Q&A: Paul Coby, IT Director John Lewis

We speak to Paul Coby, IT Director at John Lewis, about the technological advances in the retail industry.

I think there is an understanding of how important technology is to companies and one of the things we're looking at doing through e-skills is to work with companies on developing apprenticeship programs which can actually give school graduates an attractive option. [If] you can get a job, but you can get training that's integrated into that and get a really good skill that is very marketable.

You talked about security, that often fits with the operation space and that's very valuable and marketable job skill to have in the UK or indeed anywhere around the world.The lack of women working in IT is still a big issue. The numbers of women who've enrolled for IT this year has gone down and the fact there are so few women involved in IT at the moment is concerning. Is there any way to turn that around?

We launched computer clubs for girls at e-skills and we've got 130,000 girls involved in that. This is basically where we've set up an after school or lunchtime club, often with the help of IT professionals from the local area, and we provide materials for this that are designed to try and stop girls from giving up on IT after ages 11 or 12 - which is when they generally do.

I think role models are really important, senior women who've been appointed on their merit. Yesterday I appointed a woman who's just joined us at John Lewis IT to head of IT relationships. I think it's important and something we should absolutely worry about and ensure that people thinking and entering the profession can see some role models.

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An awful lot of 13-year-old boys are playing 'shoot 'em up' games [but] there aren't that many things that are going to make girls very interested in IT. However, what this is designed to do is to make technology more interesting for girls. They can build a site about fashion, or a fan site for your favorite band. It's really specifically angled to show that technology isn't all about 'shoot 'em up' games, it's actually more general.

I think role models are really important, senior women who've been appointed on their merit. Yesterday I appointed a woman who's just joined us at John Lewis IT to head of IT relationships. I think it's important and something we should absolutely worry about and ensure that people thinking and entering the profession can see some role models. If you go onto the e-skills website, you'll see some video clips of some people in their mid twenties who've got jobs in IT and a lot of them are women.

What about the people who are just leaving education right now who haven't had any IT skills really given to them? How do we get that gap up to date and ready for the digital world?

I think there are two aspects to this. My personal view is that for consumers, technology isn't that hard [and] most people are able to master it. Every job, whether it's serving the shop, or being a baggage handler at Heathrow, requires the use of technology. This is absolutely essential for the employer to ensure that firstly, the systems are intuitive to use and then secondly that there is adequate training to do it.

I think the best way to do that is to have really expert users in the workplace that can show their colleagues how things work.I think you're right that there is a bit of a gap and that is something that e-skills is looking at; how we can develop programs that can solve this problem. There is a possibility there of giving people good enough skills to be effective in the work force and I think it should be based around how you build technology into basic apprenticeship schemes.

That's the key thing about technology; it's everywhere. It's not "the" IT industry; it's having the ability to function in most industries.

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What do you think about these 15 Raspberry Pi computers, which seem to be gaining a lot of interest? Do you think things like this are positive?

They've just entered my consciousness; do you want to say some more about them?

They are essentially very cheap, basic computers. They are very small and come with Linux installed in them and are aimed at people who want to learn programming skills.

Yes, that sounds like a great idea. That's a quite ill informed statement, but anything that opens that up is good. As cloud appears in all its many forms and mobile devices proliferate, the ability to access all sorts of things, including computing facilities is going to spread.

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How is cloud technology being used at John Lewis?

We do need to be very careful in terms of security for customer data and credit card information, so we are incredibly cautious about that. I think it clearly has uses and we are using it in terms of access to testing facilities and that sort of thing.

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We've just launched our new strategy in conjunction with Google, which we've been rolling out across all the management groups in John Lewis. It's called the "retail revolution" and we've set up, with Google, a retail site where after you've been to the workshop, you go online and check out the information. You can then make comments on it, ask questions [and] ask the board questions about the strategy.

Tomorrow I'm going to be doing a half hour live Q&A online. Anyone who is in John Lewis and wants to ask a board member questions about the new strategy can do that. This is being done through the cloud and we've set it up in under a month.As I've said, we keep customer information private, but I think that the cloud used for this purpose is a really great thing.

Paul was a keynote speaker at the recent Digital London event.

Additional reporting by Tom Brewster

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