Monday 19 February 2018

We can rule the web -- the secret lies in our genes

Our political leaders need to seize the opportunity to retrain professionals and turn Ireland into the dotcom hub of Europe, writes Ray Nolan

'Many of our unemployed engineers, technicians, architects could migrate to good software development roles within six months...'

AS a small island nation sitting out on the periphery of Europe, Ireland has always been economically disadvantaged when compared to our neighbours.

It costs us more to build products, more to market them and more to ship them. Add to this our tiny population, which can neither sustain a sizable businesses, nor benefit from the economies of scale to spread the huge costs of our running our State.

In the pre-internet world, accessing international markets was only for the brave and the well-backed. As recently as the Nineties the list of native Irish companies doing business with more than one or two close neighbours was extremely short. The sheer logistical challenges and costs of establishing a physical presence outside of Ireland meant few ventured overseas.

Today, a mature internet removes many of these barriers. International markets are a click away. Lower marketing costs, virtual offices and remote support all reduce the burden of doing business overseas. Ireland, of all nations, has benefited most as the internet has torn down the barriers to international free trade which once kept us as minions.

To date we have yet to really embrace this change, coming as it did whilst the temptation of the developers' quick-buck mentality tainted what should have been a purple patch in our growth as a country. From a desktop in Dublin, it is now arguably easier to do business with a customer in Minnesota than in Killybegs.

Several great Irish companies are world leaders. Established players such as Hostelworld, Newbay and Cartrawler are joined at internet top table by newbies like Ezetop, and Luzern.

They have each blazed trails with unique products and business models and today conduct transactions in hundreds of countries.

But trail-blazing is expensive. The first to create a web business spends fortunes building unique technology, educating its market, trying business models until they find what works. All the while there is low-hanging fruit.

US online businesses grow up in a simple world where customers are English-speaking, dollar-holding Americans. Why? The size of the US market allows them to achieve scale without having to stray onto foreign soil.

To such companies, expanding into a multi-currency, multi-lingual, and multi-cultural Europe is daunting. The best have tried and failed, usually having to buy local European companies to get a decent foothold.

Even internet giants like eBay, Travelocity, Amazon have failed in some way with their initial European offerings, forcing them to buy market share with Marktplaats, Lastminute, Mobipocket respectively.

A missed opportunity for Ireland is using our location, cultural compatibility, and internatonalisation skills to replicate US successes within Europe.

And what of Irish internet entrepreneurs? They are starved of start-up capital for sure, but starting a web business costs maybe 80 per cent less now than it did in the late Nineties.

The real issue is staff. Yes, in Ireland -- with 400,000 unemployed -- there are literally thousands of web-related opportunities that cannot be filled. Maybe 3,000 such jobs are advertised, but I believe the latent job count is more like 10,000.

Such is the shortfall that exasperated companies are searching Europe for staff, or are being forced to outsource when they'd far prefer to develop their products at home.

The shortfall is stymying growth and if resolved, I believe could make us the envy of many.

Since its inception, the software industry has prided itself on the sheer complexity of what we do. Developers are near geniuses, with mathematical powers to solve the most complex algorithm in minutes.

The truth? Software development is highly skilled, but it's a process that does not differ substantially from the process of using CAD to design a building, engineer a new bridge, or construct and finish a block of apartments.

It is my strongly held belief that many of the unemployed engineers, technicians and architects could migrate quickly to well-paid software development roles within a matter of six months under the guidance of well-meaning companies, who are prepared -- and potentially would be financially rewarded -- to cross-train them.

And aside from the development itself, there is a raft of opportunities within the broader web development environment -- testing, training, design, business analysis, even selling. These are as important in the completion of a software or web product as the coders at the coalface.

The fast advancing world of web development rightly attracts far more extroverts than bit-hogging geeks. Releasing web products that will be used by millions around the world is as gratifying as watching a sports car roll off the production line.

It's a creative and fun industry that pays well, and offers real prospects of advancement. We need our youth to understand this.

Importantly, the IDA and the like cannot continue to sell the illusion to Silicone Valley that we have all the tech staff they could need ready and willing on our shores.

From my visits to the big internet guns around Grand Canal dock, the reality is that the greater number of employees are not Irish, but migrants sourced elsewhere in Europe.

A new tech giant opening in Dublin is thus good for income tax revenue, but doesn't move the jobs needle. Re-skilling our unemployed will allow us fill these jobs from our live register, and, importantly, will help Irish web entrepreneurs who equally struggle to launch in the face of lack of available skilled folk.

Irish people are genetically pre-disposed to be in tech. Our small economy necessitates that we are pleasant, pragmatic, copped-on problem-solvers. It's in our genes.

It remains to be seen if we seize the opportunity that presents itself, or if we let someone else take our prize. Unfortunately there is no evidence as yet that this Government has any clue of the scale of the prize, or the urgency with which we must seize it.

In the past, our political leaders spotted the opportunity to transform Ireland from a rural second-world country into the respected leader it became. It is now time for urgent action which can transform our nation once again and allow us regain the respect we deserve in international markets.

The next celtic tiger will not be made of bricks and mortar, founded in quicksand. It will be tech-savvy, and confident, built on hard work, our innate talents as Irish people and the fact that we seized an opportunity to make a name for ourselves as the dotcom hub for Europe. The prize is ours for the taking.

Ray Nolan is a successful internet entrepreneur. In 2009 he sold his online firm WRI for €200m

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