Why I’m back up north leading talent and skills for Tech North

28 Sep, 2016

So. I’ve been a tech journalist in London for the past five years – entirely by accident. Honestly, I thought I wanted to be a political journalist, maybe one day a local politician. But I’d done all the work experience I could get my hands on – the local newspaper, radio, even the BBC as it was being dragged kicking and screaming to Manchester – and I just couldn’t get a job.

It was post-financial-crisis, mid-digital-media-crisis, longstanding-living-in-the-north-crisis, so I ended up, begrudgingly, getting my first ‘proper’ job at a huge app development company in London… And pretty quickly I was like “wow” (in thick Warrington accent) “this stuff is powerful”.

That’s the thing that has kept me in the tech industry, the power that we all now have in the palm of our hands, the changes that this next industrial revolution is making to all of our lives, the digital haves and have-nots in our global society.

You really wouldn’t believe it now (and I had zero idea when I joined!) but back in my app company days, we had to convince people that ‘mobile’ was going to be a thing. People kept hailing each year as ‘the year of mobile’, while half laughing about phubbing (ignoring someone by looking at your phone) and nomophobia (the fear of being without it).

Now our phones are alarmingly ubiquitous – you’re more than likely reading this (and then sharing it too) from your favourite little glass screen. In the mobile industry, we used to watch really closely how much time was spent using apps versus surfing the mobile web, count the penetration of smartphones versus dumb phones, but over five years, these numbers have become almost so big it’s not worth counting anymore.

From Warrington to Tech City

As a journalist, I’ve had the absolute pleasure of watching and reviewing five years of London’s ‘Tech City’, the tech ecosystem formerly known as London, I’ve had opportunities to go to Moscow, to Berlin, to Dublin to see how the world’s best cities are doing tech too. I’ve had a ball, to be fair. And I finally left East London last week, with tears in my eyes, feeling accomplished that I’d managed to make a home and build a community in our unique but rather transient capital city.

Along with the great ascent of smartphones, one of the other constants over the past five years has been the hand wringing around digital skills. At one end, we appear to lack enough homegrown ‘talent’ to fill new (and those as yet uninvented), high-end technical jobs, while at the other, there are more than 12 million people who lack basic digitals to properly interact with the world as it is today. And that’s not to mention the looming spectre of mass automation.

It matters when people can’t get access to or afford broadband and the right hardware, because that’s where shops, government services and personal interactions are headed. It matters, too, if young people (like me, once upon a time) can’t get good jobs and yet roles are going unfilled.

Diversity and the North-South divide

The ‘digital skills crisis’, for me at least, is also profoundly intertwined with diversity issues in the tech industry, plus the well-documented North-South divide, along with the unemployment problems created during past periods of de-industrialisation and globalisation.

That’s not to say the UK hasn’t got one of the strongest digital economies of any country in the world – it certainly has. The UK has a whole army of smartphone wielding young people, and older people, but it seems we still haven’t quite matched supply and demand for digital careers, whether in tech firms or any other business that knows it could be working better and smarter.

Joining Tech North and the wider Tech City UK team, I hope I can bring my knowledge of how London’s tech scene developed – and that really crushing experience of being unable to find a job – and put it to good use in the place I can yet again call home.

Our towns, our cities and our regions, along with local businesses, voluntary organisations and skills providers are already trying to address the skills challenges we face in interesting and varied ways.

Where there are gaps, I will be working to make sure that Tech North plays a part in helping to fill them – through building collaborations, creating partnerships and designing initiatives all of our own.

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