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The new tech world will turn on talent and how to keep it, says Cisco boss

6/01/2014 by


How are you going to get hold of tech-savvy talent this year? If you run a business, that should be your biggest concern in 2014, according to Phil Smith, boss of Cisco Systems in the UK and chairman of Britain’s Technology Strategy Board (TSB).

The quandary is top of Smith’s agenda, after a recent catch-up with his graduates turned into a personal grilling. “Genuinely, the first question the new lot asked me was: ‘How are you going to keep me at Cisco in three years’ time?’,” says the Scottish-born UK chief executive of the American IT giant.

“They didn’t ask in an arrogant way, they were saying it as it is: their world is mobile and fast-moving, and they wanted to know how are we going to keep them. It was a great question and made us think.”

Cisco, which has a market value of $115bn (£70bn) after building systems for nearly 30 years, relies on finding the best talent ideas to stay ahead in the cut-throat world of IT. The troubles of Nokia and BlackBerry serve to warn of the danger of falling behind – and that no tech company is too big to fail.

Cisco also makes its money advising big corporates on IT and promises to help them “seize the opportunities of tomorrow”. So the need for talent and ideas is pressing, but it’s not just Cisco’s problem.

Smith, one of those who helped build the early stages of the internet in the 1980s, says all bosses need to “think” about talent, too.

“We’ve got to recognise that we’re in a completely different business world now,” he says. “There’s a real battle for intellectual horsepower and talent, a real battle about how to get the best people into your business. Unless companies recognise that, they’re not going to survive.”

Smith, who also sits on the board of eSkills UK, says there will be demand for 550,000 new technology jobs in the next five years in Britain.

“Some of the top 10 jobs didn’t even exist a few years ago, like search engine optimisation managers, digital managers and so on,” he says. “There’s a lot we need to do to prepare for this. But one of the things is to get businesses involved.”

Cisco, for one, is not going to wait around for the Government to deliver on its skills promises. Instead, the company has launched a raft of initiatives to search out the UK’s best tech ideas and brains.

It has set up “innovation centres” for start-ups to develop their ideas, complete with mentoring services as well as systems support and facilities.

Smith is also trying some old-fashioned enticement. He set up Cisco’s British Innovation Gateway (BIG) Awards three years ago to search out brilliant ideas and brains for businesses.

In November, he declared that of 300 applicants, the 2013 winner was uMotif, a digital heath start-up that creates mobile and web apps to help people monitor their health.

The firm, which was given $100,000 in cash by Cisco and another $100,000 of software, mentoring advice and legal and marketing help, is currently working across the NHS in gathering data on Parkinson’s disease, diabetes and post-operative care.

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