Safety-Critical Systems Club
The Safety-Critical Systems Club celebrated its 10th birthday in May and was able to look back on a job well done. Its significance is reflected in the fact that it was formed by the BCS and the Institution of Electrical Engineers with funding from the Department of Trade and Industry and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, plus active support from the Health and Safety Executive. From the start its administration has been run by the Centre for Software Reliability at Newcastle University.
'The aims were to raise awareness of safety issues
and facilitate the transfer of technology to the field of safety-critical systems,' says IT consultant Felix Redmill, the club's co-ordinator and a Fellow of the BCS.
'This was at a time when the DTI and the research
council were putting in place a safety-critical systems research programme: the club was to provide a forum for project collaborators and others to meet and disseminate the research results.
'The club has performed this role ever since and
has enabled the communication of feedback from industry to the academic world for better focusing of research.'
Industry and researchers have also benefited from
the club's aims of including both managers and technical people, and of transferring techniques, ideas and lessons between different industry sectors.
Felix Redmill says the club has met and continues
to meet its initial aims, thanks mainly to the large support it has from members and others.
'The club has provided the medium but it is members
and other contributors who have shared their expertise and experiences and helped the whole community to understand risk and find cost-effective ways of achieving appropriate levels of safety,' he says.
'Importantly, it has not only been experts that
people have learned from. Many novices have raised simple questions that have taken our thoughts in new directions.
'Safety-critical systems is a new field, and everyone
in it is still learning. It is therefore as important for questions to be asked as for the way to do it to be taught. Indeed, this is more important, for the state of our knowledge is such that the way to do it is to shun certainty and to keep asking questions.
'I hope that the club atmosphere will continue to
give participants the enthusiasm and the courage to keep questioning what we think we know and, by their questions, to illuminate what we don't know.'
The club has around 750 members, and has run nine
annual symposiums, 36 one-day and two-day seminars, and 19 tutorials, with well over 5,600 people attending its events during the 10 years. The proceedings of its symposiums have been produced as books by specialist publisher Springer-Verlag.
Details are at www.safety-club.org.uk
There are two ways of constructing a software design. One is to make it so simple that there are obviously no deficiencies; the other is to make it so complicated that there are no obvious deficiencies. The first method is far more difficult.
Tony Hoare FBCS, head of programming research, Oxford University.
@ the coalface
The UK Inland Revenue's IT director gave out some strong advice on contracting out IT and the nature of risk and supplier partnership when he spoke to a recent BCS conference
The idea that risks associated with IT can be transferred to services companies by contracting out has been dismissed as 'rubbish' by the IT director of the UK Inland Revenue. John Yard, who oversees one of the UK's biggest IT services contracts, was scathing when he told the first conference of the new BCS Business-IT Interface Specialist Group about this aspect of the so-called Private Finance Initiative (PFI) agreement with services group EDS.
'The dogma around PFI that you can transfer
the risk is rubbish,' he said. 'There is no such thing
as transferring the business risk. When the IT crashes,
it's the business that can't cope, and you have to pick
up the pieces. Believe me: I know.'
He warned the audience off being lulled into
feeling that partnership between customer and supplier
was an easy option.
'The partnership idea feels comfortable, with less worry; it sounds softer and fluffier; and it apparently
leaves room for manoeuvre,' he said. 'But it's not like
this at all. Partnerships require hard, not soft management. This doesn't mean beating people up, but it does mean firmness, and understanding of issues and problems.'
Understanding was important from the start, John Yard said: 'As a user you're putting some of the crown jewels into the trust of someone else. You must
understand what you're getting rid of - and make sure
the supplier understands what it's getting.
'This is not a cosy relationship. You have to understand what each side wants to get out of the partnership - and can you achieve both sides' objectives?' He quoted 'fine words' about the Inland Revenue and EDS partnership from when the contract was signed - but he continued, 'Words are easy: making things happen is difficult.'
In particular, both sides had to identify and talk about problems as quickly as possible: 'Fundamental
to a partnership is the ability to manage conflicts -
which are bound to arise - and then settle them and move on. Both sides must identify problems early and be brave enough to speak about them, otherwise they fester and get more difficult to solve.
'Don't go to court or arbitration: that's failure. And when you settle, don't have a feud for 20 years because you lost.
'You need give and take. Why should we give EDS anything? It's because if you don't operate properly with your partner, you won't get anything yourself.'
• The BCS Business-IT Interface Specialist Group
is at www.business-it.org