Tech bosses ‘must rise to staffing challenge’

Sheffield tech bosses were challenged to do more to combat a lack of staff - as a fast-growing software firm unveiled plans to create up to 110 jobs.

Tuesday, 30th April 2019, 16:05 pm

Senior staff were best placed to help put Sheffield on the map - but only if they saw schemes through, a round table discussion heard.

And too often that didn’t happen.

Star roundtable event at software firm Egress. Pic by Chris Etchells. From left: John Goodyear, Nancy Fielder, Michael Bartley, Jem Henderson, Jim Pople, Mel Kanarek, Neil Larkins, Yasmin Knight, Tony Pepper and David Walsh.

The issue of private sector commitment was a big theme at an event to mark the official opening of Egress Software Technologies’ new office in Sheffield city centre.

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The data security firm has moved 70 staff from the Electric Works into Acero on Concourse Way. It hopes to recruit 30 employees ‘at all levels’ by the end of 2019 and up to 40 a year in the two years after that, as part of a $40m expansion drive.

Bosses are keen to see better collaboration to help put Sheffield’s tech sector on the map, attract workers and close the gender and ethnic divide.

Chief executive Tony Pepper said: “I want to use the opening of our office as the first event to build a dialogue and an ecosystem to fuel talent, jobs and revenue growth in the city.

Egress co-founders Tony Pepper, left, and Neil Larkins at the new office in Sheffield.

“But how can we do more as a business? We can’t do it on our own.

“It’s too easy for people to be funnelled to London where, for a growth business, it’s an easy hop to the United States.

“Sheffield is our innovation centre where most of our development takes place. But where do we take this natural expansion after this session?”

Editor of The Star, Nancy Fielder, said: “Sheffield has a got a lot of companies looking around wanting to get involved. We’ve got to build stronger communities within each field and overall leadership. As council funding diminishes, it’s business that needs to step up.”

Michael Bartley and Yasmin Knight.

Mel Kanarek, co-founder of membership body Sheffield Digital, said despite this, meetings were still dominated by the public sector.

“There’s not enough high level jobs and not enough money. It’s a fact of life.

“I go to a lot of meetings like the Sheffield Growth Board and DotSHF economic group and skills group, they’re mostly public sector. Senior private sector people come for a bit and then drop off.

“My challenge is this: come every single time or send someone senior who can make decisions and commit to take action.”

Star roundtable event at software firm Egress.

Egress also employs 90 in London and has offices in Boston and Ontario.

Mr Pepper added: “Is there a chance to bring the right groups together to really elevate the brand of Sheffield as a tech innovator within the UK?

“We moved to Sheffield, not to prove a point - we did it because it worked for us. People here are talented, we were struggling to find the same level of talent in London.

“London is the corporate headquarters but we started to invest in developers in our first office in Barnsley. We realised we were getting more and more people from Sheffield and the calibre was incredible.

“Not everyone wants to live in London. A lot of people want families and a good lifestyle, which Sheffield offers, but the jobs at all levels aren’t available.

“We’re investing in people and office space but it’s got to be joined up at a level way beyond Egress. these are macro issues.”

Mel Kanarek, Sheffield Digital director.

AT THE ROUND TABLE:

Tony Pepper, Egress chief executive

Neil Larkins, Egress chief technology officer

John Goodyear, Egress chief science officer

Nancy Fielder, The Star editor

David Walsh, The Star business editor

Mel Kanarek, Sheffield Digital director

Yasmin Knight, head of Regional Engagement, The University of Sheffield

Baillor Jalloh, video journalist, Sheffield Live

Jem Henderson, Tech Nation, entrepreneur engagement manager Yorkshire

Michael Bartley, deputy managing director C8 Consulting

Jim Pople, account manager C8 Consulting

SHEFFIELD AND LONDON STAFF PAID THE SAME IN BID TO ATTRACT STAFF

Egress pays Sheffield and London staff the same in a drive to lure people from the capital - and stop others being funnelled down.

The software firm also takes eight Sheffield Hallam University students a year on paid placements - almost all of which it hires.

And it is a member of Sheffield Digital, Code First Girls Group and Hack Sheffield and sponsors Sheffield Women in Tech.

The co-founders, who went to universities outside London, but ended up there, are keen to grow their business in the North.

Chief executive Tony Pepper, who studied in Liverpool, said: “We bought properties and hired people in London and Liverpool gained no benefit from that.

“Now here’s an opportunity where Sheffield can be part of that wealth creation.”

Chief technology officer Neil Larkins studied in Manchester.

He added: “I wanted to stay in Manchester but there were no relevant jobs.

“A lot of people from the South come to Sheffield Hallam University and don’t want to go back.

“I’m most proud of our placement students. They wanted to stay in Sheffield and we have asked every single one to come back apart from one. It’s about eight a year.

“We pay them properly but also they do proper jobs. There are four software developers and two QAs in this office, they are contributing to live code.

“There is no difference between our London and Sheffield salaries.”

Tony Pepper: “Why should you be paid less just because you live in Sheffield? Purely on salary, there should be no difference, they are putting the same value into the business.”

Nancy Fielder asked whether a degree was essential.

“There seems to be a lot of people in IT without degrees. Do people have to get into £30,000 of debt to get on to the career ladder?

“Everyone calls Sheffield a ‘sticky’ city due to the number of graduates who stay. But careers advice in schools could be better. It’s about pulling everyone together. I don’t think most kids realise what the digital economy is like.”

Yasmin Knight said Sheffield University had 900 computer science students last year but there weren’t enough jobs at the right levels to keep them all in Sheffield.

“There’s a national shortage of people, competition is high.

“It’s really important we get an industry voice on our boards that can influence the curriculum and can provide really good placements.

“I think the private sector needs to have a strong voice. It’s not really articulated itself around digital technology.”

Mel Kanarek: “We need to explain the digital industries to everyone in the city so young people can understand the opportunities and their parents can too.

“Go into all HE and FE establishments with a clear narrative that sets out why it is world beating.”

SHEFFIELD DIGITAL AT A CROSSROADS

Sheffield Digital is the answer to some of the sector’s most pressing demands - but a lack of resources is holding it back, the discussion heard.

The organisation has more than 60 members and a mission to connect and promote the sector. But its future is not guaranteed.

Co-founder Mel Kanarek said: “Sheffield Digital is at an interesting point. Will it plateau or take the next step?

“Sheffield Digital is in the room where all these conversations are happening. There are a few individuals at big organisations who are starting to take a leadership role.

“Sheffield Digital is not paying anyone to do the strategic and leadership stuff. We can’t afford to, Chris Dymond and I run it in our spare time.

“The city is ripe for this. We have come a long way in a short time. It’s so obvious what needs to be done.

“Manchester Digital ran a video campaign of members who had moved from London which gained some traction in the London press. A consistent message is that Manchester is a place where people come to carry on their careers. There’s no reason why we can’t do it in Sheffield - so who is going to do it?”

Jem Henderson said Manchester had a bigger, more cohesive system.

“There’s a lot more infrastructure to help businesses growing and scaling. Access to people like lawyers and accountants and mentoring schemes are really important.

“In Yorkshire we struggle for seed funding to get businesses off the ground. We need Series ‘C’ funded firms to put their hands in their pockets and fund the businesses of tomorrow.

“If we are not doing grassroots stuff we can’t expect it to flow through.”

Nany Fielder added: “Sheffield Property Association is having an impact. They said to the council: ‘you have got to back us,’ but it needs to be back up only. It needs leadership, people working for civic pride or doing it for love.”

WHY DIVERSITY MATTERS SO MUCH

‘How can we tackle a lack of diversity to tap into new talent?’ is a question every tech boss has asked themselves at some point.

Egress is no exception.

This is chief executive Tony Pepper’s response: “I feel passionately about this. The tech industry is still behind the curve in terms of encouraging and driving diversity.

“We are doing more than most but tech businesses are still predominantly male dominated. A better gender and ethnic balance creates a different approach to a subject.

“If we look at benchmarks we are way ahead of the industry but it is still not enough. You have to be almost hyperaware and have to almost specifically choose women, it’s almost positive discrimination.

“We don’t do it just to support benchmarks. We showcase our female employees, they are an inspiration to graduates and people looking in. We want diverse backgrounds and an inclusive culture. We try to break boundaries but not for their own sake. We are a commercial business and we are in it to drive an outcome through that lens.

“It becomes more important as a business grows. I think it’s almost a luxury in a start-up situation, if you’re simply trying to figure out if you’re solvent. But it’s important when you’re larger and able to dedicate more time.”

Egress sponsors the Sheffield Women in Tech group, of which Mel Kanarek is co-founder.

She said: “ShfWIT has been running for about a year. There are a few businesses in Sheffield that have a reputation for taking active steps to address diversity and within the community we tend to know who they are.

“For a group, the challenge is in reaching out to women who don’t know about us yet. How do we support women in tech in terms of professional development, but also women who aren’t working in tech and say ‘there are opportunities for you in this amazing industry’.

“The group doesn’t need sponsorship. But if it came up with an initiative it would be great if some businesses stepped up. It can’t all be warm and fuzzy feelings.”

John Goodyear, Egress chief science officer.
Jem Henderson and Mel Kanarek.
Neil Larkins, Egress chief technology officer.
Egress staff in the new office.