A former senior executive for online travel giant Skyscanner has unveiled a wide-ranging and often candid new report aimed at bolstering the fortunes of the Scottish tech industry.
Mark Logan, former Chief Operating Officer at the company, which was acquired by Chinese travel firm Ctrip for £1.4 billion in 2016, has spoken of his ‘restlessness’ to see progress being made in the tech sector, in particular to support people interested in re-skilling from other industries under stress from the pandemic.
As such he says his 89-page Scottish Technology Ecosystem Review, which contains 34 separate recommendations, was deliberately conceived as an ‘actionable’ report, and Logan’s intention is that it will be driven by a new body, formed between industry and government, charged with implementing the interventions contained in the report in their ‘entirety’.
However, it includes some potentially radical reforms of the education landscape that could see computing science being taught from the first year of secondary school, ‘with the same focus as maths or physics’, unlike currently where it is an optional subject in year three. Mr Logan’ said he was due to speak with John Swinney, the Cabinet Secretary for Education, this week to explore how a range of his educational recommendations could also be “implemented over time”.
He said: “I’ve been very pleased to see the enthusiastic engagement from the education sector and government including from the Cabinet Secretary for Education.
“The key thematic here is making a decision as a country that the direction of travel in computing science is that we treat it with the same importance as we do with physics or maths. When you make that statement a number of things follow: for example, what year do you start teaching it.
“Today, and this has been the case for a very long time, we teach computing science as an option in year three, whereas we teach economics from first year, and history from first year and geography from first year. So, it’s clear that computing science has to have a different focus. I’m well aware that moving us from that point is non-trivial and I’m conscious of the difficulties of doing that.”
In sections of the report Mr Logan is at times frank about the current failings of the education sector to adequately serve the tech economy; he describes an unsatisfactory situation whereby computing science is often taught by non-specialist teachers because of the lack of dedicated staff, and as a result of reduced provision much of the curriculum is “boring”. He says also that this ‘state of affairs’ is not aligned to Scotland’s future economic needs, given that there is already a demand for 13,000 tech professionals annually who can command salaries 26% above the average.
At higher education level, Scotland’s universities also do not adequately equip computing science undergraduates with the necessary entrepreneurial skills they need to build the next tech unicorn company, Mr Logan says. He cites the desired model being that of the US, where Stanford University in California created a ‘start-up-friendly, supportive environment’ in the early days of Silicon Valley. He writes: “Of the 300 private tech companies valued at more than $1 billion in 2019, 63, or one fifth, of their founders studied at Stanford.”
Conversely, Mr Logan identifies a weak culture of entrepreneurialism within Scotland’s universities, and that existing key performance indicators (KPIs) ‘risk operating to actively reduce institutional enthusiasm for entrepreneurialism to below its otherwise natural level’ – because universities are partly measured on the number of students who finish courses. “If Larry Page had attended a Scottish university, a KPI somewhere would have tipped towards amber when he co-founded Google, then towards red when Sergey Brin joined him,” he writes: “In effect, it is in the local interests of universities to disincentivise entrepreneurial start-up activities, lest students drop out and form start-ups.”
One of the solutions Mr Logan recommends is for universities to more actively bring together business students with computing science students, an intervention by which it is ‘likely that start-ups would emerge’. Another idea contained in the report, again with reference to what he calls the Silicon Valley ‘playbook’, is to establish a nationwide network of ‘tech scaler’ centres, which act as an enhanced version of the traditional tech incubator, by providing ‘world-class education’ for budding tech founders.
Mr Logan, who has become a tech investor, adviser and teacher at Glasgow university (where he teaches computing science students how to be tech entrepreneurs) since his departure from Skyscanner, was asked by Kate Forbes, Cabinet Secretary for Finance, in May to conduct the review. He said he has carried out that work, pro bono, over summer as a ‘labour of love’ and wants to help draw together the tech sector as an ‘eco-system’ that works more effectively and productively for Scotland as a whole, no matter where individuals or companies are based, a point that has taken on particular salience during lockdown. Eventually he hopes that eco-system will develop to a maturity which he calls ‘post-tipping point’, which means it will be self-sustaining and no longer requiring intervention, in that it hosts a critical mass of viable start-ups and scale-ups.
Mr Logan says: “The report takes a stance that we do a pretty good job as an eco-system today but we could do much better. I’ve worked in the eco-system for almost 30 years and the number of founders and startup companies and the quality of the talent is probably higher than it’s been for a very long time. But what the internet does is it doesn’t just bring the world’s customers to your door, it also brings the world’s competitors as well, and that requires our companies to be genuinely world-class so we can compete.”
“So the report’s findings you could summarise as identifying those interventions that could accelerate us towards that end point, and regarding the question as to whether there’s a dissonance between that point and what commentators have said in the past, all I would say is that the government asked me to write this report and in writing the report they urged me to be bold, to be constructively provocative and to be ambitious, and I appreciate that remit because what we have to be is not negative on ourselves but we have to be restless about improving what we have, about how good, bad or indifferent we think different aspects of it are. And this report really tries to speak to the restless in our community. And together I think we can effect change.”
Finance Secretary Kate Forbes said: “This report provides an industry-led blueprint for the Scottish tech industry, outlining the actions necessary to elevate the sector to a world-class level.
“There can be no doubt that Scotland’s economy faces significant challenges as we emerge from the coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis. I believe tech companies have a central part to play in this recovery, so helping them to flourish is now more important than ever.
“The crisis also provides us with an opportunity to reshape the economy to be fairer, greener and more innovative, and tech companies have the dynamism and growth potential to make this a reality.”
The full report can be read here.