The latest BCS Digital Skills Network event headed to Scotland in March. Two hundred delegates packed into a Glasgow venue to listen to prominent speakers discussing the tech sector in the devolved nation. The event attracted speakers from the government, industry, education, training providers, and the third sector. Claire Penketh reports.
In his keynote address to the conference, Jamie Hepburn, MSP, the Minister for Further Education, Higher Education, and Science, discussed the importance of the tech sector to the Scottish economy. He said it is currently worth over £5 billion Gross Value Added. It's predicted to become the second-fastest growing sector in Scotland over the next six years, increasing at one and a half times faster than the overall economy.
But he said gender and pay gaps persist: "In Scotland, the proportion of women in digital technology roles is approximately 23%. Research has also shown that across the regions of the UK, Scotland has the biggest expected salary gender gap of nearly £20,000 between women and men in digital technology roles.
"Tackling gender inequality across different areas of the education, learning and skills landscape is of the utmost importance to us."
He also spoke about high confidence in the sector, with 76% of employers forecasting increased demand for staff. However, he said: "We also know there remains a significant gap between the number of opportunities available in the tech sector and the number of people with the right skills to take up these opportunities."
The minister highlighted positive initiatives in the National Strategy for Economic Transformation for Scotland over the next decade. He left the delegates with the message that the government understands the importance of working together across industry, policy, and education to bridge the skills gap.
The first panel of the day, Developing an Adaptable and Digital Workforce for Economic Recovery, featured speakers from the Scottish Tech Army, Deloitte, Amazon, and Mazars Accountants.
A key message was employers needed to change the traditional recruitment processes, removing opportunities for unconscious bias when hiring.
The words that kept cropping up in that session were curiosity, growth mindsets and a passion for continuous professional development. Another theme was the positive impact of apprenticeships and internships in helping organisations and individuals to identify undiscovered latent talents.
The panel also discussed the challenges and opportunities of changing work patterns in the wake of the pandemic. Tich Kent from Amazon said: "It has opened up a larger pool of talent and, to some extent, improved diversity because we can work more flexibly."
Craig Reid from Mazars said: "Remote working has opened up many career progression opportunities, for instance, for working parents who might have been part-time before."
Colin Smart from Deloitte said he was clear that 'work is what you do, not where you do it', but employers are at different stages, and so the experience is varied.
Joanna Allen from the Scottish Tech Army said: "The firms have to be mindful when offering new ways of working, and the assumption that everyone has the ability to work easily from home isn't necessarily true. Not everyone has enough data and wifi, so there is an accessibility issue."
STA was set up at the start of the pandemic to match volunteers from the tech industry with people and organisations on the frontline experiencing a massive demand for their services. But, not everyone had the tools to operate remotely.
The day's second panel was also all-female; their focus was 'Creating a diverse and inclusive pipeline of under-represented groups.'
Tandy Nicole, who works in Software Product Management, and is an advisory board member to the Scottish government, talked about being mindful of the cynicism around equality and diversity. She said it must be more than branding and a tick-box exercise and avoid tokenism. "Where are the stories and the tangible evidence I can relate to?" she asked. Her advice to companies was: "Check your awareness and check your intentions. If you are a CEO or someone who can make decisions, think about the strategies and programmes you can create to drive equity."
Silka Patel, from Scotland Women in Technology, had a message for the delegates: "You cannot be what you cannot see, so everyone here is responsible for being an active role model and collaborating. Allies are important, and we're not going to do this on our own. It's not just on the shoulders of women in tech to fix this. You will not find it difficult to find organisations like us to partner with in Scotland."
The session finished with a clear ask for industry to visit schools, championing the tech roles and contextualising them for young people in a language they understand. Toni Scullion, founder of dresscode and co-founder of ada.scot, said: "Go into those schools, speak with them and find out about their needs. It's not just a one size fits all solution."
Sally Dyson, Scottish Council of Voluntary Organisations, said that women could be put off a career in tech because of jargon and the way opportunities are described. She said: "If we want to be understood, then we have to talk in a language that people can get to grips with. So, we have to think about what we're saying, how we're saying it and how that lands with the people we're trying to reach. My message is - raise your expectations of what a diverse workforce can bring and change your language."
Next up were three women at the beginning of their careers. Sara Younis Qureshi, Harpreet Dhanda and Simona Demarco were all graduates of CodeClan, a not-for-profit, industry-led digital skills academy.
Sara spoke about her career change from being a midwife to Junior Full Stack Software Developer. She said: "I enjoyed being a midwife, but I did feel quite limited. I started looking at tech in my spare time, and it got to the point where I was rushing home after a twelve-hour shift, saying to myself, 'I really want to do some coding.' That's when my passion transferred to tech."
It wasn't all plain sailing for the group, though, as Simona said she had been made redundant from her job as a software engineer the day before the conference. But undeterred, she said she was optimistic she'd find a new position in tech.
The clear message was that no matter where you are in your career - ask for help, use your network and community, and keep going.
The next panel discussed emerging sectors and the challenges within the funded space. Although there are some great opportunities, the panel concluded funding is getting harder to win.
It was interesting to hear about the particular challenges within Scotland to engage the more remote and isolated parts of the country to develop tech clusters outside of the main cities.
Sharon Levy, from the University of Edinburgh and a BCS Health and Care specialist group member, talked about how an increasing number of people in more remote areas interact with health and social care support through tech. He spoke passionately about the pressures in the health and care sector and how there needs to be more time for continuous professional development.
Joshua Ryan-Saha, Director of Travel Tech for Scotland, commented that the Scottish population size makes it vulnerable to the tech employment market being swamped by one large company – pushing the smaller organisations into a difficult recruitment position.
The last but one of the panels was a group of educators, advisors and policymakers who responded to the day's topics. There was a consensus a lot of change was coming, but it's more than just the school curriculum that needs to be revised. The skills and knowledge assessment process requires a revamp to better serve the future workplace and learners.
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Everyone agreed that digital skills must be baked into young children's everyday experiences. Martin McGuire, Director of WorldSkills UK, Scotland, talked about the success of a STEM initiative in nurseries.
Phil Ford from Skills Development Scotland said it's important that young people are aware of all the careers that need digital skills, not just those in the tech sector.
The panel also spoke about bringing the importance of gaining digital skills to life and making this relevant to all – girls, boys, and people from all backgrounds. And all the while ensuring that meta-skills were part of everyday learning across all subjects.
As it was International Women's Day, the event was rounded off by a fireside chat with another all-women panel, comprised of Karen Meechan, CEO of ScotlandIS, Wendy Goucher, author and vice-chair of the Information Security specialist group and the new BCS president, Gillian Arnold.
Speaking about the impact of the pandemic on women in tech, Gillian said: "Loads of women didn't come back after the pandemic. We're missing all that talent – they're still out there, and we're not making it easy for them." When asked why so many women left, Gillian said: "Well, childcare, elder care - women are typically the ones that take all of that on and sacrifice their jobs to do that.
"We've missed a trick over the last twenty years when women in tech and other sectors said we needed good childcare alongside workplaces. We still need that."
Looking at the other end of the spectrum, Gillian added: "We've got women in their fifties who are thinking about stepping down.
"I was fifty and thinking about retiring. A woman on a panel like this one stood up and said, 'if anyone had told me when I was fifty, I could have a whole new successful twenty-year career ahead of me in tech, I wouldn't have believed them'. I sat there and thought, 'I can do that'."
Gillian is now the Managing Director of the tech recruitment and training company, Tectre, which supports organisations to become more diverse and inclusive. She has also just started her year-long tenure as the latest BCS President and is a former Chair of BCS Women.
At the end of the event, delegates described the conference as inspiring, insightful and informative. Glasgow was home to the third Digital Skills Network event, following conferences in Manchester and London. The next will be in Reading on 21 June with registrations open now on Eventbrite.
Photo credit: L to R Arnoldis Nyamande BCS Policy Manager, Julia Adamson Managing Director Education & Public Benefit, Jamie Hepburn.