IT skills shortage is ‘long in the making’ – but tech firms can help flip the script

13 Jan 2022

Hannah Birch. Image: Ensono

Ensono’s Hannah Birch discusses the challenges of skills shortages and a lack of diversity in tech – and how a group of women peers has helped in her own career.

Hannah Birch is the managing director for Europe at Ensono, a hybrid IT services provider helping organisations in different sectors with digital transformation. She stepped into the role last year, taking over from Barney Taylor, and is based in the UK.

Birch has more than 20 years’ experience in the IT industry. Before Ensono, she spent more than a decade at Accenture as a managing director in technology and she has also held leadership roles at Computacenter and Fujitsu Services UK.

‘We need to encourage people from all walks of life that they have applicable skills for the tech sector’

How do you prioritise and organise your working life?

Extreme focus and discipline are the foundations of effective organisation. These habits allow me to use agile methodologies to run the key strategic priorities for Ensono in Europe, while using the same techniques to liaise with clients and balance my overall workload.

Ultimately it boils down to knowing the order of your priorities and sticking to these.

What are the biggest challenges facing your sector and how are you tackling them?

Primarily, the UK’s skill shortage in tech. This has been an issue long in the making and originating from issues with STEM education in this country, but that’s not to say the private sector can do nothing about it.

At Ensono, we have implemented an apprenticeship programme to develop early career prospects from a wider talent pool. In partnership with Leeds Trinity University, we took on a group of apprentices in September. The apprentices work four days a week with us alongside completing their degree studies, so they finish the programme with a full university degree as well as industry experience to kick-start their careers.

We also continue to engage with other initiatives to inspire the next generation. Our team is actively involved with the Your Future, Your Ambition initiative, helping introduce young people to all that a career in STEM has to offer.

In the more immediate term, we do our utmost to hold onto the talent we already have. We continue to invest in training and development, and are committed to building a thriving and supportive culture for our employees. If people have a sense of belonging and feel that Ensono is a great place to work, they’re much less likely to move onto other organisations.

What are the key sector opportunities you’re capitalising on?

The pandemic forced many traditional retailers to re-evaluate their offerings and digitise to survive. This has shifted the standards of the sector and the whole of retail is having to undergo a digital transformation journey to remain competitive. We’re helping enterprises reimagine what their proposition is to the customer.

The insurance sector is going through a parallel digital transformation, with rapidly shifting customer expectations and huge market competition to adopt technology to stay competitive. We are helping firms to better understand the customer journey and tailor their offering to consumers in a reimagined way.

In 2022, our main ambition is to drive cloud adoption and optimisation and bring tools such as AI and data analytics to help organisations drive growth, increase operational efficiencies and innovate for competitive advantage.

Last year we saw many examples of this, one of which was our work with NHS 24 in Scotland. In the space of just 23 hours, we developed a working prototype which enabled NHS 24 to rapidly scale as demands on its call volumes from patients seeking Covid-19 advice peaked.

What set you on the road to where you are now?

My time at Accenture really set me up for leading IT consultancy work on an international scale. Ensono is currently on a huge journey of growth across our entire portfolio, from mainframe through to public cloud, and having gained previous leadership experience in transformational strategies in a variety of sectors more than sets me up to meet this challenge.

What was your biggest mistake and what did you learn from it?

I believe if you’re not making mistakes, you’re not trying new things. It’s part of the learning experience, teaching you how to adapt and bounce back.

Being an optimist does help with this, as it allows me to build on each mistake and not let it define me.

How do you get the best out of your team?

In most sectors, businesses have left autocratic leaders in the past and rightly so. I have always found that collaboration and inclusivity are the foundations of success in any team I’ve led.

Allowing everyone the room to bring their own ideas to the project, whether it’s a new junior employee or someone who’s been in the team for decades, is a sure-fire way of maximising innovation and productivity.

Have you noticed a diversity problem in your sector?

The lack of diversity in tech is well documented and clear to see. We need to encourage people from all walks of life that they have applicable skills for the tech sector.

It starts at the earliest stages, encouraging students to see what a career in tech has to offer and supporting their journey through apprenticeships and work experience programmes. Similarly, at the mid-level we need to broaden our outlook and look for people from other sectors with transferrable skills.

Project managers, designers and customer care professionals are all in high demand and by broadening our professional horizons, hopefully we can begin to tackle the diversity issue.

Did you ever have a mentor or someone who was pivotal in your career?

I have a group of female friends who all hold senior positions within the tech industry. For the last 25 years, we have always got together to share our experiences and advice, mentoring each other in a peer-to-peer group way.

Across my career, I have had multiple mentors from senior leadership at Accenture through to my early days working at BP. They helped me to step up and lead, but they have also supported my development as a leader. I am proud now to pay this forward and mentor a number of developing female leaders, both in Ensono and across the industry.

What books have you read that you would recommend?

For anyone looking to establish and lead a high-performance unit, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni. It adds an alternative perspective on what it takes to create an effective team and after 20 years it still resonates with me.

For a book completely unrelated to the professional world, something I’ve read multiple times is the Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris. It is a truly humbling novel that serves to remind the reader of the horrors of the time and how it is everyone’s responsibility to prevent such atrocities from ever happening again.

What are the essential tools and resources that get you through the working week?

It may sound simplistic, but the humble notepad always has been and always will be an essential piece of equipment for me. I’m a copious note taker – it’s the only way to guarantee to remember something of importance.

Alongside this, my family are absolutely essential to me, constantly providing me with the support and self-belief I need to meet working challenges head on every week.

Don’t miss out on the knowledge you need to succeed. Sign up for the Daily Brief, Silicon Republic’s digest of need-to-know sci-tech news.