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The Boffin Fallacy

Boffin Fallacy
(ˈbɒfɪn fal-uh-see)
— n: The misconception Technologists do not understand business - that it’s something they can’t do, won’t enjoy and is beneath them.

Suranga Chandratillake

I was fortunate enough to tour Britain recently, delivering The Turing Lecture. Normally a rather technical affair, this time The Chartered Institute for IT and The Institution of Engineering and Technology asked me to address the commercial side of computing.

This was timely, as there’s been a great deal of interest recently surrounding the role innovation-led business can play in driving growth and getting the economy motoring again. 

The prevailing perception has been that Britain turns out great scientists, inventors - technical minds (herein collectively referred to as ‘technologists’), but hasn’t been able to match the US in business and marketing. Some blame education, suggesting there’s something missing from the syllabus, or point to the absence of an ecosystem like Silicon Valley.

I disagree. While there’s room for improvement, any lack of entrepreneurship in Britain is not related to a skills gap or an economic environment that deters entrepreneurs. 

The problem is our mindset. 

Britain has a warped view of the technologist – a bumbling boffin who can’t or won’t succeed in business. This phenomenon, which I call the Boffin Fallacy, is the reason I think Britain compares poorly to the US at the technology business. And the most damaging property of the Boffin Fallacy is that technologists hear it so often they come to believe it themselves.

Dyson

If technologists can’t do business, how do we explain him?

Recently, Britain has underestimated science and engineering. Once highly regarded disciplines, at some point ignorance of these fields became a perverse badge of honor.  C.P. Snow best made this point in his lecture, ‘The Two Cultures’.

To summarise; as a successful author AND chemist - a member of both the literary and scientific classes, he was dismayed by the divide between the two disciplines, particularly how literary types appeared proud to dismiss any understanding of science. He tested this by asking those with a liberal arts background whether they knew what the Second Law of Thermodynamics states. He found most didn’t, even though the question is the scientific equivalent of asking if you’ve ever read Shakespeare.

Snow delivered his lecture in 1959, but only last year, Alan Sugar, who was around this time the Government’s ‘Enterprise Champion’, dismissed a contestant on The Apprentice with the disparaging comment that he “never knew an engineer who could turn their hand to business”.

Technologists hit back in force - James Dyson wrote eloquently about the country’s misunderstanding of engineers and engineering, while Eric Schmidt simply retorted, “Really? I don’t think we’ve done too badly!”. 

But British technologists can’t simply blame everyone else. During the lecture tour, I played a similar trick on my, primarily scientific, audiences, asking if they knew what the Discounted Cash Flow equation was. Before my lecture, I don’t think most did and might have reacted with the same disdain as a Classics major being asked about the Second Law of Thermodynamics (I’d argue the DCF and its use in valuing assets the world over is as significant a force in our lives as the latter).

The Boffin Fallacy is exacerbated by technologists not pursuing commercial opportunities themselves. Smart science and engineering students are encouraged to pursue an academic or technical career, with the implication there’s something impure or less exalted about commerce and the block and tackle of business. 

Of course there are particular skills and abilities that make some people better suited for being an entrepreneur, CEO or businessperson. But I don’t believe technologists are innately less likely to possess these talents. 

“I’d argue the analytical, rigorous nature of science and engineering degrees makes technologists better equipped to run a business than ever before

In fact, given the increasingly quantitative reality of areas like marketing and finance, I’d argue the analytical, rigorous nature of science and engineering degrees makes technologists better equipped to run a business than ever before. Look at any list of technology companies in the US and you’ll find technically educated CEOs both start and run companies.

Fortunately, in the UK, things are changing. The Government has realised innovation-led growth is essential, and put our money where its mouth is, funding innovation centres and initiatives galore with over a billion pounds invested over the last few years. 

Encouragingly, computing may also soon be included on school syllabuses. Organisations like the Royal Academy of Engineering, British Computing Society and Institute of Engineering and Technology are all pouring funds and efforts into drawing kids toward technology and into the business of technology and innovation.

Britain’s education system has turned out amazing inventors whose creations have long helped the country punch above its weight. The tragedy is, we have often failed to help these inventors follow through to create and run the businesses that exploit their inventions.

Data shows technology/founder CEOs do better than their hired ‘businessperson’ counterparts. So when the Boffin Fallacy stops them from making this leap, we severely limit the positive commercial, societal and technological impact of their ingenuity. Which is a terrible shame - we must not sell innovation short.

Suranga Chandratillake is founder and president of video search company blinkx


Readers' comments (2)

  • I agree with Suranga. However, in this forum we are preaching to the converted. We have to get out and talk to others about the contribution (technical, social, and business) that Engineers make in our society. After all, a bungling boffin wouldn't make a good Engineer anyway. Unfortunately, we tend to let ourselves down and are often too modest. We should boast that when we do something that is generally recognised as positive, even if it's not engineering, that it is our engineering training that enables us to do it. Again, the public and the media generally percieve Engineers as someone who mends a boiler or wires up a house. When I became an Engineer with an electrical utility my mother's neighbour remarked "He spent all those years at school and university just to read meters?" I always correct anyone, friends or otherwise, when they don't realise what Engineers do and don't do.
    "Engineer" should be a protected title as it is in countries such as Canada.
    As for Alan Sugar, what relevance does he have anyway? I just ignore what he says.

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  • It is strange you call engineers technologists in the UK. Technologist in the rest of the world are assistants to professional engineers. They fit between technicians and engineers, and focus on existing technology. They are usually educated and trained in technical colleges or hold a bachelor of technology degree at a university which is less theoretical than an engineering degree. They are highly regarded, highly valuable players but they are not professional engineers. UK definitions for engineers is all over the place which is the real route cause of UK low status along with deep cultural prejudice and ignorance toward STEM subjects

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