Interview: Russ Shaw – Energy boost.

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Russ Shaw has electrified the UK’s digital revolution with his passionate promotion of network effects through ‘advocates’

Russ Shaw, founder of Tech London Advocates (TLA)

This is one of a series of interviews leading up to Like Minds, Bristol – powered by Barclays  which takes place on September 8th & 9th. You can learn more about the event and book tickets here.

The energy driving the UK’s digital revolution takes two forms: the electricity powering the millions of smart devices that are the theatre of this insurgency, and the passion for innovation of a vanguard of technology champions storming the barricades of the old order.

Russ Shaw is at the head of that vanguard – and in a few short years has begun to terraform a once bare landscape into something that is increasingly fertile for digital tech.

The energised founder of Tech London Advocates (TLA) has chalked up rapid progress promoting digital innovation, was appointed London Tech Ambassador under Mayor Boris Johnson, and is a member of the Tech City Advisory Group, London Technology Week’s steering group, the UK Digital Skills Taskforce … as well as a host of other enterprise initiatives.

TLA is an independent, private-sector led group of leaders and professionals – from entrepreneurs in startups and scale-ups to large corporates, banks, lawyers, accountants, teachers, students, designers and artists – committed to nurturing network effects that drive tech development.

While having London as its primary focus, the “advocates” idea has expanded rapidly both in the UK and abroad – it has spread its reach as far as Beijing, Bangalore and the Middle East and will soon conquer Latin America.

My feet haven’t quite touched the ground,” says Shaw. “TLA is literally about people coming together to help each other who believe in the importance of digital tech and to open doors, provide help and advice, perhaps provide funding. It’s an ecosystem, a community – and everybody works on a volunteer basis, pro bono.”

The network now boasts more than 3,000 advocates in 50 countries and territories, and is about to launch the 28th of its working groups – which focus on anything from education, infrastructure and women in tech to sectors such as fintech, creative tech and cyber games.

In April, Tech North Advocates was launched to cover the north of England; Shaw also has Belfast in his sights; and he is confident that the south coast will also benefit from a network.

“We have had some very high-profile IPOs and acquisitions in London over the past two or three years, but there’s no reason why other cities across the UK can’t do the same thing.”

A key role played by the group’s individual members is supporting each other and helping open doors.

One of the reasons I set up TLA, and one of the things I heard consistently four years ago, was that getting doors to open in London – whether it’s a VC, an angel, the startup community –  is really difficult. You don’t hear that any more: London is on its way for a number of reasons, but one of them is that we are opening doors for each other and realising that there’s a greater good in terms of building a vibrant tech community.

Moreover, this is no talking shop – TLA can point to concrete achievements in changing the policy environment. Its immigration working group levered digital skills on to the UK shortage occupation list; its women in tech group has hosted high-profile events at the House of Lords; and its education working group has supported a wide range of digital learning programmes.

Shaw is particularly passionate about the role the TLA can play in addressing what he considers the main challenge facing the UK: the digital skills shortage.

The number one issue coming out of our group of advocates when we survey them is around shortage of talent. I actually think this is the number one issue facing our country – and not just from the tech community point of view, because many traditional businesses are starting to say ‘We have got to embrace tech otherwise our business model will fail’.

Shaw points out that about 35% of people who work in London tech are from overseas as evidence of how important it is to bring in talent from overseas.

“We need to make sure that we are developing and nurturing our home-grown talent, of course, but to be honest it’s still not going to be enough.”

He points to a study by Oxford Economics and Virgin Media Business, The UK’s £92bn Digital Opportunity, suggesting that about 170,000 digital jobs could be created in Greater London over the next two years. Yet in 2012 just 356 A-Levels in computer science were taken in the city – a staggering mismatch.

He adds that it is important to remember that digital careers can offer an obvious alternative for people being displaced from traditional industries such as steel. While this is not going to be right for everybody, these are well paid jobs starting at £30,000–£35,000 a year.

I would love us as a nation to get behind a government programme that reskills and retrains many of these people,” he says.

“From where I sit there’s this incredible mismatch between what we need to do, the growth that we are going to see, the gaps that we need to fill, and the levers that we need to push to make sure we truly become a digital and tech nation over the next five to 10 years,” he adds.

“I think we are well placed to do these – but we have got a big task ahead of us.”

To hear more on this from our stellar line up of speakers, come and join us at the Like Minds, Bristol, “Innovation & Ideas Festival” – powered by Barclays on September 8th & 9th. Read more and book tickets here.

About the author

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Gavin O'Toole is Consultant, Head of Research at Onyx and a journalist, author and copywriter with a specialism in finance and business.