Steve Burrows' Work

I am essentially a business-focused technologist. I am a reluctant geek, I don't much enjoy technology, but I am good at it. I get a thrill out of  creating technology that creates value. I have been very fortunate in my "career" to date, employers and clients have allowed me to do adventurous and sometimes risky things with their businesses, and I've had a lot of fun and satisfaction along the way. At the moment I'm basically doing four things - SBA, e-Go, NEDS.IM and SBA is a management consultancy. e-Go is a vision to "make the Isle of Man the World Leader in zero-emission automobile adoption". NEDS.IM is the Isle of Man register for Non-Executive Directors. SBA is purely commercial, it is how I pay for the shopping etc. Likewise, we spotted a gap in the market and decided to fill it. e-Go is something I just want to do - the Isle of Man, being only 33 miles long and having no motorways is the ideal location for zero-emission electric vehicles to succeed - if they can't work here they won't work anywhere. NEDS.IM is an altruistic venture to assist and confirm the Isle of Man as one of the best and most transparent business environments in the world. Prior to these ventures I was for 10 years Group IT Director at Vanilla Group in the UK, stepping down in 2009.

At Vanilla Group I was the board director responsible for the IT component of the business. IT is pervasive at Vanilla, and many of the operational business processes are executed autonomously by computer systems. Most other of our business processes are executed by a combination of people and computers. Very few of our business processes are executed solely by people.  By this I mean that computers are doing the work - making decisions, performing regular tasks, identifying and escalating issues. Obviously pretty much everyone in a modern business uses a computer, for word-processing, e-mail etc., but at Vanilla we reversed the paradigm and to a very great extent it is the computers who use the people.

This creates some interesting problems. The computers are relatively consistent in their behaviour, the people less so. The people can see their own role in executing a business process, but they cannot necessarily see the role played by the computer, so unless they were involved in designing the computer's part of the process they don't foresee the consequences of changing process or failing to execute a step of process. The people cannot ask the computer to explain what it is going to do, or discuss with it how to resolve a problem that has arisen, so to manage change people must step outside their own operational departments and talk to the computer programmers about the behaviour of the systems. In turn the computer programmers must then examine the programs or documentation to investigate - they will sometimes know from memory, but in many cases we find that the people are wanting to understand or change long-standing business process, and because the process has been executed autonomously by computer for several years the programmers cannot remember what the computers are doing! 

Vanilla is quite advanced, in 2005 it was shortlisted by Computing Magazine as one of six for the award of "Most IT-enabled Business". We were ahead of the wave in our exploitation of computing as business technology, and the problems we experienced are going to be echoed in an increasing number of businesses as industry catches up with exploiting IT as Business Engineering. 

Does it work? Despite the problems it causes, Business Engineering through IT is very effective. Vanilla has 50% share in some of its chosen markets, is the dominant player in its sector, and on the basis of recent valuations is worth over £500K per employee - an extraordinary figure, ask yourself how many companies can show US$1M of worth for each member of headcount!  

Through my work at Vanilla I have made good friends, built some strong business partnerships, and become a member of the Computer Weekly 500 Club, an association of leading IT Directors and CIOs. I have given public seminars, part of my work has become the subject of academic research on the use of technology in SME's, and a paper studying us was presented at the ICEIS 2007 conference. The way we handle field service technology has been incorporated into the curriculum for business studies at a major UK university. My work at Vanilla also contributed significantly towards my being awarded Fellowship of the British Computer Society.

Before Vanilla I worked as a freelance management & technology consultant for 15 years. I had great fun, and did short term, medium term and long term assignments with some wonderful companies. I learnt a lot from each of them, especially about what works and what doesn't in the context of organisational management. Two of my assignments were with the precursor of Vanilla, before they asked me to join the board and I returned to being a respectable "employee". As a freelance consultant I have worked for publishers, merchant banks, utilities, telephony companies, learned societies, technology developers and manufacturers, software houses and general B2B organisations. 

I replaced a chunk of the billing systems for Orange PCS, the UK mobile phone operator. If you have received a paper bill from Orange in the past decade it was in part a product of my work. The assignment was boring. Working inside one of the most brand conscious companies in Britain was fascinating.

I managed the training of 4,000 employees at SWALEC (South Wales Electricity - part of the Hyder group) for the 1998 deregulation. If you have been a SWALEC customer since then your contact with the company has been partly influenced by me. It was a tough assignment, something of a hard grind, but we got there on time. I should have known it was going to be hard when I was interviewed for the assignment - I attended the meeting at their request without a brief from them, not knowing what they wanted. Towards the end my soon-to-be client confessed "I spoke to xxxxxx at Yorkshire Electricity about you, he told me 'If Steve says he'll do it then he'll do it, but he doesn't take prisoners' " - probably the best job reference I will ever receive!

I replaced the billing systems for Yorkshire Electricity (now nPower), if they are the energy provider you use then I have significantly influenced how they ask you for money! It was a tough job given the constraints YE needed me to work under, but great people, great fun and a really high adrenaline project to achieve the seemingly impossible constraints. Kevin Miles, at the time Customer Services Director for YE, was incredibly supportive in cutting through the corporate bureaucracy and enabling me to deliver an assignment that had been turned down by two of the "Big Four" management consultancies as unachievable.

Oce engaged me for several medium-term assignments helping to develop their mid-range laser printing strategy and finessing their product range. An incredibly hospitable company, they used to fly me out to Dusseldorf  on a regular basis, where I would be met by the chairman's limousine and chauffeured across the border to their headquarters in Venlo. Very honest and pleasant people to work with, great products, and a refreshing absence of corporate politics.

I spent six years with Xerox developing laser printers. It was only meant to be a three-month assignment! A fantastic time in a fantastic company. If you have used a Xerox desktop laser printer then you've been in contact with the consequences of my work. If it were not for the efforts of a very small team (6 people) in 1987; Xerox, who invented laser printing, would not be in the small laser printer business. We made it work. Xerox ultimately and reluctantly accepted their presence in the desktop printer market, and relocated development from the UK to the USA. I believe I still hold the record for the shortest execution of Xerox' Product Delivery Process - 26 weeks. 

Xerox also involved me in other activities to "fill in the gaps" between printer development projects, so I spent some time working on font development. I also developed a multilingual website - possibly the first - for the Rank Xerox Technical Centre, using flag symbols to select the five different languages it supported. In 1992 this was probably the first website ever to do so, I certainly couldn't find any other multilingual websites at the time, so inevitably I also didn't find any that used flags to select language.

For three years I worked with ITT Europe (latterly Alcatel) leading the development of their CAT (Computer-Assisted Translation) Systems. Initially for internal use, our developments were so successful that we moved to selling the systems externally. As well as developing the first (near) real-time translation system, widely reported in scientific, technical and general media, I led the translation of UNIX and all its associated documentation for AT&T - a mammoth task. The exciting bit was working out how to preserve all the UNIX typographical mark-up throughout the machine translation process. In 1986 I adopted the soon to-be-ratified SGML standard for the purpose, so the translation of UNIX was probably one of the first major applications for SGML, a learning experience which stood me in good stead later, when the Web was invented using SGML as its underlying technology. It ended when Alcatel bought ITT Europe and closed their engineering centre in the UK. There are very few people in the world who have spoken to a computer and had it translate and speak their words in a foreign language - effectively the Babel Fish of Douglas Adams' "The Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy" - I am one and it was great fun!  BT (British Telecom) tried to emulate our work at their Martlesham laboratory, however their efforts stalled and sadly the potential to move speech translation from my "laboratory" efforts of the mid 1980's into a usable technology has not been fulfilled.

ITT was also meant to be a three month assignment - my first freelance engagement. I was hired because of specific (and at the time very rare) expertise in the workings of a newish technology - Ethernet, being one of very few people in Europe at that time who had worked on the development of Ethernet hardware. But the translation stuff was a fascinating area to get involved with.

The most notable bit of my early employment as a technologist was with a consultancy - Modus Systems - working as a "Microprocessor Applications Consultant". This took me into all sorts of industrial, pharmaceutical and food processing plants, and got me into product design. As part of it I "invented" the first computer-controlled air-bed - designed for a client to minimise the interface pressure between patient and mattress. I was also one-third of the team that developed the first UK Ethernet implementation for microprocessor based systems.

How did I get into all this computer technology stuff? I used to be a sound recording and radio broadcast engineer abroad.  When I returned to the UK I found that my employer of choice - the BBC - would not employ colour-blind sound engineers. A career change became an urgent necessity!

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