Dr Clive Pygott

CEO, Columbus Computing Ltd
BSc Electronic and Electrical Engineering, 1974; PhD Electronic and Electrical Engineering, 1979

After being made redundant, I set up a one-man consultancy firm with the aim of finding short-term contracting work in the area of safety-critical computing assessment and safety cases. My first contract was with a company that basically wanted as much time as I wanted to commit, so 14 years later I'm still working for them (roughly half time). The company I contract to produces software analysis tools, to check third party company's software for safety properties.

I act as an 'in-house customer' trying out new features and releases, to iron out problems before the real customers can see them. I'm also a member of a number of ISO and European committees working on software languages and safety standards.

Clive Pygott

What’s the best thing about what you are doing now?

About 30 years ago I drifted into a safety management roll, and my current work allows me to continue to use that expertise. Plus I enjoy the fact that, as most of our customers are in the automotive and aerospace businesses, I believe that I'm contributing to improving transport safety. The tools from the company I contract to and the standards I work on are used by the majority of western automotive and aerospace manufacturers.

What made you interested in electrical engineering?

I've never had a career plan. When opportunities arise, I've always chosen the one that seems most interesting. At a young age I started an interest in electronics, being excited by the character 'General Jumbo' in the Beano (a boy with an army of remote-control vehicles) and buying a copy of Practical Electronics with a 'build your own remote control' article. This eventually led to Birmingham and the electronics degree, but also a growing interest in computing, both in terms of hardware design and programming. 

How has your career developed since graduating?

After graduation, I joined the scientific civil service at their establishment largely interested in telecommunications research, initially working on a novel computer architecture, to be used as the main 'in-house' workstation (this was before the days of the ubiquitous PC). From there I joined a team developing a micro-processor for safety critical applications. That led to a broader interest in computers in safety-critical environments and the tools and methods need to develop their 'safety case', an argument that convinces you (or in the worst case a court or board of enquiry) that every reasonably practical effort has been made to ensure safety. This also broadened out into related areas, like the trustworthiness of electronic voting. I continued working in this safety-critical/high-integrity domain, sometimes assessing systems that has already been built, and sometimes working with the developers to ensure that all the appropriate safety evidence would be produced by the end of the project. Along the way, the civil service establishment I worked at was turned into an agency and then was privatised. When it announced that we were no longer a research organisation, I started to look for a way out, leading to redundancy and the creation of my consultancy firm.

We Are (Third Width)

What skills you learned from your time at university would you say you use most in your job?

I probably have already given the impression that what I do now is a long way from what I studied at Birmingham. The detailed knowledge of digital circuit design and Fortran computing I gained at Birmingham was using directly in the first ten years or so of my career. That, and the general approach to problem solving and teamworking I learnt at Birmingham, is what provided the foundations for my later career: using different computer languages and computer architectures and adapting to widely different fields.

What motivates you?

I think I'd have to say I'm a problem solver and curious. If I see something that interests me, I need to know how it works. This gives me a wide range of tools to draw on when problem solving, I particularly like it when I can bring ideas together from disparate domains to solve a common problem. There is a downside: I'm very good at starting 'exciting new projects', but once I've overcome the intellectual challenge of 'how am I going to do that?' I'm not so good at putting the work in to complete it. (I mean this for personal projects only – being paid for results means I'm better at completing professional tasks).

Why did you originally apply to Birmingham?

I knew I wanted to do electronics, and I liked Birmingham's mix of theoretic and practical work.

What are your fondest memories of the University?

I have to say my time in the student's union. I was a member of the stage staff: putting up discos every night, supporting visiting bands, supplying sets and lighting etc. for the Guild Theatre Group, running the union van (including doing flat moves for other students). I'm still in touch with about a dozen members of stage staff after 50 years (but sadly none of my department colleagues).

How did your time at university help you start your career? What was your biggest influence?

In the final year of my PhD research, we had a visitor from the research establishment at Malvern who spoke about a computer architecture they were working on. That interested me sufficiently that I applied for a post there - provided I could work on that project. I got the job.

Top tips from Clive

“Don't be too rigid in your ideas – the skills you are learning will get replaced. Learn how to learn, and how to communicate. Also, broaden your experience; you never know what will spark an interest that could turn into a major part of your career. Finally, and its a bit trite but strike a balance between earning enough and having a job you enjoy.”