Matt Hancock, minister of state for digital, has helped launch the Tech Talent Charter, an employer-led initiative to encourage increased workforce diversity and progress in the UK.
Ensconced in blazing sunlight atop the Gherkin's dome, Hancock reassured execs that the point was not to name and shame but to convince companies that opening up to a more diverse talent pool will help solve one of the tech sector's most pressing problems: the widening digital skills shortage.
"I believe very strongly that you can't catch all the fish if you only fish in half the pool," Hancock said.
Fresh off the back of a range of tech initiatives announced in yesterday's autumn Budget, we round up the top four takeaways from the advice the minister and two panels of execs had for the industry.
1. Pipeline, what pipeline?
Citing the government's commitment to give a £75m boost to artificial intelligence (AI), Hancock said that AI can be only part of the solution to the UK's persistent productivity woes, which he said is exacerbated by a severe digital skills shortage.
"There is this concern about the rise of AI and they are understandable concerns, because most jobs are changing, but at the same time there is a real shortage of people with the right talent and capabilities to take the new jobs that are becoming available," Hancock said.
"And yet while we put coding in the curriculum from the age of eight, and expanded the amount of further education in computer science, still a vastly disproportionate number going into the tech industry are men…We need to build momentum for Britain's tech future utilising all the talent at our nation's disposal."
Sixteen per cent of computer science undergraduates in the UK are women. Ten years ago that figure was 19 per cent.
Tech Talent Charter CEO Debbie Forster compered two panel discussions which included execs from HP, Fujitsu and Cogeco Peer 1. A recurring theme was that there are fewer women being suggested by recruitment agencies, or coming up through the ranks themselves.
Fujitsu director of EMEIA Duncan Tait said that rather than resting on their laurels, companies should demonstrate leadership by reaching out to schools and universities - in essence, to sell the tech industry to girls as a viable and exciting prospective career.
2. "In it to win it"
"We're doing this because we want to win."
That was HP UK and Ireland managing director George Brasher's pithy response as to why HP is one of 90 companies to have already signed the Tech Talent Charter.
"Our entire strategy is built on innovation and the only way we can have that innovation in the market is by having a diverse set of people and diverse set of opinions as you make your products and services. I think the Tech Talent Charter is so important because it is a demonstrable statement to the industry and to the UK that we're committed to this," he said.
"This is good for business...There's nothing like money and revenues being at risk for sharpening focus."
3. Measure your treasure
One phrase that was reiterated by most of the panellists was "what gets measured gets done."
General manager EMEA for Canadian cloud vendor Cogeco Peer 1 Susan Bowen suggested looking at recruitment in a similar way to revenues.
"We use data points when we're looking at revenues and our margins, and my recommendation is that every one of us looks at which data points we need to collate on recruitment, and have a key performance indicator (KPI) for people as well. Have a look at your office environments, look at who comes to the office and when, look at the social environments, and from all that, what you need to do will probably become glaringly obvious from this data…You already do this data analysis for every other part of your business."
The Tech Talent Charter will report annually on the all signatories' recruitment and retention, anonymously.
However, HP's Brasher suggested the fact that the charter is measurable will ignite healthy competition between firms.
"There will definitely be competitiveness between businesses making the most headway in addressing gender imbalance…We want to be in the top quartile of organisations," he said.
4. "We don't have to reinvent the wheel"
Tech Talent Charter CEO Debbie Forster told attendees that the initiative "is not about reinventing the wheel. There are already so many best-case practices out there in the industry…It's about sharing these more openly."
Tech London Advocates founder Russ Shaw added that he is often approached by companies wanting to scale, but who don't join networks who are actively fostering diversity in tech roles.
"People need to get out of their comfort zones. The number of people I meet from large corporations and start-ups who never get out of the office to find out what's going on out there is unbelievable," he said. "So when I hear them moaning 'I can't find the right talent pools but I don't know where to go' my immediate response is, get out there! There are so many great networks and organisations working on this issue.
"It's not that difficult to spend an extra two to three hours a week going somewhere different, learning and exploring."
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