July 6, 2016

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After Brexit, the UK Could Lose 1 in 3 Software Developers

One thing that has largely gone unreported in the mainstream media is the potential - and already very real - impact of Brexit on software development in the UK.

Our membership of the EU plays a big role in Britain's software development community. According to a poll I conducted on Twitter, roughly 1 in 3 developers working in the UK is an EU migrant. The sample size of 850 suggests this figure has to be at least in the ballpark of reality, and it chimes with my experiences training and coaching teams across the country.

1 in 3 software developers adds up to about 130,000 highly educated, highly skilled people helping to build UK plc's digital infrastructure. Hotly tipped to be the new Prime Minister, Theresa May has refused to give any assurances about their right to remain in the UK. So, right now, about 130,000 software developers, and the organisations they work for, have a sword of Damocles hanging over their futures. Nobody knows if they'll still be here in 2-3 years' time.

130,000 is a lot of developers to lose. Some of us might say "Excellent - higher pay for us locals!" But the reality is likely to play out differently. We're already hearing about IT projects being shelved indefinitely, as well as tech businesses who have either resolved to, or are in the process of deciding, to move out of the UK to where there's a bigger pool of available talent in the EU.

Imagine if the UK's construction industry lost 1 in 3 tradespeople. Indeed, construction in the UK is already taking a big knock from the Brexit vote. Without skilled EU workers, a heck of a lot of stuff here would not have been built in the last decade. International employers have the choice to go elsewhere. And they are choosing, it would seem.

But an office complex in London has to be built in London. Not so for software. There's really nothing stopping our biggest IT spenders moving IT to places like Paris, Brussels or Berlin. We've spent the last 25 years turning IT into a moveable feast. Now, it would appear, the feast is moving.

What worries me most, though, is less the loss of IT projects and jobs, more the loss of economic growth attached to these projects in the wider world. IT projects aren't being shelved in isolation. They usually exist for a purpose, and the much bigger business investment projects they're part of are being put on ice, too. The likely result is a cooling effect on the entire British economy.

Software developers - along with every other person in the UK - woke up to a hefty overnight pay cut on June 25th, thanks to the devalued pound. A Brexit-fuelled brain drain is going to hit software development hard. We can't just magic 130,000 developers out of thin air, and every non-EU country we might look to to bridge the gap has their own chronic shortages to deal with.

Of course, with tit-for-tat, there'll be a lot of British developers moving back to the UK. But nothing like 130,000.

I'm very much hoping that sanity will be restored, and both Right To Remain and freedom of movement will form a core part of any deal the Brexit negotiators do with the EU. But the hardened rhetoric from the likes of May, Leadsom and other prospective PMs makes me fearful that it's going to be a messy and acrimonious divorce, and that - as always - the children, including our young industry, will suffer most.

UPDATE: Yesterday, a motion proposed by Labour in the House of Commons that EU citizens currently living in the UK should be given the right to remain was passed by an overwhelming majority. It's not legally binding and has no direct impact on government policy, but it least shows that the will is there to resolve this problem. We must hope that the government realises the damage being done by prolonging the uncertainty and takes decisive action soon. This will be politically very difficult for them, though. The Leave campaign very strongly implied that immigrants would be leaving, even if they've rowed back on that since the referendum.

Posted 5 years, 9 months ago on July 6, 2016