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Mark Logan on his vision for a Scottish technology ecosystem

The Scottish Government’s entrepreneur advisor speaks to Computer Weekly about the philosophy behind an ambitious technology ecosystem strategy

Mark Logan is the chief entrepreneurial advisor to the Scottish Government, appointed by first minister Nicola Sturgeon in 2022. He is the former chief operating officer of Edinburgh-based travel search company Skyscanner and a professor in computing science at the University of Glasgow, his alma mater.

In July 2020, he was asked by the Scottish Government’s finance minister, Kate Forbes, to write a technology ecosystem strategy for Scotland. One of his recommendations was to set up a network of seven “tech scaler” incubators across the nation, and that was done in July 2022, with £42m awarded to Codebase, which already had an Edinburgh incubator, to run the network.

Logan gave the interview that follows to Computer Weekly’s business applications editor Brian McKenna towards the end of last year. The text that follows has been edited for sense and structure. It lays out some of the philosophy behind what Logan is advocating in and for Scotland. This could be summed up as turning Scotland into Finland – another small European nation tech superpower.

Brian McKenna: I was once told – by the late Dave Goldberg – that the people in Silicon Valley who held its institutional memory are crucial to its success. These are the lawyers, accountants, venture capitalists, public relations professionals, and so on, who are not themselves techies. But they have seen generation after generation of 24-year-old tech entrepreneurs come and go. Some make it, most don’t. How could you replicate that institutional memory in Scotland? It is hard enough in London.

Mark Logan: I don’t think it’s a case of having to replicate Silicon Valley. What you need is a functioning ecosystem.

An ecosystem has a number of aspects that reinforce each other, just like an actual ecosystem does. I think it’s very possible to create a functioning, thriving ecosystem in any country. You can look at the tech scene in Israel, Finland, Estonia – I could go on. I very much believe that’s well within Scotland’s reach, because there’s absolutely no reason why it shouldn’t be.

So when I look at Silicon Valley, what I’m mainly interested in is technique. Generation after generation have built a critical mass of companies that try to exploit each generation of computer technology, from microprocessor and PCs through to blockchain and AI [artificial intelligence]. The best practice that allowed each generation to be successful gets distilled, and it gets concentrated. And people move very rapidly between companies, so it gets it gets disseminated across companies, and that becomes best practice.

What I think is important to smaller ecosystems, even in London, is that because Silicon Valley has such scale, best practice tends to disseminate more quickly, just because there are more companies failing and succeeding. It’s important to study that technique, and then bring it into your own environment and add to that to become part of that development. That’s the thing that most interests me about the Valley and is most replicable – studying startup technique.

I look at how San Francisco has become increasingly divided as a city between the very rich and the very poor – those doorways filling up with dozens of people sleeping rough every night. We don’t want to replicate that.

The thing that I think is very striking in this age is that if you look at Scotland, or any country, 40 years ago, for access to markets, location was very important. But nowadays, every customer is on your doorstep because of the internet. And so is every competitor. At Skyscanner, for example, we were conscious that we were competing with Google and Priceline, and they were trying to kill us because we were taking away customers they could have had. So you have to be as good as the best in the world to compete with the best in the world.

It’s a bit like chess. In any chess position, there are pluses and minuses. And it’s important not to fixate on the negatives in your position, you’re going to look at the positives. For example, Scotland is such a small country, that early on, we at Skyscanner realised that we needed to be as international as soon as possible. We were hiring European employees and employees in Southeast Asia, and so on. We had 56 plus nationalities in the business.

“You have to be as good as the best in the world to compete with the best in the world”

Mark Logan, Scottish Government

Companies often forget that the mission the company has is not the mission the employees have. Our own missions are to have a sense of self-worth, some status, and I want to be challenged and developed. What I explained to our people was that if Skyscanner is successful, if we do make a global impact, then it’s a vehicle for your own personal mission. You can create or destroy human energy depending on how you organise as a team.

McKenna: Tell me about the technology ecosystem report that Kate Forbes asked you write at the height of the Covid pandemic in 2020

Logan: I think Covid created an impetus, but I carefully wrote the report as if Covid had not happened. I wanted to write something that was not a tactical response to that, but would set a strategic direction for the country. Covid is obviously a huge peturbation on all of our lives, but the fundamentals remain the same afterwards, in terms of what makes a great ecosystem.

The basic essence of it was to say that we need to do systems thinking.

Scotland has great ambitions for its tech sector, we have lots of the ingredients of a great tech sector, in terms of great universities, lots of great students, a lot of talent, and a willingness from different agencies and the government to make this work. But I think what was missing was a common narrative and model for how to improve the ecosystem. So what I tried to do with the ecosystem review was define a model and terminology that we could all cohere around, and I think that’s got a lot of advantages.

One of them is you can, first of all, agree on what the output is. In this case, it is a stream of successful tech companies that scale to their natural point of scale. It doesn’t mean everybody has to be a unicorn. But companies need to build to get to the level of scale that they could have done in a larger ecosystem.

The other thing it makes us do is to identify interventions that, if you didn’t look at them from a system perspective, you might consider unimportant. For example, we need more computing science teachers in Scotland, and that’s not immediately obvious as a lever to increase the number of unicorns we have.

The metaphor I used was that what’s the difference between an ecosystem that’s still developing and the one we see London or Silicon Valley? The difference is that the larger ecosystems are past the tipping points, where the critical number of startups and scaleups start to establish positive reinforcement loops.

For example, when I was at Skyscanner, it was very hard to hire a senior vice-president of engineering into Edinburgh because … let’s say she’s based in Silicon Valley and she’s got to relocate her family here, and then the job doesn’t work out – as it often doesn’t for senior hires – she’s got no other place to go, she’s got to go back to where she came from. But if you’ve got 20 Skyscanners, she can go to the company next door.

Once you get past that tipping point, it becomes much easier to hire senior talent, which makes it easier to hire more talent.

You get the same thing with investment. Something like 80% of all investments that VCs [venture capitalists] make, are made within 60 miles of their home location. If you’re a VC in London, you can come up to Scotland for the day and see one company, or you can get on the Tube and see 10.

My thesis in the report was that we need to identify interventions that can accelerate us to that tipping point. And once we’re there, the ecosystem takes care of itself and we can start to relax the interventions. That’s the basic philosophy.

McKenna: You put a lot of emphasis on improving the computer science curriculum in schools by reskilling teachers and swapping in computer programmers from industry? But do you not think it is possible to over-emphasise computer science education at secondary school level? Lots of people who work in technology or for tech companies or who implement IT projects for corporates have a variety of educational backgrounds

Logan: There are many routes into the industry, but the biggest constraint on any tech company growing is talent. In Scotland, there are three ways we can address that. One is to bring people into the country – but in the post-Brexit situation, that’s harder than before.

The second route is to retrain people, especially as industries start to wane and others rise. And I think we could do a lot more on taking mature people with life experience and training them to be programmers. Codeclan is an organisation that will take people with an average age of 30 and put them through an intensive 19-week programme to become a software engineer.

But, and this is the third way, in my ideal world, in the same way as mathematics underpins many subjects, from geography to psychology to physics, the modern school syllabus should tightly integrate computing science or programming capability. Because in every discipline I’ve just mentioned, a practitioner will need those skills. They’ll need good data science skills as well. They’ll need to understand AI models. But we are a long way from doing that in our school system. So I think it’s extremely important that we raise the awareness of our education authorities, of our head teachers and local authorities, that computing science is as important as reading and writing. It needs to be a peer of mathematics. That’s what industry needs. And that’s what other countries are doing.

“It’s extremely important that we raise the awareness ... that computing science is as important as reading and writing. It needs to be a peer of mathematics. That’s what industry needs”
Mark Logan, Scottish Government

In universities, often the best students are from Estonia, Lithuania, and other Eastern European countries. Why? Because their school system works. Those young folks arrive as literate programmers ready to do advanced stuff. Our children, who are just as intelligent, arrive at a remedial level, because of a failure of the education system. I don’t think we should be complacent about that. And the reason I index on it is because it’s a crisis of the future we’re making now. So, with every fibre of my being, I’m going to advocate for this until someone locks me up.

McKenna: Computer Weekly interviewed the then UK chancellor Rishi Sunak on stage before an audience of tech investors in 2021. When our editor in chief Bryan Glick asked how the UK could hope to compete on technology with the US and China, Sunak said by focusing on a couple of things. We’re not, he said, going to try to do everything, we’re going to focus on fintech and life sciences, two things we are outstanding at. What do you think of that?

Logan: I personally don’t subscribe to that view, in those terms.

Let’s imagine that we, in Scotland, decided we were only going to focus on one of those things. Does that mean that a company like Skyscanner should get no support, shouldn’t be in the tech scaler network? I think you’ve got to be careful you don’t switch off the interest of your tech community by saying, “We only do this flavour, not that flavour.” I think the way to think about it is to ensure that your nation, your ecosystem, is capable of properly supporting a tech company of any flavour.

In the tech scaler network, we focus on a great incubation environment and world-class founder education. In a “market square” environment, people can learn from each other in a general-purpose environment for any tech company.

Why did the Italian Renaissance cities come to the fore when they did? Why did we have the Scottish Enlightenment?

I don’t believe it’s because suddenly there was a concentration of genius in a few cities. Talent is pretty evenly spread everywhere. But what Leonardo da Vinci did was not just say he was an artist, or a mathematician, or a botanist, or an anatomist. He was all of those things. He just followed his curiosity. And when he went into the literal physical market square, in Florence, or Naples, he met people who were just the same and they shared a lot of knowledge and information and great things came from that. And to some extent, you can see similar behaviours here, in Edinburgh, during the Enlightenment period, where people with very different backgrounds lived on top of each other.

Now, in the modern age, that’s not convenient for the education system. We’re told to specialise and sub-specialise and we get uncomfortable with other disciplines. We like the marketing people to be separate from the engineers. At Skyscanner, I didn’t like that. So I mixed everybody up, and they didn’t like that. But then what started happening was marketing people who used to build landing pages, optimised for SEO, one page at a time, could automate the landing pages because an engineer showed them how to use Python.

Talking about Renaissance market squares sounds grandiose, but it’s about getting people together to share knowledge and experience. We try to do two things in the scaler environment. One is to provide a meeting place for people, and the other is to start bringing different disciplines together, so that our great creative sector in Scotland isn’t just a freelance thing, it becomes capable of building a Pixar.

The rhythm of government, except in a crisis, is six monthly to yearly. The revenue of the tech industry is weekly, daily. Skyscanner releases software every single day, lots of times a day. Google does the same. It makes product decisions every week.

What if you focus on something and then the US or China focuses on that, too? It’s not about country-to-country competition, it’s company-to-company. That’s the real battle, because, in internet terms, there are no countries: all the customers are available to everybody.

Estonia is an amazing example of this. From government to teaching to their tech sector. They’ve taken a systems approach, and they’ve sustained that. Similarly in Finland with Nokia, which has gone into decline, obviously, it still exists. There was a lot of tech talent coming out of Nokia, and the government realised there was an opportunity to use that or have it disappear, so it invested heavily in a similar systems approach. So, we are informed by what they do. They are similar-sized countries doing disproportionately well.

McKenna: Do you think there is an advantage in Scotland being more pro-European than England?

Logan: Societally, absolutely. Now, there are a lot of people in England who are very European-oriented, as well. And England is an example of a great tech nation. It’s more about being willing to learn from outside your environment. Because, otherwise, you end up with what mathematicians call a local optimum: you’re improving on your own local practice. It’s always important to look outside yourself for what’s best practice elsewhere.

The real issue for Scotland and England is the current friction in bringing Europeans to work here. I think that’s been an appalling, disastrous policy.

A company like Skyscanner in its earliest days would not have been successful in a post-Brexit environment. It was vitally important that European students who came to Edinburgh and loved Edinburgh could stay and work for Skyscanner.

Whereas what we have done in Britain is make the country a little bit hostile. It’s not such a welcoming place. I think Scotland has tried hard to counter that narrative. But Britain has become a place where Europeans don’t feel welcome anymore. That is an enormous tragedy. It’s also a tragedy for the tech industry.

I am, at one level, astounded that it isn’t talked about more. I think, historically, it will be, but just now, maybe it’s too sensitive a subject. It’s been a disaster for the country, and it’s a massive issue for the tech industry. Not least in Scotland.

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