An early interest in computers led John Crick to start his own educational software firm...but only when he knew he was ready. Chris Abbott reports
The first computers that John Crick ever saw - punch cards and programs to calculate strings of numbers - were a most uninviting sight. Crick, an award-winning software developer and now owner of his own company, Crick Software, was studying for an Economics and Social Science degree at Manchester at the time and was yet to realise what an impact the age of computer technology was going to make on his life.
After graduating, he worked for a spell as a waiter, took a PGCE and then went straight to work in a school for physically disabled children in Northampton, where he stayed for 17 years. Soon after he started, he recalls seeing some advertisements in the colour supplements for the Sinclair personal computer. This was sufficient to fuel his interest and, for the time being, computers went to the forefront of his spare-time interests.
"Then we got a new head who was into computers, and I was too," recalls Crick. "The BBC Bs started appearing and I got very interested in switch access and children who couldn't play in the normal way. And word processing opened up a whole new world for kids who could hardly write - and for people like me with terrible handwriting - as now we could type."
During his 17 years teaching at the special school in Northampton, Crick gathered a lot of information which was to prove invaluable. "Although I stayed there so long, the job changed enormously," he observes. A lot of that understanding and desire to keep up with developments is now wrapped up in Crick Software's products, most notably the highly successful Clicker.
Crick's interest in all aspects of learning and thinking, played a strong part in him getting involved with some of the early IT organisations, like the SEMERC special needs centres - especially the one which was then in existence in Redbridge, Essex. "Those were great, really stimulating days: people sharing ideas. One of the most exciting things about IT is the way you keep learning - it's the most stimulating thing there is, learning new things. When IT started a lot of adults shut it out, but people's attitudes have shifted now."
Crick became a teacher contact with the Redbridge SEMERC for the county of Northamptonshire, before setting-up Crick Software in 1993. Although this represented a clean break from teaching and into the world of business, it was built on a very solid foundation of training and thought. "I was teaching GCSE computer studies and had gone on some courses and learnt some programming. I got the opportunity to give the business a go when my wife went back to work as our children got older."
To begin, with he offered consultancy and advice.However, as the business really started to take off, he then had to concentrate on developing the software side. "The first thing I did was a programming course in the C language; that was really stimulating but not particularly easy. I started writing the original Clicker then, and got it out in seven months: but that involved working 18 hours a day - one of the things you often have to do when you have your own business."
A version of Clicker for Windows followed (an on-screen keyboard with speech and pictures providing special needs support for all ages). At the BETT '95 educational technology show there was the first appearance by Crick Software - and its first Gold Award.
"I did the whole show on my own - by the end of the four days I felt dead. I didn't know anything about the award till I got a fax saying I should go to the ceremony." Things rapidly changed after that. The consultancy had to go, a second employee was taken on to cope with the accounts, and enquiries started to come in from abroad.
"We had to get more professional; I was copying all the disks myself until I found out that we were only about 10 miles from one of the biggest disk duplicating companies. Storage also became a real headache." That problem was solved, at least for a bit, by a move to a larger house - Crick Software is still a business run from home. "We now have seven people working here plus a part-timer. It was a big step to take on other people to look after areas like technical support and the website. We also took on a programmer recently to work on a new title."
Space is again getting tight, and decisions will soon have to be faced about another move - at least for the company, if not for John Crick and his family as well. "I never dreamt that by now we would have grown so much: a staff of seven, printing 50,000 catalogues and selling software all over the world."
Crick Software sells well in the US, Australia, New Zealand and many countries as well, but this does not mean a move away from the company's main purpose. "For a long time we were a one-product company; we're expanding now but we're staying focused onliteracy, access and communication."
One of the new developments is Wordbar, a tool offering literacy support for secondary pupils: "It's a response to what teachers have asked for; it doesn't look childish," Crick observes. It came out of the feedback from customers; feedback which often comes through the network of more than 100 Clicker Centres in authorities around the country. There are meetings three times a year too, carrying on, in a way, the meetings that are no longer funded by government agencies. Crick Software's Clicker 3 won the special needs software award at BETT this year - praised by the judges for constantly improving the program. This new award joined the three previous Gold Awards won by the company; a stunning total for such a small and new arrival on the scene.
John Crick is clear about how teachers can be encouraged to develop their use of ICT. "I think the portables scheme was terribly important; giving computers to teachers has to be the answer." There may be no plans for that to happen; but then there were no plans for Crick Software just over five years ago. "I'm not sure how much bigger we want to get. Our image is of a small, friendly company and we'd like to keep that."
A lot of that friendly image comes from John Crick and his wife Ann, also now working for the company. With Clicker on the latest RM Window Box classroom PC there will be a lot more schools making their first acquaintance with Crick Software and its user-friendly approach.