Interview with Charles Ewen CIO, Technology Director, Met Office
Hi Charles, thanks for taking the time to talk with us at DesignSpark. Would you mind giving us a bit of an introduction to yourself and the Met Office along with a bit of insight into how you got to be doing what you are for them?
“My name is Charlie (aka Chas, Charles, Chuck [yes I know]) Ewen. I am Director of Technology and CIO at the Met Office in Exeter. We run a very large engineering endeavour including the operation of 3 of the world's 50 largest supercomputers as well as making extensive use of cloud-based technologies. We exist to provide insight and foresight into the future state of the atmosphere in the short (weather) and the long (climate) term. By doing this, we can help people avoid dangerous weather and realise the opportunities of helpful weather and this can be enumerated using economic models. This was last done (by London Economics) in 2015 where our economic value was stated at £30bn to the UK economy over 10 years; this is about a 14:1 ROI by the UK taxpayer. We sit within government (so I am a civil servant), as a trading fund. This allows us to operate in commercial markets and so we provide services and products to thousands of organisation across the world in industries such as defence, aviation, power and utilities, retail, finance and so on. I have worked at the Met Office since 2009 and before that spent 20 years in industry, in the RAF and then defence industry as an electronics and systems engineer and then within the industrial distribution market.”
So, when did you first feel that a life in engineering was for you and what was it in particular that attracted you?
“I have a bit of a view that scientists and engineers are born as much as made but that the school we go to, the education we receive and circumstances that we grow up in all combine to determine where within science and engineering, we end up. Essentially, the common factor is that they are all analytical problem solvers. In my case, I was born in Devon to farming parents, went to a local comprehensive school, I was equally as good at maths, physics and so on, as I was terrible at art, history etc. When I say ‘good and bad’, what I really mean is that those were the kinds of subjects that I enjoyed, worked hard at and hence became good at more than anything else. I was always a geek, my parents despaired at my propensity to take stuff to bits to see how it worked, often not having the skills or patience to put it back together again (I usually blamed it on not having the right tools)! I wanted to go to university to study Physics however events conspired against me such that this was not possible and I had to leave school before completing my A levels. I joined the RAF as an apprentice engineering technician and completed 3 years at military college before another 3 serving as a means to gain a degree level education and then worked for Racal (and the Thales) as an electronics engineer. At 26, I made the switch to wearing a suit for a living but have always found jobs that keep me involved in engineering and now have the best of all worlds working in a world leading organisation that is stacked with talented engineers (and lots of Physics PhDs!). “
What technologies do you use most frequently and which give you the greatest challenges?
“Like everyone, I now spend far too much time with my head stuck in my mobile phone and/or laptop. Consumer electronics are everywhere and we all interact with them for an incredible proportion of our day. I use software and smart sensors much more than I used to as there are often quick and easy ways to combine those to create something useful that ‘back in the day’, as an analogue design engineer it would have taken me months to make. I don’t get anything like enough time to muck about as I would like but when I do, a great afternoon is defined by seeing what I can do with some badly written python and the latest single board computer development kit or smart sensor. At work (and as admitted), my job is is some way from hands-on engineering these days however the challenge of legacy complexity in technology and how to adapt to move fast using cloud, IoT, Machine Learning and other rapidly advancing areas is a key challenge as is finding, training, recruiting and retaining the talent that we need to do those things – there aren’t enough engineers!
Operating at the forefront of these technologies, what horizon innovations do you see becoming a major part of what you do at the Met Office and with life in general?;
Of all emerging technologies, I think that Machine Learning (ML) is the single one that will have the biggest impact for my and many other organisations. I won’t go into specifics here but ML as part of automation will have a huge impact on all of us, personally and professionally. In fact, it already does. Pretty much every advert you see, insurance quote that you get, recommended product or even legal advice received; is now based on ML. Companies like Google, AWS and Microsoft are making these powerful capabilities very easy to access, simple to use and cheap to buy. Until very recently, setting up, training and deploying an ML system to say, recognise a human in an image containing many other types of things, was the domain of research science. You can now access that kind of capability, ‘as a service’ very easily and that will change the world, in fact, it already is. At the Met Office, we use ‘simulation’ to make weather predictions, simply this is understanding the basic physics that govern the way that weather evolves and applying that science at vast scale. This approach will not be changed that much by ML but today, weather forecasts are typically used to help us humans make decisions. The impact for us will be that increasingly, weather forecasts will be used to feed ML environments so that they can make decisions and answer questions like; “what would be the best day for me to mow the lawn next week?”, to devices like the Amazon Echo. “
How important is innovation in your field and how does it manifest itself into the daily running of the Met Office?
“Innovation has been at the heart of the Met Office for over 100 years and being good at it is why we are a world leader in what we do. Clearly, the science teams are constantly innovating to better understand how weather works and how, based on that understanding, to better simulate it. In Engineering, the sheer scale and rapidly growing scale of computing and therefore data sizes demand constant innovation. There are certainly some areas in which I know how big and complex data will be in the future but don’t yet have the technical solutions to deal with that. This is not unusual and constant invention and innovation are very much embedded in the culture at the Met Office. In terms of what that looks like, it can be a bit of a management challenge (but a good one to have!). Experiments, trials, pilots and prototypes are everywhere. A challenge for me is to help spot those to take into more mature states and when to make brave decisions to switch production approaches from the old to the new.”
Do you have challenges recruiting people with skill bases in these areas and what are you able to do to draw them into a life working with technology?
“Yes. Whilst being based in Devon can be an advantage, it does mean that a potential hire may need to move from somewhere like the South East and that can be a big decision for someone to make. Generally, there are not enough scientists and engineers and within that, not enough diversity and inclusion. We work very hard on that front and have over 350 STEM Ambassadors (including me), that visit groups and schools to encourage young people to aspire to science and engineering and to stick with maths, physics, computing and so on. We have CSR targets around these engagements but as well as doing it for the philanthropic reasons, we have found that STEM work as well as hackathons, tech meet-ups etc, are all great ways for budding scientists and engineers to find out about us. We also have extensive graduate placements, work experience, apprenticeships (degree and otherwise) schemes that enable people to work with us and develop their careers.
Having had a long career in many aspects of it, what would you say to a young person considering a career in engineering and technology?
Once upon a time, I would have said, “if you want to be an engineer, do it for the love and not the money”, but market forces are taking hold and in shortage areas, Engineering is no longer underpaid. That said, it is important to ensure that people aspiring are not as ‘fixed’ in certain traditional silos as is typical today. I now use ‘Engineer’, to describe a very broad superset of skills that include elements of software, hardware as well as possibly materials and IT. Technology has become more abstract and as such, there are more roles that require a range of skills combined than those that go very deep in a specific area. So my advice is stick with the maths and sciences but also be an expert in digital and using materials and making. Unfortunately, schools and universities tend to still see many aspects of ‘hands-on’ engineering as vocational and I think that this is a real mistake. Every letter in STEM is important.”
Finally, how do you like to unwind after a hard day working at the sharp end of the latest and greatest predictive sciences?
“I am now too old (and broken) to play rugby which I did at an adult level from 13 years old to 44 but will still watch any game, at any level, at any time. In the summer, I can still just about play cricket and do that for my local village side. I live on Dartmoor national park and go riding my horse on the hills which can produce the adrenaline rush of rugby but when it does, it is usually painful. I still have a propensity to ‘take stuff to bits’, and at times, still don’t have the skills (or tools!), to put it back together again and usually have a queue of other people’s ‘stuff’, to fix in my office/workshop. I used to read a lot and still have a lot to do for work but for pleasure, tend to listen to Audible as apart from sport, despite having a zillion channels on TV, there never seems to be much to watch. I have 3 sons (all STEM, one is a Physics PhD [he wasn’t pushed!], another is a mathematician and the last is at Uni doing IT), and spend as much time as I can with them along with my long-suffering wife Alison who lectures maths and science to training teachers. As you can tell, for us the apples didn’t fall very far from the tree and we all enjoy good debate about meaningful things like the travelling salesman problem (Google it) ;-) “
Thank you Chas, it’s been great talking to you.
Find out more about the science behind the MET Office below