Part of the IT Leaders 100 - a list of the most influential IT leaders in the UK in 2023.
Scott is a Partner and co-head of digital strategy at Hymans Robertson LLP. He has over 25 years' experience as a software engineer and solution architect, and maintains his coding expertise - despite now being in a management role. In fact, he has Strong Opinions on the subject.
Prior to joining Hymans Robertson, Scott oversaw the design and development of large, distributed systems in the finance and telecommunications industries.
How did you get into IT?
I've been fascinated by how stuff works since my very earliest memories. Childhood was dominated by Lego and Meccano; that morphed into woodwork and building bikes as an early teenager, and then cars in late teens (replaced the engine in my mum's Mini). I knew I wanted to be an engineer from my early teens and studied Electrical and Electronic Engineering at University. My interest steadily shifted from electrical, to electronics, to embedded hardware/software in my honours year.
My first job was writing remote management software for ATMs - which included remotely installing all software including the operating system (when the OS vendor said it couldn't be done). Michael A Jackson describes software as "the ultimate creative medium." I couldn't agree more. I'm still fascinated by computer systems, and spend a sizeable chunk of personal time reading about them - and writing code.
How do you ensure diversity is taken into account in your IT recruitment?
Creating a diverse and inclusive work environment is of upmost importance to our firm and a perfect embodiment of our purpose: together, building better futures. We recognised the importance of taking a more proactive approach to diversity and inclusion around 10 years ago. Now, DEI is one of our three 'strategic imperatives', reflecting our commitment to deliver long-term positive change. For our digital recruitment teams this means DEI is embedded into our process at every stage and is supplemented by first-hand accounts of positive experiences by our existing colleagues, as these are the best evidence we can provide for our people-oriented culture. Each business unit has a DEI plan that includes continuous-improvement actions on recruitment practices and employee engagement. Our success is measured and reported to the Management Board on a quarterly basis as part of our balanced scorecard.
Like most digital enterprises, gender balance is our biggest DEI challenge and we are happy to report a slowly increasing representation, currently at 36%.
Specific examples of where we apply DEI principles in our recruitment approach:
- We work with Partner organisations to ensure minority communities have access to our vacancies, for example through Black Professionals Scotland, Stonewall and Inclusion Scotland
- We recently promoted an R Developer Intern Role primarily to the disabled community
- Annual intake using Women Returner programmes including STEM Returners who specialise in digital skills
- We encourage career-changers to apply for our roles with internal opportunities and recruitment direct from industry training suppliers like CodeClan.
We speak openly about our culture at interview and ask candidates, "What are you looking for in an employer" to openly invite a conversation on inclusive practices, like our 7-7 Working Window and ability to offer part-time hours. At every interview we endeavour to include a female technologist in the panel at least once. We have a compelling Digital Careers page that includes a diverse range of personal stories. We currently have three Degree Apprentices training with us, and more to come. Everyone that is involved in screening and interviewing has been trained in Unconscious Bias and we have an objective scoring method. We have a thorough induction process at firm, department and team level. This includes a provision specifically for maternity returners.
Things we would like to do are screening of candidates without sight of personal information; and sharing of interview questions in advance for all candidates. We only do this in some circumstances currently.
Which technology are you currently most excited by?
I suppose the obvious answer should be large language models (LLMs) like that underpinning ChatGPT. And, in truth, that's probably the right answer: the Transformer architecture has enabled a step change in machine learning capabilities. We're at the very early stages of seeing what the societal impact will be, but there are already significant results (e.g. ChatGPT's ability to consume a video, write a program to extract the first five seconds, run the program, and return the summarised video).
However: I'm not going with that. I'm more enthused currently by the emergence of systems like Dependency Track and Renovate for detecting and automatically patching vulnerabilities. Cybersecurity is a constant concern: not just for the objective threat of attack, but the subjective perception that tech delivery is "too slow". Stakeholders that have never written and maintained software have little first-hand understanding of what maintenance is and why it's needed. Vulnerabilities increase the maintenance burden, so magnifying the perception challenge. Being able to address them in (semi) automated ways not only lowers the objective risk exposure, it increases capacity for visible system enhancement that stakeholders can perceive and value.
Perhaps This is how they tell me the world ends: A true story by Nicole Perlroth links the two of these together: will emergent AI bring about destruction that we mere humans can't combat - or will it be our vulnerability-mitigating saviour (AKA is ChatGPT Arnold Schwarzenegger in Terminator I or Terminator II?)?
What would an outsider find the most surprising part of your job?
The amount of time that I spend on cost allocation? Actually, no, scratch that - no-one would be surprised on that front. Paradoxically, they'd perhaps be most surprised by the amount of time I spend on design and writing/reviewing code. The tech industry is still trying to shake off the historical mantra that "coding is for junior staff". That always seemed puzzling to me: why would someone build skills over many years, get to the point they're really productive, and then be expected to give it all up if they wanted to progress their career? It's like saying to a surgeon, "Congratulations, you've made it to consultant. Now stop operating on people and spend all your time managing other surgeons instead".
The situation is better than it was 15 years ago (a lot better) but still persists to a certain extent. It's still bizarre though. As a reasonably senior tech leader, perhaps the signature requirement is being able to bridge effectively among those focused on customers and their needs, and those tech experts delivering systems for those needs. Building software-centric systems is still a fickle business. We still get tasks that appear trivial - perhaps estimated at 0.5 days - that take a week or more. It's easy to forget that reality if it's not a visceral experience. Equally, it's much easier to build mutual trust and respect with an engineering community if they believe you understand the perplexing reality of their daily job.
What's your secret talent?
Facilitation and Translation. As a young engineer, one of my managers said the most valuable skill in technology was being able to keep "your head in the clouds and your feet on the ground". It was a profound observation, and perhaps the central thread I've stuck to as my career has progressed. It's been essential, never more so than now. Being able to bridge between client needs and technical reality centres on effective facilitation among diverse people with widely varying perspectives. Business leaders are focused on the outcomes they need to achieve; the clients they need to win, retain and satisfy. Technologists care about wielding the tools they know, and learning what's new. Each group has a different language; a different perspective. Success requires an intersection. That doesn't mean disintermediating the disparate groups because that's not sustainable or scalable. It requires catalysing relationships, common language, common understanding. That's fundamentally an exercise in facilitation - bringing the cohorts together - and translating - ensuring each understands the relevant parts of the other's world. I would say that this is unequivocally the most important part of my role.
What makes you laugh?
People. The tech world has a reputation for socially awkward, introverted individuals. And it's not all wrong: there are lots of introverts (I'm one). But systems delivery is a socio-technical endeavour, where the emphasis on "socio" is often vastly under played. Tech is intensely collaborative, and becoming ever more so as more role specialisations emerge. Good teams are socially cohesive: they have a bond. Being able to laugh with each other is a strong barometer of team health. I'm fortunate to work with colleagues that make me laugh. Which I take great comfort from, because it suggests we have good team dynamics.
That's a very work-centric perspective, so I'll finish on something broader. I've never laughed harder or longer than I did to "An audience with Billy Connolly" on ITV. I'm definitely showing my age in mentioning that! But it is, hands down, the funniest thing I've ever seen.