“I think we need to look at our education infrastructure and ensure that we create technology leaders and not just a technology user infrastructure,” says Professor Bill Buchanan, head of Napier University’s Cyber Academy.
Professor Buchanan has been an ever-present figure in Scotland’s cybersecurity sector, and the technology sector at large, for some time now.
Looking at the technology sector as a whole, Buchanan believes there is much to be proud of; the global attention Scotland is generating, the success of Scottish universities, and the great companies helping to forge the country’s growing reputation – companies such as Zonefox, a Napier University spin-out acquired by Fortinet in 2018, or Skyscanner, the country’s first tech ‘unicorn’.
Statistics published within the last year all point toward Scotland becoming one of the destinations of choice for companies and people. In April, a Tech Cities report produced by real estate firm CBRE highlighted Glasgow and Edinburgh as desirable locations for companies to do business in. Outside of London, Glasgow and Edinburgh were ranked the second and third-best cities in the UK respectively.
This year’s Tech Nation report also underlined the strength of Scotland’s technology sector – with turnover from digital technology business in the country standing at £3.9 billion. People from around the globe are flocking to Scotland, with 58,000 now working in the sector.
All the signs are good, Buchanan says. But perhaps it is easy to view the world through rose-tinted glasses. There is still a long way to go for the sector and a great deal of work required to ensure our education system continues to produce students with the skills – and the desire – to maintain this charge.
“We need to move away from our legacy of the past; our 1980s viewpoint of the world,” he says. “I think the core element for us here to address is our education system – and that’s a longterm investment.
“We need to be looking at our kids in school and ensuring that from primary school upwards we are developing technology leaders, rather than just technology users and it all goes back to primary school.”
Something, somewhere, he believes, is putting children off from pursuing subjects such as computer science or other STEM-related subjects.
This issue is exacerbated when looking at gender balances, he adds. In Scotland last year, male students outnumbered their female counterparts in 10 subjects, with maths, engineering, computing and physics among those. In computing, the gender imbalance is very concerning, Buchanan explains, with female students only accounting for 16% of the total at Higher level.
“There’s something that we do to switch our kids off. I think it’s because it’s still viewed as an engineering-type career, and careers advice teachers, even parents, aren’t giving the kids adequate advice on the opportunities in this area.”
“The jobs of the future are all about tech and digital. Even if you’re a GP in years to come, you’ll be using data analytics and other tech tools in some capacity,” he adds.
Basil Manoussos, manager of Napier University’s Cyber Academy, agrees with Buchanan that this gender imbalance could have a negative impact on the country further down the line. With a significant portion of Scotland’s population perhaps not considering cybersecurity as a career choice, this could greatly inhibit the sector.
“This is an area we [Napier University] want to improve,” he says. “The cyber sector is, unfortunately, male-dominated, which is interesting as the majority of students in Scotland are female. In fact, at Napier, almost 50% of the student body is female.”
In some disciplines, with cybersecurity a prime example, Manoussos believes we are still plagued by parochial views and gender stereotypes.
“I think we see this now because of how things were in the past, or because of preconceptions. Look at nursing, for example, there is a similar effect there as we see with cybersecurity – it’s just the other way around. In IT, we do have a bigger proportion of female students but in cybersecurity, we do struggle to recruit,” he adds.
In a broader sense and regardless of gender, a lack of stimulation when exploring subjects such as computing science leads to lower levels of intrigue and consideration of that field as a viable option, Buchanan suggests. This, he speculates, is down to a “stereotypical programmer” style of teaching and discussion on the subject.
“When we teach programming we switch kids off and have boring applications for it. Rather than doing cool IoT-related tasks with flashing lights, for example, we are still teaching them office and PowerPoint – if you really want to switch kids off, it’s showing them that.”
Buchanan insists that this doesn’t apply to every school and every teacher. He is keen to emphasise some of the ongoing work and initiatives across Scotland that aim to inspire school children into STEM careers. But lingering issues remain and, sadly, have the potential to drown out the exciting, highly-interesting subjects and areas that children could be exploring.
Despite concerns over talent, there is a lot to be optimistic about when discussing the future of Scotland’s cybersecurity sector, both Buchanan and Manoussos believe. The nation does have a wealth of talent already operating within this field, and to help inspire the next generation of cybersecurity talent, current practitioners will likely play a key role.