June 13, 2019

Carlyle Executive Interview: Polly Purvis OBE, CEO – ScotlandIS

As part of Carlyle’s Executive Interview Series, Fiona James-Martin (Partner, Carlyle) met with Polly Purvis, OBE (Chief Executive, ScotlandIS) to discuss the evolution of the technology industry, supporting talent to thrive in the sector, and how technology can play a positive role in shaping the society of the future.

Can you tell us about ScotlandIS and its role in the industry?

ScotlandIS is the membership and cluster management organisation for the digital technologies industry in Scotland. We represent a wide range of companies, from start-ups right through to global multi-national businesses, including numerous Scottish based SMEs.

Like many trade bodies we run a substantial programme of events, providing networking opportunities for people and businesses to connect and help each other. For example, we now have a cohort of technology companies who have successfully expanded internationally, and that expertise is hugely valuable for emerging businesses in spaces such as cyber and blockchain.

We also spend a lot of time promoting the industry and ensuring that it is on the radar of relevant policymakers, and I think we have made great strides in this respect. There is now a clear understanding of the importance of technology, especially the opportunities and challenges the industry faces, within national government. However, there is still further progress to be achieved. I believe that technology is going to be a leading light in economic growth for Scotland, and ScotlandIS, alongside other industry bodies, will continue to lobby policymakers around issues such the skills gap, which remains a key challenge facing technology organisations of all sizes.

What opportunities and challenges do you think the industry is facing in the next three years?

There are massive opportunities across a number of areas: data and data science, machine learning, artificial intelligence and the internet of things all have huge potential for growth. These disciplines are not new, but we are now in a situation where the convergence of areas such as AI with the new big data sets created by digital transformation is enabling businesses to develop innovative products and solutions which will explode into the mainstream, much like cloud computing did ten years ago.

Cyber security is another area which is growing exponentially: the opportunity for new solutions is enormous because the threat levels continue to increase. As an industry, we have to put our heads together and come up with ways of educating and protecting people, ensuring that businesses of all sizes in Scotland who want to use technology are not barred from it due to security fears. It’s no longer a case of ‘if’ but ‘when’ security breaches may occur, and smaller organisations need mechanisms in place to respond to such attacks, much in the same way that large companies have disaster recovery plans.

Following on from this point, I also think there is a real requirement to start thinking more deeply as an industry about how we ensure that we are creating and using technology responsibly. As humans we are capable of creating so much, but as part of this creative process we also need to put in place ethical frameworks to govern responsible use, especially with regards to areas such as personal data. We have the opportunity, and duty, to ensure technology is predominantly used as a force for good in our society; for example, deploying applications that assist elderly or disabled people to stay in their homes for longer, able to live their lives the way they want.

In terms of international growth, I think we need to be careful that we don’t get complacent. We need to develop a shared plan to drive growth. Scotland still has some way to go to become a leading international technology hub; we can do it, but we need a collective effort from the industry to reach this goal. In my view, it’s about bringing the ecosystem together and promoting it, whilst simultaneously supporting the industry with practical building blocks which make international success achievable and sustainable. Also, we lose so many skilled people from Scotland, we need to attract them back – think of all the smart, capable Scots working in technology across the world and what they could bring back in terms of knowledge and expertise.

Technology is wonderful industry; it’s full of great people going great things and the variety has never failed to keep me interested throughout my years in the sector. There are so many opportunities to learn and to stretch yourself, and I truly believe that over the next few years we will see companies making a positive difference to our society, both on a local and global level. We have businesses working on everything from healthcare applications for chronic diseases to technology automation that frees up time for people to focus on creative and engaging work. We’re facing some big challenges as a world at the moment, and I think technology has a huge role to play in helping us as a global society to collaborate and make a difference.

Are there any particular companies that you would highlight as ‘ones to watch’ for the future?

One of the reasons I love working in this sector is the rapid progression of businesses. You can meet a founder starting out making one product, for example Peter Proud at Cortex, and then in five years you meet them again and they have evolved enormously – it’s always changing. One of our challenges is actually keeping on top of what our members are doing!

FreeAgent is another stunning Scottish success story in my view. All of the founders initially worked in different businesses, identified an issue with invoicing and got together to build a solution, then expanded it from there. That team has really shown what you can do with technology – they have an extremely diverse work force that has built a successful business through a clear focus on the customer.

In terms of companies to watch, over twenty years I have seen waves of companies coming through, and I think there is a lot of potential bubbling under at the moment across a variety of markets. There’s a number of young companies, such as Ecometrica, Administrate, Wallet Services, Neatebox, Cohesion Medical, Deep Miner, Amiqus, Waracle, Quorum Cyber, and Incremental Group, who I think will all become tech superstars two to three years from now, and I am sure to have missed other potential stars.

Technology has historically been a male-dominated environment; have you seen a shift in the number of women entering the industry, and how do you think we can support this?

The most interesting feedback that we hear in this sector is that women still don’t see enough role models at senior and mid-career levels. As an industry we really need to think about how we help women understand the huge variety of options open to them, whilst also being transparent about how to blend work with other aspects of life, such as caring for a young or elderly family; which is a concern equally applicable to men and women.

I also think we need to do more to support women to have the confidence to apply for roles and promotions. If you look at the research into job descriptions for example, the data shows that men are significantly more likely than women to put themselves forward for roles without matching all of the criteria. Equate Scotland have done some great work in this regard around unconscious bias in advertisements, and how to attract a more diverse pool of candidates from under-represented groups.

In my opinion, it is vitally important that we promote the multitude of diverse career paths in technology: we absolutely need people with deep technical skills, but we also need sales, marketing, UX and product management skills to name a few. Big software companies, for example, need project managers who understand the basics of what it’s like to be at the coalface of coding, as well as digital marketers who understand the technology that runs their products. Financial services is an example of a sector that has done very well by utilising graduate programmes to move people around early in their career so that they can develop a broad skill base, and this is something the technology industry could learn from. This was one of the reasons for establishing CodeClan Scotland’s first digital skills academy – to help businesses and individuals understand the value of transferable skills.

Access to the right mentors is also hugely important, which I think people now recognise. Some of the bigger technology business in Scotland have been very good at supporting talent by providing mentoring systems for everyone, not just high-performers, and they have seen very positive results. I also think that offering flexible working conditions is a highly positive step; this is something which we are trying to implement more at ScotlandIS through initiatives such as encouraging shared parental leave and moving to a nine-day fortnight.

How do we encourage up-and-coming talent within STEM?

Since the 1980s, as an industry we’ve struggled to attract and retain talent, especially female talent, in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) roles in Scotland. In my view, we have to be tackling this at key entry points to STEM; this includes working with schools to ensure better understanding and communication around STEM, and the vast array of career opportunities that lie within related industries. It also involves supporting further education institutions, where classes are still largely male dominated, to create environments which support the development of female talent and dispel the negativity that surrounds the ‘geek’ image for both genders.

We also can’t ignore the fact that we lose women out of the industry throughout their twenties, and very often after career breaks, when they worry they no longer have the relevant skills to work in the sector. This is a concern which can be relatively easily fixed by undertaking short intensive courses and training to refresh key skills, and we should consider how we make such opportunities clearly available to people who are looking to return to the industry. Morgan Stanley, for example, have a programme in place to reskill employees coming back from shared maternity/paternity leave before they re-enter the workplace.

We know that fixing the gender balance can be done: we’ve seen it before with sectors such as law and accountancy, which were historically male-dominated, but which now have a significantly improved gender split. We just need to keep working away to resolve the challenge.

You recently announced your resignation from ScotlandIS after twenty years. What would you say have been some of your career highlights, and is there any advice you’d give to others looking to work in the industry?

I think one of the key things I have learnt throughout my career is not to be afraid to grab opportunities when they arise. Persistence and willingness to drive forward will take you far: I was never fond of public speaking, for example, but now people tell me I’m much better at it. There are some things you just need to be willing to keep trying for.

Looking back at my career I have been fortunate to have had tremendous experiences which I thoroughly enjoyed, and I would not have wished it to be any different. In terms of highlights, we set up ScotSoft back in 1998, and this has been a key date in the diary for the industry ever since, enabling us to bring people in technology together to learn from each other. We have hosted some truly inspirational speakers over the years, including Vint Cerf, one of the founders of the internet, and my personal favourite! We were also the debut event for the Microsoft Surface in the UK, which was hugely exciting. More recently, speakers have included leading venture capitalists such as Heidi Roisin, Ann Winblad, and Eric McAfee, entrepreneurs like Gareth Williams, CEO at Skyscanner; Greg Mesch, CEO of City Fibre; and David Farquhar now heading up Intelligent Growth Solutions, and technology superstars such as Troy Hunt and Scott Helme, both global experts on cyber security. This year Jon Skeet, cloud lead at Google and number one contributor to StackOverflow is leading our line-up.

From a policy perspective, we have put significant effort into lobbying the government to recognise the skills challenge that the industry faces. In 2012 we worked together with Skills Development Scotland to create the ICT & Digital Technology Skills Investment Plan, which was a turning point in terms of creating change in the industry. There is now a real focus on tackling skills from early years education right through into continuing adult education, which includes better career advice and updated curriculums in schools. We’re working very closely with the teaching staff at colleges and universities to ensure that what they are teaching is right up to date with industry practices. Initiatives such as the Digital Xtra Fund, which supports extracurricular activities for kids, have also been received very positively. So, whilst we still have a long way to go, there have been some great breakthroughs for everyone in industry.

Setting up CodeClan in 2015 was exciting, and challenging! I’m delighted to see the positive impact the academy is making across Scotland, and look forward to supporting its future growth. However, what I’m most proud of is leaving behind a great team who have worked together for a number of years. I truly believe that they are enabling a range of improvements across the industry which will add up to big change. It’s an exciting time for the sector, and I’m confident that I’m leaving ScotlandIS in good hands.

In terms of personal highlights, receiving an Outstanding Personal Achievement Award from Roseanna Cunningham, MSP in 2015 and an OBE for services to the digital industry in 2018 at Buckingham Palace have been both hugely embarrassing, but also very flattering. As anyone who leads a team knows, it’s always a joint effort, so I see these as being recognition of the great team we have here at ScotlandIS.

What’s next for you?

I’ll be in ScotlandIS until the appointment of my successor, and then I plan to spend some time on the beach! For the foreseeable future, I’m continuing my Chair responsibilities for CodeClan, and I’m hoping to broaden my non-executive portfolio. I’ve had a number of approaches but want to make sure that whatever I do I’m really able to bring value to the business concerned.

Carlyle Perspective

In Carlyle’s experience, Scotland is an attractive proposition for scaling technology businesses. This is due to the combination of forward-thinking academic institutions, access to a broad range of talent and potential funding opportunities. Scotland also continues to draw talented individuals from a diverse range of backgrounds to live and work here, in part due to more competitive housing costs; access to excellent education establishments; shorter commutes and a high quality of life. As an ecosystem, we are also incredibly supportive of talent growth, which means significant opportunity for career development and progression.

As a firm we are incredibly proud to support bodies such as ScotlandIS, which play such a crucial role in continuing to develop Scotland as a premier place to work, live and do business.


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