Thursday 14 November 2019

David D’Arcy: Don't be afraid - tech firms also need staff with old-style skills

THIS week's jobs announcements by Paddy Power and Kerry Group may elicit reactions of both hope and despair from many struggling to cope with recession.

Hope among the business community that the announcements indicate a genuine recovery; and hope among those people with the specialist skills that their future here is not as uncertain as it might once have seemed.

On the other hand, those who are mystified by the arcane language required to write the simplest smartphone "app", or whose knowledge of "food science" does not exceed that needed to fry an egg may despair that the new digital world is moving away from them and their skills.

When, they may wonder, is the real economy with its tangible products and traditional services going to come back?

What hope have they got without a degree in some branch of computing or biotechnology?

The reassuring truth is that many of the new jobs are better described as "technology enabled" rather than jobs for technologists.

Paddy Power's new jobs will be in the areas of e-commerce, social media and online marketing as well as technology, quantitative research and risk management.

The latter three job descriptions will require specialist expertise in computing technology and the advanced mathematics required to assess and calculate a bookmaker's risk. However, the former three will be based on long-standing skills and business processes, albeit adapted to embrace the pervasiveness of digital technology.

E-commerce, for instance, may make use of viral marketing and online campaigns instead of mail shots, flyers and billboards to attract new customers. Orders may be fulfilled by electronic payments on interactive and secure websites instead of a traditional counter and cash register. Relationships with customers may be maintained by social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook instead of by passing pleasantries with familiar faces as they visit one's shop.

But at its core, e-commerce is still just commerce requiring the basic skills of any commercial operation: identifying opportunities, stimulating demand, fulfilling promises to customers and enticing repeat business. The shift of context to the electronic world rather than the physical requires an adaptation of existing skills rather than consigning them to obsolescence.

Nor should one think that everybody who works in the "technology sector" is a technologist. Not all of the 1,500 or so people who work for Google in Ireland are software developers; hardly any of the 2,200 Dell employees still employed in Ireland or Apple employees in Cork are involved in manufacturing.

It is true that all companies require some people with specialist technological skills, but increasingly their operations here are based around sales, marketing, international support and business operations. All of which are founded on perennial business and personal skills.

Justice Minister Alan Shatter's recent tongue-in-cheek reprimand to Apple when one of its navigation apps mistook Airfield Farm in his constituency for an aerodrome highlights the fact that "information" has always been the more important word in the couplet Information Technology. The misrepresenting of Airfield was not so much a failure of technology as an error of information management -- what an earlier generation might have called fact-checking.

Sorting out such glitches requires a familiarity with computing as an enabling tool, but the core skills and processes are of longstanding vintage.

David D'Arcy is a former editor of 'ComputerScope'

Irish Independent

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