Poor science graduate quality playing Havok with indigenous firms

3 Sep 2008

The quality and quantity of Irish computer science graduates are too low to meet the needs of one indigenous technology company, which has since been forced to establish development operations in Calcutta and Munich just to get talent.

Havok is a technology company headquartered in Dublin that had its origins in Trinity College in the Nineties.

The company has gone to achieve global renown for its physics engine software and its brand features on many of the blockbuster video game titles in shop stores, as well as having its technology used in blockbuster movies from The Chronicles of Narnia to The Matrix.

Havok, which employs around 100 people worldwide, was acquired last year by Intel for US$110m but still retains its brand and identity.

Chief executive, David O’Meara, told siliconrepublic.com that a shortfall of quality graduates has led to the company establishing overseas operations in Calcutta and Munich in order to get its hands on the quality it needs.

“With few exceptions, we are finding that Irish graduates do not meet the standard required. The computer science graduates coming out of universities are too few in quality and quantity. It’s unlikely that we would offer a job to more than one graduate in a year or two. It’s a bad situation.”

O’Meara said that the ideal would be to have more people working in Dublin than the present 35 people – out of whom there are more than 17 different nationalities.

“Having centres in Germany and India, as well as our other offices in San Francisco and Tokyo, does create logistical problems but it’s because the standard of graduate isn’t available here.

“The actual consequence right now could be that if Havok wasn’t a company with the ability to attract nationalities from overseas, Havok would have to leave Ireland,” he stormed.

In recent weeks, it emerged that some 10pc of students who sat the Leaving Cert honours maths paper failed. As well as this, various computer courses in leading colleges still haven’t got student intake up to pre-2002 levels.

This is largely due to the misguided notion of parents, students and career guidance teachers following the 2002 tech downturn – that a sector which today employs over 100,000 people in high-paying positions may not have the jobs they require. Instead, students are ushered by panicked parents into pursuing ‘cosy’ subjects like law where the jobs really don’t exist.

“The upshot is the talent in Ireland at a managerial business level to a scientific level is non-existent for our requirements.”

Another difficulty O’Meara said indigenous firms have is that many graduates go straight to work in multinationals, which he says stunts their understanding of business and means they are unable to function in environments where they are without large amounts of resources and processes.

“If they found themselves in a small company where they are developing processes and doing a lot more for themselves they can’t cope. The result is the knowledge creators we need just aren’t there.

“I don’t believe a company like Havok could be created in Ireland today. 10 years ago when the company was created the talent was there. There’s not that talent coming out of Irish colleges now.

“I do meet lots of interesting, ambitious young people with no shortage of ideas, they just don’t have the business or scientific acumen to cut it,” O’Meara warns.

The problem is less to do with the efforts of third level as it is to do with second level and the quality of teaching in Ireland.

“At heart, Irish students are one of two things: they are intimidated by maths, physics and science; or they are attracted to being a lawyer or an accountant.

“They are in effect intimidated by the curriculum. All teachers seem to do is give out about how much money they need for this or that but the standard of teaching of maths or science subjects in Ireland is poor at best.

“If you were to ask the Department of Education and Science how many teachers have been terminated in the past five years for poor performance in the teaching of maths and science they wouldn’t give you an answer. I could hazard a guess … none!

“As a result of the poor standard, students lose their engagement and interest in challenging subjects like maths and science and the result is they end up becoming intimidated by a subject.”

O’Meara fears Ireland is becoming imbalanced in terms of a large cross-section of multinationals which don’t create products in Ireland and a receding number of innovative home-grown companies who do.

“Increasingly Havok is moving from a situation where products that would have been designed and envisioned here in Ireland are being envisioned in India and Germany because that’s where the talent is.

“Other companies I talk to say there are not enough computer science or engineering graduates – not even the quality to do the envisioning of a new product. This means we must go back to the point where kids are nine, 10 or 11 when their minds are most open to embracing science and maths. Instead, we cultivate fear of these subjects.”

In recent weeks, Havok unveiled a €40,000 competition for students to develop their own computer game products. “The purpose of this has been to engage students and tell them not to be afraid or intimidated by maths and science. These can be fun, so why not get out there and have a great career and make your mark.”

O’Meara said he wants to see more product envisioning and creation take place from Havok’s offices in its home city of Dublin. “We’re restricted by the available management capability and quality of computer science graduates from Irish universities.

“We’ve grown, but we’ve grown mostly abroad,” he laments.

By John Kennedy

Pictured: Havok chief executive, David O’Meara, receiving an Emmy award from the US National Academy of Television, Arts and Sciences for the company’s work on real-time physics and animation that advanced playability and special effects in computer games, as well as Hollywood movies

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years