Sophie Wilson, designer of the Acorn Micro-computer and creator of the programming architecture for the original ARM chip, recently received an Economist Innovation Award for her work in the computing industry.
She now works for Broadcom, the tenth largest semiconductor manufacturer in the world, and whose system chip was one of the main components of the new Raspberry Pi computer. The Raspberry Pi has been hailed as a revolutionary device for encouraging children to code, but Wilson believes the UK must do more to encourage engineering if it wants to close the skills gap that the engineering industry faces.
Wilson says people are leaving university without the relevant skills needed for today’s engineering jobs. She thinks the high end of graduates are just as able, innovative and proactive as ever, but the other end of the spectrum does not bear thinking about.
Wilson says: “Industry is crying out for better qualified people, but a lot of people are graduating who don’t find jobs.” According to Wilson, graduates are not showing the right initiative, with many entering interviews without the necessary skills and knowledge, not having contributed to any practical projects other than those at university.
How can graduates close this skills gap they are faced with? Wilson says: “What you really need is to demonstrate proficiency in the subject, and that means you’ve got to actively code things. Get involved in open-source projects, contribute to one of them, make something new, make something that you can talk about.”
Wilson suggests that graduates need to take matters into their own hands, create projects, code, and contribute to open-source projects. When entering the interview room, you should be able to present something you’ve created that proves you can do that job, and also displays passion for the subject.
According to Wilson, finding the tools to do so isn’t as hard as everyone thinks: “They think they have to buy a Raspberry Pi to get a programming environment, but the machines they’ve already got can be programmed.” iPads, mobile phones and most other portable devices now have apps that can be downloaded and will allow you to learn to code on-the-go. Wilson thinks that these, and not the Raspberry Pi, will encourage people to code in the future.
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People continually underestimate the technology they carry around daily in their pocket. Wilson encourages people to download programming environments to their phones and tablets, just to have fun with them and be creative. She says: “They’re used to downloading apps and downloading games on [their phones], but the idea that you could actually program on one of these is sort of alien.”
Wilson has a full IDE on her iPad Mini Retina, and is able to code, debug, check syntax and compile programs all on the portable device, proving that software engineering isn’t just about sitting in front of a computer anymore.
Women in IT
Not only are there a number of graduates leaving university with little experience in the field, but only a small percent of those graduating university with engineering, mathematics or computer science degrees are women.
Wilson says: “This is a problem for industry, because industry values diversity hugely. Each company wants to put together a unique product and obviously one of the ways to do this is to think differently to your competitors.” Companies want to put together diverse teams of people to increase innovation, but with limited graduates, this just can’t be done.
Wilson thinks modern culture has pushed gender roles backwards since the days of the Second World War. “A lot of women were in engineering because all the men were off fighting; they were building the spitfires that the pilots flew.” Wilson explains “There now seems to be much less freedom for both gender roles, male and female gender roles are much more stereotyped than they ever were.”
Wilson believes that since the end of the Second World War, gender stereotypes have become more prominent again, with women “re-programmed not to be creative.” Wilson cannot understand why women aren’t standing up to these gender enforcements, as programming is no different to other creative acts that women regularly partake in.
Despite the lack of suitable graduates, Wilson believes innovation in the technology industry is better than ever. Although the new iPad Air and iPad mini Retina have been criticised for being the same as their previous models, Wilson is shocked at the notion that they lack innovation.
Industry is crying out for better qualified people, but a lot of people are graduating who don’t find jobs
“The iPad Air is innovative in terms of the mechanical structure and in terms of how Apple got something put together that’s so much smaller and lighter. 28% reduction in volume weight for the iPad Air – the engineering there is magnificent.” she says “The iPad Mini looks almost identical to the previous one, but it has a retina display and the processor is mind blowingly faster.”
Innovation like this, according to Wilson, is the future of technology: “In this industry there is still a lot of place for individual vision, being able to make something that’s fantastic can transform the world.” She uses Apple as an example, a company that continually adapted and innovated until the iPod finally brought it to the forefront of portable technology.
For those looking for a successful career in engineering, Wilson says: “The real task is not merely to be a good engineer but to have a vision of what you want to make, to be able to infect other people with that vision and that includes the manager of the company. The management aren’t going to say we’ve got to come up with an idea that saves the company, it’s the other way around.”
Wilson believes engineering of any kind is a process to be enjoyed, and that is why she hopes to see more people moving forward with a software engineering career in the future. She says: “Writing a program is a creative act, it’s one of the most creative things you can do; it’s like writing a book. To be able to be creative and then paid for it, that’s what engineering is.”