As skilled Irish software engineers become more of a premium, the University of Limerick thinks it has the right industry solution, writes Sean Pollock
Irish tech stars John Collison and Des Traynor share more than just setting up two massive companies — they also share a passion for educating the next generation.
Two years ago, Collison, who helped co-found online payment company Stripe with his brother Patrick, attended a dinner with Intercom co-founder Traynor and Stephen Kinsella, associate professor of economics at the University of Limerick. The three of them struck up a conversation about educating the next generation of technology students.
“We were talking about how you could do a better job of software engineering,” said Collison. “The core idea we discussed there was the idea behind this course. It’s software engineering — you have to learn the fundamentals, but fundamentally it’s something you learn by doing.”
He added: “Imagine if you went to get surgery and the new surgeon rocked up, they’ve read lots of textbooks, and they think they have this idea down, but this is actually their first time cutting into someone. It would make you a bit nervous. That’s kind of what we have with computer science education today — it’s very theoretical and not focused on the practical stuff.”
Last week, the University of Limerick (UL) announced it will launch a new innovative course that could play a role in addressing industry concerns over educating the next generation entering Ireland’s flourishing tech sector. It had engaged extensively with industry across the State while designing the course, including both Collison and Traynor.
The Immersive Software Engineering (ISE) programme will seek to meet increased global demand for developer talent, with the internet economy rapidly growing. It will see students spend around half of their time on paid work placements at partner companies.
UL announced the new integrated undergraduate and Masters degree in partnership with over a dozen leading tech companies from Ireland and around the world — including Analog Devices, Stripe, Zalando, Intercom, Shopify, Manna Aero and Facebook.
The course will bring the concept of ‘residencies’, which are more common to medical degrees, and use them as a critical feature for the first time in computer science education. Just as trainee doctors apply skills that they have studied in a classroom to the real world, so will ISE students, and they’ll be doing it inside some of the world’s most exciting tech companies.
During the four years, students will complete five paid residencies, each between three and six months long. The first cohort of students to undertake the new programme starts in September 2022.
“They’re going to have a much more intensive experience, and they’ll be more valuable to companies when they walk out the door,” said Kinsella. “As they chain the residency experiences together and go and work in Stripe, then Manna Aero, then Personio, then Shopify, by the time they come out of their fourth residency and do a fifth in Facebook – they are so much more experienced and valuable.
“Unless they want to set up their own company in the middle of this, it would be far better that they keep on [the course],” he added, stating UL also has VC fund Frontline Ventures and Enterprise Ireland as supporters of the course. Their presence could act to boost those that seek to go out on their own two feet.
Currently, Ireland is a global technology hub, with 16 of the top 20 global technology firms, nine of the top 10 US ICT companies and four of the top 5 IT services companies having strategic operations in Ireland.
Despite Ireland’s status as a tech hub — or perhaps because of it — it is not immune to the shortage of software engineering talent. The problem is a global one.
Indeed, the rapid growth in demand for skills in the sector led the European Commission to previously estimate that Europe could face an 800,000-person ICT skills shortage by 2020.
In Ireland, over three-quarters of tech companies have reported that the shortage of tech skills is losing them money.
The Government has also got involved to help address skills in the sector. In its Technology Skills 2022 action plan, it set a target to increase the numbers of learners graduating with high-level ICT skills by over 65pc by the end of 2022. This represents an additional 5,000 graduates, apprentices and trainees.
Shortages of skilled software engineers hasn’t stopped tech companies from queuing up to build or bolster their presence in Ireland, however. Already this year, US tech giants such as Strava have announced plans to build new operations here, while others are ready to add more to what they already have.
“We get it done, we have more than 100 software engineers in Ireland, and we are hiring lots and lots more, but at the same time, it is hard to find the right people, and it is hard to find the right students who have got the right training,” said Collison on the challenges of hiring in Ireland for Stripe.
“Part of the reason we are so excited about this [the UL course] is because we do lots of hiring of new graduates at Stripe, and we want to make sure that they are well set up to start doing the job.”
Compounding the difficulty in locating enough tech talent could be declining interest. Despite roles such as software engineers and computer scientists commanding high salaries straight from university, and the increasing demand for more, CAO trends from last March revealed that technology courses had experienced a 5pc year-on-year decline in applications.
With the technology industry in Ireland employing over 37,000 people and generating €35bn in exports annually, the need to address the issues around the amount of available skilled people is paramount.
Traynor said addressing the access to software engineering talent here remained crucial, particularly when it comes to developing the next big Irish tech success stories.
“Ultimately, I think we don’t have a hope unless we have a large amount of great product engineering talent,” he said. “That will be the thing that makes a start-up ecosystem succeed in Ireland.”
He added: “If we are all fishing in a very small pond, then it's going to be extra hard for someone who has just scraped together their first million of funding to try and hire.
“Genuinely, we will be a long-time producing software engineers in Ireland before we are at any risk of one of them not getting a great job.”
Traynor is hoping to start a new hunt for software engineers in Ireland.
Intercom aims to hire at least 100 people this year into several roles in Dublin, including product design and engineering. Traynor admitted some of these roles won’t be filled by people currently living here.
“Obviously, we would naturally have to lean on hiring from Europe as well,” he said. “That’s obviously tougher in a world where people can’t come to Dublin and can't meet you. A lot of the normal tactics are off the table.”
Tech companies here are not just looking to Europe for talent. Last year, 4,700 work permits were issued to the IT sector, the second-highest industry behind healthcare.
While the multinational behemoths of tech battle it out with each other for talent, the indigenous Irish tech scene is also doing its utmost to attract the right people.
According to Enterprise Ireland, Irish digital technology companies had combined annual sales of more than €6.5bn and exports of €3.6bn in 2018 — paling in comparison to their international counterparts also operating on these shores.
For Patricia Scanlon, the chief executive of SoapBox Labs and a partner of the UL course, fighting it out with the multinationals for software engineers is a challenge — and it has forced her to consider other options for hiring.
“The problem is now it is so scarce on the ground for software engineers — particularly good ones with experience,” she said. “It is very hard for us to grow if we can’t hire.
“We have spent an inordinate amount of time and cost on hiring. We would love to be able to do more. We are looking at more remote working policies… and that will mean we will accept people abroad who will come visit the company.
“That is not our goal. It’s an Irish company. I’d rather have everybody here. We allow people to work remotely, and we will in the future, but we also want people to be able to pop into the office.
“For us, it is critical,” she added. “We want the best people. We have always attracted the best people. It’s a struggle because multinationals have such deep pockets; they are just throwing more and more money at it.”
Scanlon backed the UL project believing it would offer indigenous companies access to the talent they sorely need. But that wasn’t the only reason the entrepreneur felt passionate about the course.
Diversity in the tech sector has long been identified as an issue. According to TechIreland’s latest Female Founder Review figures for 2019, female-founded tech companies represent 427 out of a total of 2,619 and €63m of funding raised out of a total of €707m.
Scanlon said she hoped the new UL course would help to attract more women into tech.
“When you’ve got a really bright female student looking at where she is going, and she looks at this very male industry, some people will jump and do it anyway. Some will be turned off it.”
She added: “If you don’t try and fix the problem, it is just going to continue. It can’t just be lip-service. This [course] is saying to girls across the country, if you have an interest in this and can demonstrate resourcefulness and creativity, then you stand as good a chance as anybody else.”
Despite the concerns regarding the availability of software engineers, the founders all shared a positive view of the Irish tech sector’s future.
“I am super bullish,” said Intercom’s Traynor. “I think we have seen and will continue to see the emergence of really strong Irish start-ups. From an Intercom point of view, I hope that we see future spinouts from our own company and the same for all the other start-ups here.
“I would be very long on Irish tech,” he added. “There are things to fix along the way for sure, but if I wasn’t long Irish tech, then I wouldn’t be spending my time with the folks from Stripe and UL on this degree.
“This is a necessary ingredient for a bright future, but I really believe in the bright future.”
While the Immersive Software Engineering (ISE) programme at the University of Limerick is set to help Ireland’s tech companies access more of the talent they need, it is also set to help companies based here bolster different areas of interest.
Analog Devices, a US semiconductor company with a significant presence across Ireland, played a significant role in designing the course.
Martin Cotter, senior vice president of worldwide sales and digital marketing at Analog Devices, said the company’s world is becoming more digital. It is keen to extract insights from its products’ data to enhance their end-uses. “We need different skill sets to include being able to help customers in a digital world,” he said.
“[The world] is becoming more and more [about] software. The world of analogue is becoming scarcer. We need to represent our technology in a different way. It is a much bigger opportunity, but we need new skillsets.”
Cotter said Analog Devices would be hiring to develop its digital platform, adding that Limerick will be one of the main places to benefit.