Julian Pixton has succeeded by applying biological principles to his work. Chris Abbott reports
Molecular biology is an unlikely starting point for a career in educational software. After all ,when Julian Pixton was at university, computers were still pretty much a future flight of fancy. However, molecular biology turned into genetics, and genetics has an increasing amount to offer the burgeoning software industry - at least that's the view of a number of companies in the industry.
Pixton describes his time at university as "slightly bizarre but quite interesting - I looked at nothing bigger than a cell for three years". He had seen no computers at Manchester Grammar School either, and developed his interest in biology thanks to the enthusiasm of his teacher.
Molecular biology involved a lot of information processing. "The strange part is that, although there seems to be no direct relevance, it was because of that experience that I later found it easy to learn machine-code processing - it was just like genetics." In the future, Pixton believes, much of the most innovative software will have to learn from genetics. "It must be rooted in genetic algorithms. Software to support learning has to be complex and you can't plan it top-down. We need to apply biological metaphors to make this stuff work, the same principles as nature uses."
As managing director of the software publishing group at Pearson Education, Pixton is in a good position to develop these new ways of working - the Pearson Group includes such familiar names as Addison-Wesley, Longman, Prentice Hall and Logotron. All of this was way off in the future, however, when he completed his PGCE and began teaching in the West Midlands.
Pixton chose to work in a primary school after discovering that the philosopher Wittgenstein did the same. Perhaps better qualified for sixth-form biology, he found himself with a reception class. As he says, this was a valuable experience. "There's no hiding place in an infant classroom."
He went on to become deputy and then head of a large primary school, with all his teaching in the same area. "I had my first computer in the classroom in 1979. I just knew this was really important, but I didn't know why."
Pixton soon became involved in more than just using that early Tandy computer. "It was inevitable - everyone at that time had to get into programming." He then got a job as one of the first local education authority information technology advisors in the West Midlands and, in 1983, went to the Massachussetts Institute of Technology (MIT) for six months.
"Logotron was being formed at that time, and when I came back from MIT I was working on the first product. I joined Logotron full-time in 1986." Logotron was bought by the massive Pearson Education group in 1989, a development which he sees as having brought great stability to the company. "Logotron has been well funded and properly managed from the beginning, consistently profitable, and has reinvented itself several times over."
He sees much of the credit for this success as being down to the quality of staff at the company, but he also identifies three reasons for success being sustained. "We could always let go of a technology and move on to the next thing - we've consistently made what people want and we emphasise people rather than products." All of which goes some way to explaining how a company that obtained 97 per cent of its turnover from Acorn products in the early 1990s can cope with that figure dropping to just three per cent. Pixton uses a biological metaphor to describe what has happened. "It's like natural selection - the population is continually changing."
Pixton drifted out of teaching, he says, because he was frustrated by the bureaucracy and inertia of local government politics. "It was so difficult to change anything, or get anything done." He feels he has had more effect on education through his work at Logotron than he could ever have achieved through staying within the education service.
He is also critical of policy. "It's not enough just to teach pupils to read and write - you have to convince them they can do anything. If you just focus on the things you can measure, you forget the things you can't measure. The issue is access to the full curriculum, creating people with the desire to learn. I don't associate the numeracy and literacy frameworks with that."
Logotron and Julian Pixton are widely known in Europe, and the company's first product was developed jointly in Paris, Montreal and Cambridge. He is worried that many companies are approaching the very real international opportunities in a short-sighted way. "We don't need horrible terms like screen-based learning. We need to sweep CAL (computer-assisted learning) out of the window and learn from areas like artificial life. As a biologist, I'm well-placed to take advantage of that."
For Pixton, the next two or three years will see his original field, biology, joining up with the technologies with which he has worked for many years. "The confluence between biology and computing is the hottest of hottest topics. Companies such as Cyberlife and Transience in Cambridge, are finding new ways of making software.
"It's all a lot more interesting than the Internet, which is just a conduit."
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