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Keeping watch over Microsoft

Professor and author Neil Barrett has a new role: Letting the EC know whether the software maker is playing by the antitrust rules.

Neil Barrett is about to add a new chapter to his life.

The computer specialist, professor and author could very well use the title of one of his books, "Policing the Cybernation," to describe his new role.

Just switch out "Microsoft" for "Cybernation."

On Wednesday, Barrett was named trustee in the European Commission's antitrust case against Microsoft. In this position, which takes effect immediately, Barrett will advise the EC's competition commission on Microsoft's compliance with its historic 2004 ruling. That decision called for the software giant to share accurate interface protocols with competitors and to offer a version of its Windows operating system without the Windows Media Player.

I learned very early on how to divide up a problem that you think is absolutely impossible.

The task should draw on Barrett's wide range of work experience. Back in 1985, he became the United Kingdom's youngest lecturer when he took a post at York University at age 23. He left that to become a trainer at software developer Kernel Technology in Leeds, then went on to serve as a high-tech consultant for companies in the U.K., the United States and France. He is also the author of several papers and books relating to cybercrime. Barrett, a sometimes columnist for CNET Networks site, was recently appointed professor of computer criminology at the Royal Military College of Science, Cranfield University, in Britain.

While Barrett is barred from discussing his role as trustee in the Microsoft case, he was able to tell CNET about his background and his views on the proper role of government.

Q: Let's start with your having been the youngest lecturer in the U.K. After serving at York for three years, you moved over to the private sector as a computer consultant. Were you bored with academia?
Barrett: I was bored out of my mind. I was playing squash something like three times every day and looking for a new challenge. I had been an undergraduate for three years, a postgraduate for two and then gone straight from there into being a university lecturer, so I was still back in the university arena.

As the youngest lecturer, I was right at the very bottom of the pay scale. Lecturers don't make nearly as much money as they should, so I was as poor as a church mouse. I guess I have very expensive tastes. The appeal of going to work for somebody that would pay me a decent amount of money and give me a car was just wonderful.

As a lecturer, you deal with students who would tend to listen to you. As a consultant, you deal with clients who aren't necessarily going to take what you say to heart. How did you get clients to listen to you?
Barrett: I had a few advantages. I was roughly the same age as a lot of the students I was teaching. So I was used to dealing with people from less of an authoritative point of view and more from a personality aspect.

Secondly, one of the extra jobs I took on at York University was to be the industry liaison officer for the department. So before even taking the job at Kernel, I was already dealing with some very large organizations in order to get research funding, to place students, to establish mutual projects. So I was already doing it, essentially, as an academic. All that happened when I went to industry was I was doing it as a consultant.

How has the background you have had at this point prepared you to work with government agencies, like with the EU?
Barrett: I learned very early on how to analyze systems; how to listen to people; how to work out what people wanted; how to divide up a problem that you look at, to begin with, and think, "That is absolutely impossible"--how to divide that into a set of achievable objectives that you can timetable and project manage.

All that is the same, whether that is a government agency, whether it's a large commercial enterprise or a class of students you have to explain things to.

So the skill set you've acquired is transferable across a broad spectrum?
Barrett: People are people. I do an awful lot of teaching police officers how to investigate high-tech crimes. The mantra for that is the same for all that I do: "People are people."

I've dealt with IBM. Let's say, you don't deal with IBM. You deal with a small set of people who you know within IBM. I worked for a number of years as a salesman and as a sales manager, and you learn very, very quickly that it's people who you are dealing with.

What type of companies did you work for in the U.S.?
Barrett: I worked for two companies. I worked for a California-based software development company specializing in networking technology called Locust Technology, where I was head of consulting. And then later, I worked for Honeywell Bull. It's a large French group with a number of different roles?Towards the end I was a fellow, which is an advisory post within the organization.

The idea (of a fellow) is to have someone with the technical wherewithal and commercial wherewithal to understand what the company should be doing, and to lead relationships between that company and government, and partner organizations, and research-based organizations. My role was talk to partners, go and talk to government and go and talk to advisory bodies and to build an understanding, from a technology perspective, about what should Bull be doing in order to be at the right place at the right time.

What do think should be the proper role of government from a theoretical perspective?
Barrett: The 10,000-foot view: Government exists to foster a society within which the governed wish to live. You elect a particular party, or elect a particular type of government, based on a majority view within a society as to what you want. I would say I am a relativist on that. What is right in some areas is not right anywhere else, because of the perspective of the society.

What is right in some areas is not right anywhere else, because of the perspective of the society.

That, for me, came home very, very much working part-time in England, part-time in France and part-time in America, where there are three wholly different views on how government policy as a whole should work. Government policy in America is predominately laissez-faire and predominately big business, and knows what big business wants to do--It produces something that people want to buy, therefore it must be good, therefore they should be encouraged to do it.

In France, there is slightly different view--at least when I was working there. In France, there was much more government direction of where things should go. Probably, Britain has got the midway point. We've got things that are best served by government policy--like health, pensions, road transport, infrastructure, those types of things. Businesses tend to be regulated, but not overly regulated--not to the same degree where things are regulated elsewhere.

Years from now, will you look back and say this was a highlight of your career?
Barrett: I do so many different things. I'm a writer, I'm an academic, I'm a researcher, I'm a teacher, I'm a father, I'm a friend--what can I say? I have never defined myself in terms of the jobs that I do, because--certainly in the last 20 years--I've not really had a job as such.

In all of the roles I've done, I've tended just to be me. I've tended to do lots of different things. If I were to think of myself from a career point of view, I'm a writer, I'm a thinker. I would never sit down and say I want to be remembered as the "world's best programmer" or "world's best businessman," or world's best whatever. But if I want to be remembered for something, I would say writing is what I enjoy most: so, writing.