NI Software Skills – Reality Check Time (@PathXL)

Seems to me that things are hitting not-quite-crisis-point. So what I’m about to say is opinion and not a criticism of any of the fine companies involved. My word to NI tech companies is simple: Wanting to be a programmer is a choice, not an expectation because of demand.

“NI students ‘training for wrong careers’ says PathXL head.”

The first headline I read this morning……


The irony is that the photo probably illustrates the reason why so many people don’t want to be programmers. It comes across as a grey and boring profession. And to be fair, those views are at times justified.

I’ve said during my 27 year career as an engineer, programmer, technologist and big data/machine learning nerd that it takes a certain type of person to do this job. And while Mr Speed has a very good point, those mid tier jobs will be automated over the next 5-10 years, his words sound like a cry of a chief exec at the point of outsourcing.

It’s All About the Percentages

In December 2013 I was invited by Momentum to speak at one of their BringItOn sessions, as it was local to me I duly obliged as a civic duty to inform. Two things struck me that day.

1. No Belfast company bothered their arse to attend. If you want programmers so bad then you are going to have to find them, they may not come to you.

2. Out of a room of 400+ students about 10% stuck their hands up at the end about wanting to explore this career further. This didn’t come as a complete shock to me but I was talking to the students about it and asked why some of them didn’t put their hands up, “well, no offence but it looks boring”.

The Skills Shortage

Mr Speed is right though, jobs will go unfilled. Not just at PathXL but at AllState, Citi, Kainos, Liberty IT and all the other companies that have made announcements. All great companies, great stories and great results. Lovely people to boot.

Focusing on education to sort it all out, well the UK has been here before. Late 90’s the universities were pumping out computer science graduates like lemmings. All fine until the dot com bubble finally burst and the supply crashed to the floor.

What you cannot do is streamline a production line of government forced education to create programmers to satisfy the needs of companies. It’s not the done thing.

Education should be the rich fabric of disciplines, from science to art and everything in-between. Just because students want to study law or become a teacher does not mean they are wasting their time. Their prize could be the flight departing from Belfast International to a new life in another country. Who said they’d stay in the first place?

The Conundrum

The second one in six months, I’m doing well.

1. You can’t tell people what to do. Telling an individual they’re doing the wrong course or degree just to satisfy your company’s skills demands, well it’s damaging in the long term. Workers will get bored if their hearts and not in the profession and then leave. That leaves the company with the same problem longer down the line.

2. Experienced programmers are very difficult to find. Always have been and always will be.

3. Even on the mainland the question is popped, “Are you willing to relocate?”. So ask that here, would a good programmer be willing to relocate to Belfast? Let me put it this way, I’m classed as the rank outsider being in Limavady and knowing what I know.


(I’m the one on the far left of the graph).


Your money, your great working environment, your blow football table, your team get togethers…. they are not selling points but additional extras. Real programmers only are bothered about the challenge of the task in hand. Everything else is a little extra.

In terms of the skills gap I don’t think you can quickly educate your way out of it. Certainly not in the short term, perhaps in the 5-10 year bracket. So coding in schools is a good start but you’ll hit the same issue again and again….

….ultimately, programming and coding is not for everyone.

(And Mr Speed, I’m happy to talk this over any time. Here’s my phone number, 07900 316333).

Jason Bell is a Data/Hadoop consultant based in Northern Ireland but helps companies globally with various BigData, Hadoop and Spark projects. He also offers training on Hadoop, the Hadoop Ecosystem and Spark to developers and anyone interested in what these technologies can do. He’s also the author of “Machine Learning – Hands On For Developers and Technical Professionals“.



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