Syed Kamall, Conservative MEP for London, considers the current issues facing the London tech scene and urges everyone to keep government informed to help solve them.
Everyone in politics knows something exciting is going on in tech, but it can be hard even for people in the sector to keep up with the speed of change, let alone us in the political world. Yet, as politicians we have a duty to give you the best environment to work in.
I used to code myself years ago and so I know that tech and online business can sometimes be very different to traditional businesses, especially when it comes to the speed of change and the need for flexibility.
Across our great city, there seems to be a company fixing, or trying to fix, just about every conceivable problem. But London’s tech startups also face hurdles and this summer I spent a lot of time looking into the problems, holding Google Hangouts and roundtables with people in tech and visiting firms.
As an MEP for London and the leader of the third largest political group in the European Parliament (the ECR Group), I wanted to know what we need to do in London and Brussels to help you.
Our tech scene is doing incredibly well, but it could be doing even better.
Problem 1: Skills and talent
A lack of programmers is an almost universal complaint I hear from everyone. While making coding part of the national curriculum has huge support, it won’t fix the immediate problem. As one person said, ‘I can’t employ an 8 year old, I need staff now!’
Even if we ensure coding is taught in all of our schools, is the rest of the education system working? On a visit to `Makers Academy` programmer bootcamp, I heard how computer science courses in some cases are not teaching the skills startups need.
Makers Academy has identified what it believes is a gap in the market to provide a 12 week course that focuses on turning non-coders into coders, but they too face a problem as students cannot get a student loan for this type of course. This is because the curriculum changes so frequently in order to keep up with the fast moving developments in tech that it is never the same long enough to get accreditation for loans.
I`m delighted that they worked with others to come up with the Tech City Fellowship. It’s a new way of funding students but still needs external backers. The problem is the fact they even had to create the scheme illustrates the whole problem being faced.
Digital Apprenticeships are another solution to the skills question. Just like professional football teams, startups could take on enthusiastic youngsters and train them to fit into the company culture from the start.
This is an interesting concept because unlike in sport which can take years of training, talented young coders could adapt very quickly, although this does raise the question of what is an apprenticeship and what is a job? However, would arguments over definitions matter to the youngsters who are taken on and given a chance?
At the moment there is a review of skilled migrant visas. There is some debate about whether tech should be given an exception and I had a very good discussion with Eileen Burridge of TechCityUK and Guy Levin from COADEC about this.
As I`m sure you know recent announcements to the Tier 1 visa process should make it easier for tech firms to recruit highly skilled staff from outside the EU but there are still concerns about Tier 2, the more general skilled visa.
Politicians will face political pressure to encourage firms to recruit British talent first. However, since tech moves so quickly we will need to avoid starving firms of the skills they need. Otherwise, they will quickly fall behind competitors elsewhere in the world.
Problem 2 : Super fast broadband
I am constantly staggered that London ranks so far behind many countries when it comes to broadband speed. In one recent survey we are ranked 26th in the world (some reports say even worse) and it’s even worse for mobile data.
London has superfast broadband, but as Anthony Impey from infrastructure company Optimity told me, “The problem is getting it from the local ‘junction box’ to the person sitting at their computer”.
Yet the demand for increased data speeds grows everyday as tech companies look for better and better data connectivity to provide their products. If we can`t deliver the infrastructure, our tech economy will slow. Full stop.
The problem appears to be getting access to lay cables. While we do not want to go back to the bad old days of roads being dug up all the time, broadband has to be a priority. Fast moving tech firms cannot wait 6 months for a cable to be laid. We need to be talking to TfL and local councils to ensure this process happens faster and is better coordinated.
The other problem is with landlords. Many are apparently reluctant to have drilling in their buildings, or to deal with the cost of installing high speed cables. We need to incentivise landlords to do this. A list of ‘tech friendly buildings’ is already being trialled and I hope that firms will vote with their feet.
Problem 3: Opening up government
I don’t know how many times I’ve heard the phrase that ‘government is opening its doors up to small businesses’ and then how many firms tell me nothing has changed!
Emanuel Andjelic from Squirrel.me told me about his involvement with Telefonica’s incubator where firms are invited in to try and tackle big problems for the firm. Government, whether local, regional, national or at a European level needs to be doing more of this. There is movement but why are there not teams of disruptive thinkers being offered the chance to tackle almost every problem government faces today?
So much to offer
The tech sector has so much to offer to London and to Britain, and so I will certainly be doing all I can to help tackle these three key priorities. Skills, broadband and opening up government.
There are of course many other issues and I will certainly be focussing on those to over the coming months.
Britain has a proud history of entrepreneurship. It’s the innovators, the people poring over code, night and day, in the corner of a bedroom, living room or office, who are going to be the people who transform our lives today and tomorrow.
So keep going. Keep telling us politicians what you need and I will do all I can to help make it happen.
Syed Kamall is Conservative MEP for London and leader of the European Conservatives & Reformists (ECR) Group
This story originally appeared on Tech City News.