Paul Noonan on the need for diversity in the IT sector
At the CompTIA 2014 Member & Partner Conference, I joined an exclusive group of journalists and industry insiders to learn how the IT industry might diversify its workforce in an age of unprecedented market diversification.
I was there to see Maggie Philbin, the legendary BBC presenter who first showcased some of the world’s greatest inventions on live TV, give a keynote speech on how to build the IT workforce of the future.
The veteran broadcaster told an exclusive audience of tech innovators from across the UK and EMEA channel how she had witnessed the birth pangs of some of today’s most widely-used technologies , from the first ever truly mobile phone – with just 30 minutes talk-time – to the first school PC, which filled an entire room and needed oil to run.
Throughout her broadcasting career, she was inspired by witnessing ground-breaking ideas crystallise into functional products on our TV screens and watched as Tomorrow’s World became a visual launch-pad for “the great idea that is not quite ready”.
Philbin told the stories of wacky inventors with nothing but a dream and an idea who fought against the odds to change the world for the better: from Clive Sinclair, whose vision of a home PC for less than £100 revolutionised consumer electronics, to the inventor who nervously demonstrated the world’s first compact disc before a sceptical TV presenter who sneered “whether this replaces vinyl remains to be seen”.
The former Swap Shop presenter told the audience that we are now entering an exciting and uncertain era of unprecedented technological disruption, encapsulated by the power of a smartphone app to challenge the monopoly of traditional taxi companies almost overnight, and explained how the IT industry can stay ahead of the curve in this increasingly competitive landscape.
Philbin said her pioneering work with ‘Teen Tech’ – a series of events and a national awards scheme to help find the STEM workforce of the future – offered an insight into how the IT industry could overhaul its image among children and partner with schools to find future inventors, fertilise new ideas, disrupt the markets and diversify the workforce.
We were enraptured as two 15-year-old schoolgirls from Manchester’s Loretto Grammar School took to the stage to explain how they had defied the ‘male-dominated’ stereotype of technology, designing an award-winning echo-navigation aid for visually impaired people and an anklet that allows concerned relatives to track the movements of dementia-sufferers through a smartphone app, winning national awards in the process.
They had been engaged in technology through the ‘Teen Tech’ initiative which had transformed their school into a hotbed of innovation; Loretto now has 20 school teams competing to create ground-breaking inventions for the ‘Teen Tech Awards’ and has begun teaching STEM in a cross-curricular fashion across Years 8 and 9.
However, Philbin also painted a stark picture of the persistent stereotypes of IT that are holding back young talent; when asked to name famous technology entrepreneurs only 8 out of 300 children picked women and, asked to depict their image of an IT professional, school pupils overwhelmingly depicted a “nerd in the basement”, and people “with trousers up to their chest”.
Stereotypes begin early and it is vital that the IT industry engages directly with schools to dispel false perceptions at the formative stage, driving home the message that IT is as much about creativity and communication as tech savvy, if we are to address the intertwined issues of the IT skills gap and the industry-wide ‘gender imbalance’.
At the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre, we gained a portal into how the IT industry’s wellspring of ideas is drawn from a wider pool of talent than ever before, and how we all stand to benefit as a result.
– Paul Noonan
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