From the dawn of the web to Google: Julian Harris tells us about his passion for technology and why he made the leap to the public sector.
Information superhighway to sixteen camera mobile phones
I worked at Google for seven years and recently joined DWP as Head of Technology Research and Innovation. I’ve been kindly invited to share a few words about how this came to be and why. The short version is that I was inspired equally by the scale of technology transformation happening at DWP, and by the opportunity to design and build a new technology research team from scratch: a team that that would have a chance to make a real difference using cutting edge technology.
I’m passionate about technology and have been writing internet software professionally since the early 90s. Observing the dawn of the web and the commercial internet, it was interesting to see the questions being asked at the time: “which will prevail:" we all asked, "Gopher? Wide-Area Information Server? Or the World-Wide Web?”. WWW was ruled out because you couldn’t search it. And then, of course, Altavista decided to hack it by indexing it all. The information superhighway, the dot com boom, Web 2.0, social computing – all vivid memories with big headlines. Indeed, it wasn’t that long ago when the cry of “mobile!” fell largely on deaf ears. I remember guffawing at the idea of a camera on a phone. Now you can buy ones with sixteen.
Rapidly changing landscape
It’s with this perspective that I can relate to terms like 'veteran millennial' or perhaps 'digital native'. The internet is well and truly in my veins and, to this end, I am humbled and inspired to be invited to help guide the largest government department in the UK with their technology transformation. The internet is constantly changing, constantly disrupting, and new foundations are being built all the time. What’s a government’s best role in this ever-changing world? Where should it enable and where should it regulate? How can it catch up as to help and not hinder?
So, I ask myself “why is innovation important?”. A rapidly-changing world comes with the needs and expectations of those who use public services. As the pressure to keep driving down costs increases, we have to be more and more innovative about our approach to solving problems. The pace of technology change is now so quick and so abundant, it’s a challenge even to just stay on top of it. With the right focus, and mix of skills and experience, technology can be a powerful enabler of cost savings at scale. In many areas, DWP has a big opportunity to start fresh, to scan the horizon of the latest advances in technology that, in some cases, could enable a full leapfrog over existing IT cycles entirely.
In DWP Technology, our small research team is geared to rapidly explore new technology horizons. We are investigating ideas that we believe should be fleshed out to meet the needs of the public, to genuinely make public services better, faster and cheaper in future. One technique we employ is running short, low-cost programming experiments. These are completed in 1-2 weeks and help to answer questions and inform strategy from direct experience.
A great example is blockchain, the underlying that database bitcoin uses. There is equally tremendous excitement around how bitcoin could revolutionise the world, and blockchain, or its more general cousin, distributed ledger technology. Could blockchain help exchange data between departments? Simple, high-performance and secure methods of data exchange could make a huge difference in how people experience public services.
It’s work like this, with my team, that keeps me excited. DWP Technology is hiring a substantial in-house capability and it couldn’t be a better time to be a technologist in UK government. Find out what tech opportunities there are in DWP Technology: Subscribe to this blog or follow us on Twitter @DWPTechnology to find out more about what's happening in DWP Technology, and look at our LinkedIn page to see our latest jobs.