In conversation with Jim Friars

Jim Friars, ICS
"Technology moves quickly, meaning both the profession and the people engaged in it need to move quickly too."

The former ICS CEO reflects on a career at the forefront of information technology in Ireland

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12 November 2020 | 0

Jim Friars retired as chief executive officer of the Irish Computer Society (ICS) earlier this year. In an exclusive interview he talks with TechCentral.ie about his key achievements and how the technology landscape has changed over his almost 25 years with the organisation.

You were a key player in the roll out of the ECDL in Ireland. How did that come about?

I was initially hired by the Irish Computer Society in 1997 to establish the European Computer Driving Licence (ECDL), which is now called the International Certification of Digital Literacy (ICDL). At the time I had been working in business development and was looking for opportunities in the area of IT. Digital literacy was something that I was passionate about. At that stage most of us weren’t ready for what was coming, but I knew it was the future and I wanted to explore it.

Our idea was to come up with a mechanism of standardising digital literacy, not just in Ireland, but across the world. We wanted to determine the number of skills required to be able to interact with the average desktop computer in the workplace. At the time, there was no measure an employer could look at to know the digital literacy of a prospective employee. The ECDL changed that.

 

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The name ‘computer driving license’ came from the term ‘information superhighway’, the idea being that you need a computer driving licence to get on that information superhighway. We thought we were remarkably clever at the time. It’s a ridiculously dated name now, but it’s hard to forget.

What was the initial response to the ECDL? 

I’ve been involved in a lot of projects in my life, but that one took off like nothing I’d ever seen. A few short years after the launch in 1997, half a million people had the certification. By the early 2000s, more people were doing the ECDL than the Leaving Cert each year. Research carried out around 2003/2004 found that brand recognition of ECDL was higher than that of Mars bars in Ireland. Employers really bought into the idea of a standardisation of digital literacy, that’s why it had such an impact. 

Today, we have 20,000 people doing what is now the ICDL each year, and nearly 23% of the population has undertaken the programme to date. It must be one of the most successful national training initiatives ever run in the country.

Part of the lasting appeal is that, while what digital literacy means has changed over the years, the basics like word processing, document creation, and document sharing, are still relevant. The ability to standardise remains critical and right now, it’s playing a huge role in training. Through our partnership with the e-college Solas, the ICDL is freely available to anybody over 18 in Ireland.

The ICS experienced significant growth under your tenure. What was your strategy for attracting new members?

In 2003, I was approached by the ICS to take over the running of the society. When I took over as chief executive, we only had around 1,500 members, which is crazy when you think about how many people were working in the IT profession. The representative body of the IT profession wasn’t representing the totality.

Accountants, lawyers, and doctors have a statutory legal requirement to be in their professional body. IT was never going to be like that. The only way that we could create an IT body that people wanted to be in was to make it hugely relevant to the IT professional. 

How we went about doing that was by offering opportunities, such as continuous professional development, or training or networking. To make it specific to different areas of interest, we established The Health Informatics Society of Ireland, The IT Architects of Ireland and The Association for Data Protection Officers. We ended up with around eight different areas that individuals could identify with. That strategy proved greatly successful. It gave people the desire to attend our conferences, go to our training, and network with peers in their specific area.

Whether a member was in data security, IT architecture or business analysts, they had somewhere to go. The key was that once you joined one part of the ICS, you gained access to the rest. If you had a huge interest in business analytics, but were interested in data protection, you were able to learn about other areas.

As a consequence, we went from just over 1,500 memberships to around 22,000 this year. Some would argue that it should have more considering the size of the IT sector in Ireland. I would agree, and I think that’s part of some of the challenges that still face the profession. 

The tragedy is that there’s a huge opportunity in Ireland to be able to truly have a recognised, functioning IT profession that brings together third level institutions, training companies, and CIOs to come up with a single way to understand career development for IT professionals.

We developed a programme called Career Plus, which uses a skill and competency framework developed in the EU. The idea is to have a single language for all parts of the IT profession, from academia to employers, trainers, and policymakers. We want these groups to sign up to a singular way of expressing what competencies in skills are required for all jobs in IT. If we build out a framework that everybody can use to develop courses, or define job requirements, then whether you’re a recruiter or a CIO, you can use the common language to describe what competencies you require. If jobs are defined by those competencies, then people in the educational sphere will map their training programs to meet those skills. When policy makers ask what competencies are going to be required in the next five years, we’ll start to get a plan for the next generation of IT professionals to develop in line with the requirements.

Right now, the dialogue between the people that are hiring, training, and preparing IT professionals is disjointed. A lot of people still come out with appropriate skills, but the reality is people get a job based on a generic set of skills and get trained on the job. It works to an extent, but we think we could join the two together.

One huge challenge Ireland is facing is the lack of IT professionals. If apprenticeship programmes were developed based on these competencies, it would certainly improve accessibility. Short courses are a great way to help those in other fields to transform and transfer into the IT profession.

Trying to get everyone on the same hymn sheet is going to be a big challenge for the ICS over the next five years, but it’s the direction we need to go in.  

As you said, the IT sector has exploded in recent years. What do you think are the main growth areas?

The merger between biotechnology, biotech and tech is huge, and I think it’s just in its infancy. Take something as simple as the electronic patient record. Its successful implementation has been transformative for physicians who can now cut through waste within the system. While the ability to have an electronic patient record has been around for years, implementing it has been the challenge.

Green tech is just going to get bigger. There’s no doubt that in the next 10 to 15 years, we’ll be embracing it even more. We’re going to be driving electric cars, we’re going to be changing fuel sources. Technology’s role in all those things is going to be massive.

The reality is that technology is embedded into every single job you are going to do today and in the future. The line between developer and user is becoming more and more blurred. The IT professional is not just the one writing code. In fact, you could argue that the number of people writing code in the IT profession is only about 30%.

The last several months have seen unbelievable change. You hear estimates that healthcare sector underwent 10 years’ worth of development in just three months [because of the Covid-19 pandemic]. That requires the involvement of IT professionals, be they from a business analytics, data protection, or data security point of view. Each is required to successfully implement transformative technologies in the business and into our lives.

Technology is a fickle sector. What ideas have you seen fall flat?

My first job in technology was with the pharmaceutical company Merck Sharp & Dohme in Canada in 1992. It was developing a promotional tool for the sales force using video to describe molecular interactions with doctors by phone. My job was to look at two different technologies: a CD-ROM and a Compact Disc-Interactive (CD-i). I spent three months evaluating both technologies, and, to cut a long story short, I ultimately made a recommendation to company to buy very expensive equipment in CD-i technology. Why? Because at the time, CD-i had the capability of doing digital video on one quarter of the screen, versus the one eighth that CD-ROM offered.

I left shortly after to do an MBA and was talking to a colleague about a year and a half later. He said: “You know those machines you recommended? They’re gathering dust. It’s all moved to CD-ROM.” It just changed. It’s the classic Xerox story. You make decisions, you look at the capabilities, but it’s impossible to know what’s around the corner.

When I came to Ireland in 1993 I got my first mobile phone. Until then, I relied on voice message technology that the company I was with used. Even though the voicemails weren’t in real time, it felt pretty cutting edge. I’d be driving and I’d pull into a phone booth, leave a message for my boss, listen to his response from my last message, then drive another hundred miles and do it again.

When I started working for a biotech company in Galway, part of my job was doing business development around Europe, but my phone would only work in Ireland – specifically Galway and Dublin.

Around 2004, I moved to the BlackBerry – the first device that reliably brought e-mail to the phone. It was a revolution. Something I’ll never forget is flying to China for business in 2006. When I stepped off the plane and turned on my phone, all my e-mails came flooding in. That was the moment that I really thought “we’ve arrived”. Look at Blackberry today. Its devices are effectively gone, and it’s a relatively small company. But for a very brief moment it was one of the largest in the world.

Even take a company like Microsoft that was so dominant that we couldn’t see beyond it, let alone think that Facebook or Google could ever challenge it. It would have been impossible to predict the major transformative effects those companies have had on the world.

ICS has done excellent work at bringing tech into schools through the likes of its F1 in Schools, Bebras and Scratch competitions.

Hundreds of thousands of kids have gone through our programmes like F1 in Schools, Bebras, and Scratch, but they were intended to engage not just students, but the wider public in an awareness of how central technology is in everything we do.

When we introduced these projects, they came under the banner of Tech Week. Science had a week, engineering had a week, maths had a week, but the one that didn’t have a week was technology. You could argue all those weeks are ‘stealing our clothes’ as they all talk about technology. We just wanted technology to stand it on its own.

The idea with F1 in Schools was to help kids get interested in tech. What appealed to us about the project was that as well as hand-building a racing model, kids are incorporating technology throughout the process, in developing computer aided design, computer aided manufacturing, and computer generated wind tunnels. After the development stage, kids learn how to put a marketing campaign together, raise funds, communicate their idea, and make a presentation. It’s not just teaching hard skills, we try to bring in all aspects of the process.

It was always great to see what the kids deliver. The level of talent is tremendous. We even got to go to the international World Championships a couple of times, with students from St David’s Secondary School, Greystones even winning in 2013. We were hugely proud of them, it was a fantastic achievement.

We’ve been quite successful in starting to change the perception of what a technology job offers. Consequently, the CAO is starting to shift. Still, one of the big challenges is getting girls involved in tech. The numbers are lagging where they should be. That gap is something that Mary Cleary, who is now secretary general of ICS, is incredibly passionate about bridging.

Ultimately, we hope the kids that take part have a positive experience. Years ago, I was a teacher for a very brief period. One thing I was told is that the best way to get a student to engage is to catch them being good. Not when they’re being bad, but when you can encourage them. Kids excel when they internalise positive reinforcement from a person of significance in their life. It’s the same in science and technology. We let students engage with it in a fun way that lets them feel involved. That’s what we must do to encourage the next generation towards technology.

What are your proudest moments?

There are many moments from my career that I feel proud of. One that stands out is the development of a programme called Equal Skills back in 2002. This was a basic introductory computing skills course for people on the wrong side of digital divide. ECDL is about preparing people for work, but what we were trying to do then was prepare people for technology more generally. Bertie Ahern, who was Taoiseach at the time, acknowledged our work. It was a great moment for us because it showed that in short period of time, with a focused effort, we’re able to develop something that had a quick and fast return to the hundreds of thousands of individuals involved. 

Then, there’s the success of the ICDL. Near 1 million people have been affected by the programme to date, which again, we feel so proud to have achieved.

To focus on achievements within the ICS, the CIO Forum is a standout for me. Over the last several years, the Forum has grown into an incredibly relevant body. Through it, we have 100 of the most significant CIOs in the country engaging with the ICS on a quarterly basis. The achievement cannot be broken down to a pivotal moment, its more how the forum has evolved to the point where the ICS has been embedded into those organisations as a relevant body for IT professionals.

What were some of the greatest challenges you experienced?

We’ve already touched on the tragedy of the inability to get all the sectoral pieces to work together, but that has been a tall task. While there was a lot of interest in our Career Plus strategy, the challenge has been getting people to take steps towards achieving it. Our strategy would transform the way we communicate and build the profession. My frustration is the speed at which it’s happening. It’s just too slow. Technology moves quickly, meaning both the profession and the people engaged in it need to move quickly too. That lack of ability to create an urgency in people to get what’s needed done is one of my disappointments. That’s not pointing the finger at anybody in general. We’ve received some great support, but we aren’t there yet, by any means. 

With hindsight, I can look back fondly at a time when I tried to explain the ECDL to someone in 1997, only to swiftly be told it was never going to work. I felt hugely dejected at the time. Fast-forward two years, and that same person had signed a contract to run the programme.

When running any organisation, trying to manage growth in line with the creation of revenue streams is a constant challenge. When you’re a not-for-profit entity, it becomes even more challenging because you’re meant to be building up resources to be able to spend them on the on the causes that you’re passionate about as an organisation. I respect everybody in the not-for-profit space. Trying to get it right every year is tough. If you get it wrong, it’s hugely stressful. From my perspective, in order generate revenue we had to do things that were relevant, that people felt had value. Only then could we afford to do other good initiatives. It’s down success of the ICDL, for example, that we’re able to run the F1 in Schools that costs €250,000 a year. It has worked for us; I think we’re probably one of the more successful social entrepreneurs in the country.

How significantly do you think the Covid-19 pandemic has changed our relationship with technology?

One CIO recently said to me, “In five years’ time, they’ll look back and say, what was responsible for digital transformation in your organisation? Was it your CTO, CIO, or Covid-19?”

Many IT professionals, certainly on the development side, were already good at working in a dispersed manner and using collaborative tools. But what we’re seeing now is that what’s gone on in tech for years is moving across the whole organisation. Necessity is the mother of invention, and Covid-19 has rapidly transformed many aspects of our lives. It’s likely that some of these changes were already going to happen, but it’s sped up the process and made people make changes that they might have previously resisted.

What are your hopes for the future of technology?

Technology is going to have an increasing role in the problems that the world faces. I worked in healthcare and pharmaceuticals before I got into a tech role, so for me, that merger between technology, biotechnology, and pharmaceuticals is exciting. It has such potential to absolutely transform how we live our lives and our health. Then of course, as I mentioned earlier, there’s scope for technology to create solutions to the environmental crisis. I fundamentally believe in science and technology, and their ability to achieve good in the world.

From a career point of view, I’ll say this. It’s people that make a career enjoyable. Whether it’s people I’ve worked with, or have worked for me, or were part of the growth of the ICS, those relationships made my career what it is. The day to day interactions I had with people mean the most. Little moments add up to a lifetime, and when I look back at them, I feel great pride.

Julia O’Reilly


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