Posted on Thursday 10 December 2009 by Ulster Business

Interview

According to the Matrix Report, the ICT sector is made up of around 750 companies employing more than 11,000 people. Overall ICT generates more than £500 million for the local economy. So what does the sector need to thrive? We spoke to voices from within the sector (ICT hub location; educator; enterprise advisor; private sector employer) to see what the industry requires to grow over the next 12 months

THE ICT HUB Northern Ireland Science Park: Chief Executive, Dr Norman Apsley The future for ICT in Northern Ireland has never looked so good. The task will be to translate vast potential into genuine, sustainable commercial enterprise. We recently held an event at the Science Park looking into the potential behind Project Kelvin. It was designed to generate ideas on how the various industry sectors (of which ICT is central) can capitalise on Kelvin. In a nutshell, Kelvin is a low-latency, highest speed/capacity pipe connecting Northern Ireland to Europe and North America. When it comes online in the Spring, it will prove to be the catalyst for NI to emerge as a global hotbed for financial systems, creative media, education and cloud computing technologies. In many web-based industries, the speed, reliability and security at which you transact business provides a vital competitive edge. Project Kelvin shaves milliseconds off connection speeds and massively increases capacity - this will prove to be a critical advantage. We have seen something of this at the Science Park where our low-latency connectivity has helped to persuade small companies and multinational corporations to cluster around us. The exchange of knowledge and people within this 'innovation community' provides benefits for the sector generally. Kelvin could provide the springboard for 'innovation communities' to spring up more and more across the region. This is good news for the ICT industry which is being boosted by other developments like the recent announcement of £48 million from BT & DETI into improving broadband connectivity. ICT technology will be one of the most significant transformational technologies available in the 21st century and this region will be well-placed within it. Our positioning and opportunity is such that we must take full advantage. We have infrastructure, entrepreneurialism, talent, supportive government. We now need people with ambition and vision to take the industry (and the local economy) forward. THE EDUCATIONALIST Sentinus: Chief Executive, Brian Campbell The recent report of the STEM Review clearly recognises that STEM is a priority area for government and that STEM education provides a key element of a successful economy. However, the review also identified a shortage of quality talent with appropriate STEM skills in all industry sectors and the collective aim is to tackle this scarcity. Sentinus works with children aged 5 to 19 years old delivering STEM programmes (we regularly engage with around 60,000 pupils from the NI student population. We work with schools, colleges and businesses throughout Northern Ireland to promote engagement in STEM) and our big message is that ICT (along with the many other STEM disciplines) offers an exciting and rewarding career. We think it's important to bring young people close to industry so that they can see the application of sciences in the marketplace. Our STEM Ambassadors Scheme aims to get role models from industry working with young people in STEM activities. In Northern Ireland, more than 850 ambassadors have been trained and security checked, and this experience allows students to see how STEM can be applied in a real-world context. We also operate industrial bursaries schemes, four-week paid STEM industrial placements for post 16 students. These allow young people to engage in R&D projects hosted by companies, universities; and other organisations. All of this delivers benefits for young people and the wider economy. For example, we estimate our work benefits the economy to the tune of £1.5million per annum, and this has been brought about through a combination of Department of Education funding and charitable donations from industry approximating £800,000. Engaging young people early on and creating positive, valuable experiences, will be vital to maintaining a thriving ICT sector and accruing value for the economy in the longer term. THE INNOVATION SPECIALIST XCell Partners: Founder, Diane Roberts My advice for ICT entrepreneurs is this, have the confidence to embrace risk. The skills and the qualities of the people in Northern Ireland are often as strong as those in Silicon Valley. But what we do need is to persuade people to be eager risk-takers and innovative in their approach to building brand new businesses. What is unique about Silicon Valley is the concentration of investors, strong technical depth and an outlook in general that enterprise is a necessary component to any economy. Here in Northern Ireland we have much that can match this, but we can always do more. What we have to do is to get our entrepreneurs to immediately build business ideas that have immediate export potential. We have to work as a community to develop greater funding possibilities. In addition, (and this is something that the US are great at), we need to get people who have 'been there and done that' to share some of their time and experience with our young enterprises. Many start-ups don't make it. Only the most technically proficient, most ambitious, but more importantly those with a strong determination and a positive frame of mind will stand any chance of succeeding. What all start ups want is capital. Investment funding is out there, but entrepreneurs need to show confidence, differentiation and character, and sell themselves! Over the next year, like in all economies across the globe, entrepreneurs and investors are going to have to work harder and smarter to see businesses succeed. It's a time as tough as most of us would have experienced, but that needs to motivate us as well as keep us focused on robust, sustainable economic growth. THE PRIVATE SECTOR EMPLOYER Northgate Managed Services: Chief Executive Andy Ross The ICT sector has seen a significant shift away from the use of IT for organisational transformation and innovation, to the greater need to improve efficiency and cut costs. In order to survive and grow in these budget-conscious times, the ability to adapt to the changing needs of clients and deliver real business value has become paramount. Where just two years ago, companies were investing millions in IT to better compete on a global scale, the focus has changed dramatically now - clients want more for the same or the same for less. IT Providers that have retained market position and experienced success throughout 2009 have been those that have planned well for this shift and demonstrated high levels of flexibility to clients without compromising on quality. As every company assesses its operational costs and expenditure, providers have had to tailor IT solutions to meet individual budgets and objectives .ie. from the simple provision of IT consultancy and guidance, or implementation of one-off projects, through to the complete outsourcing of IT requirements to a managed service. Northern Ireland can be a credible and viable near-shore alternative. Northgate has been in an ideal position as our economies of scale enable us to pass on cost savings to customers, combining this with unrivalled expertise of the UK market. To compete with offshore competitors, IT providers must continue to review the market and solutions to minimise costs. A continued shortage of skilled IT professionals has provided further opportunities for offshore companies to pick up contracts. Moving into 2010, there needs to be a stronger commitment to offering school leavers a direct route to develop a long-term career in the IT sector. By implementing our IT Apprenticeship scheme as an additional option to our existing graduate schemes this September, we are developing a qualified and talented workforce that will help us grow our business and this should become standard across the IT sector in order for it to grow. Looking ahead, Northern Ireland's biggest challenge will be its ability to continue to meet market demands in the future and retain our competitiveness on a national and international scale.

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