Ahead of National Coding Week we caught up with Amy De-Balsi, Head of Innovation & Partnerships at Platform to talk about her journey into the tech sector and how the roles available are constantly evolving.
My own background is proof that there’s no one set way to build a successful career in the tech sector. I’m a University of Leeds geography graduate and my core skill is project management – which I’ve applied in a range of different roles in different sectors but always around tech. I worked for Yorkshire Forward, the regional development agency managing a project portfolio worth £20m before joining Sky Betting & Gaming to deliver technology solutions.
In the seven years I was with Sky Betting & Gaming I moved around the organisation a lot. I was Head of Social Responsibility and Compliance for a while, working with regulators, before a stint as Head of Communications for Leeds. It was only when I left the company that I started to forge my future as a digital tech entrepreneur. When I left, I wasn’t sure where to go - I didn’t have a ‘traditional’ career path to continue along, so I created my own opportunity.
The Leeds Digital Job Fair was borne out of having some time after being made redundant. I was aware employers were struggling to fill digital jobs in Leeds, so I mapped the city’s digital and tech sector, the vacancies in those companies and realised that filling them could boost the regional economy.
From there I worked with Leeds City Council around how to address the issue, and the first job fair was launched. It was a huge experiment, but the risk paid off. The Leeds Digital Job Fair has since become an annual event, covering the whole range of roles in the tech sector, at all levels; from apprenticeships to director appointments. It has over 50 exhibitors each year and approximately 2,000 people through the door. It’s a great way of showcasing the breadth of the digital sector in the North and the different routes into it.
There’s an enduring myth that you must be someone who’s studied computer science to work in the digital sector but that’s simply not the case. Anybody can - people will train you. And you don’t have to start off as a graduate either. Often, employers want bedroom coders or those who have an interest in coding and want to take it further; and you can be trained through degree apprenticeships or graduate programmes. That’s not to say that digital tech is just about coding, of course, there are all sorts of different roles available in the sector and the exciting thing is that new ones are cropping up all the time.
Employers will be looking for people with a positive and passionate attitude, and an ability to work well as part of a team. People who’ve studied music or languages can be attractive to them because of the way they apply logic – you should never count yourself out.
My mum was a coder and when she started there weren’t computer science or computer gaming courses available. Candidates were recruited based on how they approached logical problems. I think it’s starting to go full circle now, it’s not just about what you study it’s about finding people with multiple disciplinary approaches and backgrounds.
Thankfully, in Leeds, there’s lots going on to tackle misconceptions around entry into the digital tech industry and to boost awareness of opportunities. It’s something we need to see replicated across the UK. Leeds has a Digital Skills Action Plan in place, to create and promote entry points to the sector, like degree apprenticeships or coding bootcamps. We’re very proud to say that the Northcoders coding bootcamp, the first of its kind in the city, is based at Platform, which is also home to a thriving tech community.
Platform, is playing a vital role in providing all the elements that tech start-ups and entrepreneurs in Leeds need to grow their businesses, helping to create new jobs in the city and keeping tech talent in the region. Part of my role as Head of Innovations and Partnerships is to work with tech businesses in Platform to develop links with each other and the rest of the city, including universities, professional service firms and corporate tech teams. I also work with investors to broker relationships with businesses that need investment and help start-ups access mentors and business angels.
I understand from my own experience how important it is to surround yourself with the right core network of contacts and advisers and one of my biggest pieces of advice to entrepreneurs looking to gain a stronghold in this industry would be to network, network, network!
The tech industry is thriving in Leeds and the next generation of talent is being proactively nurtured but we could be doing more to open the door to the sector at an earlier age. My daughter goes to a primary school in Leeds and she’s been learning coding since reception. She even has coding homework, which is amazing. There is a big aspiration in the city to have somebody teaching coding in every school. Let’s hope this ambition is realised. In the meantime, the industry should do all it can to encourage people into tech, whatever route they prefer to take.