Experiencing some difficulty recruiting technical minds for the company he co-founded, thinkbroadband.com’s Sebastien Lahtinen reflects on the changes necessary in the UK’s education system to ensure the next generation are more IT literate.
Following the launch of the low cost Raspberry Pi (see News section, page 6 – Ed), there has been significant discussion about how schools are failing their students in the provision of their IT education.
At the beginning of January, Hayley Mitchell joined what is a quite technically-focussed team at thinkbroadband.com, having previously worked in healthcare recruitment. Within a week of joining and being introduced to the infrastructure that powers the Internet, she was upgrading her own graphics card and was looking forward to building a server. Having worked with the team for the last ten weeks, she found it easy to reflect on the development opportunities she missed while in education.
Here I will examine both the challenges faced by Hayley Mitchell as a recent entrant into the IT industry, and some of the difficulties I experienced as co-founder of thinkbroadband.com in finding suitable candidates for roles in the organisation.
Hayley Mitchell’s perspective
“The new job with Thinkbroadband was a huge change for me in terms of the skills I required,” remembers Mitchell. “I didn’t realise how wide reaching and varying the IT sector was and how it can affect every part of your life. The opportunities are endless and IT is no longer about just sitting in front of a computer. This job has opened my eyes to a world of possibilities I have never thought about before and is giving me valuable experience.
“Since joining, I have learnt about computer security, IP addresses and even how to convert between binary and decimal. Much of this is of course specific to the company I work for, however I have also discovered many basic skills such as HTML, the mark-up language used to make web pages which I feel I should have had some exposure to in my time in education. Had I been given more opportunities, I may well have taken a different career path from the beginning.
“Many of the web apps today make it easy to write blogs, produce videos and engage in social media without understanding how the underlying system really works. That’s great, and there is no reason why every car driver should be a qualified mechanic, but it would make sense to understand the basics of how an engine works in case you break down. In the same way, I was never taught to build basic web pages in HTML and when you want to do something a little bit non-standard, these types of skills are really helpful. Better IT skills mean you can not only be more productive, but also use the tools available to you in much more effective ways.
“IT is often seen as a geeky option for many kids at school, but if more students were given the opportunity to experiment with technology then we might have more people coming into the IT industry from different backgrounds, or using IT to solve new problems and set up their own businesses. I’ve found it so rewarding to be able to learn how to solve my own IT challenges, but I was never truly encouraged to do so before working in an IT company.
“I didn’t do very well in GCSE IT, not because I couldn’t excel (no pun intended) in the subject but I just wasn’t shown the potential of how this could be useful in later life,” concludes Mitchell. “Even though I’ve been working for many years now, I still have so much new to learn.”
Sebastien Lahtinen’s perspective
As a small technology company, we needed to make sure we found someone for a non-technical role covering a wide range of skills, someone who would fit in with the relaxed IT culture of jeans and t-shirts rather than suits and ties. We were surprised by the sheer volume of applications we received and it took considerable time to narrow them down to a short list.
Small businesses often don’t have the same support infrastructures or processes in terms of dedicated IT departments which means that for a technical company to bring in someone less technical can be a challenge to ensure they have the right training and support. We also often work remotely, bringing with it additional challenges.
Having helped non-technical friends working in office jobs understand some of the tools available in common office application packages, I have seen the gleam in their eyes at the new world of opportunities the skills can bring and help them to do their jobs more effectively.
The importance of tangible IT skills for young people moving into the workforce is really important. They are so integral to the world today in most office-based roles and increasingly outside of the office. Yet not enough focus is being put on basic skills, never mind developing more advanced ones. This needs to begin in schools.
The domain of the geek
IT is often seen as the domain of the geek; however IT skills don’t necessarily mean a career in an IT company. As technology has changed how we work, IT skills should be considered as important as English and Mathematics, as its use will become more and more prevalent across all industries.
There’s a lot of bad practice around, like formatting documents in word processors – too often people replicate offline ways of making texts larger to indicate a heading, rather than tagging it as a heading. This means students often walk away without the skills needed to manage larger documents.
I remember being taught at university how to use pivot tables to analyse data, a basic yet powerful data analysis technique, most spreadsheet users have no idea of. Many people will manually update large numbers of sections of documents rather than learn how to automate a process. These types of skills should be considered basic requirements for students leaving secondary school.
When interviewing for this position, we were looking for people with an interest in technology and the willingness to learn new skills
We have been very fortunate to find someone keen to learn and excited by the possibilities the new skills available can bring both for use at work and also in her personal life. As an employer, it is inspiring to be able to help develop these skills and see Hayley captivated in putting them into use.
Compare the broadband
Thinkbroadband.com is the longest running independent UK broadband information website and has been running for over ten years. It started in the days when broadband services were bring trialled and its staff thus have some of the most comprehensive experience in this area.
The idea is that consumers can refer to this impartial website for independent advice and details on the services offered by broadband service providers, enabling them to make an informed decision as to who to use as a supplier as well as troubleshoot problems they may be having.
In part it provides a service like comparethemarket.com or Go Compare, but for broadband users, but the emphasis is on providing information and resolving issues rather than encouraging the switching of providers.It also offers news and views on the broad band market; a comprehensive range of ‘plain English’ consumer guides and advice; access to bespoke interactive tools including a broadband speed tester; hardware reviews and detailed product information; as well as a members’ forum where users can share their thoughts and broadband queries.