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As I See It

Scottish tech is still missing a vital cog

Polly PurvisIn recent years, Scotland has made impressive headway in achieving its technological ambitions. Connectivity and infrastructure have either improved, or received commitments to improvement; gender balance issues are being openly discussed and are beginning to be addressed seriously  and our start-up sector proves that there is no shortage of creativity.

However, it’s in  taking the next steps that we see the biggest challenges. From our members at ScotlandIS and our work in the industry, we know that maximising growth remains a challenge. Companies are hungry for it and the economy benefits from it – so why aren’t our tech businesses able to grow bigger, faster?

It’s not just about chasing ‘unicorns’, fantastic as they are, or multi billion pound single investment deals – but about creating a healthy, growing and self-supporting sector from which ambitious companies can more easily grow. Think of the German ‘Mittelstand’ – that thriving sector of specialist and often world-leading mid sized firms which is at the heart of German economic success.

Of course, that  is an exceptional example – but this thriving sector of interconnected firms exists in and creates an environment in which substantial growth is possible and enabled – a virtuous loop of growth and support.

What is hindering the growth of this sort of tech ecosystem in Scotland?

If you’re in the process of growing to a medium sized company, then finding the right premises with good connectivity is generally now no longer an issue. The challenge is instead about finding people with the right skills – on the technology side, of course, but also those specialist commercial skills that complement the technology and are an essential element of company growth.

As a tech business expands, it requires different expertise to change the way it operates – from sales and project management, to support, legal, design , product management and exporting. Most firms move from the CEO running sales at launch to a specialist sales team – and it’s skills like this that we can lack. Not just sales – but all the specialised commercial people that understand operating in the technology industry, as well as experienced managers who can guide companies through the various stages of growth.

Silicon Valley is one such complete ecosystem. In one area, they have people with significant experience of all the moving parts in successfully running a company – from understanding customers, to specialised marketing and PR, user experience and product management; in short everything needed to help a business grow. Currently, companies that need many of these specialist skills are often hiring from elsewhere. But we need to work on developing this talent here in Scotland.

Access to a greater range of skills will complement the tech talent we already have and help people to raise ambition about what is possible right here. While we celebrate our big tech success stories, recognising that growth is possible for a very wide range of businesses – not just for a few – will help bolster ambition and create a thriving and complete tech economy.

We are building great technology skills, encouraging brilliant startups; we have great universities producing amazing graduates (as evidenced by our Young Software Engineer of the Year awards, now running for almost three decades) – but we need to work harder on creating the commercial skillsets and environments that can support these businesses.

These themes will be discussed at ScotSoft, the annual celebration of Scotland’s technology sector, which is running today, 27 September at the EICC. This year’s theme is ‘From Good to Great’ and will see speakers from across the industry – from Scotland, the UK and the US – speak on this theme.

Polly Purvis is the CEO of ScotlandIS



One Comment to Scottish tech is still missing a vital cog

  1. It’s absolutely correct we lack elements of choice in securing commercial leadership skills and a big factor in addressing this is moving the mindset that start-ups are all about the PR and raising the monies, almost as if that’s an end in itself. Much more focus needs to go into offering a product or service of true value to consumers and businesses, finding the routes to market, appropriate pricing and of course execution on sales strategy. It also doesn’t help that the last few decades have resulted in a massive gender imbalance. We need to attract more females into commercial roles.

    Wrapped around that is a far bigger issue to address. Traditionally most start-ups, especially in tech, are inspired and led by people in their late forties and early fifties. There is now research to show that there’s a far increased chance of start-up failure if the average age of the founding team is much lower. The current mood and excitement in Scotland is all about many younger folks entering the sector, often direct from University or from a couple of years in industry. We need to craft a far better eco-system to help provide better decision-support, provide crucial education around business and company leadership in the absence of a decade of two of prior industry leadership experience, or indeed prior start-up failures from which to learn. Investors and boards can only do so much here and there’s a vacuum of knowledge and “secret-sauce” that needs filled if we’re to help these fledgling ventures realise their true potential.

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