July 2, 2016

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What Does Brexit Mean for UK Software Development?

The effects of last week's momentous referendum result that has set the UK (well, England and Wales, at any rate) on a path to exiting the EU are already being felt in British software development.

For several months now, as Leavers and Remainers campaigned, the uncertainty created by the referendum about Britain's economic future has seen many employers put a freeze on unnecessary spending.

Anecdotally, I've been hearing since January about IT projects that have been put on ice, recruitment drives shelved, and - most pertinently to my business - training and mentoring deprioritised, as companies seek to reduced spending in case the unthinkable happened.

Now that the unthinkable has happened, what will it mean for the medium and long-term future of British software development?

Undoubtedly, we've relied on our EU membership to staff teams. Good developers are hard to find. It just got a lot harder. Since last Friday, I've seen several European developers I follow on Twitter say they'll be leaving the UK. This is not good. Indeed, there are entire companies here that have been started by EU migrants. The British economy has benefitted from their brains and their hard work. I quite understand why they might now be thinking "Why should I stay if I'm obviously not wanted?" The effect of a brain drain back to the EU will be noticeable.

And while many of us are calling for the status of existing EU migrants to be guaranteed, we may not know for quite some time if that's actually possible. It's likely to generate a lot of anger among Leave voters who thought they were voting to "send them home". And even if their status could be protected, the rise in anti-immigrant rhetoric, including a step-change in attacks and abuse in the streets, is unlikely to have no effect on choices to stay.

Some of our biggest employers have already made it clear that they are looking into potential other locations for their businesses. If banking, in particular, decides London is no longer the place to be, that will put an end to the largest concentration of software developers in Europe - the City of London. "Tech City", just up the road, would be likely to feel the shock waves.

And being out of the EU is likely to have an impact on investment for tech start-ups, too. For years, the UK was considered to be one of the best places to start a software company. Being in the EU was part of the attraction.

Meanwhile, UK citizens - born and educated here - are investigating other possibilities, like Scotland (if it becomes independent), Ireland and Canada. Before our final exit from the EU, we can probably expect a further brain drain, losing thousands of great software developers who have stronger liberal and internationalist leanings.

But, with no signs of a social democrat resurgence on the horizon (with the main opposition doing their level-best to ensure we don't get that choice), the writing's on the wall for a future Britain that's both much diminished economically, and farther to the right politically than the average software developer may be comfortable with.

Software developers understand that you can't run a high-tech 21st century economy on industrial 19th century principles. Evidently, our political class - for all their talk of "high-tech, high-wage" economics - are stuck in the past. Few if any of them know what it means, and right now none of them seem to appreciate what damage has been done to this vision for Britain's future.

For decades, Britain has punched above her weight. But after several years of clamouring to "get kids coding", the EU referendum may just have closed the door on Britain as a software development powerhouse.

Most worrying of all is the failure of politicians to appreciate that our ability to create and adapt software is now a very significant limiting factor on our entire economy. Just ask how many developers working on big government projects at the moment are EU migrants, for example.

Software development in the UK will limp on, no doubt. But, the way things are shaping up, it could be much diminished, and the UK economy with it.
Posted 5 years, 9 months ago on July 2, 2016