19 November 2015

guardian column tech skills

Helen Lewis’ article on the Guardian website 11/11/2015 got me thinking about tech skills in this country – are we wasting them?

Are too many people wasting their talents catering for convenience instead of having a real impact on the world?

I read an interesting column in The Guardian this week. Helen Lewis discusses the stuff-in-a-box trend and how it is part of the larger trend in startup culture – it’s all about relieving small inconveniences for young professionals, like the very people creating the ‘stuff-in-a-box deliveries’. There’s a distinct trend for aiding the middle-class, time-strapped young desk-workers, and making some money for yourself along the way by charging a premium for the convenience.

Whilst there is an undoubtable amount of STEM talent in the UK, I can’t help but echo Helen’s main question – should our best minds be solving real problems rather than the minor inconveniences of the cash-rich and time-poor?

Before I delve further into that, I have to highlight that this isn’t across the board – it’s a burgeoning trend. One such entrepreneur setting an extraordinary example of using these skills to do good is Chris Percival.

Chris is the founder of Jigsaw Medical, buying his first ambulance with his first student loan payment and growing from there. Jigsaw Medical now provides NHS ambulance vehicles and is turning over a healthy sum. It is an incredible story of a fully qualified young paramedic spotting a real need and doing something to help it.

In all honesty, I wonder if shows like The Apprentice and Dragons’ Den have helped to grow the culture of bonkers ideas that people don’t need but simply want. Do you really need to have a tray of nuts and seeds delivered to your desk, or could you buy them from the shop on the way to work yourself?

I am all for making things easier for people in their everyday lives, but imagine if we put that knowledge, technical skill and entrepreneurial nouse to something that works for the greater good, like Chris has at Jigsaw Medical.

I can’t help but feel that it is a waste of much-needed technical skill and talent in this country. We talk constantly about a huge technical and digital skills app – it’s the biggest conversation topic in the industry – yet we have enough people to create game after game (there are millions of them in app stores) and to create websites and systems to mail nonsense products to your desk at work at a premium price and little real value other than novelty and convenience.

As Helen says, this energy and expertise could be used for an app that would revolutionise elderly care. But would it get the marketing buzz and backing because it’s not a novel idea?
I don’t pretend to have all of the answers by any stretch, but maybe it is down to entrepreneurs and leading business owners to nurture these world-changing ideas, to give them the confidence to grow without needing the buzz that these novelty businesses have.

One area of Helen’s article that I don’t necessarily agree with though is that these world-changing ideas would struggle to ‘attract the buzz and venture capital that they needed to mature into something truly world-changing’. I worry that we’re in danger of driving startups down a path where they believe that the only way to growth is through venture capital.

Having been invited to speak at numerous events advising the best ways to secure funding, including one related to the Royal Family, we seem to be driving budding entrepreneurs down one path and that’s to getting funding! I couldn’t believe my ears at one of the events where people with no product, no proven sales and no patents were demanding tens of thousands of pounds.

Why can’t we be frugal instead? Be careful with cash and grow organically and it will stand you in much better stead for the future – that’s how I grew UKFast now and that is why we have financials that I am incredibly proud of.

If you have a strong idea, you know you can be the best in your field and you are passionate, I believe that nothing will stop you. But it is down to you. Will you choose to develop something to change lives, or use your knowledge to solve a minor inconvenience to people who already live comfortably?

Do you need to develop an app to deliver kittens to offices for an hour (something that I hear UBER are considering, and that I am sure the UKFast team would love. Although we already have animals in the office on a weekly basis, with people bringing their dogs for the day or kitten-sitting!) or could you solve a real need in the world? I think the former is an easy way out. Be revolutionary, be different and make a difference.

Are we at risk of wasting our STEM skills and technology industry on frivolity instead of making a long-lasting and meaningful difference?

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