IT skills

UK immigration laws are preventing the UK from attracting world-class developers

Caroline Baldwin

Relaxing UK immigration laws would attract a great number of foreign developers to the UK IT market, and have a positive knock-on effect for the economy.

Doug Ward, entrepreneur and CEO of Manchester’s Tech Hub, a community workspace for technology entrepreneurs, believes the UK has a severe shortage of world-class developers.

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Ward, who also co-created Tech Britain, an interactive map of the country which shows clusters of start-ups, investors, communities and accelerator programmes, said: “The UK should be trying to attract the smartest people in the world."

“My only niggle at the moment is the immigration laws. We have Chinese computer science students who come to the UK, but because of their visas they have to leave before they’ve even graduated.”

Manchester and beyond

Tech Hub is a franchise, with hubs in London, Bucharest and Riga. The Manchester branch was started up by Ward, Shaun Gibson, Ben Hookway and Martin Bryant, and the group are also hoping to take the initiative to China and Pakistan.

They are currently in talks with Chinese officials to take the Tech Hub initiative to China, and Gibson is to visit Pakistan in May. 

“Feedback from China is that there are considerations of educating children elsewhere for this very reason. We want people from around the world to come to Great Britain because it’s important for the economy,” said Ward.

“It’s crucial for the economy to attract the best talent in the world to work with UK businesses,” he added. 

"We are in talks with Pakistan and China as a long term aspiration," he said. "The dream is to link Manchester up with other startup communities, which I believe will contribute towards our desire to see Manchester become a top five European startup destination."

Education system lacks IT focus

Ward also believes the lack of software developers in the UK at present can be blamed on education.

“When I went to school, computing was very poorly taught and it was really unappealing. The perception was uncool and you were almost ridiculed for spending too much time on the computers. A lot of the best guys grow up and leave straight for America – they feel misunderstood and know that there’s almost 10 times the money in Silicon Valley,” he said.

Ward believes schools should teach Mandarin and software engineering skills.  

Promoting UK start-ups

Ward believes that the tech community is one of the most important industries to bring future economic growth, and he thinks that the UK government is doing a good job at actively promoting it. 

Last week, along with other representatives from UK start-up clusters, Ward was invited to meet Joanna Shields, CEO of Tech City, at 10 Downing Street, where they discussed the state of the start-up scene across the country.

He was there along with Neil Cocker from Cardiff Start, community hub for technology start-ups, and both claimed to be sceptical of the original Tech City concept.

“I think Tech City is great, very proactive. I was sceptical before the meeting that it was just going to be just a way to demonstrate that Tech City is not all about London, but it is quite serious," said Cocker.

“Tech City is not as big an organisation as people perceive,” said Ward. “It does an awful lot with not a lot of resources. I was very sceptical [of the original concept] – now I’m very proud to not be, and happy those people are in the positions they’re in.

“UK government should be doing more of what it's doing already. Bringing Shields to Tech City and having the foresight to have Benjamin Southworth as her deputy is a clear sign that the government is listening and understands what needs to be done. If it didn’t do that, it would be letting the country down,” said Ward.

Entrepreneurial challenge

The culture of entrepreneurship in the UK is completely different from the US. Silicon Valley has 50-60 years' experience in technology start-ups, whereas in the UK there is a mindset that entrepreneurship is not as worthy as working your way up a large corporate company, said Ward.

“In the longer term, we need to get kids coding and parents advocating to their children that entrepreneurship is healthy and should be encouraged, not discouraged. Job security is only in the eyes of the beholder,” he added.

Ward said the UK has a fear of failure, and suggested we should take some culture tips from the US. 

“When we fail, we are berated. And when I failed, I found it difficult to bounce back," he said. "Whereas our friends in the States celebrate our failure, saying, ‘You guys are lunatics – I can’t wait to see what you do next!’. This is a huge cultural change. We need to advocate, we want people to be happy and to be serious and think globally. Embrace failure and fail fast.”


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