by Mike Altendorf

Young, gifted and British

Sep 07, 20115 mins
GovernmentIT Leadership

I suspect it might surprise some of you when I tell you that the biggest thing to come out of summer 2011 for me was a new found respect for the talents of Britain’s youth.

It came thanks to my son’s involvement in an organisation called Rewired State. This organisation runs hack days in which it pulls together some of Britain’s brightest and best developers to help organisations thrash out the solutions to their digital problems.

This summer the group ran a week long hack for young developers most of whom have never worked together before, building web and mobile apps using government data. In five days my son and his fellow attendees not only created some immensely cool working apps but also a fair few red faces around government departments.

One child genius created a Food Standards Agency site that the organisation itself has been struggling with for eight months, it allows customers to check the cleanliness of a restaurant before you go.

To sound a little bit like a politician on the campaign trail for a second, standing there watching these kids I had a real feeling that I was looking at Britain’s future.

Not just the kids themselves but what they were doing and the collaborative way in which they were doing it. It was almost like watching the birth of a whole new manufacturing industry (and we certainly need one of those).

I am not for one second saying that we don’t have amazing developers and software designers out there already – just look at the UK’s contribution to the gaming industry – but it seems like we aren’t doing enough to turn software engineering and development into the engine for economic growth that it could and should be.

We let our manufacturing industry decline to the point of extinction yet suddenly it is the political growth imperative after the finance industry created economic meltdown, but you do need a cunning plan, government involvement and investment if we are to create new industries.

What was most impressive about it all was the imagination and innovation.

It’s often been said that Britain is a nation of inventors (something Google’s Eric Schmidt recently referred to it when he urged…

 …the UK to reignite children’s passion for science, engineering and maths) and we do a lot of wistful gazing into the past and complaining (ironically) about how the American’s stole all our ideas.

In our typically British fashion however we seem not to have noticed the amazing talent lying right under our noses, right now.

Right now this generation is in danger of being passed by. A sixteen year old today is facing a pretty uncertain future – university isn’t looking very attractive but then the jobs market isn’t exactly rosy either.

The riots this summer paint a picture of a resentful, violent bunch who don’t seem to want a job anyway. That’s not what I saw at Rewired State. I saw a bunch of kids from all walks of life with passion, determination and more than that, real talent.

So this is where you, dear reader, come into it. From my perspective the future for these kids, and our fledgling digital economy lies in the hands of the CIOs.

They have the opportunity to get involved by offering apprenticeships to talented developers and web innovators, in the same way as youngsters were recruited into engineering 40 or 50 years ago.

This isn’t about qualifications, it is about joining forces with organisations like Rewired State to find the brightest and best and offering them an environment in which they can really develop.

And boy do CIOs need new talent. The role of the CIO has never been harder. The consumerisation of IT means that technology these days it is treated by business as both a utility – like water or gas and as an innovation factory demanding new applications.

The expectations keep increasing, an up time of 99.9 per cent isn’t good enough anymore and woe betide you if email goes down. IT in the workplace should be as good as, if not better, than what they have at home. On the one hand IT is a utility but at home technology is exciting so why not at work? Reliable yet exciting… constant but cutting edge.

The fact is now the IT department is seen as the last place to go to find innovation. They are the laggards, the people that keep insisting you need a laptop and that you can’t access your work email on your iPhone or internal applications on your iPad.

In the olden days employees would have simply accepted this (after all what do I know about technology?) now that has changed and the IT department not only has to keep up, it also needs to try and take the initiative.

This requires a whole new way of thinking and in the next few articles I am going to look at what the CIO needs to do to put his IT department back on the front foot especially during these more austere times.

This is a subject I am passionate about. Not just because of the talent I can see going to waste around the country but because without this new approach I honestly think British business will struggle against sluggish economic growth and competitors that put digital and IT innovation right at the heart of their businesses.