We ought to cap their fee.’ Rothschild’s had advised the auction was worth a billion pounds, so they decided to cap them if the proceeds went above two billion pounds. Rothschild’s happily accepted and when the auction finally ran lost their fee on some 20.5 billion pounds. So, the Treasury saved a chunk of money and Chancellor Gordon Brown used the auction proceeds very sensibly to pay down national debt
Jim spent some time working for the Prime Minister on different themes, first leading the team that produced the report e-Commerce@its.best.uk in 1999, the route map to make the UK the best place in the World for e-Business. His second report was: “Encryption and Law Enforcement” an issue which still vexes policy makers today
Jim was elected a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering which is a great honour as he feels there are some tremendous people in the Academy. He has been a working Fellow; he is just coming to the end of his time on the Finance Committee and is just completing four years, which is one more than you are supposed to do, on its Engineering Policy Committee. He is newly started on the Audit and Risk Committee. His particular area though is in that he chairs the Academy’s Community of Practice in Digital Systems Engineering.
Jim was a lifelong member of the IET but had a bit of a falling-out with them because of their lack of movement towards current competence. He went to BCS to talk to them about it and, through a series of discussions became a member of BCS at that stage. Latterly he became a trustee of BCS, and ultimately, that led to the presidency of BCS in 2011.
Jim accepts that current competence is very difficult, because it upsets a lot of members, who may not be currently competent. He became President of BCS essentially pursuing this agenda of moving to current competence for chartered status.
Jim’s theme as President was to raise the profile of computer science and computational thinking in schools
Jim thinks that there are so many things that have been “coming soon” for 20 or 30 years which seem to have arrived. One is genuine progress in AI, artificial intelligence where there’s some fascinating stuff going on.
He thinks that access to genuine quantum computing, for example, IBM have been giving access to time-shared, simple quantum computing to practise with the necessary algorithms, means it’s finally a development whose time looks to have come. He also thinks that will generate some profound changes, not least in security.
The third thing is the linkage between biology and the computing. We now have vastly more computing power available and so, the ability to build organisms from scratch, to personalise medicine in genomics are all things which will have profound impact. And it’s a wonderful time to be around.
Jim thinks there’s absolutely no shortage of interesting things for IT people to do, and we will shortly see AIs battling each other, and attack and defence in cyber security. But the governance for some of these things needs to be put into place. He’s not in the ‘AI will take over the world’ view camp, but does think we need some basic rules of the road, as to, as to how such systems should be constrained and designed.
He is also concerned about the social adoption of all these new ideas and technologies, because he would argue, we’re still seeing technological development on exponential growth timescales, whereas human understanding and adoption is linear.
Jim’s advice is to decide fairly early on what you really want to do. Do you want to stay on the route which is essentially professional engineering? Do you effectively want to be a research engineer, a research scientist, or do you want at some point to move across into management or policy or whatever?
Also, don’t get locked into one discipline. To build a really good data analytic capability, you need computing science skills, you need mathematical skills, you need statistical skills, you need engineering skills, you need sectoral skills in the area you’re working. And essentially, unless you’re a truly remarkable individual, it’s very difficult to ram those into one skull. So, it’s the ability to put together a multidisciplinary team, and to manage that team to success that is key. Jim feels that we’re not teaching people yet how to manage multi-disciplinary teams, but that it will be the critical skill. His recommendation to somebody to really rise to the top in this, is, get a core discipline, recognise the importance of all the others, and know enough about them that you can run as a multidisciplinary, talented team, that brings them all together for success. Because that’s what’s going to drive success in the data analytics world and systems data world.
Interviewed by: Jonathan Sinfield on the 7th July 2017 at the London office of BCS
Transcribed by: Susan Hutton
Abstracted by: Helen Carter