Mind the (tech) skills gap / The Mike Briercliffe column
Britain’s vibrant tech start-up scene, exemplified by London’s Silicon Roundabout, masks a massive technology skills gap in this country, which, if not tackled, threatens to make us an also-ran in the global digital economy.
Although the technology industry is predicted to be the fastest growing sector of our economy in the coming years, there are not enough people with even the most basic IT skills for firms to recruit, according to a recent report by the British Chambers of Commerce. I think this reflects a deeper-rooted problem, which is that too many people in this country have been scared of becoming involved with business technology. Many – maybe most – still are.
Let me be clear what I mean. Figuring out how to use a word processor or a spreadsheet is not at all the way I’d describe gaining IT skills. Sure, it’s a start. But if that’s as far as the average person ever gets, we will not have tackled the underlying issues at all. I’m talking about gaining a comprehension of what information technology is – the structures, the concepts and the potential outcomes. But time and time again over many years, I have seen business executives shy away from getting to grips with IT.
Don’t leave it to the amateur geek
This aversion to technology extends into the boardrooms and directors’ offices of companies up and down the country. It is particularly pronounced in small and medium-sized businesses, which aren’t big enough to have CIOs or CTOs. Instead, the tendency has been to leave IT and technology matters to the willing geek sitting in the corner of the office. But this attitude will leave many firms lagging behind in the digital age.
I guess 40 years ago I was one of those people who adopted the role of company geek. The car parts business that I ran had just made a huge investment in a new and large computer system to manage its stock inventory, and as its main champion I had to get on and justify it. I’d only really dabbled with computers before that, but I was the one person in the office who was willing to roll up my sleeves, learn how the system worked, specify the changes that were required and get the whole job done.
The big breakthrough moment for me was when I corrected an error that a programmer had made in a line of code. I’d been watching over their shoulders for some time, to understand what they were doing, when I saw a stray character that shouldn’t have been there.
After that, a career in IT became inevitable, because the techies realised they couldn’t pull the wool over my eyes, while the non-techie people would ask me to translate what the techies were saying into plain English.
I’ve never looked back since. I’m completely self-taught – I’ve never taken an IT course in my life – and the biggest lesson I’ve learnt is that technology isn’t some dark art that only an initiated few can practice. The basics of technology are pretty simple to understand, if you’re ready to make the effort. The problem is that too few are ready to do that, because they don’t see how it would help them. That attitude is plainly wrong, but it’s a reflection of the fact that too little is still being done to help people in this country understand and become passionate about the role of technology in our everyday lives.
One thing that I’ve learned from delivering so-called business solutions is that if no-one emerges from within the ranks of the user organisation to bridge the “geek gap”, then the project will almost always fail. This is a huge issue for all of us.
Superficial solutions to deep-rooted problems
There have been attempts made in the past to boost our IT literacy, but they’ve failed to get to the nub of this problem, which is that to have the necessary skills you need to have an understanding of the underlying issues. We have very largely failed to teach that basic understanding of technology in this country.
Back in the 1990s, when desktop computing really took off and the world was in the grip of Microsoft mania, the government backed a certification scheme for computing skills, which it saw as being a core part of turning Britain into a world leader in technology. This was at the time that people were being considered “IT literate” if they could use Word and Powerpoint!
But the scheme was superficial, and it missed the essential point that knowing how to navigate your way round a few software applications is a long way from having a real understanding of technology concepts and having the skills to unlock the business potential of powerful data and dynamic business process.
We need to start from the ground up, by giving students a good grounding in technology. That’s why I’m in favour of the recent decision by the Welsh government to teach digital skills as part of the schools curriculum from September 2016. If I’d known that logical thinking (like in algebra) is key to computer programming approaches then I’d have paid much more attention in my maths class.
Should young people be taught to code? I ask myself what real difference is there between trying to ram algebra down the throats of school pupils in the 1950s and trying to ram programming down their throats today?
For those who are good at absorbing mathematical concepts and basic logic then teaching these on the curriculum would be beneficial. For me it took another 12 years before the practical use of these concepts hit me squarely in the face.
I’m not advocating creating a nation of computer programmers, but teaching fundamental conceptual IT skills could spark a passion that eventually leads to them pursuing a career in technology. It should at least help future generations to better understand the technological challenges we will face in the future.
Making small businesses more tech savvy
We also need more IT training within small and medium-sized businesses to provide folks with the skills to harness future technology. To be winners in the technology age companies need managers who can understand the potential hazards and huge opportunities from the Internet of Things, Big Data, and the need for cyber security, for instance.
As a society we need to grasp why technology is important, and government needs to play its part by setting out a vision for how we become a tech-literate nation. Industry bodies also have a vital role to play. It’s not that they haven’t all tried in the past, but it’s just that they haven’t all got together to develop and execute a joined-up strategy.
It’s a big challenge, but I’m convinced that boosting our technical comprehension and our practical skills level is essential for the success of businesses – and to a degree UK Plc – in the digital revolution.