Computers in the life of Wales

John Tucker celebrates Beti Williams’ achievements in promoting software as a driving force for the Welsh economy

Beti Williams MBE

Over the past few months the subject of Computer Science has been receiving some special public and political attention. As a computer scientist, I can hardly fail to notice such things. Computer Science is all about data, software and machines. It is about how things work and how things are designed and made. It is about all things digital. It is not information technology literacy.

Since the 1940s – throughout the lifetime of most of us – computer scientists have been changing the world. But for several decades, the academic subject of Computer Science has been a Cinderella, seen only occasionally in public life and often unrecognised for what she is: the intellectual and pragmatic engine of our times. Software is a commodity to be found almost everywhere. It is mysterious and miraculous. Our products are made by and, indeed, from software. I think it is also the metaphorical ‘elephant in the room’ of many economies.

Is Computer Science really unappreciated? Changing the world is surely work for young people. Well, Computer Science has all but disappeared from schools. Qualified computing teachers have become an endangered species; girls have disappeared from university courses; and it has been excluded by government STEM initiatives on – Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.

The recent signs of change in the UK would take a few posts to describe, so let me start with a simple and pleasant event.

In the New Year’s Honours there were a number of awards to do with computer scientists. Jonathan Ives, Apple’s chief designer since the iMac series, received a knighthood. Two professors, Alan Bundy and Ursula Martin, received CBEs. And Beti Williams the creator and director of some influential Welsh IT programmes received an MBE. The latter award is of special interest as Beti has been Secretary of the Swansea Bay Branch of the Institute of Welsh Affairs since 2006.

Until her retirement from Swansea University last Spring, Beti had been Director of IT Wales since 1992, developing and managing programmes to link computer scientists in all Welsh universities with business and industry. Among her general aims were to disseminate technological knowledge to business and gather information and opportunities for students and staff in the universities. Her first concrete tasks were to tackle the problem of graduate retention – in the early 1990s our young computer science graduates could hardly imagine finding work in Wales. Her second task was to understand and cope with the fact that that Welsh businesses meant Welsh microbusinesses, that is companies with ten or less staff.

Beti’s open and collaborative approach has made her many friends and admirers across Wales. Throughout, she has promoted the role of software as a driving force for all sections of the Welsh economy, and especially microbusinesses. Her programmes have brought awareness of new technologies and business models; pushed for higher levels of technical competence and professionalism; enhanced students’ experience with placements, projects and positions with companies; and inspired the curiosity of the young. In 2002, her reaction to finding out about the worries about the state of computing in schools was to fill the Grand Theatre, Swansea with 600 children, and the Mayor, for a day of computer graphics, with speakers such as Robin Lyons and Mike Young who brought animation technology from California! After three years of negotiations with the Wales European Funding Office, she won for IT Wales two large national projects:

  • Technocamps, which encourages the study of computer science – and computational thinking, in general – in schools and colleges

Actually, the citation for her MBE drew attention to Beti’s work encouraging women and girls to engage with and consider careers in technology. Less than 20 per cent of employees in the ICT sector are female. Currently, of all the students studying computer science in universities only 15 per cent are female.

Among her many initiatives are to be found three ICT festivals; 10 years of an annual technological celebration of International Women’s Day, showcasing women with successful careers within the ICT; and, most recently, helping to found professional groups focused on devolved affairs, such as the British Computer Society in Wales, and BCS Women in Wales.

In short, Beti Williams’ twenty years of patient, pioneering work, on problems that are currently being recognized as both urgent and important in the UK, have given Wales a huge advantage. But to enable the mysterious and miraculous properties of software to work its magic for Wales, we need to improve our national awareness, understanding, strategic thinking, practical competence, capacity and infrastucture, for software.

John Tucker is Professor of Computer Science at Swansea University and Chair of the IWA’s Swansea Bay Branch.