Public Sector

A blueprint for Derry’s tech scene

A few weeks ago Digital DNA’s Simon Bailie asked me to write a short piece about Derry for DDNA’s 100 Top Tech Companies in NI report.  Simon asked me to cover the Derry tech scene – how it’s altered in the almost 20 years I’ve been working in the City & perhaps more importantly, what the missing ingredients are that would make the Maiden City’s tech scene really sing.  I enjoyed writing it & was surprised to find that no-one else has written about this.  Here are my musings in full.

How much has the Derry tech scene changed?

I began working in Derry in 2004.  I moved from Belfast where I’d been global CFO in one of QUB’s semiconductor IP spinouts.  I’d spent a good bit of my time in the early noughties in Silicon Valley and Derry in 2004 couldn’t have been further from San Jose.  The only similarity was that the streets were completely deserted by 5.30pm.  When I told my friends in Belfast that I was taking a job in Derry they all tried to talk me out of it.  I remember trying to recruit a team in 2004 and talent was very thin on the ground.  Most of the local workforce were lifers in one of the FDIs or they commuted to tech jobs in either Belfast or Letterkenny.

The local “tech scene” back then was dominated by the prominent FDIs Seagate & Allstate (or Northbrook as it was then known), big fish Singularity (bought out by Kofax in 2011) and a never-ending raft of call centres and it was populated by revered avuncular middle-aged men like Bro McFerran and Alan McClure.  Anyone calling the HP or Expedia help lines back in the day would’ve been greeted by a Derry accent, way before it was trendy.

We started Learning Pool in London in 2006 and quickly moved the company to Derry because it was bootstrap-affordable and because of the ready talent graduating from Magee.  We couldn’t afford to hire an experienced team so we recruited new graduates with the right attitude and trained them.  We didn’t have an office so we took a few desks in the (by today’s standards) shockingly haphazard co-working space at the University.  Even though the space was supposed to be reserved for new startups, a few companies had been renting in there forever so we ended up with desks dotted here & there in random parts of the floor.  No-one in our team could sit together & the co-working space manager constantly shushed us whenever we took phone calls & harped on forever about the washing up.  We had a desktop PC in the corner with a paper notice sellotaped to the top of it which read DO NOT SWITCH OFF (we didn’t have a server either!)

Today there’s a stable of promising scaling tech companies choosing to base themselves in Derry.  Established companies like Elemental Software (made the Top 10 in Tech Nation’s Rising Stars 3.0 last month) and Foods Connected (No 5 on the Deloitte Fast 50 across Ireland in 2020).  Newer entrants like medtech company Respiratory Analytics (just raised a pre-seed from an interesting bunch of investors and have an eye firmly on the US market), cyber security company ITUS and caretech challenger startup InCharge.  Many companies keep one foot in Derry and the other in Donegal, thus preserving their EU status for access to customers and funding.

With Elemental Software’s Jennifer Neff & Leeann Monk at Arab World in Dubai

Catalyst Inc (formerly known as the NI Science Park) opened its doors in 2014 on the historic Fort George site just outside the city and has been a great formal addition to the fabric of the local ecosystem.  Other active startup supports like Startacus and new female founder community AwakenHub are anchored in Derry.

Today the local tech scene is younger, more female, less formal, more global, well educated and informed and definitely ambitious.  A lot of newer founders have lived away from Ireland for a while but are electing to return home and settle down, build a business.  Catalyst’s Co-Founders programme has uncovered some interesting nascent companies.  Some of those new graduates that I recruited back in 2006 or 2007 have gone on to found their own startups.  That’s how ecosystems work.

Impact of FDIs

The FDIs are still present but they’re less dominant today.  They don’t have a lot of employee churn and just tick along in the background, largely behind closed doors.  They bring employment to an area of Northern Ireland that badly needs it and they sponsor the odd event and programme.  Many of the call centres seem to have been bought over and have disappeared.  Innovation and all the interesting stuff happens in the smaller, agile companies around the edges and this is what we need more of.  As well as the FDIs we now have the presence of indigenous scaleups like Kainos (one of Northern Ireland’s two unicorns) and FinTru.  It would be great to see a few more like these moving in but high quality office space is an issue.  Maybe not so important in the future we’re facing post-COVID.  The traditional talent pool has extended from the Bann well into Donegal and in Derry I’ve worked beside people who’ve commuted daily from as far afield as Ballycastle and Creeslough.

Missing Ingredients

If it was Christmas morning and I could have 3 wishes to improve the tech sector ecosystem in the North West this is what I would wish for:

  • an ambitious cross-border university named after the late John Hume with campuses in both Derry and Donegal (and perhaps even further away) and strong links into the powerful North West diaspora that stretches from Philadelphia to London to Singapore.  I’m always impressed by the vibrant startup scene that exists in Letterkenny as a result of the numerous overseas students and researchers who come to LYIT for academic reasons and end up staying.  The new university to be fastened at the hip to a well funded and well resourced startup and alumni accelerator regime like Oxford University has with Oxford Foundry which in turn connects firmly into sources of venture finance, a bit like EDEM in the marina in Valencia;
  • a Derry-Letterkenny-Sligo-Galway Economic Corridor along the Wild Atlantic Way to mirror the Belfast-Dublin corridor that was formally announced in the east of the island last month.  This to connect the opportunities that will naturally flow from the new Magee Medical School to the vibrant medtech cluster of companies and investors in Galway and to link in with the newly reinvigorated Western Development Commission and the string of Atlantic hubs the Irish State has invested in over recent years.  I am encouraged by news of a new cross-border scaling hub led by Catalyst Inc & LYIT which will be built in the image of the Portershed Galway model;
  • a focus placed on determining how Derry and indeed all of Northern Ireland can tangibly and quickly benefit from being so close to an EU border in the post-Brexit world.

Can Derry compete with Belfast?

This was a provocation question posed by Simon in his brief to me.  In my view this is not the right question and shouldn’t be part of anyone’s ambition.  Any venture starting out in the new world should instead think about opportunities presented as a result of global changes that the past 12 months have fast tracked.  It’s now genuinely possible to be a global company from Day 1 and utilise talent from any part of the globe.  Barriers no longer exist.  Cities and regions need to think this way too.

To ask Derry to compete only with Belfast would not be setting a big enough challenge.

So, in conclusion, if you’re looking for a friendly and affordable university city to start your tech business, where it’s possible to be in both the UK & the EU, an hour from London by air, where 1/3 of the population is aged 16-39 and is well educated, where government startup funding is readily available, close to some of Europe’s finest beaches, with top class local state schools and a long history and culture … then maybe you should take a look at Derry.

As always, I welcome your comments, suggestions and improvements – please add in the blog comments section.

“Success to me is being able to look in the mirror & know I’m OK”

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Lemn Sissay with MOMO Ambassador Callie

The quote above was how Lemn Sissay (poet, playwright, author, broadcaster) opened his keynote at the Mind of My Own (MOMO) conference in Birmingham earlier this month.  I’d been looking forward to hearing him speak again.  I first came across Lemn when he spoke at the Houses of Parliament TEDx back in 2013 – worth a listen whatever your interests.  There were a lot of outstanding speakers that day but he was the one I enjoyed the most – authentic, passionate & with a real story that he needed to tell & which deserved to be heard.

Lemn and MaryMOMO is a fast growing tech for good company that makes it easier for children & young people to express their views & feelings to the people that work with them and the conference was a mix of social workers, care leavers, young people still in care, local authority officers and other interested parties.

Lemn describes himself as a black Mancunian care leaver, although he also wears many, many more hats, including being the current elected Chancellor of the University of Manchester for a 7 year stint.  He talked to us on the day about the reality of being a young person in care concentrating mainly on the aspects of family life that young people in care miss out on – the constant reinforcements that happen in every family – and the effect this has on them as adults.  What are you going to do when you grow up? When are you going to get a job? Are you going to university? Where are you going to university? When are you getting married?  All the stuff that the rest of us remember hating being asked every day by our extended families when we were growing up. Through that consistent and constant questioning and power of suggestion we learn to improvise and this is something that’s missing from the lives children lead in care.  His own personal story is a heartbreaking one, but it’s one that we listen to and hear because he has a platform from which to tell it.

Closing the gap

Lemn Sissay keynoteI can’t in this blog replicate the passion & authenticity of Lemn’s keynote, although it was filmed so the link will soon be available on the MOMO website if anyone would like to watch it.  I can however collect some thoughts around his key theme which was how to “close the gap” between children in care & everyone else. When you think about it like this, how can it be beyond the collected brain power of all the people that work in and are connected to the care system to make it better and in doing so improve the adult lives of care leavers. He suggested that we need to find a way to fill the hole that’s created by not having an extended family, because even though all families are dysfunctional, they play an important part in turning us into fully formed adults. He described how on his first day back in care aged 12 having been fostered out since a baby, his social worker told him how he couldn’t get emotionally involved in all his cases or he’d have a nervous breakdown. The foster family he’d spent the previous 11 or 12 years with cut off all contact with him.

He talked about how later when he lived in a children’s home with 15 other adolescents, there were 16 red boxes with glass to be broken in case of an emergency.  If a box was broken, the process kicked off & the institution sprang into action – but there still wasn’t anyone who could give him a hug.  Nobody thanked them for not breaking the glass on a daily basis but everybody understood what to do when the glass was broken – “the keys are jingling, the process is in place, the reviews are done”.  The stark reality is that no-one judges their own children by their behaviour, good or bad, on any given day – but that was how Lemn & the other 15 young people were judged.  They lived in an unemotional structure that operated along the lines of “if you do or don’t do this or that then X will happen to you” and they were constantly reminded of how far they had to fall.

Good news for Lemn personally

Lemn Yvonne Jill Mary

Lemn with MOMO co-founders Yvonne Anderson & Jill Thorburn (photo credit Rob Freeman)

Lemn’s own story is a famous one & one that I won’t cover here but the good news is he now has a fully dysfunctional family of his own, just like more or less everybody else, and whilst he hasn’t yet figured out how to make birthdays better for young people in care he is tackling Christmas day for care leavers and you can find out more about how that works here if you’d like to get involved.  Christmas dinners began in 2012 and last year happened on Christmas day itself in 12 cities. Thanks Lemn for the great work you do and for caring about what happens to other people and speaking out.

I realise this is a topic that many people choose not to think about outside of fiction – Harry Potter, Superman, David Copperfield, James Bond, Spiderman, Lisbeth Salander, Pippi Longstocking – but in 2017 there were over 70,000 children and young people in care in England & Wales alone.  Surely between us we can come up with some creative ways to improve their lives.

25 Takeaways from Northern Ireland’s GovCampConnect

govcamp-timetableThis weekend I’ve been participating in Ireland’s very first Govcamp.  For the uninitiated, govcamps are unconferences for people who work in & (most importantly) around all levels of government.  The govcamp movement in the UK was started in 2008 by Jeremy Gould.  If you’re interested in knowing more about the history, there’s an interesting blog from Stefan Czerniawski here with a lot of relevant links.  Don’t be put off by the title!

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L-R Dave Briggs, Jeremy Gould & Steph Gray – yep – you can tell who the sensible one is!

Regrettably I wasn’t at Jeremy’s first ukgovcamp but I’ve been to many of those that have taken place from 2009 onwards, the year the baton was passed to Steph Gray & Dave Briggs.  I love the informal & interactive format of unconferences – a polar opposite of the somewhat antiseptic TED talks where an “expert” or “personality” lectures us & then disappears without any challenge or interaction.  Yesterday was an inspiring and positive experience from start to finish and a great way to spend part of a weekend.  These are my key observations and positive/negative takeaways in no particular order.

  1. Surely this is the first ever govcamp to take place in a genuine castle; the beautiful and slightly decaying mock gothic Narrow Water Castle near Warrenpoint.
  2. We joined up with our colleagues at Govcamp Cymru via a Skype link for “randomised coffee trials” – a phrase coined by our colleague Esko Reinikainen who is a true one-off in every sense.

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    Dave McKenna on the live videolink with Govcamp Cymru

  3. Govcamp (and any unconference) remains a great opportunity to catch up & interact with a lot of interesting people in a single day and to add a few new people to your network.
  4. It’s an easy way to get up to speed with anything of note that’s happening in government in your own locality; it was especially useful for me as I’ve been away from Northern Ireland for the past 4 years.
  5. All govcamps fall into two main factions as the day progresses – the data geeks and everyone else.

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    The enthusiastic Open Data Institute NI gang – infecting us with their crazy data love – L-R Andrea Thornbury, Bob Harper, Lisa McElherron, Stephen Gray

  6. As usual there was scant senior civil service and local government representation and a complete absence of local politicians or ministers. Why is that?  They all say they want to embrace digital and they even make grandiose statements about using technology to close the divide between the haves & the have nots – but not enough it seems to come to Warrenpoint on a Saturday and engage with a grass roots community keen to help them achieve the practicalities of this.  Frustrating and disappointing.
  7. I learned a new phrase from Bill McCluggage – Steal with pride – I’ll be stealing that one Bill!rules
  8. A reminder of The Rules – surely not just for Govcamp but for all of life itself…see the pic.
  9. The phrase “this is just for within these four walls and is not for Twitter/not to be repeated” preceded a lot of interesting & juicy tales about government shenanigans – I wish we could change this environment in government & in Northern Ireland especially. We’ve come a long way but more honesty & transparency would be very welcome by a lot of citizens.
  10. I am personally bringing some of Northern Ireland’s (sensible) digital disruptors along to the next govcamp – top of my list is Matt Johnston, Roger Warnock & Barry Adams. I would’ve loved to have heard their take on some of what we discussed yesterday.  I’ll transport you all in the Fig if necessary J  That alone will be worth filming.
  11. Yesterday convinced me that the public sector should be forced to stay away from everything to do with smart cities until they have grasped the joined-up nature of what they are trying to achieve. Sad to hear about scores of expensive, over-engineered solutions being pitched to councils and the inevitable reinvention of the wheel that is occurring.  Another attendee whispered to me that in his view the Smart City initiative seems to be an elaborate money laundering scheme.    It isn’t sufficient for the public sector to be “engaged & willing”.  They need to make it their business to be properly informed and able to play their role effectively.
  12. I heard some great stories & attended a couple of really good sessions including Eoin McFadden’s on why failure matters & the difference between good & bad failure.
  13. Refreshing to attend a large event outside of the cities and it was so much fun to visit Warrenpoint.
  14. Despite the spotlight of recent years, public sector procurement is still a complete & utter mess, especially in Northern Ireland with the continuing usage & dominance of Central Procurement Directorate. Why is this allowed?
  15. Dave Briggs once said the day after govcamp is the most depressing day of the year. His rationale was that it’s the day all the changemakers have to go back to real life & face up to the daily frustrations of their job.  The challenge of doing something with all the “stuff” that’s discussed on the day remains.  LinkedIn, Slack etc are all woefully inadequate for continuing conversations.
  16. Money exists, at least right now in Northern Ireland, for small R & D pilots & innovation projects. See SBRI & #ODNI4EDU for starters.
  17. I enjoyed re-hearing some of Northern Ireland’s familiar government war stories – Eoin McFadden’s triumph with the chicken poo challenge is a particular favourite. You can read more here if you’re intrigued.
  18. I was reminded that there’s always a way if you have a network you can go to & discuss things if you’re stuck or struggling or failing – and that’s good to know as a lot of people battle away with projects on their own.
  19. Civil servants should be encouraged to be more open and transparent because the rest of us benefit enormously when they are.
  20. I learned a new word – pretotyping. Fake it before you make it.  More here
  21. The ones on the bus started imbibing at 2pm and that made them happy – well it was Saturday after all.
  22. Northern Ireland needs more people like the very articulate & totally on it Andrew Bolster. I award him my “Person of the Day” prize for his contributions to #gcc16 – thanks Andrew and thanks also for introducing me to Club-Mate … now all I need to know is where I can get more …
  23. Government to the innovator – “Sorry but your idea doesn’t match my programme”. Honestly – and excuse my language here but isn’t it about time we thought about how to change the f***ing programme.  How can this still be acceptable/happening?
  24. I have a lovely warm feeling today after spending 2 evenings and a day with the NI govcamp gang and I wish it could’ve been longer. This weekend has restored my love of the UK & Irish public sector and the people who work in it and yes I did use that phrase “if you cut me open I’d bleed public sector” in my own session.  Why?  Because it’s true & because I care.minecraft-kids
  25. The kids who pitched the last session of the day (a fabulous business case built in Minecraft for a new park in Newry) quite rightly owned the day. We are that awkward generation who aren’t true digital natives and all of this discomfort in government will soon pass.
  26. A bonus point – there are always some moments of complete hilarity on the day. Yesterday’s belly laugh was provided for us courtesy of Bill McCluggage.  It began with an audience member chipping in “As the author of that report…”  Hahaha – you probably had to be there for it!

What else do I have to say on this topic.  The format & rules are key & not to be tinkered with.  I remember one excruciating event at a past UK govcamp when a certain much loved & admired civil servant announced to the organisers that he would be appearing to give a keynote speech at a certain point in the afternoon & it was permitted.  Why I don’t know.  I was saddened that the ecosystem that existed at the time meant they didn’t tell him he’d need to turn up at 9am & queue up with the rest of the pitchers.

I’d like to thank the organisers Brian McCleland, Stephen Barry & Jonny McCullagh and we’re all very grateful for the generosity of the sponsors for funding a great day.  You’ve proved once again that a small number of enthusiastic and committed people can make pretty much anything happen.

Special thanks to the people who travelled a long way to be with us yesterday.  Suraj Kika of Jadu, freelance agile coach Mark Dalgarno, Rebekah Menzies of the Carnegie Trust, Deirdre Lee of Derilinx, Vanessa Liston of CiviQ and Brian Marrinan of Journey Partners.  Apologies if I’ve missed anyone.  I hope you made a lasting connection to Northern Ireland and we very much look forward to seeing you all again soon.

I’ve joined the Knowledge Hub project – here’s why

Imagine a virtual place where people who work in the wider UK public sector could find and network with each other, collaborate and publish, share anything, create and join expert groups. A place where a public servant or health worker or councillor or local government officer or charity worker or trustee could find and connect with likeminded people, extend their professional and personal network and improve their own career prospects and build employability currency by sharing and showcasing their work with and to their peers. Imagine if they could create public or private groups, invite their colleagues into them and start some dialogue. What if it was a place where people could also manage their business network properly and turn it into a valuable professional asset. And maybe show off a little bit about the great work that they or their organisation have done along the way.

Imagine a virtual place where as I start to type a free text question, the environment recognises some of the key words and starts to suggest to me other people in the wider public sector that I may wish to connect with or direct my question to, or offers me relevant content that I can easily squirrel away into my own private space, or offers me a “better” version of the question I’m asking along with a well-considered answer.

Imagine a vibrant virtual place that I can access from anywhere in the world and in a matter of minutes scan through all the important professional news of the day in a way that’s context specific to me.

It’s not Facebook, although it works a bit like that. Facebook is for my family and friends. It isn’t LinkedIn – good for filing away my business contacts (and great for head hunters and recruitment consultants!) but I still haven’t worked out if that’s worth it for the amount of unwanted and annoying approaches I receive. It’s bigger and works across boundaries better than Yammer. It’s an expert network, not a social network. I use it to make my own job easier and to make my organisation and indeed the sector better informed and more efficient.

Best of all it’s free to use.

The good news is that most of what I’ve described above already exists and is available for anyone to access right now. It’s called Knowledge Hub and you can join here – you can do that right now and start connecting and collaborating immediately. Everyone is welcome and there’s only one important rule – no overt selling allowed!

I’m excited and pleased to announce that I’ve joined the Knowledge Hub team this week. I’ve been aware of and closely connected to the project from the very early days when it was a seed of an idea started by Steve Dale at the IDeA, way back in the day. I used to work with some of the team members at the IDeA in the early noughties. I’ve joined them again now because I believe that the time has come for us all to pull together more than ever and work to make the public sector better able to deliver high quality services to the people we all work for and represent. Others agree with me and have joined in as well. So far we’re proud to count Socitm, Improvement Service Scotland, the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust (The Schools Network) and education research and knowhow sharing charity, Education Futures Collaboration, among our early clients.

My hope? Someone once said of me that if you cut me open, I would bleed UK local government so for me the ultimate outcome for Knowledge Hub is to build an environment and community that gives its members the opportunity to do something great for themselves and for the sector. I hope you’ll all help and support us. I’m in listening mode so I’d love to hear your views or observations in the comments below.