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Brislen on Tech

Paul Brislen, Editor. 29 September 2017, 4:43 pm

Looking to the future

Whenever I go to a tech conference of any kind I hear the ghostly voice of an old editor in my ear telling me to count the attendees. I do a quick grid count to see how many people are in the room because when you don't do that you find that's the first question the editor wants answered when you get back.

"The crowd really liked what he was saying."

"How many were there?"

"Erm…. Maybe 30?"

I also got in the habit of figuring out how many women were in the room as well. Once you exclude the marketing and PR folks, the event coordinators and the conference centre staff (almost all exclusively women) you generally had a single-digits figure. This was the case regardless of the size of the crowd.

Sadly, the pipeline of women coming into the tech sector remains woefully constrained. Only 3% of 15-year-old girls are reportedly considering a career in the digital technologies space, and of those who do join, 40% leave and never return.

These are outrageous numbers and should be ringing alarm bells with start-ups, large-scale employers, policy makers and educators as well as parents and indeed the rest of the population.

There is no physical reason why women can't work in the digital technology space. It's not as if the devices they use can be operated exclusively by males. It's not as if physiologically there is any reason why a woman can't code or design, can't run a tech company or build products or successfully complete any of the other job requirements of the tech sector.

It's all down to culture and there is only one way to change that and it starts with each of us individually. Male or female, employer or employee, it's down to us. We have to see the problem in the first place, and I can tell there will be some out there who are shaking their heads claiming this isn't an issue (sorry but the numbers aren't a lie) and that's got to stop. If you're excluding 50% of the population, whether you realise it or not, you've got a problem. What other groups are you excluding and how is that affecting your output?

Then we have to do something about the problem. We have to figure out a way to encourage more women into the industry, we have to find new ways to encourage women to stay in the industry and we have to find a way to make this industry attractive from the very outset. If the girls at school aren't considering a career in IT we should know why.

It's great to see initiatives like ITP's TechHub programme (used to be called ICT-Connect) making a very real difference to girls (and boys for that matter) in schools. While they keep a relatively low profile and just put their head down and go hard, they get in front of literally 10s of thousands of kids each year, and make an effort to ensure they're especially active in both girls' and co-ed schools.

But its not enough. The solution isn't just in schools - it's across our industry.

I don't know of a single tech employer who feels they get enough good quality applicants for roles that need filling. I don't know of any tech company that doesn't want to see more candidates for positions right throughout their workforce.

In our industry, it makes no sense to carry on doing what we've always done because clearly it doesn't work. You only have to look to the stories coming out of the US to see how women are treated by companies that should be leading the way but all too often are part of the problem, not the solution.

It's high time we all did what we could to make a change.

Techblog - New programme to battle skills shortage

NZ Herald - Simon Moutter: Facing uncomfortable truths about diversity

Newshub - New programme to encourage women into technology

CIO - Programme helps ICT professionals re-enter the workforce after an extended break




It's mental out there

Mental health is perhaps the last bastion of the old way of thinking about medicine. It used to be that we Didn't Talk about health issues with anyone, except perhaps reluctantly with our doctors. Health issues were too big and too scary for everyday discussion.

Today we're mostly over that and when even men (gasp) are going to go get checked out, you know the tide has turned.

Mental health, however, still remains something of an outlier. Sure, we've moved away from the social rejection of anyone deemed to be "wrong in the head" but we're not quite at the point of making our mental well-being something we can discuss openly and honestly.

I'm very pleased to see Nick and Jonah from BizDojo fronting up about their own histories in this area and when they talked to other founders and entrepreneurs they discovered something of a well-kept secret.

(I should point out at this point that I do some work with BizDojo so make of that what you will)

BizDojo surveyed around 100 founders of Kiwi start-ups and found that almost all of them (95%) felt their entrepreneurial path had impacted negatively on their mental health. More than half (53%) of those affected said they were depressed or severely depressed and 13% were addicted to something as a result.

Sadly, more than half (51%) said they had chosen not to access any form of help.

It's tough, being a founder and running your own company. There's no safety net, and you might have more than a couple of people relying on you to pay their wages each month. I've spoken to several over the years who were seen to be successful and yet once they'd paid the staff and the rent were left living on the office couch eating two-minute noodles.

It makes for a great war story when you're sitting on your yacht sipping cocktails having sold your company to Google for a bajillion dollars, but it really isn't all that healthy in the short term.

If you're feeling stressed or anxious, or worse, please do talk to someone and see what help you can get. It's amazing how much support there is out there and the more we talk about mental health and acknowledge that it's OK to do so, the better off we all will be.

BizDojo - A wakeup call we all need to take

NBR - Are entrepreneurs crazy?

NBR - Nick Shewring on entrepreneurs mental health

Idealog - The perils of the hero entrepreneur mythology

Stuff - Start up owners stressed, anxious, depressed, and not seeking help

NZBusiness - Kiwi entrepreneurs struggle with mental health issues


Privacy as a Service

Early next year the European Union will begin enforcing new legislation designed to protect users' privacy online.

The EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) will force those dealing with the EU and its citizens to adopt stringent privacy requirements or face whopping fines (up to 4% of the company's turn over, for instance).

On the face of it, this is an important move to protect individuals from the might of the machinery that is now the heart of our data collecting world. Companies and governments routinely store huge amounts of data ranging from images caught on CCTV through to location-based data from cellphones to drafts of Facebook posts that never get published (yes, Facebook does indeed keep these).

The volume of data is so large and so omnipresent that many are comparing these data retention programmes to something out of George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty Four. Hence the EU's move to allow users to withdraw consent for data to be stored or published and to be "forgotten".

There is a flipside to this of course. Around 5% of requests for Google to remove data were made by criminals, high-profile celebrities and politicians who would rather you didn't remember that embarrassing post about communism or the like.

That kind of thing should be shunned or at least actively considered, but for many the decision on what is and is not private information that shouldn't be shared is left up to the company storing the data.

This then is the key to the debate. Should financially-motivated companies be allowed to gather and store private information in this manner in the first place and if they are, who gets to decide what stays and what goes?

New Zealand's privacy act is up for review and the Privacy Commissioner has made a number of recommendations about what should change. Generally speaking I'm quite supportive of our regime predominantly because it's written in such clear and open language. The principles are well stated and can be applied to real-world issues readily and without resorting to lawyerly advice. The problems of some companies simply refusing to talk to customers because of "privacy reasons" seems largely to have subsided (although it does still go on - just ask them which of the principles they're blocking you on and if you don't get an answer then start talking to the Commission). The changes proposed will help secure our own data and ensure we have a modicum of privacy, something which apparently can no longer be taken for granted.

Techblog - EU privacy law deadline looms

Guardian - Google accidentally reveals data on 'right to be forgotten' requests (July 2015)

Privacy Commissioner's Office - NZ's 'Adequacy' under the EU Data Protection Directive (December 2015)

Privacy Commissioner's Office - Privacy Commissioner recommends data portability, brakes on data re-identification and fines up to $1 million


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