INTERVIEW: Polly Purvis, ScotlandIS
‘The opportunities to build big are enormous’
It is 15 years since a keen mathematician and one-time City banker took a key role in a sector that few in Scotland seemed to understand or see as particularly important. This included her former employer, Scottish Enterprise.
As the newly-appointed head of the Scottish Software Federation Polly Purvis was hurled into a largely mysterious world that was mainly the domain of geeks and big-brained individuals who seemed to be wired differently to everyone else.
In those days electronics largely meant circuit boards, monitors and other hardware that had been a mainstay of Silicon Glen.
Software was largely invisible, a new language of coding and programming. This was the bit that made the equipment work.
It’s hard to believe it now, given the proliferation of software “solutions” companies and IT consultants, and the fact that, alongside financial services and tourism, it forms a bedrock of the Edinburgh economy.
But when Scottish Enterprise came to define its six key industries in the early 2000s, software was not one of them, says Purvis.
“We have fought hard to get that recognition,” she says, with an ironic laugh. Now leading what evolved into ScotlandIS, she insists that she is not being critical of Scottish Enterprise. Indeed she worked for its predecessor, the Scottish Development Agency as well as the Edinburgh and Lothians office of the successor body.
“Many of the companies that have done well in software have had a lot of support from Scottish Enterprise,” she says, adding that in the absence of a strategy for the sector the assistance it now provides has tended to be on a company by company basis. She says, the agencies and authorities are waking up to the opportunities that the software sector offers.
After 15 years in the same job many would want to move on, do something else. Instead she retains an enthusiasm for a sector that has mushroomed in recent years and is constantly surprised by new developments.
“The opportunities for Scotland to build significant companies are enormous,” she says. She expects to be surprised again this weekend at the ScotlandIS annual conference taking place in Edinburgh. For the first time there will be a focus on the sector’s developers who will be invited to “explore the unexplored” and see what emerges.
“It’s the same with the cloud and big data. Just a few years ago these words meant nothing. Now the language of software is all around us. Who knows that the next big thing will be? Hopefully, we will find out this week.”
One big thing for the sector is tackling a chronic skills gap that is in danger of holding everyone back. Her organisation, together with Skills Development Scotland, has worked on the launch of a digital skills academy which will be officially unveiled in the next few days.
The academy, called CodeClan, is modelled on similar bodies in Berlin and London and it aims to encourage anyone looking for a switch of career to take a 16-week crash course in software development.
It has hired two big-hitters to run the courses: Michael Pavling from London, who will be head of curriculum, and Harvey Wheaton, who has been working in Finland and is appointed chief executive.
The first students are already being signed up and the hope is that 100 will go through the academy in its first year and will be sufficiently trained to find jobs in a sector desperate to fill vacancies.
Applicants for the courses do not need to have a technical background.
“People who bring other skills to the sector are very valuable,” says Purvis. “It is easy to forget that software is designed to solve a problem or advance some task. So it helps if people coming into it have a knowledge of, for instance, consumer products and services.”
The other hotly-debated topic for the sector is access to finance, particularly second stage finance. At least it has learned, to some extent, to look after its own.
“We now have some great companies and entrepreneurs such as David Sibbald and Gerry Docherty who have become big players in the sector.”
Many are providing finance for new projects and taking seats on the boards of fledgling companies to provide advice.
“We are starting to see the circulation of management talent,” says Purvis. “It gives small companies the comfort of knowing there is someone who has done it before them and can offer their help.”
Birthplace: Amersham, Buckinghamshire
Education: Rudolph Steiner School; Newcastle University (agricultural marketing).
Career Highlights: Williams & Glyn’s Bank, London; worked in company development at the Scottish Development Agency, then Scottish Enterprise Edinburgh & Lothians; took a career break for children, and later appointed to Scottish Software Federation (later ScotlandIS).
What makes you angry?
Injustice and incompetence.
What is the best advice you received?
Do not forget that the world is a very small place and you may find yourself working again with someone you once found difficult to work with.
What do you find frustrating?
The slowness of change (compared to the software sector).
What would you like the government to do to improve things for your industry?
Uk government: relax the visa regulations. We bring a lot of students into the country who cannot stay and work here.
Holyrood government: We would love to see them do more for funding computer science at colleges and universities.
Photo: Polly Purvis (by Terry Murden)