Helping the South East Remain the Silicon Valley of UK

Written by Sarah Burnett, Chair of BCSWomen and Vice President at Everest Group

Sarah Burnett has been announced as the South East’s local champion 2017. Sarah Burnett is a well-known industry analyst, market influencer and VP at Everest Group. She is chair BCSWomen and founder of AI Accelerator, a programme of free events and talks by experts in Artificial Intelligent (AI) to inform and educate participants. In 2016 Computer Weekly named Sarah one of 50 most influential women in UK IT.

The South East is making something of a comeback as one of the major tech industry hotspots in the UK. Surrounded by centers of academic excellence in high tech sciences such as Southampton University in the south and Reading and Oxford Universities to the west, the region has benefitted from the tech industry for decades. The Thames Valley, in particular, has worn the crown of being the Silicon Valley of the UK on and off for decades. The off periods came when, firstly IT outsourcing led to off-shoring of services and then some of the global giants of the industry, consolidated their lofty office spaces or moved their headquarters to lower tax countries in the EU such as Ireland. The industry in the region shook itself and transformed after these down periods and is thriving again in the South East. According to an article in the Financial Times (FT) in 2016, Reading and Bracknell are tech powerhouses. The area, including these two towns, is today home to the UK’s largest collection of digital businesses excluding London. The region generates £10bn of the total UK tech sector that is valued at £161bn. The FT quotes findings from an annual survey of digital businesses, conducted by Tech City UK  and Nesta.

The region cannot rest on its laurels though and needs to create more of an environment where tech startups can thrive and grow easily. All too often we lose our best brains and ideas to the US. Technology is today such a core part of everyday life that the country cannot afford to be left behind in skills and innovation. Yet our hard-working startups continue to find it difficult to get funding and, good, timely advice on how to grow.

Startups find it particularly challenging to compete for scarce tech skills against major global corporations. Apart from the general skills shortage, women are significantly under-represented in the sector which makes the scarcity of skills more acute.

More coordinated activity is needed to bring schools, academia, government and investors together to create the right environment to nurture and encourage more people into the industry. Another challenge is helping SMEs keep up with the latest technologies to remain competitive. When we leave the EU and go it alone, after Brexit, when some of our research funding drys up, we will need to work even more to keep the UK at the forefront of digital advances and innovation.

To help address some of these challenges, I have been working with organizations such as Digital Leaders South East (DLSE), Tech UK Women in Tech Council, BCS – the British Institute for IT – and BCS Women, the women’s group of BCS, to help boost skills and bring more women into the industry. For example, at a recent DLSE event, I highlighted the rise of digital and automation technologies and the benefit and challenges that these bring to small organizations.

As chair of BCSWomen, I have recently launched the AI (Artificial Intelligence) Accelerator program. A series of free webinars, seminars and hand-on events by experts to help women (and men) learn about AI and the business and career opportunities that it brings. Within BCSWomen we have run multitudes of networking, technology focused and coding events to attract and retain more women to the industry.

Despite the challenges, I am optimistic about the future of the tech sector in the South East. The sector has already shown its resilience to changing trends and will do so again. There are many keen and energetic volunteer organizations, such as DL South East who are doing much to bring out the issues and find solutions that will benefit the whole of the industry.

The region is thriving again today but as history has shown, it cannot ever rest on its laurels. We can all contribute to help it stay ahead and keep its crown as the Silicon Valley of the UK.


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