Scotland is fast gaining a reputation for developing a strong education technology ecosystem, either through science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) teaching or the growth of small businesses.
The Logan Report highlighted a greater need to boost tech skills across the country and called for education and talent to be nurtured at school, university, and startup level.
Logan put the onus on the Scottish Government to build the infrastructure needed to support this, including physical co-location environments for startups and the social infrastructure required to support a vibrant technology ecosystem.
This will, of course, require the correct investment, including grant funding, public and private investment regimens.
Despite this, there remains a skills gap in tech subjects across the UK, both at an educational level and a technical level, which is holding countries like Scotland back.
There are established, deep-rooted issues with a lack of digital skills at teaching level to educate effectively, while the stigma surrounding technology being a ‘man’s skill’ is, in some cases, denying women and minorities opportunities in the industry.
Omar Tufayl, software engineering manager and founder of engineering recruitment platform Loopsio, spoke to DIGIT about the importance of training in tech subjects at school level, diversity in the sector and the growing skills gap.
Bridging the educational divide
There is no discussion required when we talk about a gap between academia and industry. There’s undoubtedly roadblocks suffocating the pipeline of salient tech talent.
During his research at Glasgow University, Tufayl discovered a substantial void between what students learn in an academic environment and working in an industrial space.
Using things like apprenticeships are a good place to start to fix this problem, he says. However, software engineering is a hands-on discipline. Although it has a theoretical aspect to it, it is better to learn whilst coding and building projects.
“Academia is trying to bring in practices that allow students to get real-world experience,” Tufayl comments.
“What that usually means is that you get an assignment from your lecturer, but it’s all very nicely contained. But in the real world you’ve got all these messy realities, such as customers changing their mind or the market changing – all sorts of chaos – and that chaos needs to be brought into the software engineering learning curriculum.”
He adds: “Otherwise, you’re learning in a fake environment. When you’re thrown into the real world it takes six months to a year to really get used to the pace.”
That is how he came to create the first iteration of Loopsio, a platform that enables software engineering students to gain practical, hands-on experience required for working in industry. It also provides businesses and organisations a way to resource small-scale software work and access talent.
His reasoning for making the jump to start Loopsio was discussions he was having with students and employers about the usefulness of these skills within the workplace.
“The feedback from students and employers is that there’s a big difference between students that are not getting this hands-on project experience and those that are.”
Representation through tech education
As Mark Logan suggests, an important part of training the next generation of tech workers in Scotland is apprenticeships and teaching STEM subjects at school level.
Tufayl muses that, not only will this give kids an interest in technology and the skills moving forward, but it also helps to address another continuing barrier in technology – a lack of female and BAME representation.
He says: “I think the field is just broadening and there has been a massive emphasis on including people from various backgrounds and different makeups and genders.
“I think traditionally, there was a rightful stereotype that software engineering and computing was a very male-dominated field.
“We’ve really seen that change in the last few years with a big emphasis on bringing women in the field; girls; minorities, and it feels like more of the party is now in software engineering, which is great for someone like me, coming from a minority background.”
Part of Tufayl’s work is looking to further breakdown these barriers. He poses the question: “Why should it always be guys and geeks that are into software engineering?”
He continues: “At the end of the day, if we want our software to be human and user friendly, you’re going to need people from different backgrounds.”
He adds: “If you want a fairer software world, you need to bring everyone into the room so that everyone is represented as a reflection of the world that we live in and want.
“Software is everywhere now, and that’s not going anywhere. It’s only going to become more and more embedded in our everyday existence.”
Can we fix the digital skills gap?
The UK Government STEM Education Training Strategy said that the UK has plans to build the country’s capacity to deliver learning and close equity gaps in participation and attainment in STEM.
Additionally, it has looked to inspire young people and adults to study STEM, and to provide a better connection between this education and training and the needs of the labour market in Scotland.
Tufayl comments that, in his field, he has seen the impact of this manifesting itself directly through the Logan report.
“One of the recommendations in the report was that we need to start this education sooner. It’s very similar to maths and physics,” he says. “It shouldn’t be something that you learn when you get to university, it should be something as core as reading and writing or numbers. It’s an important skill for our digital future.”
Early-stage learning is becoming more and more vital, as we morph into a tech-driven society – everyone needs more understanding of technology now than ever before.
Tufayl says: “Learning to code will be like learning to read and write in the future. You will need at least some level of proficiency to navigate the world that we are heading towards.
“If it’s going to become more digital and you don’t understand how to read and write in that world you are going to have a lot of difficulty.”
Beyond early-stage education, providing older people and adults with the right training has also become important. Organisations are now teaching people from all ages and backgrounds how to code.
“We have got these machines, but I don’t think we are leveraging them in a way that we could. If you don’t know how to code, you feel as if you’re almost missing out on something.”
He continues: “There might be a big emphasis on kids in school and people in university but what about adults that are already in the workplace, either 40s or 50s or whatever? What if they want to switch career what’s out there for them?
“There is a skills gap, but people are wanting to close it by taking these courses and their popularity shows that.”
The current tech ecosystem
According to Digital Technology Education Charter, computing science uptake in schools has fallen dramatically over the last decade. Alongside this a rapid decline of computing science teachers in Scotland has been noted, with many Scottish schools not offering the subject at all.
In contrast, Scotland has an exciting digital tech sector with excellent tech courses at college and university, as well as a will to help inspire kids to become interested in technology.
According to Mark Logan’s recommendations, there should be a boost in funding, infrastructure, and education at school level to help scale up the technology sector and make Scotland a global hub.
When asked what he believes the Logan report is doing for Scotland, and the importance of startups like his in driving these recommendations, he says the report is “massive”.
“You need big players like Skyscanner and the big banks like JP Morgan and Barclays, but you also need smaller entities to make an ecosystem an ecosystem,” Tufayl muses.
“The bottom part [startups] is probably more important than the top. If you have no activity at the bottom, then how are those entities going to rise and become bigger entities that sustain the ecosystem?
“I think the lifeblood of any ecosystem, and especially a tech ecosystem, is startups. You want a stream of startups coming through.”
Tufayl concludes: “How much of the digital world is going to be made in Scotland? We may be a small country, but we have the potential to have an outsized impact, and that’s inspiring.”
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