Tony Sykes is a distinguished technology expert specialising in IT, telecommunications, microelectronics and electrical engineering. He is a Chartered IT Professional and Chartered Electrical Engineer with over 30 years of experience and has been cross-examined on more than 60 occasions.
We spoke to Tony about his experience and career to date, his transition from an electrical engineer to a renowned IT expert witness, his observations of recent changes and trends in the IT expert market and the main challenges facing experts today.
Describe your career to date
I started my career at British Leyland, which became the Rover Group, before being sold to BMW and TATA, amongst others. I was the first electrical engineering student apprentice. I went on to study electrical engineering at Aston University, specialising in telecoms. After university, I worked for a few years as a commissioning engineer, commissioning computer control test systems in the aerospace and automotive industries.
The beauty of this job was that it took me around the world and gave me a lot of experience. There was an office in India and one in the US, and I would often travel back and forth between the UK and these two. Next, I had a stint as a chief engineer in a control systems company, designing high-speed manufacturing lines. Fun fact, I put the Wispa bar packaging system into Cadburys as well as high-speed bottling lines in several whisky producers and breweries.
I then joined a spin–off of GEC Plessey Telecoms (GPT), who were the people that invented the first Viewdata systems, which enabled us to be able to book our holidays online. It was here that I got a taste of the smaller tech operations. I did a management buyout of that part of the business and started my own company in about 1989. Unfortunately, we went bust two years later due to the huge 1991 recession. This time was not lost, however, because I won my first jobs as an expert during this period and that aspect blossomed over the coming years. I started another electronics company and then, when my son was old enough, we started an IT company together because he is a whiz at building computers. Shortly after that, I started IT Group, because the expert work had become sufficiently busy. IT Group started out with just me doing the technical work and my wife doing the marketing (which she was very good at). I had the resources of my electronics company and the IT company to help, but it was only when Jason Coyne bought into the company that we started to expand, taking on a forensics engineer first and then IT consultants.
How did you transition from a career as an electrical engineer to IT?
I was designing equipment to go into computers, but I had a short stint as the software application manager for one of the FKI Group Companies (an international engineering group) and that enabled me to enter the world of software design. In the early days of microprocessor design, you had to write your own software, so it wasn’t entirely alien to me. From this, I started writing larger software applications and then managing teams of software engineers, so that was where the transition began. Some of my early expert work was for insurance loss adjusters who wanted somebody with electronics experience, who could look at the hardware, but who could also understand an application in a data centre or in a big computer installation.
What has been your most interesting case to date and why?
For me, it would have to be the big High Court trial of Benfield (Trading as Autoroute Circuits) v Life Racing Ltd. The defendant, Life Racing Limited, supplied and designed engine control units (ECUs) for racing car manufacturers. The claimant, Mr Roger Benfield, advised on the design of the layout of printed circuit boards. The circuit layouts caused interference that resulted in malfunctioning of the ECUs which, in turn, caused the racing cars to malfunction and run erratically. The trial went to court and lasted several months, on and off. What was particularly interesting about this case was that the expert on the claimant’s side had taken the view that there were nine possible reasons why the ECU might fail: ranging from software and environment to vibration and temperature. He could not decide which one it was, so concluded that each one was equally likely and, therefore, on the balance of probabilities, none of them was likely and so it wasn’t his client’s fault. To demonstrate my findings, and to explain them further, I made a 3D model of the printed circuit board out of hardboard and dowels in my garage and submitted the model to the Court. This made the case because it proved, by showing it in a larger 3D model that what I was saying was correct, and the reason the printed circuit board failed was because the claimant had designed it with limited experience and without the right levels of tolerance on the tiny circuits inside the board.
How has the role of IT technology experts evolved since you entered the market?
The biggest change to me is the volume of data that we have to consider. In one of the first big cases that I did in the High Court, the Judge said it was the first case he was aware of with over one million documents. It was before the introduction of electronic disclosure, so there were actually over three million physical documents in the courtroom; one set for the Claimants, one set for the Defendants and one set for the Court with subsets for the experts and the factual witnesses (they had to use the biggest courtroom in the building). Even by 1991, there was a lot of data about but now there is even more, so to me, the biggest change in IT is that these large IT cases that end up in court generate huge amounts of data, both correspondence and, also, the data on the case itself. It makes any sort of analysis by one person, or even a small team, an extensive exercise because there is just so much of it. Therefore, these days to make it manageable you need to use sophisticated software tools to search through the data and specialist equipment such as high-speed Optical Character Recognition (OCR) systems and powerful password crackers, for the forensic side as well.
What sort of matters do clients come to you about frequently – what sort of trends are you seeing?
From becoming more involved in a number of large, high profile IT cases, we now see a lot more of the bigger cases coming through. After the 2008/2009 recession, we saw a general drop off in pure litigation, where I suspect that a lot of IT companies and their clients decided not to spend money on disputes at the time so that they could reserve their cash, and then the boom afterwards when the recession ended. Another noticeable trend during that recession was an increase in employee–related theft, for example, when people had been let go or made redundant, they would steal data from their employer and go to competitors with the data or create a start-up themselves. As a result of COVID 19, we are looking at another recession, so we may see similar things happening again although IT security has moved on somewhat in the last 10 years.
What are the main challenges facing experts today in your space?
The courts are tightening up a lot on budgeting and cost estimating, and it is obviously very difficult during the early stages of a case for an expert to predict with exact certainty how much it is going to cost to produce expert reports etc. because you don’t know what is under the surface until you take the lid off. You start by looking at the cost of the claim and this, hopefully, puts you in the right ballpark, but once you start to work on it, more costs can come about. The lawyers are under huge pressure these days to put together cost estimates right through to trial, but trying to assess what an expert has to do is difficult because you don’t know if you will be writing one report or have to write response reports to the other side’s expert or have to attend joint expert meetings, etc. These matters are also becoming increasingly huge, so coming to what is, genuinely, an opinion that is based on all the facts in the whole case can take weeks and weeks of reading in. Fortunately, the team and I have many years of experience in the technology sector and we are generally able to assess cases relatively early on. Most IT implementation disputes have similar themes of scope creep, change control, engagement and project planning issues and we have seen most scenarios many times before. Our advice, early on, can often result in a failing project recovering sufficiently to go live and avoid the huge expense of adjudication, arbitration or High Court litigation. Either way, we have the expertise and experience to assist the parties or to the Court as necessary.