Andy Hopper is Professor of Computer Technology at Cambridge University and one of the founders of Acorn computers, we caught up with him to find out about his time at Swansea and his career to date.
I think it’s fair to say that computers have had a big influence on your life. Can you tell us a bit about it?
Swansea put on a course which was amazingly good for me and the other students because at the time it foretold the whole computing thing in the world. The course was called Computer Technology. I fell into it for reasons I will explain, but that course shaped everything else for me. The special thing about the course (the first year it ran was in 1970 and I joined in 1971) was that it combined computer science with electronics and also accountancy and economics. Computer science was the major element and the accountancy and economics were the minor elements.
In today’s world, Innovation and Enterprise has got the biggest foghorn on the planet, but that course foretold what was to come because just think about it, you learned something about computer software, you learned something about electronics, the microprocessor had just come along, so rather than computers being remote, you could get your hands on something. There was software, hands-on electronics and computing. Economics covered the broader financial side of things and accountancy helped you understand a balance sheet. So think about that. This is how the world works. The geeks like me have won. I.T. is the biggest industry in the world, we have the biggest companies in the world, the most valuable companies, biggest industries and all the rest. In 1971 I came to a course that had all this at its core. That is an amazing thing. It very much informed my subsequent career because it gave me the technical ammunition on the one side and also helped inform and make familiar the business side.
On a personal basis, I am Professor of Computer Technology at Cambridge University and the department is the Department of Computer Science and Technology (I changed the name when I was the Head of the Department). It is the same as the name of the course I took in Swansea, Computer Technology. The name comes from the early days of computing in the ’40s and ’50s. I didn’t know this in 1971, but when I think about the constellation here, my job title, and the name of the department at Cambridge University, they relate to my time at Swansea University.
During the time I was at Swansea, there was a lot of freedom in education, Swansea was quite pioneering, in a good way. And that was down to two people in particular. A Professor of Electrical Engineering called William Gosling who had the idea to put on the course, and a man he recruited from Manchester University called David Aspinall who became a Professor and was recruited to run the course at Swansea. Gosling was a man who had a lot of connections with industry and he was also a Technical Director of a company called Plessey who were involved in electronics, defence and telecommunications. He was a person who just through his work was very familiar with the industrial side of things and of course for me personally that was very inspiring because that is what I have done with my career ever since. I have had a simultaneous career in academia and industry. I never left the University, I’ve always just done the two things at the same time.
How did you end up at Swansea?
Three reasons. I am Polish by birth and was brought up Polish. When I was a teenager at school in the UK we had some farming holidays in the summer in Llanybydder, West Wales. Some Polish farmers settled there after the war and I spent some summers there so that gave me a connection to Wales. Secondly, a friend of the family, because I didn’t do very well at school, (the UK is quite a lot different to Poland), suggested that this computing lark might be interesting, and thirdly I applied for places at Manchester and Swansea but I didn’t get the grades for Manchester. I don’t think I got the grades for Swansea either but Aspinall took me anyway.
"The University supported me well in the broader sense both in the technical subject and also the social life."
What are your favourite memories of Swansea?
I had a great time. The University supported me well in the broader sense both in the technical subject and also the social life. The geography was also wonderful, I had the good fortune that I had a crappy old car. I did some window cleaning and stuff and saved a bit of money to buy a clapped out old Triumph Herald so I was mobile, which was unusual for a student at the time. I took advantage of it with trips to the Gower and all of that sort of stuff. From an intellectual perspective, I did quite well in everything after turning up in Swansea, having not done very well in school at all. The social life was very good and I was able to do a bit of surfing. Through the University sports clubs and we had some surfboards. The Triumph Herald was a convertible so I was able to strap the surfboard across the top and off I go. I was also a reasonable skier and I managed to go on some inter-university ski trips to Scotland and so on.
After graduating you ended up at Cambridge University. How did that come about?
Well, this is another example of how life just turns out. I liked skiing and I had an interest in further study and academia although I am not a standard academic at all. I wanted to do a PhD and I wanted to go skiing. I applied to EPFL in Lausanne and the University of Grenoble, but they didn’t reply or give me any communication back, so that didn’t work out.
Professor Aspinall knew some chaps in Cambridge and said why don’t you go and give them a go. So off I went in my clapped out Triumph Herald. It was the middle of July 1974 and I walk in and they give me an interview. I think I did ok, and I still remember it, they said “what would you like to do?” and I said, “I’m not sure, I like building things and I like electronics”. They asked me what my project was and I said it was something to do with microprocessors and the next day they called me and made me an offer.
I subsequently discovered, they had someone cancel on them at the last minute and I was the next person available so they could fulfil the grant and get the research money. The deadline for the research money was the end of July, it was an SRC grant, the forerunner to the EPSRC, so I ended up driving back and forth between Swansea and Cambridge to hand deliver all the paperwork, to get on the grant and that’s how I ended up doing a PhD at Cambridge after Swansea.
As a serial entrepreneur where have the ideas for your businesses come from? Have they always been there or have they emerged through your academic work?
It certainly hasn’t led from my academic work. I don’t believe that academia and academic research leads to business in any substantive way. That’s a fallacy across the system. I’ve never really used anything from a university for any of my businesses, I didn’t need to, it’s not the way it works in practice. It’s just a stick the government uses to beat universities up and I hope it will change.
You’ve got to be in the right environment and Cambridge had a culture and environment of building things that are practical as well as other stuff. It was just part of the DNA. My PhD was very practical. I was part of a bigger project and that project was related to a high-speed network (this was before ethernet). Ethernet was just coming and we had a competitive project called Cambridge Ring and I helped out with that. Several companies started commercialising that, and I did a little bit with it, so I’m wrong in saying nothing came from University work, but it was open to everyone, it was nothing to do with licences or anything like that. But never-the-less I could tell that the work I was doing, building and designing chips for local networks had practical applications, in those early days. The culture of the department (and I'm proud to say I was Head of that department for 14 years, until 2 years ago) is a strong culture of supporting collaboration with industry.
In those days, and to some extent we’ve continued it, the industrial side was kind of encouraged and not bean-counted or restricted in any way. What in practice happens, is that being able to have an industrial existence, and being encouraged to do so by having a Head of the department that understands you are part of a portfolio. You’re delivering in a broader sense rather than the number of papers you have published. The linear transfer out of universities doesn’t work in my experience, it’s not what universities do, it’s not what they are all about, yes at the margin they do, but they train people, they give you a context of the broader academic research line. My kids went to university and I was very delighted that people taught them well. That’s good, that’s important! It’s not all about research excellence and I’m top of the pile at my department and my REF score is blah, blah. So in those days freedom to move between industry and academia sat much more comfortably than today. I was able to do stuff industrially that took advantage of that freedom, not in any linear way, but it was connected with the university for the broader reason of the background, recruitment, prototypes of something new or demonstrations which would spark off ideas or whatever.
So all the companies started independently and the ideas for them came not out of the university but out of the background of other work. An important development that relates directly to this is the company ARM. So the ARM story, very early ARM, not the later ARM - why does ARM exist? Why is it in this country? Where did it come from? I helped start the technology, and I believe this version of events is correct. I was Research Director at Acorn at the time but I was at the University at the same time, it was the early 1980’s and we had done quite well with the BBC Micro, which had chips in it that came out of my background in the University, but it’s not the chips, it’s the knowledge. So ARM is Acorn RISC Machines and RISC was written instructions for the computer. We didn’t come up with that, that was developed in the University of California, Berkeley. It’s a technology transfer from the US and that was spotted through the academic line, it didn’t come through the industrial line. That was spotted by me with my academic hat and knowing people in the academic world who were going “hey look at this, this is interesting, let's talk about it”. That’s the way the academic world works. That’s how it appeared on my radar screen and I thought, yeah that is interesting and something practical. At that time, I also had some previous PhD’s, some based in the US, and I told them to go over to Berkeley and take a look at it and tell me what you think. They came back and said there is something there, it’s interesting, you can build it, it’s a microprocessor, it has various parameters and so on. So now they’re back and they are straight into the company. It doesn’t go through some academic route where you have to write a paper and I’m under pressure to do it because REF is coming up. Forget all that. They are back in a company that is big enough to take it forward. The company, Acorn, has done some previous chips, they got the money connection to go to production and the arrogance and confidence to do it. I spoke to my partner, the CEO, Hermann Hauser about the idea and he said “Let's go for it. We’ve employed some great PhD’s out of the University, they can work on it”. On the money side, Acorn had gone public so for a while on company business I used to go around on a helicopter and all of that kind of nonsense but it wasn’t huge so part of the reason the ARM chip design is what it was, is that we didn’t have a whole lot of money, it needed to be lean and mean and power saving and all the rest of it. It wasn’t because we were all genius brilliant and we can come up with these genius brilliant ideas for 30 years later, it is the context that made us do it. You need those components, money, industry and academia. So my companies have all been along those lines, at least in terms of the technology. There have now been 13 companies altogether but I didn’t set out for it to be like that, it’s just the way it happened. I didn’t set out my life saying I’m going to be a serial entrepreneur. It’s tough and things come along when you are in this in-between land, and again it comes back to this course at Swansea, the money, the industry (who are your friends, who are your enemies, what does the parade look like, how do you fit in, what are you doing, who do you partner with, the product and all that) and then the academic side; for people, for intellectual breadth, for connecting people around the world and there you are. That is how the Cambridge Cluster has grown. Most of the companies have grown in that fashion.
What advice would you give to any of our current entrepreneurial students who are thinking about starting their own businesses?
This is a tough question. I’ll sound slightly cautious because I will not say, go for it, go jump off the plank, good luck. I would say, be savvy, streetwise and make sure the components, whether it’s the technology, your partners, the money or the product are likely to help rather than hinder. And secondly, you will likely start many companies, at least, more than once, so don’t work yourself up too much emotionally if it doesn’t quite work out the way you planned. Just get on with the next one. I guess what I’m saying is if the someone is asking for 50% tell them to get lost and do it anyway, without them. The components need to be right to be a success. I wasn’t a driven entrepreneur, I have no idea what I’m doing today never mind then, who knows how these things happen.
"the reality has surpassed even what we imagined in our wildest dreams."
You were at the forefront of computing in the UK. Acorn was described as the British Apple. What was it like to be in that place at that time?
Well at the time it still felt very competitive. There was a little company called Apple, there was a little company called Intel so when starting the microprocessor project in a company called Acorn and the ARM project we were aware that Intel (who made those microprocessors I used in Swansea in 1971/72) was a giant. That was who we had to compete with.
Secondly, the pathway, faster, cheaper, better was clear and relatively uncrowded, so while it was competitive, it was also about judgement. This video telephony stuff, Zoom, Skype, etc was around 30 years ago, it wasn’t a giant leap of imagination for professional engineers. But, the judgement, of how far we should pitch the technology is a subtle judgement that many people can not easily do. So it’s that judgement of how far to go with the next thing, crazy enough but not too crazy that others aren’t going to even be able to make the leap with you. So whether it was a faster network, a better chip for a network or a microprocessor or computer or multi-media streaming it’s about judgement. There is a picture of me using a system in 1990 that had video mail, video conferencing, multiple webcams and all that sort of stuff. The fact that we could build it, the technology was there but it was a little too early for people. It’s like a cook who knows which spices go together and then looks at his customers and knows what they like so he adjusts the recipe. So we were aware we were making that judgement and that we were probably getting it right. However, looking back on it we deliberately tried to think as big as possible, and even our wildest dreams have been surpassed by what has been accomplished by technology today. Today, the fact that everyone on the planet is using Zoom or Skype or whatever, in a way triggered, albeit for a bad reason, by coronavirus was completely beyond the wildest dreams a few months ago, but it has happened and the world has changed forever. So to answer the question, it felt tremendous, I also nearly went bankrupt at one stage so it was a bit frightening but the reality has surpassed even what we imagined in our wildest dreams.
You must be extremely busy. Do you get any free time and what do you do with it?
I’m not extremely busy because you have to delegate and trust and forgive and all that. But it’s different at each stage of your career. In the beginning, I was doing it all. I remember working night after night and coming out of the office and not remembering where I had parked my car and having to wander around trying to find it. Later in your career, it is easier as you don’t need to make heavy contractual arrangements between industry and academia. You can use your industrial resource to support your academic teaching responsibilities. For instance, if you’re a Professor and you’ve been teaching the same class for years and you might not be full of beans about it and within your company, you have a talented PhD who would jump at the opportunity to teach you can give them a chance. It’s a better experience all round, the students get someone energetic and passionate about the subject, they (the PhD) get to say they have a little experience in teaching and you don’t bring the negative of I need to do this, but I don’t want to be doing this right now, but they’re compelling me to do this to get the score up for the teaching for the rankings, etc. On the industrial side, I was the CEO of an industrial research lab and that took up a lot of time. In all the other companies I have been effectively part-time. The reporting was such that it doesn’t require the hours, you can delegate when you have good people around you. These days I’m Chairman of everything so if you want a Chairman, I’m your man. Though I say no to most things except the not for profit sector and community interest companies without shareholders.
My main passion though is flying. Flying combines several interesting things for me. I’m an engineer fundamentally, a technology engineer. I like electronics and I like to fiddle. I have a smallish aeroplane and I like to fiddle with it; electrical systems, d.c., a.c., vacuum systems, pressure systems, fuel system, oil system, avionics system, de-icing system, variable pitch propeller system, undercarriage and hydraulics systems, all that kind of stuff. Though when I say fiddle I might look at stuff, test some parameters but I have professional people looking after it and making sure it’s safe to fly! Secondly, I like to travel so my main pastime has been adventure travel and I’ve done a lot of it, including flying solo around the world. My round the world was to New Zealand and back, single pilot, unsupported so you don’t have anyone helping you. Across to New Zealand, across the Pacific. I’ve been all across South America, the Falkland Islands, all around Europe, North America, across Canada. That the flying, but there is also an electronics component because I do have internet and have had internet so by Jove I have location reporting in many ways so there is none of this losing me in the middle of the Indian Ocean, forget it! I also have the very good fortune of having an airstrip here where I live, so out the back is the airstrip and that is where I keep my aeroplane. So I’m very lucky, I just walk down to the end of the garden and off I go and I’m back in time for tea. The flight around the world was from here. Off I went and a little while later I came back.
I also quite like cycling on the Gower so I throw my bicycle in the back of the aeroplane, fly down, spend the day cycling and then fly back in the evening. I occasionally pop into Fulton (College) House to have a cup of tea but I don’t announce my visit so people probably think I’m just someone who’s walked in off the street.
You were awarded the CBE in 2007. How does it feel to have your work recognised in such ways?
It’s all very nice but there are so many people who are equally as deserving if not more deserving that don’t get them. So you have to slap yourself a little bit. But still, in this culture, it is nice to get them.
You’re also a fellow of the Royal Society, What does that involve?
I’m Treasurer and Vice-President of the Royal Society and I think I’m the first computing type to be Treasurer or Vice-President or anything like that. The Officers of the Royal Society, of which Swansea University’s Chancellor, Dame Jean Thomas is one of my predecessors, are the executive non-executives of the society and they go way back hundreds of years. Sir Christopher Wren was one. We’re like the trustees of the society. It’s all volunteer, all unpaid, etc. As Treasurer I oversee an endowment of £250 million, the society also has a turnover of £128 million per year and has 220 staff. Alongside that, I can lead projects that kind of relate to policy but through which we can use the Royal Society as an endorsement tool. So, society can give a voice to projects like the way industry works with academia in discovery science. If I was saying it on my own, nobody would listen but if the Royal Society makes the announcement people listen. So whether it’s the way businesses work, or how peer review doesn’t work or more constructively how I do a report on cybersecurity, the honours and the Royal Society can give a greater voice to things.
I chair a Royal Society committee, along with Prof Sir John McCanny from Queens University Belfast, and we reported on cybersecurity from the Policy Unit of the Royal Society. There are industrial people on there, academic and some policy people. A while back we looked at whether encryption, for example over video calls, was important or not. We recommended that end-to-end encryption was very important and more important than backdoors into encryption systems for security services to potentially listen to see if we are talking about terrorism or not. So we produced this paper for the Royal Society and now 4 years later, with everyone using online technology to communicate all the time, boy were we right! Imagine it the other way around, you’re using something with encryption and someone says you shouldn’t be using it because it doesn’t have a backdoor that allows the security services to listen in. I suspect that would be outweighed by people saying, my god, I just need it to survive and communicate with people. At the time it was difficult to say but the Royal Society was able to give it weight and it turns out to have stood the test of time. So the Royal Society is an interesting gig for that sort of reason. Another report I saw was on neural interfaces (plugging computers into your brain). We’ve sent our report out, it was very carefully considered and it’s a forward-looking report, it covers all the things we need to consider, technology, business, ethics, economics, etc, etc. I don’t think we’re all about to become cyborgs, so we’ll see what comes of that one!
"I think computing, supporting the sustainability of the planet, is a marvellous glittering prize that I would like to see happen."
So, sitting where you are at the forefront of technology. What in your view, is the next big thing we are going to see in that area?
I think the whole framework of computing and sustainability is really exciting. Imagine If we observe the world using sensors, mostly aerial, heat and technical sensors. Optimise that data in cyberspace and feed that back in to affect the world in a better sustainability sense. In other words, computing could become the pacemaker of the planet. The technology will continue to make leaps and bounds. An example might be, we have the global positioning system, which is great and it’s a free service and it’s worldwide. So, imagine a global temperature system that can give you the temperature of each square metre of the planet in real-time for everybody, free of charge. It has all sorts of headaches, ethics, politics, etc I know, but you have asked me the question and I suspect people’s attitudes will change. For instance, tracking the coronavirus on mobile phones is becoming acceptable whereas a month ago it would have been the end of the world. But similarly, as the ice caps melt, and cities start to flood people will come to accept that maybe this is an important thing to have. I think computing, supporting the sustainability of the planet, is a marvellous glittering prize that I would like to see happen.