Harrogate forms part of the ‘Leeds Digital Area’. This area has in excess of 1350 digital companies, employing over 10,000 people in the digital sector. Leeds and its surrounding area is one of the fastest growing digital hubs in the country.
One problem – and many would say it’s a good problem to have – is how to keep fuelling the local growth in digital services. A key aspect of this is about keeping digital talent produced by local universities in the region.
Earlier this year, January 2017, I attended a Harrogate Digital event. These events, co-sponsored by Harrogate Borough Council and Berwins Solicitors, are designed to raise awareness of digital activity in the Leeds area, particularly Harrogate.
Digital ‘Boot Camps’
The January event was attended by representatives from Leeds Beckett University who explained their ideas for digital ‘boot camps’ for students. These camps, lasting a week, are designed to provide students with some real-world skills. It is hoped this will provide students with a pathway to employment with local businesses.
There is little doubt that developing and retaining digital talent locally is needed. During the Q&A session at the Harrogate Digital event it became plain that many employers in the digital sector struggle to recruit and retain young people with suitable IT skills.
Interestingly, much of the time at the boot camps will be taken up with ‘soft skills’ rather than technical skills. The premise here is that new graduates will have up to date technical skills and be comfortable applying them but they feel less comfortable moving into a live working environment and working effectively as part of project teams. Effective team working often requires good communication skills rather than technical wizardry.
My Year Long ‘Boot Camp’
Almost 30 years ago I did a year long ‘digital boot camp’. It was not called a boot camp, but in effect this is what it was. My MSc course in ‘Intelligent Management Systems’ was undoubtedly the most productive year I have ever spent. I can honestly say it was transformative for me.
The idea behind the course was to take recent graduates from disciplines other than computing and provide them with core computing skills. Ideally, graduates would then be able to meld together their two areas of knowledge represented by their first degree and the Intelligent Management Systems course.
My undergraduate degree (LLB) was in law. In fact, I had also just completed a pure research degree (MPhil) in law as well by the time I took the Intelligent Management Systems course. So the aim for me was to combine computing and law, and I’m pleased to say that I achieved this early in my career.
The MSc computing degree introduced me to things such as:
- Requirements Analysis
- Data Analysis
- Software Design
- Software Development and
- Project Management.
Soft Skills and Artificial Intelligence
On the course, I spent a lot of time learning about, and practising ‘soft skills’. For example, I can recall doing mock presentations for business pitches and interviews with video feedback.
Most interesting of all was the ‘Intelligent’ part of the course title. Most of the software development work we did was based on Artificial Intelligence. So I got to learn to program in Prolog, Lisp and some expert system shells. This time was probably the high-point of what may be called ‘Commercial A.I version 1.0’. It was intellectually challenging, great fun to do and helped supply the market with a cohort of young software developers with skills in A.I.
Real World Application
In the late 1980’s early 1990’s it looked as though expert systems, including legal expert systems, were going to be one of the major drivers of commercial computing. It did not work out that way, largely due to constraints such as finding acknowledged experts with the time and inclination to have their expertise mapped.
Interestingly this has now changed and the broad field of A.I – including some elements of expert systems – has now made such a comeback that, this time around, commercial A.I applications really will drive not only commercial computing but many other significant sectors of the economy.
After the demise of A.I v1.0 I turned my hand to more mainstream software activities such as designing, developing and installing law firm practice management systems (PMS), workflow systems and, outside the legal sector, enterprise management systems (ERP).
Understanding and Applying Fundamental Skills and Methods
As someone involved in ‘A.I v1.0’ I am still fascinated by current developments in A.I and how these will affect society. Fundamentally, many of the design and development principles I was introduced to remain relevant today: what has changed the game significantly since is the increased availability of data and connectivity via the internet.
Something similar can be said for project management too. The essentials of good project management – scoping, planning, monitoring progress, and reporting progress – remain the same as they were 30 years ago.
What has changed for me, in both IT software development and project management, has been the application of my experience. I have been fortunate that I have been involved with more successful than unsuccessful projects in my career, but whatever the outcome they have all been used to learn lessons along the way.
Boot camps of various lengths are great, but they can’t substitute for real world experience. Ultimately employers are going to need to be realistic about this. They need to ensure they have the right blend of up to date skills and youthful exuberance, guided by people with greater experience who know how best to achieve outcomes in light of real-world constraints.