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Matt Barker, Global Head of Cloud Native Services, Venafi/Co-founder Jetstack

State of Open: The UK in 2023
Phase Three: “Skills or Bust”

In navigating the evolving tech landscape, the UK faces challenges and opportunities. Ensuring universal digital access and promoting grassroots initiatives, such as the Raspberry Pi, are key to fostering diverse engagement. Open source software education can democratise technology, making it accessible for young minds. Addressing the challenge of retaining tech talent within the UK involves fostering a culture of commercialisation and providing sufficient funding for startups. Strengthening partnerships with global tech hubs while leveraging inherent advantages, such as proximity to Europe and historical ties with India and China, positions the UK to become an international tech powerhouse. Moreover, recognising the critical role of technical skills in the face of cyber threats, the UK has the potential to lead, innovate, and protect on the global tech stage.

Thought Leadership: Unlocking the Power of Tech

Matt Barker, Global Head of Cloud Native Services, Venafi/Co-founder Jetstack

It’s almost a cliche these days to say you have imposter syndrome, but as a non-engineer in a deeply technical industry, I sometimes feel embarrassed to look at a teammate’s coding terminal, and for my mind to go blank.

On other days, I like to tell myself that this is a benefit. Because I’m not drawn into the argument about whether Rust is better than GO, I can focus on what matters – whether the customer actually cares or not.

Honestly, I never wanted to get into ‘IT’ as a kid, and was negatively affected by the perception of a boring, desk-based job in a basement represented by people like Simon from The Office or Maurice from the IT Crowd.

But, as most of you know, times have changed. It’s ‘tech’ now, not ‘IT’, and nerds like Mark Zuckerberg make a Billion dollars look cooler than a million24. Regardless of what you do, and the industry you are in, your future is going to be driven by tech. Whether that’s down to the internet, automation or AI, humans who can use IT to their advantage will outcompete those that don’t. 

Although that’s a fact, the ability for many in the UK to capture that advantage is still fraught with difficulty. In my work as Entrepreneur in Residence for OpenUK, experience has told me that there is no consistent path to technical success.

As OpenUK’s Entrepreneur in Residence I led research amongst the UK’s Open Source founders and aspiring Founders. A number of aspiring founders I spoke to warned of a dearth of practical ways to learn how to code or, more generally, to learn about tech. Like myself, many of them got into it ‘by accident’ after picking up a raspberry pi, or being introduced to Github by a friend.

This is a problem. Even more so for women25 and for those from disadvantaged backgrounds and certain ethnicities. Fortunately, we have some tailwinds to work with. The UK is seen as a great place to do business, with the legal framework to back it up, and it benefits from a perception of being a hotbed for technical talent thanks to our strong education system and history of scientific invention. Recent OpenUK surveys also show that the UK has a disproportionate positive impact on open source contribution.

We’re also seeing some encouraging trends in the numbers of people getting into tech. Since 2011, acceptances into computer science courses27 have risen by almost 50%, and we’ve seen an eye watering 400% increase in acceptances for students wishing to go on to study Artificial Intelligence courses at university.

So, the potential we have is there, but how do we unlock it?

I don’t have all the answers, but here are some ideas inspired by my own research with OpenUK and recent attendance at industry events:

Enable basic digital access to all, regardless of location or economic status.

The earlier we can get people in the country productive with technology, the more chances we create for engineering success, and diversity of engagement. Bill Gates was able to create Microsoft because he was one of a handful of incredibly fortunate people in the 70s who got access to a computer for hours at a time at his university. By simply getting technology into the hands of people that may not otherwise have it, we increase the chances of finding the next Bill Gates, or at least move the needle on those awful figures on the number of women and disadvantaged people in tech.

Grassroots projects like the Raspberry Pi (and in the 80s the BBC Micro programme) do wonders for building excitement and passion around technology. Combine initiatives like this with stronger and faster internet in every part of the country, and you can’t help but get better outcomes with engagement.

Democratise technology through education in Open Source Software

The thing that’s amazing about Open Source is that you can get access to the code for free, you can engage with it straight away, and you can build the next billion dollar company on it from your bedroom. It’s also the foundation of the internet, the AI movement, and the phone you have in your pocket. The not so great thing about it is that it’s an incredibly large, complex and scary thing to engage with!

We must make Open Source as easy as possible for young people to understand and engage with. This will only come from educating people about the benefits of it, and in providing practical ways for them to get involved. Instead of people finding it ‘by accident’ we need to be driving more programmes around getting started with Linux, being introduced to Github or delivering coding challenges that fire the imagination.

I don’t believe the UK lacks the raw talent, but we certainly lack an ability to develop that talent, and Brexit has certainly made engineers and founders from abroad think twice about coming to the UK to build their career or start a tech business, especially given increased competition from hubs like Berlin and Paris. All of this strengthens the need for us to create a systematic way to develop and nurture our talent.

Get commercial

Sadly, once Brits do realise the potential of their ability to commercialise technology, the first place they look is across the Atlantic, citing access to capital30, liquidity31, or a lack of support and backing for start-ups in the country. There’s no doubt that we should continue to strengthen our partnership with, and learn from our American cousins, but the UK’s lack of ability to fund and scale tech businesses is a real problem. The more people who succeed in tech and stick around to build in the UK, the more we’ll be able to use their knowledge and resources to foster new companies.

The UK has many advantages: a stone’s throw to Europe, English as the international business language, a strong financial centre, and a deep history with India and China – likely to become the next tech powerhouses.

None of what I’ve talked about should surprise anyone, but given the UK’s economy has faltered in recent years, our manufacturing industry has reduced, and we’ve seen a slip in our place as the world’s financial hub, we will need to create more jobs. Tech is a place where we can make up the difference. 

More than that, our future security may depend on our ability to ramp up technical skills. The wars of the future will not be ‘hot wars’ or ‘cold wars’, they will be ‘cyber wars’. Global cyber attacks increased by 28% in 202233 and, as seen in the Russia / Ukraine war, technology is playing a much more important role in a country’s ability to defend themselves thanks to Starlink, Drones and AI34. If we can leverage some of the momentum we’ve got and play to some of our natural strengths, I think we have the opportunity to develop an international home for tech, one that has the ability to build, lead and protect.

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