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The digital skills gap: A myth or just an excuse?

It’s an exciting time to be part of Britain’s tech scene, with what has been described as the largest Internet-based economy in the world. This isn’t the only positive sign that the UK is fast becoming a dominant global tech power, and EYs latest ‘Attractiveness Survey’ named London as the second most likely city in the world – after San Francisco – to create the next big tech giant, according to investors.

A global tech power needs the best digital skills

This growth is resulting in surging demand for candidates to fill technical roles and along with it, various scare stories asserting that there is a digital skills gap. It’s being described in some quarter as a time bomb that threatens the nation’s future success. According to such reports, this apparent lack of available resources in the marketplace will ultimately mean that the likelihood of the next tech unicorn rising from the UK, or for UK blue chip companies to implement successful digital transformation projects, is diminished.

The problem with such scaremongering though is that it shies away from exposing some of the real problems in the recruitment of more technically minded candidates. The reality is the inability to track down software engineers with the required skills is neither down to a lack of suitable candidates for the role, or a skills gap per se. What’s really at hand is a disconnect between the way organisations set about attracting and retaining software engineers, and what it is that these candidates actually want an employer to be offering them. I’d argue that the ‘digital skills gap’ is little more than a myth, perpetuated by the kind of organisation that doesn’t understand that if they perceive there to be a lack of available talent available to them, others might be having a better time of it. Why? Well because they have developed the kind of culture necessary to deliver digital success and are inundated with applicants to fill the roles they have available.

Dealing with resource gaps

Technology is now the bedrock of practically any significant organisation you could care to name, and many will consider the only way to deal with the lack of available resource is by paying over the odds to consultants for a premium for an output that doesn’t necessarily align to what the company is trying to achieve in the first place. This is not necessarily the fault of the software engineer, although many consultancy firms have done a great line in making themselves indispensable to an organisation, because it’s not widely understood what systems would fall over if they were not there to support them.

There are some very legitimate concerns that can be raised over how future-proof a business really is if it is not set up in the right way to attract and retain the software engineers that are so desperately needed. The problem for big organisations that like to do things a certain way is that software engineers don’t tend to respond terribly well to be treated like another white collar member of the workforce. They’re creatives, who don’t want to be tied to a traditional 9-5 routine. Are they therefore any less vital to the future success of your organisation? Far from it.

What's your culture like?

Culture is often ingrained in many organisations' heritage, which can be both a blessing and a curse. The binding principles of any business steeped in success could be argued as integral to where an organisation is going as to where it’s been – its DNA effectively. To imply though that the leaders of such an organisation don’t often recognise the need for change does them a disservice. What’s lacking is an understanding that any business transformation initiative, powered by technology needs to have a corresponding cultural transformation to accommodate a more diverse workforce and optimise success.

A lack of awareness when it comes to making the business an appealing environment to work in for software engineers, and how to treat them when they actually arrive, not only has an impact on an organisation's ability to execute on any number of business objectives, but also on its standing in the global community. When a business is popular with the software engineering community, you can bet that it boils down to a more relaxed attitude to what a ‘professional’ individual looks and behaves like, and gives software engineers the freedom to work – and play – in a way that best suits them. In such an environment, software engineers are likely to thrive, and the odds of them accepting a position at an organisation based on reputation means it becomes less about the money, and more about the experience.

Often it can simply be a lack of understanding over what more technically minded employees are recommending as a solution to achieve the defined business objectives, which lies at the heart of any resistance to change. ‘Disruptive’ technology is seen quite negatively as being disruptive to the business of running a business.

The recommendations of traditional consultancy service providers can often appear more palatable because they are better suited to integration with the pre-existing white collar culture of an organisation, when outside help is sought to plug the gaps in a software engineering team. But assimilation of consultancy services into a business in this way isn’t necessarily in the best interests of the organisation. All that it ensures is the continued dependency on the consultancy services being received for years to come, with an organisation failing to recognise the wider cultural changes required to make a project a success.

Bridging the skills gap

To bridge this imagined skills gap and reduce the dependency on consultancies, the C-suite needs to redefine what they want talent to look like. It’s time to shift the conversation from ‘I need x’ to ‘I want to enable y, what do I need to achieve this?’

By identifying what they want to achieve from a business perspective, they can then work with software engineers to establish what software engineering skills are needed to make this digital, technological and cultural change happen. This means talking to the software engineering community, and understanding what makes them tick; what is it that induces their best work? Through consultancy, mediation, and education, the perceived skills gap can be closed, benefiting businesses and software engineers alike.

It’s time to flip the issue on its head. The industry as a whole needs to think less about where we are going to find the extra software engineers needed to fill the supposed gaps out there. Instead it needs to start considering what kind of roles it should be creating that will appeal to this increasingly important and vocal element of the workforce.

Rudi De Sousa, CTO of YLD