Science: IT becomes worshipful: The City's newest livery company is very 20th century;it's for information technologists. Lynne Curry reports
Monday 30 May 1994
The WCIT, as it is rather cumbersomely known, is the City of London's youngest livery company. Less than 40 years ago its elder statesmen (and one notable elder stateswoman) were treading the corridors of different companies, often unconnected with computing, little suspecting they would become the leaders of an industrial revolution.
Now they have been there, done that, bought not merely the T-shirt but the company as well. They are frequently semi-retired at rather a youthful age and are looking for avenues for their energy and accumulated wisdom.
The company has introduced an apprenticeship scheme and has placed eight indentured apprentices. 'We're bringing them through the industry so that they are well-rounded people with the benefits of five years' hands-on experience,' says Tim Wickes, the WCIT's spokesman.
The Worshipful Company of Information Technologists was set up in 1987 by a founding group including Bernard Harty, Chamberlain of the City of London. Livery status was granted by the Court of Aldermen in January 1992, making the WCIT the 100th livery company. It appointed 200 liverymen, entitled to vote for the Lord Mayor of London, and has grown to 450 members.
New members are not turned away, especially if they bring youth as well as commitment, but why join? The registration fee is pounds 300 and there is an annual fee of pounds 200. The company does not have its own premises, where members might be recognised by the waiting staff and brought their regular orders.
'It's expensive to join and it's difficult,' says Ronnie Yearsley, the former deputy chairman of BIS and now chairman of the software house Resource Management Systems. But he sees plenty of reasons for wanting to belong, not least the chance to give back and be involved. He favours a system of 'angels', providers of venture capital and old-fashioned non-executive directors.
'We're rather a collection of oddballs from all backgrounds, some of the people who were in there in the early days. There are lots of older men who have been successful and wonder what they can do now. There are also 4,000 small companies who need venture capital; who do they go to?
'There are no external advisers and the answer is to look at the WCIT, many of whom have been through the same thing 15 years ago, growing small IT companies into big companies. These chaps have a lot of wisdom; quite a few have a lot of money because they have been well paid and have retired with big handshakes in their mid-fifties. Some would be prepared to be 'angels' who could afford to risk pounds 5,000 and have a bit of fun anyway.'
Emma Nicholson, MP, is a member of the WCIT but its most prominent female member is Steve Shirley, who founded FI (Freelance International). 'IT has presented women with an opportunity to compete equally with men,' says Ronnie Yearsley.
This was not always true. When Mrs Shirley decided to begin her own agency, unhappy with working strictures that left no time for her home and family, she deliberately changed her name from Stephanie to get herself beyond the letter stage.
Mrs Shirley, now FI's honorary life president, was the first woman master of the WCIT, stepping down in October. She is enthusiastic about its role in underlining the importance of IT in the City of London - 'to keep it as one of the world's financial centres, to allow it to become less focused on the Square Mile and explore some of the fresh entrepreneurial skills of London' - and about its philanthropic side.
The WCIT's current master, Peter Monson, retired from the Ministry of Defence and an authority on technology-based education and training, says IT is particularly apposite as a livery company as it 'provides the lifeblood of the City of London. We are the conduits and carriers of information. If the City is the heart of London, we're the blood that supplies it. If IT were switched off from the City of London we'd have serious problems.'
Mr Monson lives in Midsomer Norton, near Bath, but spends much of his time at the company's office in City Road, London, on the border of the City of which he and the other 449 members are entitled to apply to become Freemen. The kudos of this is not a significant motivation for seeking membership, according to Tim Wickes.
'Most of the members are ego-less,' says Mr Wickes, whose son, James, is also a member. 'They realise they've been very fortunate and take some of their time to help other people. We would encourage people to join, but we're not looking for anybody of any particular status; more those who can afford to give their time.'
Would-be members are informally vetted to ensure their primary motivation is not self-gain and that they will commit enough of their energies. 'We've turned people down, but rarely, and we've also had people turn us down because it's not a club. They can't even wear the tie.'
The Worshipful Company of Information Technologists can be contacted on 071-972 0505.
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