Interview: Jane Morrison-Ross, ScotlandIS
There was a touch of nervous excitement in Jane Morrison-Ross’s voice as she outlined her thoughts on taking up Scotland’s digital cudgel. It was, after all, her first day as chief executive of ScotlandIS, the trade body for all things digital, and she feels she has some big boots to fill.
“I know it sounds a bit of a cliche, but Polly is leaving at such a high point. I am very fortunate,” she says.
She was paying tribute to her predecessor Polly Purvis who is credited, not only with confirming the organisation’s role in the sector, but helping set the ball rolling on a number of initiatives including TheDataLab, the dotScot Registry and the training academy CodeClan.
“Polly has been my biggest influence. I have known her for 20 years and she has always offered good advice,” she says.
Morrison-Ross knows she has high standards to live up to, but she has already set out some initial targets of her own, including a plan to build on the Digital Nation strategy which she outlined in her inaugural address to the ScotlandIS ScotSoft conference last week.
There will be a lot of collaboration – a current buzzword – which will draw together various strands of expertise available to benefit all sectors of the economy. “Practically every industry now is driven by technology so it’s a question of how we use it to our advantage. We have to ensure tech companies help other companies to grow,” she says.
We are chatting in one of the rooms off the main reception at the EICC while her audience of conference delegates enjoy lunch and await her first public appearance. She outlines her plans for getting the country up to the right digital speed, peppering the conversation with her love of ‘wild swimming’ and her two horses. There is an eagerness about her which translates into an infectious urge to get on with her agenda.
She will not be short of things to do, given her commitment to support “every” industry and she will be pressing the sector’s case relentlessly to digital minister Kate Forbes whom she met last week.
The digital economy is worth £6 billion in gross added value making it as valuable as the food industry. But its growth has exposed challenges, not least a skills shortage. There are 13,000 vacancies, and the number is constantly rising, up from 11,500 the year before.
“If there was a silver bullet we would have found it,” says Morrison-Ross, “It means looking further at how we bridge that gap.”
She suggests reaching out to those unexplored corners of society where latent talent is not being tapped, and ensuring both ends of the age spectrum are exposed to digital training.
Progress has been made through initiatives such as CodeClan, the academy set up in 2015 at the CodeBase incubator to train mainly mature individuals who have spent a career in other industries but are looking to learn new skills as either a career change or because they have found themselves out of work. CodeClan now has outlets in Glasgow and the Highlands. So far 784 students have passed through and 96% have found work.
“It is a great example of what can be done, but it is still a drop in the ocean,” says Morrison-Ross, admitting that the need to attract workers from overseas will remain vital, Brexit or not.
She also sees the need to tackle the issue through education. “We have to do more on building homegrown talent and embedding skills from a very young age,” she says, but she resists the idea of creating tech-focused schools and colleges. “I’m not sure about that. Children need a broad education.”
Her own first exposure to the digital world came during the turn of the century dotcom boom when companies were creating a new industry. Some, like lastminute.com, became big hits and made personal fortunes for their creators. A lot fell by the way side, often through a mismatch of ideas, available hardware and customer demand.
“Many were ahead of their time,” says Morrison-Ross. “People tried and failed, but they learned and tried again and some interesting things grew out of it. We have to remember not to be scared to try.”
She joined ScotlandIS on its formation. It is a member-driven organisation, now based in Linlithgow, and Morrison-Ross is keen to maintain its key role as the voice of the sector.
“We strive to build on things like skills development, but we don’t work to any government policy,” she says. “Polly spent a lot of time making sure we are a trusted partner and we have to be in a position to lobby government. That means we have to be neutral.”
Neutrality, however, does not mean standing too far back and that word collaboration underpins Morrison-Ross’s strategy.
“Collaboration is not optional if we hope to make things work,” she says.
Occupation: Chief executive, ScotlandIS
Birthplace: Isle of Cumbrae
Education: Edinburgh College of Art, Napier University (business and IT, multi-media)
Career: CapGemini, various dotcom companies, ScotlandIS
Chairman of a rape crisis centre in Dumfries and Galloway
I enjoy wild swimming (rivers and lakes). I find it quite cathartic.
If you could invite three people, living or dead, to a meeting or dinner party, who would you choose?
Pablo Picasso, who was hugely innovative and went against the tide
Vint Cerf, who worked with Tim Berners-Lee on developing the world wide web and in particular the HTTP protocol.
Polly Purvis – I would have to invite Polly who has been such an influence on me.