If companies want to attract and retain the next generation of IT talent, they need to convince young people that working in technology is more about creativity and curiosity than maths and coding.
This was the message that resonated from a Spark Salon I attended last week, hosted by Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) at London’s Southbank University. TCS ran the week-long event with the aim of inspiring GCSE and A-level students to pursue a career in IT. Around 400 students aged 14 – 18 from 100 schools across London took part in workshops, and got the opportunity to network with digital entrepreneurs and business leaders from firms like BT, as well as TCS.
These kinds of events are crucial if the UK is going to overcome the IT skills shortage and encourage young people to opt for technology subjects and careers. The numbers show that we are not currently doing a very good job here. In 2016, 146,574 students sat a technology GCSE, down from 147,348 in 2015 – that may be only a small decrease, but the fact there is a drop at all is worrying considering the opportunities in the tech sector.
Meanwhile, only 15,000 UK students sat a computing or ICT A-Level in 2016 – accounting for less than two percent of the overall exams sat. This was a slight increase on 2015 numbers, but only by around 500 students year on year.
While at the start of the pipeline we have a nation of school children seemingly uninterested in technology subjects, at the other end, the IT workplace has more vacancies than available skilled workers. According to research carried out by the British Chambers of Commerce at the start of 2017, three-quarters of businesses reported an IT skills shortage, with 52 per cent of companies saying there was a “slight shortage” in digital competencies, 21 per cent stating the shortage was "significant" and three per cent saying it was "critical".
Of the more than 1,400 UK businesses surveyed, 52 percent said this lack of IT talent is increasing staff workloads, while 29 percent are suffering from higher operating costs and a further 28 per cent say the problem is causing difficulties in meeting customer requirements.
Clearly the IT skills shortage is having a detrimental affect on UK organisations, hence TCS bringing together a panel of experts to try and turn around this situation. One of the core areas companies need to focus on to encourage more youngsters to pursue a career in technology, is convincing them they do not need to be a maths or science expert to get a job in this field.
It’s not all about the code
Technology management consultant Dayo Akinrinade, who has worked at Accenture and Deloitte, told the attending students that when she got her first job in technology and joined other new starters on a two-week Java bootcamp, there were people who had studied English, history and politics. Akinrinade cited one of her former colleagues on that course, who did not take at all well to the coding training – but who is now the Uber London general manager.
That’s very much a tech business but she’s not a coder. You don’t need to be a maths whizz or a maths genius to have a career in tech. I’m not.
Akinrinade also advised the student attendees to consider apprenticeships in technology fields, rather than just focusing on needing to get an IT degree.
There are other routes in. I’ve seen those individuals [apprentices] perform very well because they get very deep industry knowledge and get to learn on the job. With technology, there’s such a skills gap in the UK at the moment. If you do find that data or coding or graphic design is your thing, there are alternatives.
Ade Adewunmi, who leads the Data Infrastructure teams at the Government Digital Service, had what she called a “conventional” route into the IT industry. She studied maths, chemistry and physics at A-level and then took a degree in computer engineering. However, she admitted this was not due to her foresight that technology was the future, rather it was due to her Nigerian parents who were very keen for her to study a subject that would definitely land her some kind of job. Adewunmi added:
There are loads of routes into working in government and working in technology in government. Just try it out. There are places across government where you can do internships or work experience. We also hire for competence, and that’s a function of getting the practice in and being curious and learning on the job.
Whatever job you start out doing will change within the period you’re doing it. What I’m really looking for are people who can adapt and cope and learn and evolve. That’s what I’m looking for because I want the best possible people working in my team, but the best candidates are looking out for that stuff for themselves.
Initiative and curiosity are the keys to a successful career in technology – though pretty much every career is a career in tech, as tech is influencing everything.
Making an impact
Adewunmi also pointed out that working in the technology sector offers the opportunity to shape the society of the future.
No one really knows quite how technology is going to disrupt, but it’s important to keep your eye on it. There are two types of situation you can end up in. You can end up being the people who drive technology and determine how it affects society, whether any of the stuff we’re building now is actually going to make human life better. You can be the ones who influence that, or you can be the ones that happens to.
Working in government is the most exciting place you can come and work. It has the biggest issues that it is working through and these are issues that can affect all of society. You get to decide and influence how these things affect people who aren’t working in tech.
Rahul Kumar, TCS management consultant, had a different tack for inspiring the next generation of IT workers – dangling the carrot of travelling the world. Having studied chemical engineering, Kumar told attendees he got two job offers: the first as a lift engineer, going to offices, installing lifts and climbing 40 storeys up and down every day; the other in IT, an industry he had been reading about in the newspapers.
These guys can go to the office in shorts, these guys get to travel the world, these guys are making millions – ok, that bit’s not true.
Unsurprisingly, Kumar opted for the IT role, which included an initial intense three months learning Java, XML and databases, but he then got to spend years working with clients around the world.
A tech job can expose you to a variety of geographies. I’ve been to locations where I never thought I’d have been.
Kumar also emphasised the need for creativity and design thinking among the next generation of IT workers, rather than hard-core technical expertise.
It’s not the case that you build something in isolation and then you hope that somebody will use it. With design thinking, you empathise with the client, you try to understand what their needs are and see what works best.
When I was doing mechanical engineering, analytical skills, left-brain skills were very important – can you follow a process, can you follow a procedure. But in future all of this will be replaced by robotics.
How do we make ourselves relevant for the future? That is the right brain. You need to combine the creativity, the imagination and the uncertainty with analytical skills to come up with the right solutions for the future.
Daniel Stoyanov, associate professor at UCL and head of R&D at medtech company Touch Surgery, agreed that opting for a career in technology does not mean the end of creative thinking. He explained how although he was keen to study architecture or law, his Bulgarian dad convinced him to study engineering as he would always get a job, something he admitted made him sad at the time. However, he has since found ways of relating to the areas he always wanted to work in, for example working with architects using robots to do manufacturing. Stoyanov added:
If you do well in a technology job, there’s always room for creativity. Technology still has access to arts and architecture, to a variety of fields where your creativity and your skills are going to have a real impact. A night of 14 hours of coding doesn’t leave you feeling particularly inspired. You need the arts to inspire the new Facebook, the new Google.
Women in tech
Adewunmi and Akinrinade were also questioned by a female student during a Q&A session about whether they had ever struggled as women in technology, highlighting that even at a young age, girls are aware of the gender issues affecting the sector.
Adewunmi admitted that she had struggled a little early on in her career, working in standards development at Nortel Networks.
I walked into the room, and there was one woman in the entire conference. The discussions were so ferocious, there was this kind of showing off, kind of arguing. I remember being really intimidated and my only thought at the time was just don’t pass out because if you do it’ll be, ‘oh she’s such a girl, she passed out’.
But then the conversation starts and you recognise very quickly that you know as much stuff, and your opinion is just as valid in the room. In some ways, even more so because if we’re designing technology for human beings it’s important to have diverse voices and diverse perspectives. Your difference starts to become a strength.
Akinrinade said that being a woman in tech had not hindered her at all.
I’ve used it to my advantage. I guess because my career path has been quite corporate, and now there is such an understanding of diversity, for a woman in tech it’s something you can use to your advantage. Companies are now actively looking for that representation.