CIOs report a massive skills gap that means they and their organisations cannot find the talent they need to enable their businesses to grow.
Yet in August this year unemployment for 16-24-year-olds increased to 973,000. Something isn’t working and a new system for sourcing talent has to be found. Although the need for CIOs to understand the business is well established and will never diminish, in an increasingly technological world the need for strong technology skills will also never diminish. This title has heard plenty of stories of organisations that sleepwalked into disastrous relationships from not having the core technology skills available to assess the promises of a vendor.
As every CIO knows, strong skills come with both aptitude and passion. This title is also concerned that the CIO community will not develop and remain sustainable unless a generation of new technology leaders is joining the community at the entry level. In the short to medium term, the existing CIO community cannot thrive and deliver on its promise if the skills base for a vibrant workforce fails to exist.
So it was with great interest in March of this year when interviewing Mark Adams-Wright, at the time CIO of Suffolk County Council, that we saw how Adams-Wright and his organisation had taken steps towards creating the next generation of CIOs.
This title features CIOs at the height of their careers but, in a departure from the norm, we wanted to profile an individual at the very beginning of their career to see what insights they could offer all of us in the face of a changing world.
Adams-Wright talked animatedly of the talent discovered at a hack day that Suffolk County Council and the CIO had organised. Naturally we were keen to learn more about an individual who at a very early stage of his career exhibits the key skills of being a CIO and who already knows he wants to take on this hallowed role.
At 18 years of age, Tom O’Brien looks every inch the young university student he is about to become. Although unlikely, given his strong interest in IT, we all know from our own youths that a chance moment can change your career course. In the world of sport it is well documented by coaches and managers of great talent suddenly discovering the joys of beer, partying and the opposite sex, and the focus needed to excel loses out to the good times.
It could have been so easy for O’Brien to have followed a very different life course, but that chance initiative by a CIO and a British software company has at least secured the talents of one youngster, but the question hanging over from this interview is how many others is the industry missing out on?
Adams-Wright originally set up a hack day to give members of the Suffolk county the chance to develop apps they felt the county needed and for the community to make decisions about how public data is used.
“We wanted a Suffolk app for Suffolk people, so we got them to tell us what they wanted,” said Adams-Wright. “We created a hotline for people to tell us app ideas and we ran workshops with staff to work out what data we had to work with and, from their ideas, what apps were needed too.
“By the hack day itself we had already amassed 60-plus concepts and on the day we had a similar amount of people join us to code and develop apps,” the CIO said.
At the time, O’Brien wasn’t even planning on attending the hack day as he had a driving lesson that morning, but the lesson was cancelled by his instructor and, with an empty Saturday before him, O’Brien was convinced by a good friend to head to Ipswich and see what a hack day offered.
“It was very much fate – I had a driving lesson that morning, but the car broke down. I got to the hack day late with a poor laptop borrowed from my father,” O’Brien says.
“It was a great day, though before that I knew almost nothing about the council,” he says of the local authority he grew up in. This says a great deal about the role CIOs can play in giving an organisation relevance to a youth community that needs to and does interact through technology and could be the skills source your organisation desperately needs.
“It just makes me think what would have happened if that car hadn’t broken down,” O’Brien says. At the time of the interview, he had just finished his second and last year of sixth-form college and was working his second successive summer with Leicestershire software company Jadu. As this title goes to press, O’Brien is heading to Warwick University to study discrete mathematics.
“I see discrete mathematics as the maths behind computing,” he says.
“Selfishly, I looked at that room in Suffolk and saw an answer to my number one problem – hiring people,” say Suraj Kika, CEO of Jadu, a UK software firm that specialises in applications for the public sector, charities and business.
Many years ago in my first role as an Editor I got to know Kika and Jadu; in the ensuing years we lost touch, but it was no surprise when discussing the hack day with Adams-Wright that Kika’s name cropped up. Jadu supply Suffolk County Council and Kika put his money where his mouth is and backed the 2012 hack day. Neither Kika, O’Brien or Suffolk expected the day to lead to the dynamic chemistry I witnessed between a CEO and the young protégé.
“There are thousands of Toms out there waiting to be discovered,” Kika believes. “The moment I saw him, he sold me his app in five minutes – he’d designed it, built it and was demonstrating it,” Kika says of the simple schools closure app O’Brien built with Suffolk County Council data in a day, which won him the day’s competition and career support.
“It is now being used, but it was the simple ingenuity of the idea that justified it to me,” Kika says of the app that uses a traffic lights interface to report school closure information from Suffolk County Council information.
“Technology is very much part of my life,” O’Brien says, adding that the same is true for all of his peers. “I’m not a hardcore gamer, but I do have an Xbox and play a few online games. The ability to create a game and relate to it appeals to me. Mindcraft has real creativity to simulate things in a virtual environment. It is online Lego,” he says.
Schools, universities and outsourcing have all been blamed of late for creating the skills gap and in recent months Conservative Education Secretary Michael Gove revised the approach to technology teaching in schools away from learning to operate standard desktop applications, such as Microsoft Word and Excel, towards a greater understanding of how computers work. Unlike many of the policy decisions made by Gove in his time as Education Secretary of the coalition government, this move has been widely welcomed by teachers and the IT industry.
There is no uniform picture of the state of technology in our education system. O’Brien and Kika have seen schools that use tablets and smartphones in physics lessons in place of textbooks and he has dabbled with some excellent mathematics software he says.
O’Brien’s sister is at a state school, while he gained a scholarship into a private school, but the two worlds differ on technology adoption in a way that may surprise some.
“I was amazed at the standard of technology and Macs in the labs at my sister’s school and the way they use the devices. At my school we were on Windows XP. We had what we needed to be functional, but even in computing lessons we didn’t have advanced computers.”
Kika, as a vendor, wants to see computing become a core part of the curriculum, and by computing he doesn’t mean the use of IT.
Waterfall versus agile
O’Brien studied computing at A-level and says the focus on how applications and projects are delivered was through the waterfall methodology, yet his two summers working at Jadu have taught him that in today’s world, agile delivery is the method of choice and the business requirement.
“The term agile hadn’t even been used throughout the course. There is nothing wrong with waterfall,” he says, but if CIOs and organisations want an agile workforce, then the education sector needs to ensure its pupils are aware of the current trend.
The finger of blame cannot only be pointed at the education system. IT as an industry and career has in the last 20 years lost its ability to excite and attract the talent required. Education, as with any sector, has to react to the demands of its user base and, with fewer and fewer students showing an interest in technology, it is understandable how standards and relevancy can slip.
“The ubiquity of devices, the move to touch and gesture-based operating means the curiosity of how it works is in danger of being lost,” argues Kika. “My exposure to code was at the age of eight, but my kids, who are that age now, are learning about how to use PowerPoint,” he says of the social shift into thinking it’s more important to understand how to use technology rather than how it works or how you could improve the way technology operates.
O’Brien praises his parents who fostered his interest to be that inquisitive individual that asks why? He wants to know how things works and wonders if they could be improved – just as the business world wants CIOs to challenge the business and ask why processes are the way they are and to then use their technology understanding to offer solutions.
“Large and small organisations must lead a change to greater inquisitiveness and not rely on the serendipity of meeting someone like Tom,” Kika says.
“When Suffolk organised the hack day we fully endorsed it and it was paradise as a technologist to see a room full of people from the ages of eight to 60 developing technology,” adds Kika. “How much is the UK missing out on a potential Bill Gates or Steve Jobs?”
When Kika approached O’Brien and his parents to offer the youngster an opportunity to work his holidays at Jadu, both parties found that youth employment is not as straightforward as it could be, although O’Brien says parents can also act as a brake by being too protective.
“We crafted a contract specifically for Tom,” Kika says. O’Brien responds: “If you had offered me a standard contract I’d have turned it down.” The chemistry between them is palpable, and there is clearly an encouragement towards questioning and assessing everything.
But in these constrained times taking on the training of the next-generation of IT leader is a risky proposition for many CIOs. Kika agrees, but doesn’t see how the responsibility can be ducked. “My board insists on continual growth, so everyone here is smarter than me. If a person is not on a product within six months, then you have done something wrong, but if it goes wrong you move them and find where they do fit in, and what comes from that is invention,” Kika says from experience.
“The role of a CEO and CIO is to bring talent into an organisation. My job is to maintain and propagate the culture of the company and I worry about the innovation that is key,” Kika says of the concern for every technology leader.
So O’Brien is one of the lucky ones, enthused with a passion for technology by his parents and an academic strength at mathematics that will benefit his career from this moment forwards. He has been given a significant opportunity by a UK vendor from being in the right place at the right time, when he so nearly wasn’t. But what next and what has he learned from this experience?
“I spent four weeks last summer on the apps and I am now working on something very different and I feel I have been really involved from the start,” O’Brien says of the real working projects he has worked on, and not simulations in a work experience environment.
“Jadu and the hack day has given me an insight into parts of computing that I previously hadn’t considered. Before the hack day, I had never developed anything for a non-PC platform, but suddenly I was developing mobile apps.
“I’m still fairly definite on wanting to aim towards cyber security; however, through Jadu I’ve been able to explore other parts of computing and certainly learned a lot of the business side to a company, something of more relevance to a potential CIO career.
“Jadu has also taught me some of the business aspects behind developing technology, and I definitely have a appreciation for what is likely and unlikely to sell,” he says.
O’Brien also realises that although he is currently young and brings his youth to the company, in the future the table will turn and he will need to bring in new talent and ideas.
He also readily admits he has been lucky. “The world keeps opening doors to me,” he says. However, with the global economy becoming so competitive, can we as a CIO community always leave it to chance that the right talent will gain the right skills and then seek out your organisation?