Building an ecosystem of tech talent

How can we tackle Sheffield’s digital skills shortage?

Better engagement between schools and tech based companies was one of the ambitions set out by key figures from Sheffield’s business community at a recent roundtable discussion. The event, hosted by The Developer Academy and Sheffield Digital, was organised to help tackle the city’s digital skills shortage by drawing together opinions and experience from a range of Sheffield companies. As well as a united call for schools, colleges and universities to work more closely with the digital industries, the group also agreed that collaboration and shared learning amongst senior tech employees is vital to broadening experience, knowledge and skills in the region.

Sheffield is not doing enough to attract and keep hold of experienced people in the tech industries, neither are we equipping young people with the right skills to succeed in tech based roles. These were the themes that quickly emerged and continued to evolve throughout the discussion, which was chaired by Simon Cookson from Northern Value Creators. He lead the group towards exploring where the city could be if ambitions were met, what barriers we have to overcome and what actionable plans we can put in place.

Where do we want to be?

The city needs more skilled people working in the tech industries and in tech related roles. There was a shared ambition in the room to have ‘too many’ tech workers, and to see Sheffield develop an ecosystem of digitally skilled people, working at all levels.

Russ Stearman from Joi Polloi, said,

“I’d like to have people naturally progressing through our agency and moving on without us having to worry about it because someone new will come to us to learn and develop in the same way. It would be great to have this kind of shuffle round in a ‘tech hub’ that we are all comfortable with because there are enough people.”

Jamie Hinton, of Razor, added,

“Wouldn’t it be great if we had talent spilling out of Sheffield? If there were enough talented people working here that it didn’t matter if they spilled out to Leeds or Manchester to work?”

Jamie went on to highlight the importance of teaching the right skills in schools to prepare young people for whatever the future looks like. He explained,

“I want to see kids learning how to problem solve, how to be flexible and responsive. I want us to be at a place where we aren’t scared of losing people, because there are lots more people with problem solving skills – skillful technologists.”

Liz Wallis from education consultancy Sero Skills, reiterated the significance of teaching relevant skills for the digital sectors at school. She said,

“Good for me is Year 11s and Year 13s leaving school with an understanding of the roles in the tech sector and having resilience and skills which companies recognise, and accept and want to develop themselves.”

The group also considered how to attract experienced senior workers to the city’s tech scene. Simon Ince from Sky Betting & Gaming commented,

“Currently, there isn’t enough senior experience coming from outside of Sheffield, bringing different skills and experience. We have to make Sheffield a destination that people are happy to relocate to, because it isn’t somewhere people are going to commute to out of larger cities.”

David Walsh, Business Editor of The Star spoke of increasing the profile of Sheffield’s tech sector through “a structured, organised campaign with a steady flow of positive stories”. Considering what messages the campaign would be built on, Mel Kanarek, Director of Sheffield Digital said,

“We want Sheffield to become known as the best place to turn out technologists. It’s about the mindset and the approach; the creative problem solving we apply, taking technology, twisting and evolving it to address new problems. That’s what we’re good at, with digital and technology across the spectrum.”

How do we get there?

The Data Science Syllabus devised by the David and Jane Richards Family Foundation is now being delivered in seven Sheffield schools. Whilst recognised as a good starting point, Emily Dreiman from the Foundation said that more input from industry is needed. She explained,

“We need you to tell us what you want on that syllabus.”

The group agreed that ‘soft skills’ are actually far harder to achieve and must be taught and practised from a young age. Nina Swanick, from Aviva, commented,

“I can teach tech, I can teach coding. I can’t teach ‘soft’ skills. I can’t teach teamwork and communication.”

In recruiting senior members to her team, Nina has looked for a balance of excellent technical skills and the softer skills that make them great leaders. She continues,

“My senior tech leads are like gurus, that young people can learn from. So I needed developers with a personality! I have three senior tech leads now and these were the hardest of all my team to recruit. But it’s these people who influence the culture of a team.”

With education and mid-senior roles emerging as ‘‘weak spots’, Simon re-focussed the discussion towards joining the dots to help create the desired ecosystem in Sheffield.

David referred to examples of collaboration between schools and industry, where teachers are given exposure to ‘real life’ tech. He explained,

“I’ve heard about manufacturing companies running work experience days for teachers, so they can go and learn how tech is being used in those industries, which then informs their teaching.”

Many companies in the room were supportive of this idea, suggesting that volunteer days could be used more meaningfully, to work with teachers and young people.

Simon Ince suggested that senior level tech staff should mix more. He said,

“Leadership skills come from exposure to a wide variety of problems and environments.They won’t get these skills without mingling and experiencing different things.”

This lead to the group exploring a scheme of collaboration between mid-senior tech workers. Meetups, secondments and collaboration days were discussed as ways of sharing skills, encouraging professional development and giving people exposure to different experiences.

What’s stopping us getting there?

Whilst there was broad support for the scheme of collaboration, Russ pointed out the need for careful planning and coordination in order for it to be feasible within busy companies. He said,

“The concept is a great idea but also really scary – I’m thinking from a productivity point of view, letting people go for a day or longer, and having people come to you. It would need to be really well coordinated and planned. But it sounds great.”

Jamie added that releasing staff and taking on people from other companies for single days would be difficult and wouldn’t necessarily be meaningful. He explained,

“I think it would be more of a secondment than just a day, a secondment or a substantial project would bring more value to the individual and to the company.”

In relation to accessing young people and teachers in education, Liz explained the need to “break down barriers at every level”. She said,

“Teaching staff can themselves be a real blocker because their understanding of how to get into tech roles is often that you have to have a computer science degree. Plus, getting kids and teachers out of schools is a bit like a prison break! It takes real planning.

“How you communicate this into a school is also a challenge because it will get blocked at a whole range of levels. You need a proper point of coordination in the middle, which is funded, because no one here can just take days out of their companies to make this happen.”

Nina suggested that a way to overcome these issues could be to tap into Sheffield’s home-schooling population, in which parents are often looking for new and interesting things to teach. She explained,

“This would reach an amazing set of kids – kids that find mainstream school boring because they think differently. These are the sort of people I want!”

Richard also suggested an alternative route into the education system, referring to the Sheffield Teaching School Alliance. He asked whether Sheffield Digital could, in some capacity, work with the Alliance to create links between new teachers and digital professionals.

What are we going to do?

The group agreed that a ‘light touch’ approach to a scheme of collaboration could be taken in the first instance, to establish the community, potentially coordinated by Sheffield Digital. Mel said,

“One of the things I want to do is a tech leaders’ dinner. Maybe this is a jumping off point for what we are discussing?

“The other critical point for Sheffield Digital’s role in the community is a problem of resource. People are looking at us to make things happen but we do not have people whose job it is to speak to schools, for example. So, how we go from great ideas to action? Do I go to members and ask for more money to fund it? I need your help to make this happen.”

Comparisons were drawn at several points in the conversation between The Cutlers Company and the idea of a digital ecosystem in Sheffield. In answer to Mel’s point regarding investing in resource, Simon said,

“The Cutlers Company wasn’t built from public money, it has always been privately funded from people who believe in the ideas and want to invest in them.”

Ben concluded the event by proposing a communication to the digital community which states what the group has committed to, and outlines what is needed from the community to make it happen. He suggested that Sheffield Digital and he work together to create this and distribute it to digital leaders in the city.

Thank you to Ben for organising the event and to everyone who attended and contributed such interesting and different experiences and thoughts to the discussion. We are looking forward to seeing how this important work progresses.

Full list of attendees: Richard Fidler – Ultd magazine, Mel Kanarek – Sheffield Digital, Claire Fletcher – Sheffield Digital, Liz Wallis – Sheffield Digital Skills Action Group, Simon Ince – Sky Betting & Gaming, Emily Dreiman – David & Jane Richards Family Foundation, Nina Swanwick – Aviva, Russ Stearman – Joi Polloi, Greg Brotherton – Servelec Technologies, Jamie Hinton – Razor, David Walsh – The Star, Ben Atha – The Developer Academy.

Chair: Simon Cookson – Northern Value Creators.

Image copyright: jpimedia

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