This week I attended BETT for the first time (I estimate) in five years. BETT has been going for 20 odd years now, and represents an opportunity for technology-focused suppliers to showcase their stuff to their potential customer base. Given the length of time between the last time I went, I thought it would be useful to reflect on what changes have occurred and what it can teach us about our world right now.
Some general thoughts first. Frankly, without wishing to sound too much like my Dad, kids now have stuff way better than when we were at school. A stand of note was Lego Education. As a bloke in his late 30’s I retain a mild obsession with Lego, but the stuff they had was just amazing, and I am ashamed to say I was too bashful to go onto the stand to have a play, mainly because all the staff appeared to be 12. An opportunity missed I think. The other thing that got me was the huge number of digital/interactive white boards. You see these in offices everywhere now, but the range and technical depth of these devices available to schools was staggering. How is the History Teacher going to hurl a board rubber at young Stewart sat the back of the class if all he’s got is a marker pen?
Another general area of thought was at the makeup of the stand-types and people at the show. First point here was that was far more of an even split between sexes. There was certainly less evidence of the traditional testosterone fuelled men-in-pin-stripe suits on stand duty and far more women as delegates than you get at Infosec OR non-education focused trade show. It made for a less frenetic atmosphere and the show was more enjoyable for it. And it’s always good to catch up with people whose company you enjoy but never quite manage to see enough of.
Wandering around during the day however, there were a worrying number of empty stands where companies just hadn’t turned up, and a couple of these were quite spacious units too. The cuts appear to be working through to the supplier community and there was a palpable sense of unease on some stands. In terms of IT-led stands, there were the usual education players on show, but few traditional Infosec vendors or resellers in evidence.
I started thinking why InfoSec vendors were so sparse in attendance, so on my travels I spoke to colleagues from other companies to canvass their views. Some of the exhibitors work primarily in the education space and as such were happy with their lot, if a bit wary. The most telling commentary came from a Sales Director at a major supplier of services into education. He pointed out that certain InfoSec areas have traditionally been a ‘no-brainer’ eg Web scanning and email scanning. As a parent I expect and demand that if my kids are using the internet at school that it’s free from the bad stuff and they can only go to appropriate web sites. But of course, what’s appropriate for an 8 year old isn’t right for a 16 year old, and so systems deployed are far more discerning and sophisticated than they were ten years ago. His view was that there is still genuine ignorance around the topic of Data Protection and the requirements for encryption within the Local Authority and schools space. As he pointed out, Head Teachers don’t want to lose data, and would be mortified if they did. But given that nobody has ever mandated a path to take and they have a thousand and one other things to deal with, data protection constantly falls to the bottom of the to do list. One wonders if Chris Graham and the ICO office would ever be prepared to hit a school or Local Authority with a major fine for kids losing data or a school losing kids data? It is far too strong to say that InfoSec is viewed as a necessary evil in education, but it wouldn’t be unreasonable to say it’s not near the top of people priorities, even in IT departments. The Sales Director also raised the point that like everywhere across the Public Sector, there is real fear for jobs and long-term job security in IT within schools and Local Authorities, and uncertainty on funding and structures leads to decisions delayed or just not being made. All is not doom and gloom, as tight funding is a part of life in the Public Sector, but one suspects that the next few years will require patience in abundance from both customers and vendors. One also suspects that topics like encryption, so prevalent in Police, Military or HM Government will remain on the fringes.
In summary, BETT was a pleasure to go to again. Its friendly, relaxed and knee deep in innovative technology that’s far too good for children. But on the periphery are storm clouds, and given the notoriously lengthy cycles of technology adoption and usage within this sector, it will be the brave, the innovative and the downright bloody minded that make a success of it.