Nick Freer comment: Thinking outside the box to attract digital talent

I wrote last week about one of this country's top venture capitalists and his view that in order to succeed in all things tech, we need an increasing pool of local digital and IT talent together with more senior managers experienced in global growth.

Nick Freer is a founding director at the Freer Consultancy and Full Circle Partners. Picture: Stewart Attwood
Nick Freer is a founding director at the Freer Consultancy and Full Circle Partners. Picture: Stewart Attwood

This stacks up with ScotlandIS’s annual survey which found that the local marketplace is anticipated to provide the bulk of new people talent, with 70 per cent of respondent companies expecting to recruit from within Scotland in 2018. No huge surprises here and a more interesting finding was around a marked increase in company demand for modern apprentices, with almost half of respondents saying they would recruit in this way.

Peter Proud, CEO and founder of Cortex Worldwide whose cloud-based technology platform includes Microsoft as a key client, says the group’s graduate apprenticeship scheme is “the second best thing we’ve done after founding the company.” Proud praises the work of ecosystem players like Skills Development Scotland (SDS) and Edinburgh Napier University to support further learning and employers, the overall engagement of the Scottish Government and says that the performance of Cortex’s graduate apprentices have “at least matched, in some cases exceeded” that of traditional university graduates. Cortex’s CEO, who will shortly take up a board position with ScotlandIS, also says his team is actively looking to hire from digital skills academy CodeClan over the next few weeks.

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CodeClan deserves a special mention here, with around 600 people set to have graduated from its 16-week Professional Software Development Course by the end of the year. Key to CodeClan’s long-term success will be expanding the network of commercial and public sector employers who take on its graduates.

George Elliott, Craneware’s chairman and a former Wolfson Microelectronics finance chief, reminded me last week not to forget about other skill sets: “It’s not just digital skills that we need but also commercial skills and knowledge of how to scale, market and sell the technology.” Elliott, whose track record of selling into the North American market during his time at Wolfson is nothing short of legendary, says we are better at this in Scotland than we were but we have to do more to compete effectively.

The CEO of one of Scotland’s most highly rated scale-ups, John Peebles of Administrate, says there is “a massive skills gap within the industry for people who are not engineers but have worked at large, scaling global tech start-ups. The skills shortage will become an acute choke point for the local tech industry within the next three years as local start-ups begin to mature.”

Kelli Buchan, a highly rated technology recruitment specialist who has helped to build teams for fast-growth companies like Adminisrate, FanDuel, snap40 and pureLiFi, says: “Without a doubt Scotland, especially Edinburgh, has a thriving tech scene.

“The opportunities in the digital sector are excellent and varied, for those who live here or those who move to work here. However, the biggest challenge in this sector is the fact that the competition between employers looking for talent is huge.

“There are simply not enough great candidates to fill the open roles which exist, especially in the start-up scene. From my experience with startups, recruitment is one of the last things they think about as they are so focused on building a product and securing funding.

“When both are achieved, they then need to hire fast and the talent is so hard to find. The advice I always give to CEOs is to think and have your hiring plan in place at the very beginning so you do not lose out to competitors.”

Susanne Mitschke, CEO and founder of MindMate, which develops apps to manage dementia from a headquarters in Glasgow with an investor base of US VCs, thinks Scotland has a very good standing when it comes to digital talent. Mitschke says: “We use the University of Glasgow’s recruitment system to find graduates and the quality has been fantastic. I see many other companies, in places like London, Berlin and the US who have trouble finding software developers, particularly affordable ones.”

In big news in Scotland’s informatics circles, David Richardson, currently director of partnerships at the University of Edinburgh’s soon to be opened Bayes Centre, is set to move to Heriot-Watt later this year to take up the position of chief entrepreneurial executive at the university’s new Discovery and Innovation Centre. Richardson says: “We have fantastic initiatives in Scotland focused on addressing the digital skills gap. Data science and cyber security are two of the hot areas right now and we need to continually work across industry, government and academia to help people upskill and retrain for the future.”

Overall, Richardson thinks Scotland’s report card reads well but says we could be doing more at primary and secondary level in order to start the “digital journey” even earlier.

- Nick Freer is a founding director at the Freer Consultancy and Full Circle Partners