It's an odd match, IT and a trade association tradition going back to medieval times, combining cutting-edge digital technology with ancient rites and rituals inside St Paul's cathedral.
The Worshipful Company of Informational Technologists (WCIT) was formally granted a royal charter to IT earlier this month.
This underlined IT as a profession to rival stonemasons, tailors and skinners – just some of the other 108 livery companies to have been granted royal charters since the formation of the first in 1356.
But by raising WCIT's profile and hopefully attracting more members, it may also herald a return to what the guild claims to do best – nurturing people into IT careers by focusing on education, apprenticeships, placements and mentoring from industry veterans.
“The fact that the work we have been doing has been recognised and appreciated gives us the enthusiasm and encouragement to continue,” said WCIT master Charles Hughes, an ex-president of the British Computing Society (BCS) and managing director of his own IT advisory company.
Current WCIT projects include building a brand new secondary academy for 11-to-18-year olds in Hammersmith, west London, with a special focus on creative digital media and IT; helping ex-service men and women of the Royal Signals Corps to find jobs with big tech companies; and providing a journeyman scheme to help young people in the early stages of their career and give advice to tech start-ups and entrepreneurs.
The guild also engages in charity work by raising funds and resources, and giving free IT consultancy to organisations such as the Royal Chelsea Children's Hospital School, the Essex Association of Boy's Clubs, the National Childminding Association and homeless charity Centrepoint.
“The IT industry has obligations to society to give something back, and it is very satisfying to help children and give out cheques,” said WCIT senior warden Ken Olisa, who has been a member of the guild since the late 80s and is also a vice president of the BCS, having worked at IBM before setting up technology merchant bank Interregnum in 2000.
Raising funds for charitable causes from the WCIT's 720 members will remain a big part of the WCIT's remit, but Olisa feels that the guild should work harder to foster closer links with the IT industry itself in order to give more fledgling IT professionals a helping hand in starting their careers.
“We would like closer links between company CEOs and what we do – we have sort of drifted away from that since we started and we need to get back to it,” said Olisa. “One example is getting BT's JP Rangaswami on board, and we need to lure more of those IT industry movers and shakers into the livery.”
WCIT court assistant Tom Ilube is the Hammersmith Academy's chairman of governors, and also founder of online bank Egg and online identity protection service Garlik. He and other governors are still mulling over exactly what will go into the school, currently under construction and due for completion in 2011, but says it is important to design the building to support the ICT curriculum from the ground up.
“You see these rough, tough kids engaging with computers, and technology makes it possible to build a school that takes 21st century learning ideas and uses them throughout the curriculum – in English, history and maths, where IT can also play a role,” he said.
The school will accommodate 780 children, split evenly between boys and girls. Ilube is still deciding whether or not they will be able to bring their own iPads and iPhones onto the campus, but confirms the school will support laptop connectivity with fixed and wireless networks and terminals, and will have its own mini datacentre onsite.
The school will be financed as an academy, with the government providing the £36m building costs (the school meets a pressing need for a new educational facility in the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham), and the WCIT and the Mercers Guild putting in a further £2m each to fund IT provision, ongoing maintenance and an endowment that will be used to pay for additional systems as and when needed. Ilube also believes it is crucial to recruit a headmaster and teachers who are technology focused.
“Some teachers really want to embrace IT, others do not want to go near it or touch it – in our school, every one of the teachers thinks technology is great,” he said.
“The school has WCIT members it can call on for extra funding and the £1m endowment generates additional income to be used for the benefit of the academy – for example, if we see a great piece of technology that will help with special education needs, we need to be able to go out and buy that.”
“If we have 120 students needing quality work placements, let's go out and find them with the likes of the BBC, Microsoft, IBM and others, and give sixth formers some mentoring from IT professionals, or those who have been to university who can tell them what it is like and what they need to get. The members are really keen to do that,” said Ilube.
Given the importance of securing ongoing funding, sponsorships and work placements within the IT industry, recruiting new executives to the guild is paramount. But are prospective members put off by all the pomp and ceremony that goes hand in hand with ICT membership?
“People can be put off by it, but what matters is that ICT is seen to be inclusive. It needs to work hard to engage women and ethnic minorities too, not come across as some masonic branch,” said Olisa.