Tech sector lay-offs in the round – Computer Weekly Downtime Upload podcast

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The team talks about tech sector job losses in the round, with possible bright spots for corporate IT and contractors, and data and hybrid working strategies at the Very Group

In this episode, Clare McDonald, Caroline Donnelly and Brian McKenna put the recent wave of tech sector job losses into a less gloomy context, with possible bright spots for IT contractors and corporate IT. They talk about younger tech workers investigating Plan Bs and older workers seeking new digital skills. And they look at one highly digital user organisation that employs tech talent – the Very Group – and its data cataloguing programme.

After bidding adieu to the economic misery of cold January, the team starts sifting for shafts of golden sunlight.

Agile workers eye up Plan Bs

Clare starts the main discussion with an overview of what recent job losses in the tech sector might mean for workers young and old. She relays how some research indicates that technology workers are busily working on their Plan Bs, seeking alternative avenues of employment.

IT jobs portal CWJobs has found that among 2,000 UK tech workers, 53% are applying for new jobs in case their current gig gets the chop. Companies have been coping with quiet quitting and mass resignations over the past few years, during and immediately after the pandemic.

But the current economic crisis, with spiralling inflation stoked by war in Europe, seems to have put the bosses in charge again. Having a Plan B is a common tactic.

Certainly, tech companies have been culling employees, with a long list of high-profile firms laying off workers globally. Even so, says Clare, her contacts say organisations need to focus on ways to draw in new talent and keep the talent they already have. Moreover, there are jobs out there amid a continuing skills crisis.

The team has a discussion, led by Clare, around what lies behind the brute facts of tech lay-offs. Big corporates might start employing technologists and sales and marketing staff from the tech companies, in digital and IT roles. IT contractors might get hired in larger numbers.

Clare then moves the conversation on to older workers wanting to improve their digital skills in the final phase of their careers. But both they and younger workers express a degree of embarrassment in asking for training. However, retraining existing employees who know the businesses they work for with fresh digital skills is a good way to go. Especially since technology shifts – signally the ubiquitous move to the cloud – require different skillsets.

As Caroline comments, there is a lot of government-related commentary in the media about the economic necessity of getting the over-55s back into the workforce, since significant numbers of older workers retired early during and immediately after the pandemic. IT contractors have been doing this also, rather than having to deal with the new IR35 regulations as they cross over from the public to the private sector.

Big tech lay-offs and prospects for IT contractors

Caroline then puts the question of what all the recent economic turbulence in the tech sector means for IT contractors in 2023.

Research published on 16 January 2023, compiled by IR35 insurance provider Qdos, suggests 2023 is a year that contractors are feeling trepidatious about anyway, thanks to the fallout from the UK government’s flip-flopping over repealing the IR35 reforms.

But, in this particular IT community, there is good news. The future looks bright for contracting. When using contractors, it is easier to scale up and down as economic circumstances allow. And clients are still pushing ahead with their digital transformation projects because it is important, long term, to invest in IT, Caroline’s contacts report.

Some caveats, however. Contractors might have to be flexible about day rates and contract lengths. And this might be a good time to upskill. In her analysis piece that Caroline draws on during the podcast, a report by contingent workforce management software provider Magnit says data analysts, cloud computing engineers, artificial intelligence (AI) architects and managed services-related expertise are likely to be the contractors in highest demand in the UK.

Data catalogue at famous catalogue firm

It is possible that many of the technical and business professionals who have been dismissed from technology companies will go to work for user companies and organisations instead. This is where the cliché of “every company being a software company” comes to life. And one of these is the Very Group, which Brian goes on to talk about in the episode.

Clare has also recently written about Very, which was formerly the Littlewoods catalogue (and physical stores) business.

She interviewed Matt Grest, CIO of Very Group, about how it worked during lockdown and recruited and onboarded staff remotely, and how it is continuing to evolve its hybrid working practices.

Brian interviewed its chief data officer, Steve Pimblett, about its data strategy and, in particular, the role of data cataloguing technology within it. Pimblett was, on that occasion, working from Very’s HQ just outside Liverpool – a converted aircraft hangar, Skyways House.

Grest and Pimblett both joined the company in 2020, during the pandemic.

Grest makes a point, in the interview with Clare, that resonates with some of the discussion on the podcast. Some of the people at Very who have moved into tech roles include workers from the company’s warehouses. He says: “Tech is something that you can you learn and be taught. So I’d rather take someone who’s worked for us for a couple of years in different parts of the business and understands the organisation and the business, and give them a skills top-up so the next phase of their career can be in tech.”

Pimblett says “families on a budget” are the primary target market for Very. Customers paying for goods in instalments is the lifeblood of the company historically. That made the Littlewoods catalogue a big part of the lives of British people of modest means. Brian talks about the company’s history in the episode.

The business is now completely online. Pimblett explains how its use of data catalogue software from supplier Alation is helping it bring order and simplicity to some measure of data chaos, but certainly data complexity.

A data catalogue will create an inventory of an organisation’s data assets, harnessing metadata – data about data. Pimblett’s team has demonstrated an approach that IT professionals can take to explain complex data management technology to business people on boards. This is talked about in the podcast, as well.

Brian comments that part of the value of the Very business transformation story lies in the company’s heritage in Manchester and Liverpool. It is truly a tale from the northern powerhouse.

What, though, is happening to catalogue models in the digital catalogue era? The team speculates.

          • Podcast music courtesy of Joseph McDade

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