Tackling the tech skills shortage

  • David Collins, CEO of First Derivative, states how improved education and flexible working will be key to successfully overcoming the demand for tech talent in NI

    Q. What makes NI in general and First Derivative, in particular, a global leader in FinTech?

    I think the easy answer to that question is quite simply  ‘Talent’ and this is why we put so much emphasis on Northern Ireland. We do so by connecting a very strong, well-educated talent pool, people with good attitudes, good work ethics and a desire to see the world and experience things. As a professional services firm, we provide services to Fintechs as well as services to clients to enable other Fintech companies to land, expand and deploy their software and obviously there is a great deal of connectivity in that ecosystem.  Having a great talent pool with good people is a huge benefit.

    Q. As the Northern Ireland tech sector has grown exponentially, are we noticing a skills shortage?

    Yes we are, it really became apparent last year post-COVID when we saw the great resign coupled with some of the X Generation starting to exit the market, at the same time many boomers also left the sector so the workforce has somewhat shrunk. The workforce is smaller as the demand for skilled capability is much higher, so I think we're entering a new paradigm of work that most of us have never really experienced before and we are going to have to learn to live with global skill shortages.

    The market has got softer but actually, you wouldn’t say we are witnessing mass unemployment or announcements on job losses and even in the tech sector with the likes of Google and Microsoft laying off some of their talent, most of those people have found jobs relatively quickly. The market requires this type of talent so ultimately we are all going to have to learn to work in a world where we are going to have to do a lot more with less.

    What is going to be really key for Northern Ireland is that we're going to have to start changing the nature of the work that we're doing to make it more highly skilled by supplementing the expertise with technology. We will need to make the technology work harder to do some of the simplistic tasks, which should actually be great for everybody because it means that the people then are left to do the more interesting tasks, the machines will do the boring tasks and it'll be higher value work.

    Q. What do you think can be done to improve skills in the tech sector?

    We need to look at education. For a long time the education system has been completely failing the modern economy, particularly in the UK. We're not teaching software development skills early enough in the educational system, we seem to be stuck doing things the way we’ve always done and it's not evolving fast enough. The tech options available in many schools are extremely weak and it's almost like skill sets for older people, like how to use a computer.

    Children now are born with computers at their fingertips and they know how to use them. Using applications is easy and of course, they’ll work their way around Excel but in reality, we need to introduce them to coding much earlier so they get a better sense of what's possible. Of course, we need way more girls getting into it as well as there’s just not enough ever, anywhere. It’s a global issue that urgently needs to be addressed.

    We need to recognize that the world has changed and it's very much tech orientated and people need to have a far greater education in core technical expertise, not using the tech but actually writing it. We've got to go all the way back to the beginning to make this work and recognise that we are talking about very long-term trends here, so changes we can make in the education system now might take ten years to feed into the marketplace. We have got to do it and yet governments don’t seem to be able to embrace the challenge.

    Q. What pathways are available in First Derivative to anyone wishing to start a career in FinTech?

    As a business, we try to create multiple pathways through the system to ensure we attract people with a diverse range of skills and experiences into the business.

    For the sector in general, you can get exposure to FinTech in a lot of different ways. The most obvious way would be coding, so anybody with software development skills has a natural pathway into it but there are a whole lot of roles required for implementation, connectivity, design, front-end integration experts and system analysis and all sorts of different roles created around these. It doesn't matter if you didn't do computer science at university you can still find your way into this sector and different and diverse skills are required to bring everything together.

    Q. Post-pandemic and new technology tools have changed traditional working practices – what does the future of modern working look like from your perspective?

    That's a challenge that we're all going to be facing for a while yet, certainly within the main metro centres traditionally associated with a long commute into the office.  People who can work from home will often say, "I'm not coming in because I don’t need to".  Companies are now reluctant to try to force people to come in for fear their people will just walk, as it's easy enough to find another firm that will allow them to work remotely so people have made their choices really clear. All these trends were present before covid already but now they’ve just been massively accelerated.

    Hybrid working is actually very good for certain things like work-life balance as well as improved productivity. These days, most of us are feeling like we're getting a lot more done partly because we have swapped commute time and then split it with the company. While tech is able to substitute for those in-person meetings, chat systems like Teams or WhatsApp can do some of the things that the watercooler chat would do, they still can’t do everything. What I think we are missing, is connectivity to each other that we took for granted in the past and making sure that we're all going in the right direction.

    One of the challenges I give my people is to meet with purpose so when you do come into the office, don't do the things that you do when you're at home. Do things that are different like retrospectives, sprint planning, design analysis, architecture reviews, problem-solving and demos. Some people underestimate the value of demos but showing others what you've been working on and what the outcome has been is really valuable.

    We have to learn to work in this hybrid world so that when we come in, we create real value and we energize each other by being together. Remote working definitely has a place and a value, just the same as coming together definitely has. We just need to find that balance to get the most out of it.

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