Those who can, tech

Technology is a ubiquitous part of our lives. Perhaps then it shouldn’t be too big a surprise that tech skills are becoming a vital part of launching any start-up

Those who can

It’s hard to deny that we’re living in a technology-dominated age. With a lot of London start-ups moving east to Silicon Roundabout and with apps and software-as-a-service becoming essential tools for many start-ups, it can feel like entering the commercial world has very much become a case of program or perish. Tech skills are increasingly being seen as essential for enterprise, regardless of sector, and yet the number of those entering the workplace with a fundamental degree of fluency is still alarmingly low.

Technology has always been big business but public appetite for tech success stories has been increasing exponentially in recent times. Just earlier this year, the then 17-year-old Nick D’Aloisio became an overnight start-up celebrity and the world’s youngest self-made millionaire after selling Summly, his bedroom-coded news aggregation app, to Yahoo! for a reported $30m. Whether offering a new approach to recruitment or a potential form of alternative finance, technology has becoming a vital consideration for any start-up. As Stephen Lake, CEO and cofounder at Thalmic Labs, creators of gesture control device Myo, says: “We know that the future is in tech.”

Maker of biometric recognition technologies Bionym is just one example of a new breed of start-up that is wholly dependent on these sorts of skills “This kind of business simply does  not get creative without that kind of background,” remarks Karl Martin, the company’s CEO. “We devoted a good chunk of our lives to the technology arena and to developing deep skills and knowledge. There’s no question: we could not have started Bionym without that background.”

In part, the reason tech skills have become so important is down to the fact that technology has become so ubiquitous in our culture. “The average person’s daily life is becoming more steeped in technology,” says Martin. An example he gives is the smartphone; whilst a lot of the smartphone market may seem to be driven by aspiration and a desire to ‘keep up with the neighbours’, this would be to deny how vital a part  of our lives this sort of technology has become, acting as our main gateway to information. He continues: “Anybody who doesn’t have one isn’t adept at navigating that world; they’ll typically have the sense of being left behind.”

Because every consumer is, by necessity, hyper-aware of technology, this means that having at least some degree of knowledge about the impact of technology on a service or product has become nigh-on essential. “If you’re backwards when it comes to embracing technology in a way that will prevent you from having a strong online presence, I think you’re almost entirely doomed to failure,” says Richard Nicholson, giving and marketing manager for computing giant Dell UK.

But increased consumer awareness isn’t the only factor increasing the pertinence of tech skills to modern enterprise. “Day after day you see very traditional business areas, markets and industries being disrupted by small start-ups that realise they can make a product that is a lot more attractive and with quicker development cycles,” comments Martin. With firms that make the most of their tech skills and knowledge able to bring products to market much more rapidly, there is a fair weight to the argument that technology is democratising the market. “It can’t be ignored – technology is introducing much faster cycles of innovation.”

Its disruptive power isn’t the only reason why technology is an essential part of enterprise, however. After all, few people are going to expect a CEO to completely code their own platform; most businesses can hire contractors and freelancers to make up their own skills shortfalls. But being able to understand the terminology and frameworks these individuals are communicating in is vital if a founder is going to marry their strategic aims with their technological strategy. “You don’t have to be a programmer; it doesn’t mean that’s going to be your job,” explains Robyn Exton, founder of lesbian dating app Dattch. “It just means you need a really basic understanding of how the tools around you work.”

This is something Lake concurs with. “In certain sectors and positions, those who are tech-literate could definitely see greater success in their roles than those who are less tech-savvy,” he says. “Being able to communicate about technology in an efficient and effective manner is certainly a huge advantage in today’s global marketplace.”

Regardless of your industry, it is evident then that technology is going to have at least some bearing on your success. And it would be tempting to view the whole subject as something of an open and shut case, if it weren’t for one fundamental issue. Despite the huge demand for tech skills and the increasing consumerisation of hardware and software alike, there is a much publicised shortfall in terms of the number of individuals entering the workplace with the required skills.

Eben Upton, CEO of the Raspberry Pi Foundation, the charity producing cheap micro-computers for kids, has had firsthand experience of the dwindling engagement with tech skills through his work as director of studies in computer science at St John’s College, the University of Cambridge. He relates: “It’s probably the premier engineering school in the country, certainly the premier computer science department,  and even we were finding it difficult to find enough people who were interested.” Additional time is spent bringing candidates up to speed and when one of the country’s leading institutions is struggling to find enough talented tech students, it underlines a significant problem.

Much has been made of this shortfall in the press and yet it’s not always immediately obvious what is causing it. “There’s not one answer to that,” comments Nicholson. “There’s such a ream of issues.”

The first that is often raised is one of education and it is currently the area receiving perhaps the most attention. For several generations, the focus of teaching IT in schools has been around competencies with software packages such as Microsoft Office and net literacy. “Although they are useful skills, it doesn’t teach us about technology, it just teaches us how to use some of the tools that are available through technology,” Nicholson explains. Whilst these are unarguably important things for young people to learn, this is in no way far-reaching enough to impart essential tech skills.

Another underlying problem is connected with the way tech skills are perceived by the general populace. Whilst technology itself is viewed as being desirable and has never been more fashionable, the skills behind  it aren’t receiving the same degree of attention. “There’s always been that tension between the idea that it’s a geeky thing to do and that maybe it’s not fashionable but also the awareness that if you look at the richest guys in the world and look where they got their money from, it often came from knowing how to programme computers,” Upton says.

Even amongst those who may not associate coding and programming skills with negative stereotypes, there is a perceived high barrier  to entry that is tending to put off the more casual experimenter. Exton explains that she felt it was an area only open to intensely logical, mathematical minds. “I thought it was this binary of the Matrix and people in hoodies looking at computers,” she recalls. “But it’s not; it’s just that the early adopters of it have built great stuff and it has just taken a while for that to dissipate.”

However, there is an even subtler issue at play. Over the last decade, we have seen a shift in technology that has begun to produce smoother user experiences, meaning that with very little effort individuals can grasp new tools but there is less impetus than ever to need to understand the workings behind these tools. Many young people are often described as ‘digital native’ because they have cut their teeth on these tools but in fact this only extends to their aptitude as users, not of their base understanding of the inner workings of these tools.

“The fact that computers have gotten more user friendly is a good thing,” says Upton. “But it means that, as a society, we’ve lost this free supply of good computer programmers that we used to get when computers weren’t very user friendly. We’re generating a generation of users, a generation of consumers, rather than a generation of producers.”

As a result of the disconnect between these clean user interfaces and the underlying languages that build them up, people who are approaching programming for the first time may feel that they are lacking the Rosetta Stone that will unlock the relationship between the two. “Because we’re very visual in our interface, show a child DOS, they’ll freak out and ask ‘what is this?’” Nicholson comments. “That perception of complexity can be a bit negative, instead of ‘don’t run before you can walk’, there’s the fear of ‘how do we even crawl?’”

Fortunately, this isn’t the end of the story and there are plenty of individuals and organisations now helping adults and children alike find their feet. One key focus for Dell is its work with the Transformation Trust, which is introducing access to tech in some of the UK’s disadvantaged schools to help open young people’s minds to the possibilities that tech skills offer. “What we’re doing is putting some of the latest, greatest tech in the hands of children that otherwise wouldn’t be able to get access, to demystify it and to give them a purpose,” explains Nicholson.

However, one of the issues still comes down to that of hardware; whilst many of Britain’s children may have a computer on their hip in terms of a smartphone, these proprietary and closed-off solutions aren’t necessarily best placed to get kids curious about coding. Luckily, we have another hero at hand in the form of Raspberry Pi.

The Raspberry Pi’s main purpose is to get children interested in programming again. Taking the form of a cheap unit, the Raspberry Pi is very flexible and encourages children to dig beneath the surface to see what the technology can achieve. “This is the ‘one computer per child’; it goes in everyone’s bedroom, plugs into an old telly,” explains Upton. However, despite its flexibility and low price, it actually comes packaged with powerful 3D graphics and everything a child might need to get creating without a huge barrier to entry. “It comes bundled with all those tools which means that our hope is that there is a very shallow learning curve at the start.”

But perhaps the most important initiatives are those aiming to confront tired expectations of the sorts of individuals that can develop these skills. Exton runs the ‘Geek Girl Meetup’, attempting to challenge stereotypes around tech skills and encourage more women to get involved with coding. “We try to help more women get into tech and we talk to schools,” she explains. For her it’s a vital step for us to make, given the huge role technology has come to play in our society. “It’s so important because it is literally a language that you use and see in front of you every day but people aren’t asking how to make the stuff that they consume.”

And gradually, we are seeing a shift in people’s expectations. When Bionym first put out a call looking for developers to use the Nymi API to develop new applications, they were swamped with 5,000 responses. “These are just individuals; some of them were self-taught, some of them probably went to school for computer science,” comments Martin. “That’s sort of the new thing. Everybody is a maker. Everybody can create something because companies like ours put out the hardware and then now you don’t need anything special at home; all you need is a computer and a bit of skill and you can write code.”

Whether you’re an individual hard at work from your kitchen table or an executive in charge of a multinational organisation, it seems the whole world is waking up to the importance of tech skills. “I think if we were doing this whole thing five years ago, we would have felt quite lonely because there wasn’t a movement,” Upton says. “But it just happens that it’s an idea thats time has come.”

Which is where we reach the fundamental question at the heart of the debate: should every entrepreneur be looking at how these skills can help their business? Is it really a case of those who can, tech?

Essentially, yes. Martin believes it’s something that everyone should feel able to be a part of. “Being a creator now is much more accessible,” he says. “The average person doesn’t have to go to school for computer science; they can pick up a few lessons on the internet and can now create things. That’s really exciting.”

This is something Exton concurs with, emphasising that there is no time like the present for individuals to pick up these skills. “I would encourage every single person to start doing it tomorrow,” she says.

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Robyn Exton, founder of Datch

“When I started doing Dattch, I was working with freelancers but I had no idea what was involved; I didn’t even understand the architecture of platforms, like how an API talks with a database and a front-end client. I didn’t understand but I felt like I needed to.

“So I went to a company called Decoded, which runs a course called ‘Teaching Code in a Day’. Whilst you’re not going to learn to be a coder, they call it ‘digital enlightenment’, which is exactly what I needed to start off with. After that I went to the General Assembly front-end development course – over the ten weeks you go to evening classes and then do projects at the weekend to build up your front-end web stuff: html, css and javascript.

“I can no way say that I am proficient but it was just the start of my learning. The main benefit for me is understanding a bit better what I’m talking to people about. I’ve found that it has helped a lot.” 

Josh Russell
Josh Russell

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