Silk tie and silver tongue
Lynne Curry meets the man who has brought a touch of elegance to IT education
Monday 18 March 1996
His habitual neckwear is a silk bow-tie. His speech is peppered with literary allusions, from Mark Twain to George Bernard Shaw. "Forgive me when I start getting too didactic," he says, an unusual request from a man steeped in the world of IT, where verbal bamboozling and technospeak are the order of the day.
Even the organisation of which Mr Ewan is chief executive, Itito, sounds like an esoteric Eastern relaxation exercises. But Itito signifies the Information Technology Industry Training Organisation. Its role is to foster training and education and to set nationally recognised standards for IT - a task Mr Ewan describes as "like trying to pick up mercury - as soon as you touch it, it's shifted".
Itito has played the major role in establishing a set of National Vocational Qualifications (NVQs) in IT, and is to launch a scheme to enable practitioners to have their work assessed via the Internet this year. But in bringing these initiatives to the fore, Mr Ewan has turned away from the arcane language of computers and deployed instead a colourful literary imagery. In a milieu given to shrouding its mechanisms in mysticism and technobabble, Mr Ewan is becoming known for presenting a public image of the industry in rather elegant English.
Mr Ewan's Scottish poeticism stood out at a recent gathering in the British Library, where fresh research into IT training was to be unveiled. A plain and less than inspiring conclusion - that companies were spending fortunes on hardware and software but leaving staff to learn how to use them with virtually no instruction - was enlivened by Mr Ewan's lyrical summations. "Uncontrolled use of PCs is one of the most wasteful of human endeavours," he declared, going on to describe users' manuals as "about as friendly as cornered rats".
Getting carried away with language has occasionally dropped the chief executive into shallow holes. He is anticipating an uncomfortable morning when an interview is printed quoting him using the expression "whingeing". But for his own profession he favours more clarity and less verbiage. "IT suffers from a delight in language for its own sake. It uses language to create an image of itself as young and energetic, and to emphasise its own importance."
It could also, he fears, be one of the reasons why the proportion of women entering IT is dropping from a peak of 30 per cent to below 20 per cent. "Sadly, it's a young man's game, literally, and it's something to do with image from an early age."
At 51, Mr Ewan is one of a cabal of elder statesmen of IT, whose names - should the industry ever get down to anything so sentimental - will be mentioned during the roll-call of the "great and good" who were there in the early days. He shares this platform with, among others, Ronnie Yearsley, co-founder of BIS, Steve Shirley, founder of FI International, and Doug Eyeions, recently retired chief executive of the Computing Services and Systems Association.
These men came from diverse backgrounds into IT during Harold Wilson's "white heat of technology" era. Mr Ewan was a biologist who came to London to finish his studies and never returned to Glasgow. He was one of the early graduate intake of English Electric (in a part that merged with ICL) and cut his teeth in a bureau inside Whiteley's department store in Bayswater, when the "white heat" consisted of exercises such as computerising the stock-control administration for Heinz, on computers that would fill the Itito's entire office suite today.
English Electric sent its intake to the exquisite quadrangle of Hertford College, Oxford, where Oscar Wilde had been a student. "Working with computers was new, modern; it attracted a wide diversity of people without the usual barriers of class, hierarchy or seniority. The spirit was of learning and doing," he says.
His role changed almost immediately to training others in this new technology, and he remained with ICL until 1981, when he moved to the industry's first training body. This has transmogrified into the Itito.
Although many of the big organisations have continued to train their own staff, Mr Ewan says that others have seen it as an expense for nothing. "There's an irregular verb to do with training - I train, you develop, they poach."
It is wildly unrealistic to expect people to be trained if nobody wants to train them, he says - nevertheless, IT people will probably have to fund their own training in future, at least partly. This year, for the first time, the Government has given grants of pounds 7,500 each through Training and Enterprise Councils for companies to take on 1,500 IT apprentices, who will be trained up to NVQ level 3. The number of them who are as stimulated as Mr Ewan by a production of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead may be low, illustrating the fact that the range of people entering IT is narrower. But change has always been IT's biggest boast, if also its burden.
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