#DIF12 – Tackling the skills gap: we need programmers who start at 14

23 Mar 2012

Avego's Sean O'Sullivan and BT's Colm O'Neill during a panel discussion at this morning's Digital Ireland Forum at The Convention Centre, Dublin

The most successful entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley learned how to code from the age of 14, RTÉ Dragons’ Den’s Sean O’Sullivan told today’s Digital Ireland Forum in Dublin. BT Ireland CEO Colm O’Neill agreed, calling for a grassroots approach to training and skills.

O’Sullivan, a successful tech investor who is also MD of Avego and who is credited with co-coining the term ‘cloud computing’, re-emphasised the need for Ireland to become a European gateway for China.

He pointed out that the number of people in China learning to speak English is four times the population of the UK – that’s 250m people.

He said there is no getting away from the skills gap that exists in Ireland but questions the belief that people can just be retrained as IT workers.

“It’s assumed that you can retrain former construction workers to IT as if everyone has the desire and capability to be a great IT worker or engineer.

“I went on the Late Late Show and said I’d 10 jobs to fill – I still haven’t hired those people. In Silicon Valley, the best programmers start at 14.”

He said he found it ludicrous that there are people choosing computer science courses in Ireland who haven’t had any prior programming experience.

“This is a big skills gap that starts early and goes all the way through.”

O’Neill said not only does Ireland as a country need to tackle critical gaps in digital infrastructure but it needs to look at skills and retraining more strategically.

Using the analogy of the Leinster Rugby team, he said it built its success on a grassroots training approach that also involved crucial hires of foreign players.

“There’s a parallel in this for Ireland. We need to get in and develop the grassroots skillsets – not only import the necessary talent and make it easier for people to come and live in Ireland but develop the skillsets from the ground up,” he said.

Go to the Digital Ireland Forum microsite for highlights of the event.

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