Current Situation Analysis
We have recently arrived in rural North Wales, specifically the Llyn Peninsula, sandwiched between the mountains and the sea. It’s without doubt a place of spectacular beauty, but this area faces a number of challenges because of location, geography and history (I believe), summarised in my Current Situation Analysis. Here is a map of the UK, and for those who can’t place Wales, the bad-tempered pig looking out into the Irish Sea at the top of Cardigan Bay beneath Anglesey – the pigs-ear (Ed. no comment).
Hopefully these bullet points are self-explanatory, except maybe the comment Language?
Gwynedd has the highest proportion of Welsh speakers in the country, over 60% of the population, compared to the national average of less than 20% (2011 census), the Welsh language is a big thing around here. I am learning myself and I think it is an excellent way to preserve culture and heritage and engender a spirit of community. However, it can also act to disenfranchise and even dis-enable non-Welsh speakers, and may be stopping North Wales fully exploiting some of the people skills available. A trivial example is a high street office in a local town that promotes various projects and technology, innovation and education/inclusion-related initiatives. Except of course that to a casually passing newly arrived IT professional from England Arloesi Gwynedd Wledig (Innovation in Rural Gwynedd) is not immediately understandable, welcoming or inclusive!
I digress; we relocated for many reasons, but not specifically to look for work. I did not expect a great variety and depth of opportunities locally, or even a choice of commutable employers. However, this being 2018 I hoped to be able to work in the IT industry, somewhere, somehow…
At face value the early signs did not look very positive; the local economy seems to rely heavily on tourism and related services, land-based industries (farming, fishing, quarries, environmental groups etc.) and the public sector. I also noted a general attitude, from my own small unscientific sample*, that this is how things have to be. There is a shrugging acceptance of ‘less’ rather than a striving for ‘more’…less variety, fewer high value jobs, less change, more frustration. These negatives seem to outweigh the real signs of activity, inward investment, innovation and infrastructure improvements that I see around me.
(*It was hard to find specific job stats or a skills audit for North Wales or the county, previously the Kingdom of Gwynedd)
Context (and a little bit of Business Planning)
Before I look a bit deeper and discover some of the promising green shoots, here is a little more background on my career and interests, and maybe what working in and from North Wales might look like for me.
I have had a long and varied career in IT, starting in the late 1980’s as an Analyst Programmer on mainframe insurance applications. I progressively moved away from the coal-face of software development to the softer side of IT systems, process improvement and change management, where IT becomes an enabler of something else rather than the end in itself. For the last 10 years I have been a freelance (i.e. self-employed) Business Analyst working mostly on Client sites, usually on short-term fixed contracts. This period of my working life has necessitated more travel than a permie would expect to get to where the work is, but also a more fundamental shift in mindset; my pay-and-rations, career direction and professional development are firmly in my hands, and so to a lesser extend are choices I make as to what, where and for whom I work. Also, in the last 3 years I have started to look beyond the personal rewards and thought about how I might share my passion for all things IT and computing, and help in my small way to help the cause of digital literacy and digital inclusion…the outcome being IT elementary school. Although very much a work in progress, it offers the prospect of a very different type of non-traditional work, both digital and people-centred, self-employed and collaborative, commercially-orientated and a social enterprise.
I was lucky enough to be offered a 3-month remote contract soon after our move, which enabled me to test my ability, and aptitude, to work totally removed from my stakeholders and colleagues. See separate post on the challenges of remote working.
Now, I am looking at a new contract either in England or possibly something closer?
So, what is North Wales doing right and wrong to encourage tech innovation and enterprise? I started off by doing a SWOT analysis, but ran out of steam. Almost anything can be seen as variously a strength, weakness, opportunity or threat in this very unusual situation. For example; being small can mean being agile and flexible; a unique culture and language rather than alienate others can engender a strong community spirit; a desirable place to live in the 21st century can also be a desirable place to work with increasing mobility and non-traditional working patterns.
So instead I used a technique from the world of Agile retrospectives; identify things that you or your project team, for example, do well and want to continue or do more of, and think about any behaviours and practices that don’t serve your aims and objectives that you should do less of or stop, and finally what new things should/could you start doing?
Some examples are:
- Foster latent talent not simply with start-up support, but also helping the smallest companies to grow and trade nationally and internationally (with or without European funding!) There is also I believe an untapped pool of inblown IT resource, maybe older (erhem) seasoned professionals like me, who could share their knowledge, experience and skills with business and education communities?
- The ‘C4’ networking is about connecting, community, co-operation and collaboration, things that North Wales tech, Bangor University, College Meirion, and co-working space providers like Town Square and Indycube are doing well (all groups represented at this Tech Talks evening). Let’s have more please, and why not attempt to join some of these groups up, when was too much co-operation ever a problem!
- Not worrying about the competition (and Stop knocking North Wales) means focussing on the positive energy and opportunities, not worrying about the things can’t be changed or controlled. Worrying that Wales can’t compete on a level playing field with bigger tech hubs is a hiding to nothing. For example, Davos in Switzerland that recently hosted the hugely influential World Economic Forum … neither the Swiss burghers nor the visiting great and good complain that the country is too expensive, cold and mountainous! North Wales (Holyhead in Anglesea) hosted a TedX conference in 2017, and Glwndyr University in Wrexham recently hosted a Global Game Jam, and i’m sure there are other positive examples of North Walean reach and influence that go way beyond the A55!
Rebranding North Wales
As a last thought, it occurred to me that maybe the region needs a new brand for its tech aspirations, and not some rehashing of the ‘Silicon…’ prefix, which is getting a bit tired in my opinion. What about a new material and technology, invented (‘…rediscovered, isolated, and characterized’) just over the border in England at the University of Manchester in 2004. It is a new wonder material, that [metaphorically] represents strength and flexibility, with fascinating potential industrial and humanitarian uses from superconductivity, desalination, and supercapacitors to connective tissue (the man-machine-interface is one of the next big things!), and a huge range of new super-strong and light new materials.
I particularly like the imagery of a thin layer or net over Gwynedd and North Wales playing to our strengths, connecting people (language, culture, education), being smart about resources, exploiting all possible investment opportunities and talent, and mostly being flexible, responsive and agile. I think i’ve stretched that particular metaphor far enough now!
Welcome to the newest, smallest and most bendigedig (wonderful) tech hub, the Gogledd Gymru (North Wales] Graphene…with apologies to Welsh speakers for mis-using soft mutations!
(c) 2018 IT elementary school Ltd.