It’s a bit of a journalistic trope, but let’s be honest – we’ve all done it. You conclude a CEO interview by asking, “So, if we’re talking again in 10 years’ time, what achievements do you expect to be looking back on?” Of course, given the tenure of most senior executives these days, the chance of that CEO being around a decade later to review what they did is vanishingly small.
It makes a pleasant change, therefore, to find one who is.
Soon after his appointment as chief executive, in November 2013 Julian David relaunched the UK’s technology trade association – a body then representing more than 800 technology companies of all sizes across the country – as TechUK, with a broadened remit and a plan to help create 500,000 jobs by 2020. He gave his first interview to Computer Weekly to discuss the challenges ahead.
And so here we are, 10 years later, and David is still there. According to TechUK figures, the tech sector’s economic footprint has grown by 25% in that time, adding more than £150bn to the UK economy and now employing nearly two million people – compared with 1.3 million back in 2013. Job done? Not yet.
Back then, the tech community was crying out for an organisation to represent it to the highest levels of a government that was only just waking up to the potential of the IT sector and the dramatic changes technology was starting to bring about across business and society.
Perhaps TechUK’s biggest achievement is to have become that organisation – brought inside the tent and consulted on policy by Cabinet ministers. Now that the UK government finally has a dedicated department for science, innovation and technology, being that voice means an ever greater opportunity to make an impact. For example, David was one of the exclusive few invited to participate in prime minister Rishi Sunak’s recent AI Safety Summit.
A decade of change
The obvious question, then – what’s changed?
“The major thing for me from the last 10 years is the pervasiveness of tech,” he says.
“It was largely a concept 10 years ago. But boy, is it real now. People now say, don’t talk about the economy and tech [as two separate things] – tech is the economy. There’s no area that you can function without being pretty good at tech and which hasn’t been affected by tech. It’s a power for good, but also has the power to disrupt.”
David is something of a veteran in IT terms – a 30-year career in the sector, including senior roles at IBM, as well as working as a consultant advising small tech firms – so he has that historical sweep of the many developments associated with the sector, and more importantly, what is still needed.
“The major thing for me from the last 10 years is the pervasiveness of tech. It was largely a concept 10 years ago. But boy, is it real now. People now say, don’t talk about the economy and tech [as two separate things] – tech is the economy”
Julian David, TechUK
“We’ve got to really make a step change on skills, for the future of Britain,” he says.
“It’s unacceptable, this productivity issue we have in the UK. It’s unacceptable that we have a digital divide between certain parts of the country, and between certain demographics. I think tech is an answer to that. But UK tech has to become a producer of talent, not a consumer. We still take in more than we produce, and that’s not good.”
David sees an inflection point coming with the advent of artificial intelligence (AI) as a mainstream technology: “As we start to look to AI, [some estimates suggest that] 40% or maybe 50% of the current workforce do not have the skills they will need. And that’s the next thing for us in tech to really engage on, talking more to other industries [about the impact of technology].”
TechUK is a membership organisation, now with over 1,000 companies on board, from big-name industry giants to small businesses, startups and scaleups. But its ambitions have grown beyond the UK. Under David’s watch, TechUK led the creation of the Tech7, joining with their counterpart tech trade associations in each of the G7 countries into a combined lobbying force, seeking to drive the digital agenda and improve collaboration across the world’s biggest economies.
However, David acknowledges that the tech sector globally, for all its benefits, is increasingly seen as a cause of negative social and economic issues too. In his conversation with Computer Weekly, he stresses often the importance of trust and ethics.
“It’s astonishing the way the tech industry has thrived in the UK, but we need to make this a place people trust so they feel safe in the online world,” he says.
“Without it, that’s going to be the biggest impediment to realising the benefits of tech. You’ve seen, in lots of ways over the years, a number of things we’ve got wrong, such as access to data, for example.
“Accessing health data for research purposes is essential, it drives so many medical and other breakthroughs. But if people don’t trust you with it, you won’t reach that virtuous circle of everything being intelligent, everything being connected and everything being understandable. The industry needs to start thinking about the ethics of what it’s doing.”
David cites, by way of example, an anecdote from a TechUK colleague who saw a presentation by a couple of academics at Cambridge several years ago.
“He came back and said to me, ‘I just saw something really disturbing’. A couple of professors were showing what they could do with data they scraped off Facebook. And, of course, that became Cambridge Analytica. The question he asked them was, ‘I see what you can do and it’s fantastic – but is it ethical?’ We, as an industry, have to tackle this.”
The Brexit challenge
For all the progress of the past decade, David is not slow to highlight the biggest challenge that TechUK and the wider industry in the UK has faced – and continues to face.
“The tech industry did not want Brexit. Our members didn’t want it, and the broader industry didn’t want it. But it happened, so we had to try and deal with it, and that’s taken up quite a bit of our time,” he says.
Julian David, TechUK
“If you’re going to change your relationship with this big trading block that you were an active member of, you still try to preserve the things that are good for the tech industry. That’s our mandate. We don’t have a broader mandate than that.”
Behind the scenes, TechUK was one of the organisations attempting to rein back some of the Boris Johnson government’s deregulatory instincts.
“It’s not true that the tech industry doesn’t like regulation – what it likes is regulation that works, and is applied in a consistent way over time. Getting data adequacy [with the EU] became a key plank of government policy – but the discussions in the early days showed the people in charge of doing Brexit didn’t understand that. They didn’t understand the importance of data flows. That was a key thing for us.”
TechUK in 2023 is engaged with government policy from national security to AI; from regional development and business growth, through to skills and education; and, increasingly, around the role of technology in tackling climate change.
Ten more years
Ten years from now, perhaps our avatars will be conducting an interview in the metaverse using an AI model programmed by looking back to these previous conversations.
Ten years ago, David concluded his first interview with Computer Weekly by saying, “We want to see longer term investment and a focus on the technology markets where the UK can lead.”
Today, that sentiment is one of the few things that remains the same.
“The opportunity is there. The necessity is there. Let’s not wait for government to do it for us,” he says.
“The education system needs to pivot to more tech. We have to get our universities focused on innovation and getting that innovation out to the marketplace. If you’re a betting man, will there be as many people coding in 10 years? That’s an obvious thing that AI can do. But who will be doing the design and the application and the human interface? That’s not going to disappear.
“We’ve got to continue to earn trust, the trust of our stakeholders and our customers. Just making as much money as you can as fast as you can is not going to do it. We’ve got to protect our democracy and tech has a big role in that. We’ve obviously got to move to a carbon-neutral, net-zero environment.
“And we seem to specialise in the UK in identifying solutions and then taking too much time to apply them. Look at smart meters, fibre, 5G. In some areas, investment levels are relatively very low here and not providing much of a return. So these are all big challenges to address. Put all those things together, I think there is enough for us to be doing.”