October 11, 2011
We Cannot Afford To Underinvest In UK ComputingA company director would understand that they have to invest proportionately in marketing their business. Typically, businesses spend about 5% of their annual turnover on marketing just to stand still. And considerably more if they're trying to build their business from a standing start or if they're launching major new products.
If you were running a £1 billion-a-year business, you might invest £50 million every year on marketing. If you were in charge of the marketing department of that business, and they gave you just £50,000 to market their £1 billion-a-year business, you'd assume they'd grossly miscalculated. Or you'd assume they know nothing about marketing.
You have to speculate to accumulate, and you have to speculate proportionately. The amount you invest usually needs to be pitched to match the size of the problem you're trying to solve. £50,000 would be a very healthy marketing budget for a business turning over £1 million a year. But it's a drop in the ocean for a company turning over £1 billion.
What would likely happen if you invested a disproportionately small amount into marketing your business? Your business would shrink.
So when it comes to deciding how much we should invest in the future of UK computing, we need to first ask "what is the size of the problem?" How much is computing worth to UK plc?
My issue is this: when we hear about computing education and the UK's computing industry in the mainstream media, in government and in other places where these decisions are shaped, the scope of the discussion is limited to a tiny fraction of our real "digital economy". While we agonise over the future of computer games development in the UK, we'd do well to remember that computing plays a large part in the fortunes of major supermarket chains whose annual profits can outstrip our gaming industry by themselves.
It's easy to forget that supermarkets are a product of the computing age, and that their operational effectiveness and competitiveness is closely tied to their ability to create, adapt and evolve their bespoke IT systems. Tescos and Marks & Spencers need skilled programmers every bit as much as the games developers do.
The reality is that there probably isn't a single company in the FTSE100 index for whom that isn't now true. The combined economic value of those 100 public companies runs into hundreds of billions, and the impact of computing on their bottom lines can be profound. If Acme Plc want to change the way they handle sales and fulfilment, chances are they won't be able to do it without changing their systems. In comparison, the economic impact of a delay in shipping the next whizzy shoot'em-up is chickenfeed.
Then there's the critical importance of computing in UK science and engineering. These days, most scientists don't sit in labs with tests tubes and bunsen burners. They sit at computers, writing software to analyse and interpret data and simulate the real world. Can CERN operate without computers? Not at all. Not even for a moment.
Here's the real bottom line for UK computing. WIthout it, we go right back to the 1940s. And so does our economy. Seven decades of amazing scientific advancement, progress in standards of living, economic growth and prosperity, the only rational explanation for which is computers. It's certainly not because we've been getting smarter or working harder.
The real value of computing to the UK is incalculable. It has seeped into every aspect of our lives and transformed many parts of our existing economy, as well as creating entirely new ones that were impossible without computers.
Strategically, computing is more important to UK plc than anything else. That may sound like a bold claim. But if you sit down and do the maths, it's undeniably true. Whatever we're planning for the future, it will almost certainly rely on computing. And there's no putting the genie back into the bottle.
When we miss this much, much bigger picture and focus in on computer games and digital media, we risk massively underinvesting in our digital future, by several orders of magnitude. Investment in computing education, apprenticeships, help for tech start-ups and all that good stuff, if measured in the millions of pounds, would be like a £1 billion-a-year company investing £50,000 a year in marketing. The net effect is that our economy will shrink.
I don't understand why politicians and business leaders and pundits don't get this. Computing is a very real limiting factor on every aspect of our economy. If we cannot nurture the talent and the skills required to build this future economy on the scale required, then that future won't happen on the scale we need. It's really as simple as that.
At this point, recession or not, we must consider investing billions every year into computing education. We have a huge amount of ground to make up that we've lost over the last two decades. A genuine UK computing renaissance isn't going to happen on a shoestring budget.
Money must be found to put a qualified computing teacher - y'know, one who can actually really program - in every single school, and they must be paid enough to ensure that some coding job in the City won't lure them away. My guess is that will cost in excess of £1 billion a year.
Money must be found to give every child a programmable computer when they start school. That could run into £50 million a year (thanks to the Raspberry Pi).
Money must be found to create and operate high quality learning resources, such as web sites, videos, TV shows and books, and make them freely available to children and schools. We could be talking about another £200M+.
Funds must be created to finance and encourage UK tech start-ups and ensure all that new talent doesn't leave the country. We've been historically great at research and development and inventing cool stuff, but absolutely hopeless at turning that ingenuity and creativity into British businesses. Intellectually, we punch well above our weight. it's just a shame that we're such entrepreneurial weaklings. A fund of several billion pounds a year to invest in good tech start-ups and growing tech businesses might help ensure that UK software businesess can grow beyond the point where they just become fodder for foreign buyers.
And maybe a lot of these tech start-ups won't go the distance, but while they're trying, it will keep all that talent productively busy and professionally satisfied ready for the day when those lucky few grow into our own versions of Google and Microsoft. Or they'll take their places in the wider economy, helping banks and supermarkets and rail operators and hospitals and TV channels to stay ahead of the competition and keep UK plc ticking along for future generations.
At this critical time, we must not skimp and we must not falter. We cannot afford to underinvest in our computing future.
Posted 8 years, 10 months ago on October 11, 2011