The Software Alliance: The Voice of the software industry in Northern Ireland

  • Established in 2022 by a group of independent companies in the industry, The Software Alliance is the only representative body for software engineering companies in Northern Ireland.

    The non-profit organization exists to champion the local software sector, which contributes £1.7 billion annually and employs 23,000 people across approximately 2,200 businesses as a world leader in innovation. The Alliance will work to support policy development to ensure that Government and other key stakeholders engage with and understand the needs of the sector in relation to labour skills, R&D and investments to ensure that Northern Ireland becomes the world-leading region for innovative software businesses, leading to a sustainable and prosperous economic future.

    At a well-attended launch event at the Merchant Hotel, John Healy, Chairman of the Alliance, spoke about the wider implications for the tech sector and also welcomed the head of the civil service in NI, Jane Brady, to address a room filled with a wide cross-section of the local tech industry. Jane talked about Northern Ireland being at a point of inflection and encouraged the sector to not be content with where thing have got to, but actually push on and ultimately the software alliance can be a force to help do that.

    As an industry, John stressed the need to move away from what has been traditionally a sector dominated by foreign direct investment and call centres and get to a place where we're building truly wealth-creating product businesses here in Northern Ireland. That's the opportunity that's ahead of us and it’s the ambition of the software alliance to help push and promote that’.

    Sync NI sat down with the founding members of the board to talk about the need for a body to coordinate with all the technology companies in Northern Ireland, to ultimately align into a one-stop shop for interaction with government, universities and schools, and become the voice to wider society in Northern Ireland for the tech sector. We discussed the goals and priorities that the alliance wishes to focus on and ultimately the benefits that will accrue to the entire sector and society at large.

    Lorna McAdoo, ESG Group Director at Version 1, spoke at length about the importance of the alliance being an important step forward and an avenue for giving everyone in the sector a voice. Lorna impressed the need to ensure that sustainability and diversity across the organization were evident from inception, ‘which means diverse in the companies and the organizations that we work with, diverse in the way in which we set ourselves up and in making sure that we are representing everybody in the tech sector’.  

    The panel were all in full agreement about the importance of diversity, particularly with regard to the access of opportunities within the software sector, by strengthening the traditional pipelines and making sure that they're optimized in terms of the curriculum, the course content as well as career advice.

    Sam Mawhinney, Director of Emerging Business & Technology at Liberty IT, also spoke about how the alliance could also support alternative pathways including apprenticeships, especially for people who haven't traditionally thought of the software industry and might have already left the education sector.

    Having been involved in a number of educational initiatives including Digital Awareness week for Northern Ireland, Mark Owens, Managing Director of Civica, spoke about how the digital skills gap ultimately starts in primary and post-primary schools. Therefore, there was a need for the alliance to help promote and educate in the education sector to ultimately solve a lot of issues downstream.

    While recognizing that schools are ambitious, they still need guidance and more support. There was also more work to be done for raising awareness and educating parents, so they too are better positioned to inform their children that the tech sector provides a plethora of exciting opportunities and advantages over other traditional career paths.

    Continuing the sustainability theme, Andrew Gough, Managing Director of GCD Technologies, highlighted some of the immediate threats to the industry in Northern Ireland. As more companies are looking beyond Northern Ireland for opportunities for growth, indigenous companies face limitations, particularly as wage inflation is actually making it harder to compete in a global market and this is further exacerbated by the skills gap.

    While there are many existing programmes that promote and champion careers in the tech sector, there is still a lack of joined-up thinking. Andrew went on to say that these programmes were not all pointing in the same direction and sometimes gave conflicting advice as to how to get involved in this sector. ‘The alliance can help be an arbiter of the message that educational initiatives provide to schools to help ensure that they're all pointing in a unified direction that helps the whole industry. "A rising tide raises all boats" and it's by coming together, we can raise the tide for all the companies large and small across the industry.’

    The entire alliance is in full agreement on the principle of simplifying the voice of education with government. Tom Gray, Deputy Chair of The Software Alliance and Chief Technology Officer at Kainos, spoke about the requirement of the alliance to get a representative core membership from across the entire sector and thus ensure that everyone's voice is acknowledged and recognized as being viable in any of the meetings or any of the initiatives. It was felt that over time, the alliance would become the trusted voice for the industry at large so it becomes less fragmented.

    Tom expanded on the need to simplify the system to be more efficient and effective in solving the most immediate problems facing the sector ‘Government wants to engage with industry but they ask 100 companies and they get 100 different answers. That's inefficient for them and it's also inefficient for the companies because they're asked all these questions all the time by different parts of government. I think the alliance can ultimately save a lot of time for our members and also for our government colleagues’.

    As former Chairperson and a founding member of The Software Alliance, William Hamilton spent almost two decades as Managing Director of Liberty IT and is a keen advocate for ensuring Northern Ireland's indigenous companies have more of a voice in the sector. He sees the alliance as having an important role to play in opening up additional pathways for those who are either underemployed or financially inactive. Despite Northern Ireland approaching full classical employment, there still remains a significant number of economically inactive people for whom opportunity has not presented itself properly.

    For those who are employed, he argued that many of the jobs locally are not high-value jobs and the sector has the potential to increase the value of those jobs. This would thereby increase the financial strength of Northern Ireland to ultimately build a better country. William felt that the alliance would address the imbalances of employment opportunities across the wider economy head on ‘It's about leveraging this fantastic opportunity. Northern Ireland was historically the UK's engineering capital, we have that track record, we have that ability and we have an opportunity to do it again’.

    Ultimately, the Software Alliance is a vehicle that has the potential to positively influence government policy. Working with the Department of Education, the alliance wants to promote computing science as an area of learning in its own right and become part of the curriculum for all schools. Currently, there is a disparity of equality of opportunity for young people and the current consensus is that a lot of schools will teach ICT but they don't actually teach the qualifications that the industry value and that can lead them into a job in the industry.

    In other areas, the alliance is already making good headway around the technologies that support the 10x economy with a renewed focus on software and AI, changing the emphasis from what was regarded as the digital, ICT, creative industries, including the cybersecurity sector. It was widely acknowledged that the key element to achieving these policy changes is having the assembly back up and running and having the ministers in position to make those very decisions that benefit all stakeholders across the entire sector.

    It was clear and obvious that an enormous amount of work has already been done over the last 12 months in advance of the launch of the Software Alliance. Looking forward, Lorna McAdoo referred to the current strategy document drawn up by the alliance and how crucial this will be in driving and developing the key objectives and priorities for the industry, not just now, but into the future as well. Once Stormont is functioning again, Lorna was confident that the alliance has the strategic vision for the longer term to tackle the inherent problems facing the sector  ‘When we start to have more detailed conversations with the bodies, it needs to be in line with what we need right now but also what we've got a need for over the next two to three year,s so the strategy piece that we're going to be looking at is hugely important’.

    Despite the lack of a functioning executive at Stormont, Tom Gray felt it was important to not stand still and wait but rather get on with addressing the issues as a collective so where any government-related activities or interventions come into play, the alliance will focus on those things that are under its own control. The key message being ‘If we can start to build a more nuanced and more accurate view of the sector, its opportunities, the potential for both lucrative employment and global good, I think that is going to lay the groundwork for everything else that we want to do. I think the young people, the parents and the teachers need to have a better view of what the industry is really about as a priority’.

    Notwithstanding this, The Software Alliance fully understands that this is a long-term game. They're not going to fix the skills shortage overnight but have started looking at how they can encourage primary school kids and high school kids to appreciate what a career in the technology sector might look like. The alliance is building a long-term pipeline for long-term success and a long-term mission that can ultimately intersect with the industry's long-term needs. While there is an obvious need to have the ministers in place to be able to help to make the interventions on a governmental level, the alliance is not sitting back waiting for them, they’re up and going already.

    Tara Simpson, CEO of Instil Software, has been a long-term advocate for changing the way schools teach ICT and believes it is actually putting kids off and effectively turning them away from the industry. He believes that in the current environment, it can appear that software is very boring. The consensus within the sector is that there is an urgent need to change this perception and open their eyes up to the opportunities and reinforce the fact the world of software is not just about developing software.

    The software industry is multi-tiered and open to kids from a variety of different backgrounds, skill sets and disciplines. The industry needs diverse thinking and new approaches requiring a vast range of skills. In support of this, Lorna McAdoo also emphasized the need to make the industry more exciting and appealing to the younger generations. These are kids that are going home at night wanting to get out their iPads and all sorts of technology and play with it, so they've already got the passion for it; they've already got the drive but yet in the schools we're making it such a boring subject that actually they can't see the relation between the two. As an alliance, we can help change that’.

    At the end of the day, the Software Alliance is about speaking as a single voice to influence the very people in our local institutions and organisations that can effect real and meaningful change. The alliance will help these organizations, educate them about the technology sector and help them ask the right questions which will ultimately help them get the answers that are reflective of the software industry as a whole.

    It’s not just a voice, it’s a network of individuals and companies across the sector, regardless of size, coming together to contribute as a collective. The Software Alliance can ultimately be a game changer for the Northern Ireland software sector and has the potential to impact positively on the economy and society as a whole, leaving a lasting legacy for future generations.

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