Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 1 October 2014

Tech experts can have bright future in Northern Ireland

Young people may see their futures elsewhere but when it comes to technology, there are ample opportunities at home. Lesley Houston reports

Northern Ireland students could have a great future in the hi-tech sector
Northern Ireland students could have a great future in the hi-tech sector

A poll of young people by the Belfast Telegraph features the astonishing finding that around two-thirds of 16-to-24-year-olds see their future outside Northern Ireland.

But despite that gloomy prognosis, tech pundits have been hearing that the younger generation are hot property right here.

Though two-thirds of our Generation Y said they want out, they have in fact been singled out by global IT conglomerates as the best people for the industry.

At Thursday's Belfast Technology Conference, Lord Mayor Mairtin O Muilleoir said when the world's biggest companies branch out, they want to fill their workforce with tech experts from Northern Ireland.

The mayor said chiefs at a number of blue-chip multinationals have told him: "If you get us more programmers, you will get more jobs."

He said the major companies, with headquarters in the US and bases here, said they simply like being in Northern Ireland.

That's backed up by statistics, proudly bandied round the two-day event, which named Belfast as the fastest-growing knowledge economy in Europe.

The city also boasts the number one position for global investment location among financial tech software. Among the growing number of blue-chip giants here are the New York Stock Exchange, Chicago Mercantile Exchange, Cybersource, Liberty Mutual, Intel, plus companies with local roots, such as Allstate and Concentrix, all of which speak highly of Northern Ireland's programmers.

So, despite the gloom of the Belfast Telegraph's The Young poll, the horizon at least looms bright for Northern Ireland's knowledge economy.

And it was on an upbeat buzz of enthusiasm that the inaugural BelTech conference rolled into the Europa last week.

Everything from beer-making via a smartphone to affordable legal services available online was showcased through diverse talks, discussion groups and exhibits.

So, just what is it about us that makes Northern Ireland's calibre for tech so pronounced?

Tom Gray, chief technology officer of conference sponsor Kainos Software, believes he has the answer – it's in the Northern Ireland make-up.

"There is something – a gene, perhaps – in our population that seemes to make us ideally suited to science, technology and engineering roles. And that bodes well for the next generation as they grow up in an increasingly knowledge-based environment," he said.

The technology chief added, however, that more needs to be done to harness the capabilities of that special tech 'gene'.

"As technology, and digital technology especially, becomes more pervasive, we should be striving to prepare our children to be the creators of the next iteration of digital technologies, rather than passive users," he said.

But he maintained: "We're not teaching programming in schools at the level that we should."

He said that although he had worked with "brilliant" technologists and innovators from across the globe, he found: "The people and organisations in Northern Ireland are as good as, if not better, than them."

Listing Northern Ireland's pioneering advances like air conditioning, the portable defibrillator, the discovery of the first pulsar and the first vertical take-off jet, he said, "let us trust that the next generation is equally capable" of comparable firsts.

He said valuable initiatives for children, outside the school curriculum, like CoderDojo, 3D Dojo, Codecamp, and others – who were among the conference exhibitors – were "quite simply, building our future".

That vote of confidence in the calibre of future techies was brimming over at the event, which also featured focused talks on the multi-layered world of technology.

Taking part in the talk, 'How Cities are Fostering Innovation' , Mike Savage, the Belfast-born mayor of Halifax, Nova Scotia in Canada, and Alex Torpey of South Orange, New Jersey – one of the US's youngest-ever mayors – each addressed the role of technology advances in local government.

Mr Torpey spoke of his involvement in helping to launch one of his country's most transparent municipal budgets online, which saves time, money and improves transparency by providing citizens with all information regularly enquired about.

Mr Savage said "cities that do not innovate don't prosper" but proudly said Halifax was one prime Canadian city in which "innovation hubs" were springing up to help drive local business. He added that "technology is an enabler" and among the best ways of "bringing citizens closer to their government".

Mr O Muilleoir added that though Belfast was spearheading super-connectivity, with its programme to roll out internet access nodes and improve broadband access, he said lessons could be learned from Londonderry.

Its city's mayor, Martin Reilly, said technological advances were "crucial to its economic development" and had played a pivotal role in the delivery of its programme during last year's UK City of Culture celebrations.

A Twitter stream ran live throughout the sessions on screens with participants tweeting about "excellent interaction at Beltech 2014 conference. Massively informative and engaging".

Latest@SYNCNI.com tweeted: "There are a lot of jobs #OutThere!" if you've a passion for #tech, channel it and contribute to NI's tech scene @dangrant #BelTech14.

For others, though, that need for further work to educate those not yet in possession of the tech 'gene', it was all a bit much.

One honest follower tweeted: "This stuff is a bit too advanced for me #BelT".

Mayor calls for annual Silicon Valley pilgrimage

Belfast Lord Mayor and tech buff Mairtin O Muilleoir is calling for an introduction of an annual pilgrimage to the Mecca of tech, Silicon Valley in California.

His call follows a successful trade mission of business last September when 20 ventures got the chance to pitch to major US companies.

Speaking at the tech conference, Mr O Muilleoir said he was very keen to see the trade mission be adopted as an annual event and speculated whether European funding might be available to support the initiative.

It would allow entrepreneurs and companies working in technology and digital-led industries to go the States to appeal for investment from leading investors and venture capitalists from the West Coast, he said.

The Lord Mayor quipped that during a recent meeting with his counterpart in Dublin, he had boasted that the Irish capital was "the digital capital of Europe".

He said he applauded the city's success at "turning a dirty oul' town's image" into a European technological hub and said it was his duty to foster similar efforts north of the border.

"My role is to empower those creating innovation and cutting edge technology," he said, while encouraging Northern Ireland firms to follow a similar trajectory.

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