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Five things we’ve learnt during London Tech Week

What did you get up to as the capital (and country) came together to talk about technology? Here are some thoughts from the Tech Talks team.

London Tech Week is nearly over for another year. We’ve been as active as we can, with Tech Talks covering six different events; CogX, RipItUp, Work180 (panel event on inclusion), CIO Watercooler Live, the Harvey Nash CIO Survey launch, the Rustat Conference at Jesus College Cambridge (ok, not London… but with many London based attendees and caught in the capital’s gravitational pull!). After all the build up and prep work it’s worth reflecting on some of the conversations and themes to have emerged. So here are our “5 things we’ve learnt” from London Tech Week 2019:

  1. The academic community have the skills, but are they are on the same wavelength as private industry?

The Rustat Conference was a fascinating discussion focusing on Blockchain in the real world. The room was packed full of seriously enlightened, leading minds… and me. That said the conversation became strangely bogged down in the search for true uses of Blockchain. Apparently (and I disagree) the user cases currently on display aren’t true examples of a problem only Blockchain can solve.

That seems a strange line to debate. Yes, start with a problem and make sure that the tech you’re using is able to help you meet that challenge. But it doesn’t have to be the only solution, so long as you genuinely think it’s the best. Could Remixology, EHab or Super Global use solutions other than Blockchain? Maybe. Is Blockchain being used to fix problems and is it an enabling, appropriate technology; yes! Who cares what the pure decentralised user-case is, you’re missing the point if that’s your focus. Tech enables change, and that’s the important point.

This rings alarm bells in my tiny mind. Technology is increasingly scientific. Machine Learning and Data Science rely on collaboration with PhD minds. But private enterprise isn’t ready to debate with true definition of machine learning versus artificial intelligence, and it doesn’t care if you’re affronted by the terms being used interchangeably by marketing teams. All a private business wants to do is solve a problem (hopefully in a responsible manner). I can see a real clash of cultures occurring as these two worlds collide and it’ll be very interesting to see how that affects the direction and evolution of emerging technology businesses.

  1. Belonging is the key to bringing your real self.

Diversity and inclusion rightly remains a hot topic. Why? Well gender equality is the most visible indicator we’re a long way of equal representation of minority groups in the workplace. I feel some progress IS being made, but 70%+ male employment as an industry average (across tech) is simply not good enough.

What is really worrying is that’s where we’re at on the stuff we’re semi-comfortable talking about. But race is still a harder conversation for many, stigma remains a huge issue in relation to mental health, and LGBQT+ can be split into two groups; we’re making progress with the LGB part, but the trans community in particular still feel very nervous about being true to themselves in work.

For me the key word that came through loud and clear was belonging. I’ll be honest that’s a new one, but it makes sense. We’re tribal and we want to belong, our identity is tightly wrapped up in our ideas of community. But you only really feel like you belong when you’re true to yourself. The destination we need to arrive at is where everyone feels capable of bringing their true self to the office, or working environment. Only then will that person feel that they belong.

  1. E-commuting signals a shift in communication.

On Tuesday I hosted the CIO Watercooler TV channel. That involved eight short on camera interviews for the CIO Watercooler YouTube stream. Whilst prepping I saw a phrase I’d not come across before; e-commuting. At first I assumed this was an oxymoron and bad marketing, but then I met Daniel Yin (Head of Product and Innovation EMEA at RingCentral) and I had my eyes opened.

I’ve always been unsure about the idea of completely remote working. I like being in an office. On the podcast I’ve asked countless founders how they replicate the community an office creates. They’ve assured me with Slack and Skype etc it’s not a problem, “we Hangout every morning”. Sorry but it isn’t the same!

However I’m aware virtual working environments and remote teams are a certainty in the modem world (due to cost of resource and availability of talent). Plus our expectations of the employer/employee relationship are shifting; happily more of us are telling our pay masters that this is a relationship and family time, and down time matters. Flexible working is a force for good.

E-Commuting goes further than simply communication. It gives a deeper, more authentic virtual work environment. RingCentral (for example) are building Gify into their platforms. Why? Well it is a closer approximation of how we behave in the office; with humour with quick, offhand remarks. It also accounts for the language barrier that becomes more of a barrier with our usual visual cues removed. We need flexible, authentic means of communication but we can’t always make time to jump on a Hangout or Zoom. I think Whatsapp has become increasing heavily used in working environments simply because of the lack of authentic communication channels.

Anyway, in that context e-commuting is not a marketing gimmick, but a rethinking of our communication tools to give greater authenticity to a remote working world. I’m all for that.

  1. Technology has its hand in the cookie jar…

In the Harvey Nash CIO Survey one stat took on increasing significant to me over time; 1 in 20 organisations are investing in quantum computing. At first I glossed over the point. It was a bit random but I was more intrigued by the level of spending on cloud services (75% now investing in that particular tech).

Quantum computing lies at the fringes of the sector. It’s comparable to AGI in terms of the level of theory still involved, and it’s been likened to being the new space race. In terms of the level of collaboration and funding required to make progress, from industry and government, that comparison rings true. So I started to ask; who are the 4%? The answer (it was suggested) must be Google, Amazon, IBM etc. But firms of that size don’t account for 4% of all businesses out there, so I figure much smaller, less resource-rich businesses must be throwing funds at this issue.

Why? Sorry to be negative but they can’t hope to see results here. I think it’s also reflective of a wider trend. Budgets across the technology industry are up, and funds are being poured into emerging tech; AI, data science, blockchain etc. Who is the driving force behind that increase in spending? Is it a board helping their technology department get their house in order after a period of rapid growth where the tech stack has been treated like a western frontier? Or is it a technology leader encouraging the executive board to invest, preying on FOMO? If it is I worry that the trust (which is so key to the CIO as that role shifts to an advisory post) will be severely undermined. Building a data machine at scale can take two years, with little sign of ROI. How likely is a CEO to provide the financial and political backing if their fingers have been burnt? Tech leaders shouldn’t be caught with their hands in the corporate cookie jar.

  1. AI can save the British summer time.

I’m sure it hasn’t escaped your attention but the weather has been frankly shit. If I was going to Glastonbury I’d be starting to seriously worry. Low pressure grips the UK and our summer seems stuck in a negative funk. That’s less than ideal if you run a partially outdoor festival like CogX spread across several sites. I’m sure several smaller events were also struggling for attendee numbers due to the endless rain.

But my impression is the enthusiasm for tech and collaboration shone through the grey clouds. There will be a few technologists and enthusiasts sporting a summer cold but they battled on to hear what peers are working on.

One theme which came through loud and clear was the role tech can play in helping our fragile environment. I’ve seen several examples of tech being applied to the health and management of coral reefs, but CogX also discussed how key AI initiatives to reduce our carbon footprint and manage environmental issues are. Sure, AI seems to be the answer to all our problems at the moment, but wider society seems to finally be alive to the situation we find ourselves on. The planet is on the edge. The momentum created by the extinction rebellion, the green surge in pan-Eurupean polls, and coming from the stages of global conferences and forums can’t be allowed to fizzle out. If we stand-by and let that happen a little rain will be the least of our worries.

So that’s been my London Tech Week. I’d love to hear from you with your own take on the events of the last five days. Looking at Twitter it seems 5G and VR were also topics getting plenty of air-time. What has struck me is that this no longer feels fringe. Tech is front and centre, and the leaders of the technology industry are the most powerful voices in society. I hope you found them as authentic and engaging as I did!

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