by Mike Lynch

The techs factor

Oct 31, 20124 mins
CareersIT LeadershipTelecommunications Industry

The recent warning from the UK’s Royal College of Engineering, which said that the number of maths, science and engineering graduates must increase by 50 per cent to avoid the country plunging further down the innovation league tables, is the latest in a host of alarms that have been raised over our ability to produce the talent needed to fuel our post?manufacturing economy.

The STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, maths) have been in steady decline.

A Lords Select Committee report published this summer showed how the number of engineering graduates fell by three per cent between 2003 and 2010, and the number of computer scientist graduates dropped by 27 per cent.

Meanwhile more vocationally-focused and trendier courses have been rising: in the same period, the number of sports science graduates, for example, has doubled.

The idea flouted last week of an X Factor for the tech world, fronted by Simon Cowell and, is a scary prospect.

“Comparative genomic hybrid microarrays are so in right now and those shoes are doooope…”.

But, it does go to show that a certain type of tech is getting cool. Just think of the Apple revolution, Justin Timberlake relaunching MySpace and some social site that Marky Z runs…

The problem with trendy technology is that the best mathematicians, the leading biologists and world-class physicians are not what you’d call cool.

You won’t catch them sipping cocktails and they probably aren’t on Twitter.

You are more likely to find them buying a ready-made tikka masala at Tesco on a Friday night before heading back to the lab, than handing out business cards at networking drinks before taking a trip up Kilimanjaro.

I took the route of enterprise software to bring technology that is fundamentally different, innovative and new to the marketplace.

We were a small, nerdy team, convinced that our product could change the technology world, but we knew nothing about business.

At the time, it was a big drawback. The financial world was intimating, we didn’t know the lingo, and there was a mountain of risks and practical assessments that told us that it wouldn’t work.

Today, I can see that that naivety was critical to our success.

Of course, I had to go on a crash course about debt ratios and net present values, but my basis and driving vision came from maths and sciences not economics or business studies.

It is sad to see that the shackles of financial modelling and economic theories often end up strangling fledging innovation rather than complementing it.

It is even more depressing to see that the education I was lucky enough to receive in maths and sciences is nowhere near a given for the majority of children in this country.

The Institute of Physics recently reported that 49 per cent of all state schools in England do not even send one girl on to do physics at A-level.

These figures should shock us into urgent action. While measures are being taken, the importance of the sciences, and physics is particularly important for the technology world, is not high enough up in the public consciousness.

Science and maths represent a core toolkit that kids with something to prove need in order to go out, get ahead and compete.

Science challenged me and opened my mind to what was possible. It showed me not how things should be, but why things are as they are and how they have the potential to change.

There has been recent commentary on how technical CIOs really need to be.

Gartner reports that 25 per cent of CIOs now come from a non-technical background; CIOs, we are told, are moving from technicians to tacticians that are key in shaping company strategy.

The debate seems misguided. The reason that 75 per cent of CIOs are technical is because you understand your field of information technology in detail and as such can take strategic decisions for your business accordingly.

It’s not an either, or.

Core competencies such as science and maths, just like English and the arts, represent the academic foundation of our society, not a nice-to-have; in human hands, their potential applications are endless.

The UK technology scene desperately needs to have such core technical subjects restored to visible, attractive and accessible position in the media as well as on the curriculum.

The current shakiness of the economy and our concern about the future could be just the catalyst that is needed for tomorrow’s bright young things with something to prove, and that would be pretty cool.