Looking back his career decisions John says that the most important decision he made was “committing to what became the IT industry and therefore riding on the back of the microelectronics revolution.”
His advice to young people considering a career in IT is “to pick a fast stream because you’ve only got to go a little bit quicker than others in that fast stream to be going along at a hell of a pace.”
John was born in London in 1946. His father was a bomber pilot during the war. After the war his parents bought a small single-engine plane and planned to fly to Australia, however, they ran out of money in India where his father then got a job. John called Calcutta his home for the first sixteen years of his life. Like many ‘children of the Empire’ he was sent to school in the UK and would see his parents once a year for holidays.
John says of his time in India: “It was a world which doesn’t exist anymore – the end of the Raj. The only connection to my current life is that my father, amongst his many sporting activities, was a founder of the Calcutta Motor Sports Club. Working on his car left me with a love of motor racing which I still do to this day.”
John went to Worth Abbey school in West Sussex where he was taught by monks. He says: “I was an athlete at Worth School, and so I very much concentrated on my physical prowess, because, in schools in those days, my other characteristic, of being good at sums, was a distinct social negative.”
John studied A level mathematics, physics and chemistry. Following school John was not eligible for a grant to go to university as his parents did not live in the UK, so he applied for and was successful at gaining an apprenticeship with Vauxhall Motors. He says: “That worked out very well, because, while there I passed the scholarship exams to go to Queens’ College Cambridge. And I also learned some skills which came in useful once I had earned enough money to take motor racing seriously”
John read Engineering (then called Mechanical Sciences). It was while at college that John met his future wife Kitty. He stayed on to do research in Control Engineering while Kitty completed her degree after which, in 1969, they married.
During his first degree John encountered computing. He says he hated it initially because it was a slow process of using punch cards, sending them off and having to wait a week for the results. However, the Control lab had their own computer, and this led him to discover the joys of mathematical modelling. He says: “It’s a wonderful thing. You have a physical issue to solve, and you build a model, and you try it out on a computer, and you see how things go wrong. Therefore, you get an idea of how to improve them and that’s what my research work was about at Cambridge.”
After finishing college and having been drawn to computing, John applied to a company called the Council for Economic and Industrial Research, CEIR, which then became Scientific Control Systems, or Scicon. John was the first engineer that Scicon employed.
Six months after joining the company, it announced it was relocating to Milton Keynes. Having just mortgaged themselves to the hilt to buy a house in London this was a shock, but they thought it would be best to get ahead of the game and move to Milton Keynes in the first wave. However, just after they had managed that, John Ockenden, who was then Managing Director, came to see the twenty or so employees who were based there and told them that, due to the 1973 recession, the company was now going to stay in London. He offered them the opportunity to move back to London or to stay and develop a business in Milton Keynes. The only stipulation was that they could not compete with anything going on in London. John explains: “This turned out to be a wonderful thing because we focused upon mathematical modelling, which is what most of my team was doing, and because I was just about the most senior I had the chance to lead a business over the next several years. It grew quickly to about 140 people and was a great experience and an unusual one at that time for a young man in his 20s.”
The team developed a technology called they called unit modelling. John explains: “The challenge that was being faced by those companies developing complex systems, particularly in the aerospace industry, was how could you ever get the next generation of aircraft systems approved? They were getting so complicated that the number of trials you would have to do to prove their safely would never be affordable. So, we developed unit modelling to break the system down into distinct units. You build a model for each of those units, prove your model for that across the whole span of possible inputs. Finally, you stuck it all together, did the whole system, and then, you had only to do limited trials of the whole system to be confident that you knew how it was going to work in all circumstances.”
Something similar is still in use today and now deals with even more complex issues.
John adds: “We built a very interesting business in Scicon in Milton Keynes, on the basis of those modelling technologies. It was a great team working with me. How often do young people get a chance to really spread their wings? Being able to pick on a technology and actually make something out of it.”
In 1978, BP, which actually owned Scicon, became interested in what it was doing in a completely different area and one day John was called to the boardroom and told a new Board, with a different focus, had been installed. John realised it was time to consider moving on. Together with a few of his closest colleagues, including John Ockendon, they put together a business plan to raise finance for a new company. They received venture capital backing from Cinven and Charterhouse (who also backed the CAP Group) and the new company was called CAP Scientific because the founders’ exit was to be into CAP Group equity. In due course John became Managing Director.
The company quite quickly became very successful. John says: “We were successful because, by the end of the Seventies we were moving beyond the idea of just doing analytical modelling and into using those techniques to build them into real-time control based on what were then called microprocessors.. The headline in our business plan was that that technology was going to eliminate the need for roomful of bespoke electronics from the big electronic majors and replace that with software running on microprocessors. Our principal targets were two big UK-based engineering firms; Ferranti and Plessey. We thought they were particularly vulnerable and so we would target their core markets. This was ambitious for a team of what was originally four people in a room with a telephone in the middle.”
When the time came for the CAP Scientific equity to be traded up into CAP Group equity John joined the Group Board at a point when the future of the software industry in the UK was very much in question. He explains: “US software companies were making big inroads into the UK market because they had the economies of scale based on the much bigger US market. To cut a long story short the Board decided, rather too early in retrospect, that the European market was going to be where we needed to be, and we decided to do a merger with the similarly sized French company SEMA-METRA SA. This then created a squabble with CAP Sogetti in Paris, which caused us to have to change the name of the group from CAP Group Plc to Sema Group Plc. But CAP Sogetti and its friends amongst French financial institutions continued to buy up our equity in the London market to the point where, in 1990, most of it was held in Paris”
John was Managing Director for the UK, North America and Australasia. In order to become the next CEO it became clear he would need to move to Paris to become familiar with the (now) majority investors. He was planning this when he was when he was approached by the UK Government.
Defence Evaluation Research Agency
The challenge the Government had in mind was to create a commercial entity out of its defence scientific laboratories,
He explains: “Margaret Thatcher had asked why the Government still had 14,000 scientists in 80 different laboratories, researching defence, when we had already won the Cold War. The notion was that they were such a valuable asset they should be commercialised. I got the approach; would I take this on? When you know you’ve decided to change your life anyway, and another option comes along, you think about it. It wouldn’t otherwise have happened.” In 1991 John became CEO of what became the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency (DERA).
Recognising that the organisation had extremely good people with a record of good innovations, John set about changing the systems and culture to those that would support research that was focused on customers who wanted what they were doing. He adds: “The world had changed but the laboratories had not. And a decade before, the MOD had changed its procurement in a fundamental way. Instead of an essentially in-house process, whereby our laboratories largely studied the problem and designed a solution which was then put out to industry to build, the policy became putting the problem out to worldwide industry from the start. That largely took the MOD’s own laboratories out of the loop. If you change that, why do you still have laboratories? If the MOD had been a company, they would have downsized its laboratories. Of course, in Government, that doesn’t happen, and so DERA was a bit of an orphan organisation.”
Drastic action was needed and this was introduced from 1992. Amazingly by 1994/95, the organisation had become cash positive having undertaken major structural changes and established strong customer relationships. It earned most of its business from customers free to choose their supplier. John adds: “By 1997, I was being called to see Ministers who were telling me, could we try to be less successful in competitions, because industry was complaining bitterly that it was unfair. At that point, I decided that the only way out was to put ourselves on the same basis as industry, not to have so-called soft access to capital. In 1997, when the new Labour Government came to power, I put forward three options as to how that could be done. In the end the Government chose another option. Nonetheless, that’s what kicked off that process.”
John explains: “I imagined that we could create out of DERA an organisation which would be financed by private capital but would essentially remain focused upon its core roles. In the end it was decided to split DERA to a smaller publicly owned organisation which did the bare essentials (to be called Defence Science and Technology Agency – DSTL), and then majority to become a commercial company – QinetiQ Group plc -completely free to live or die by the market. It was not what I had recommended but has in the end worked very well.”
John was knighted in 1999. He says: “It was a great honour. One feels, and I’m not alone in this because I know other people who have been knighted, that it’s what a lot of people have done which you are getting the accolade for.”
In 2003 the Government ran a competition to find a buyer for a minority stake (40%) of QinetiQ. Carlyle won that and under the terms of the competition took control of the company.
John says: “In the two years that they had control, myself and my colleagues enjoyed tremendous support from Carlyle. They had a single minded approach which focused on the creation of value. They strongly supported our expansionist strategy including moving into the US market.”
That success led to the floatation on the LSE in January 2006 and by 2008 the company had revenues of 1.4 billion, half of which came from the US. John had become Chairman and finally stepped down in 2010, 19 years after being handed the challenge by the Government.
The UK’s ability to turn good inventions into wealth
While at QinetiQ John went on the record as saying that the UK was very good at discoveries but not as good as turning them into wealth making opportunities. He explains: “If you compare us with the United States, our national expenditure is too focused upon discovery and not enough on the process of maturation of that into really worthwhile products. There is a huge discrepancy. We have fantastic universities in this country, and we have fantastic science, and we’re very proud of our record in Nobel Prizes and all of that. That’s a very good thing but you’ve got to invest in the rest of the pipeline as well. I’ve done a lot of business in the United States, and the US are equally good at science, but what they have is a very powerful machine to pull through that into making it ready for market. That’s what we lack in this country.”
However, John now believes that things are improving. He explains: “If you go round universities these days, the idea of saying, ‘Ooh! commercial world. I’m not interested,’ that’s gone completely. You find that there’s a huge emphasis on getting ideas funded and that’s a good thing. But it takes a while, I mean it won’t happen instantaneously. It’s still true that the methods of assistance from Government, although they’re better than they were, are still way behind when compared with the United States.”
Medical Research Council
John was appointed Chair of the Medical Research Council in 2006. He says that took him into an entirely different world from technology and engineering. He explains: “Moving into the MRC, you’re in the biology world which is quite different. But my remit was familiar.”
The MRC had been awarded 27 Nobel Prizes, however, there was no record of how much of the innovation was transferring into the world whether as products, therapies or diagnostics helping to save lives. In taking on the position of Chair, John was asked to consider how to reposition the organisation without undermining its reputation and begin to move it in the direction of more translation into products and services of value to patients.
National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts, (Nesta)
Similarly, John also became Chairman of Nesta (in 2009), an endowment funded by the National Lottery aiming at stimulating useful innovation. “That mission plays very much into what I’ve been very motivated by in my life and so that’s why I took it on.”
Although, Nesta was funded by national lottery money its governance counted as a quango and it therefore faced the potential of being culled under the incoming Tory policy of ‘a bonfire of quangos’. John and his Board members set about turning Nesta into a charity to avoid the issue and today Nesta is a charity with a focus on social innovation.
John highlights a couple of Nesta’s successful projects including projects to address global climate change, and health. John explains: “In the health field, it created the concept of people-powered health, which was the idea that health shouldn’t be something which is done to people; something that people should be involved with themselves in decision-making for themselves and their community.”
He adds: “The challenge the Board always had is, how do you pick things which are really going to make a difference?”
100,000 Genomes Project
In 2013 when John retired from the MRC, he was asked to take up the Executive Chair of Genomics England, the company formed to execute the 100,000 Genomes Project. This had been set in motion as a flagship project by the then Prime Minister David Cameron. John explains: “The idea was to make the UK the world centre for Genomic Medicine. Not only would that give us a dataset of immense research value, but by being ahead of the world we could stimulate the generation of an industry around that. The UK was in an especially good position to do this, because, unlike the two big behemoths in the world, the United States and China, we have a single-payer health system which can operate (in principle!) in a coherent way, and we also have the underpinning science base to give us the technology to make sense of the data. So, the concept was not only one of creating a fantastic science base, but also a basis for building a huge industry around it. So that’s what appealed to me. In fact I soon discovered that the realisation of the goal came down to building a giant new ecosystem based on informatics.”
To everyone’s astonishment the 100,000 target was met in December 2018. John adds: “It turns out to be all to do with thinking of it as a total system problem. Other nations who have gone into it, have tended to dive into corners of it, but you’ve got to mobilise an incredibly complicated system to do something which is very unnatural to it – to work in a coherent way. That’s what we’ve done. We have created that systematic infrastructure in the UK, and so we are definitely now acknowledged world leaders in population genomics.”
Challenges and opportunities for IT in the next ten years
John says: “I think the digital revolution has been phenomenally empowering, and it’s still got a long way to go. But the great driver of Moore’s law has run its course, so the future will be more difficult and more competitive. But areas like genomics are fundamentally based upon digital innovation and putting genomics alongside the digital tools will literally transform the life experience of humanity. Eventually disease won’t be something which is foisted upon you by unhappy fate; it will be something which you can engage with and decide how you want to manage it to live your life.
“This is a space which I would recommend any youngster to get involved in. Because by the time we get to the end of this century, we will absolutely think of medicine today as no different from bleeding someone with leeches because they’ve got a fever. We know so little about the effect of the things which we are invited to swallow today, we will I’m sure, in the future, not do that at all, but will have something uniquely relevant to you. But first of all, we will help you avoid being ill, but if you are ill, we will have something which is specific for you.”
Looking back on his career decisions John says that the most important decision he made was “committing to what became the IT industry and therefore riding on the back of the microelectronics revolution.”
His advice to young people considering a career in IT is “to pick a fast stream because you’ve only got to go a little bit quicker than others in that fast stream to be going along at a hell of a pace.
“IT is open to all sorts of areas of application. So, pick an area of application where the IT can really be applied to something which has profound value.”
John points particularly to the space of genomics which he believes will transform the life experience of humanity. “If you are a youngster these days, that’s the sort of thing that you should be on the lookout for, something which will be transformative, and therefore anyone in that space has got to be able to do well.”
Honours and Awards
President and Trustee of the Institution of Engineering & Technology (2005–2006)
John was knighted in 1999
He is a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering, the Royal Aeronautical Society, and the Institute of Physics.
He holds honorary Doctor of Engineering degrees from the Universities of Bath, Southampton and Brunel
Interviewed by: Ian Symonds on the 11th June 2019 at the WCIT
Transcribed by: Susan Hutton
Abstracted by: Lynda Feeley