Tech Nation on Tour came to a close in Wales, a country more closely associated with dragons than ‘Unicorns’. But could that be set to change?
Judging by our insights-packed finale in Cardiff – the 11th leg of a national tour that saw learnings from Tech Nation Report 2018 presented to industry stakeholders in everything from coworking spaces to restored churches – it’s a real possibility.
The event was held at the modern Tramshed Tech, a collaborative workspace founded in 2016 that’s called home by tech workers and creatives alike. It played host to an enthusiastic and engaged crowd who came to hear from a panel of local entrepreneurs about the challenges facing their country’s tech sector. As it played out, in similar display of national pride, the Welsh national football team took on Spain at a lit-up Principality Stadium down the road.
Cardiff, which has 21,508 jobs in digital tech according to research by Tech Nation, has a tech sector that’s expanding even faster than the UK tech average.
Jobs in digital tech in the city have grown by almost a third over the last three years, as Wales builds on its heritage of advanced manufacturing and innovation to build one of the UK’s thriving tech clusters.
The so-called ‘skills gap’ and education, a ubiquitous topic during Tech Nation on Tour, dominated the conversation when a panel of local entrepreneurs and stakeholders took to the stage.
Our panel moderator kicked off by presenting the stat that just one girl in Wales achieved an A* in computing in 2018, from a total of 42 females, in what was a repeat of the prior year. One panelist, who was one of just two women studying the subject at university some years ago, described her experience as a “baptism of fire” and wasn’t confident that the situation had improved.
In exploring alternatives to STEM, one panelist, who leads a company where fewer than 5% of workers have a computing A-level, said that tech companies should focus more on practical and technical skills than formal qualifications.
One audience member commented that industry could avoid hiring candidates trained on “outdated” university courses by instead adopting German-style apprenticeships where companies take on workers at a young age and continually teach them the latest skills.
We also heard how employers need to be open to candidates entering the industry via non-linear routes. Apprenticeships, vocational-based training and accelerators were all praised as alternatives to STEM qualifications. In defense of traditional education, one panelist reminded delegates that maths is “fundamental” to data science and AI.
Another panelist, a business tech journalist, spoke of a need for academia and industry to work in tandem, making young students aware of internships and other opportunities while making tech attractive by immersing them in the latest trends.
Julie Woods-Moss, chief marketing and innovation officer at Tata Communications, said:
We can’t leave the education piece to government. I’ve been a big advocate of General Assembly who do vocational based training and have thousands of online courses. We need more online learning and flexibility in what a qualification is.
Nick Fearn, content editor at DevOpsGroup, said:
At DevOpsGroup our academy is working with universities to help people to immerse themselves in the latest tech trends. One thing that we do is offer internship schemes. One of our interns from our internship scheme became a scrum master – it was empowering to see that.”
Mark Woods, co-founder at Amplyfi, said:
There’s been a bit of traditional academic route bashing going on. In data science and AI, maths hasn’t changed for a long time; it’s fundamental. So, actually, if you want to be one of those geniuses that comes up with new algorithm processes, or even be a data scientist, having a strong background in maths is fundamental.
When asked the question of how to make Cardiff and Wales’ tech sector more successful, the region’s low digital density (in comparison to the rest of the UK) was mentioned.
One panelist said that more focus should be placed on mentoring and supporting entrepreneurs to encourage graduates from the country’s universities to stay and start new ventures.
Tech Nation board member and former Fairsail boss Adam Hale even took the opportunity to quote Taylor Swift, encouraging graduates to “stay, stay, stay” in Wales, get a business off the ground and be the first to grow it into a Welsh ‘Unicorn’.
The need to connect up the ecosystem and create symbiotic relationships between startups, scaleups and corporates was deemed a vital and exciting opportunity by one panelist, who pointed to networking giant Cisco’s potential plans to install an incubator in a Cardiff-based university as a boon for the local ecosystem.
In joining up efforts on the ground, delegates were encouraged to tap into Cardiff’s “really friendly” online communities such as the Cardiff Start facebook page.
And when it comes to sectors, we heard that Wales has the capability to become one of the top 10 countries for healthtech on the back of its existing life sciences and neuroscience capabilities. The company’s population of 3 million people, it was suggested, should be explored for its “untapped potential” in this area.
Julie Woods-Moss said:
More and more big companies are venturing into the world of accelerators and incubators. When I talk to the startups and scaleups that I mentor and invest in, they don’t know half of the programmes that are out there. There really is a big opportunity for the right ones, but they have to get their pitch right and do their research.