Nanodegrees and Udacity

A few days ago, an email dropped into my box from support at Udacity, from Sebastian Thrun, talking about the new sort of university and credentials Udacity have put together for industry. The credentials, if you haven’t heard of them, are called nanodegrees. I have no idea who came up with this idea and having looked at the work required for one or two of them, I don’t see what “diploma” wasn’t good enough for them, or “certificate”.

There’s an ongoing debate on the subject of industry and university and the fact that the former doesn’t seem to think the latter does enough to prepare graduates for work. I don’t think it’s quite that simple, and I don’t think that Udacity’s nanodegrees fix the problem.

I graduated for the first time in 1994. At that stage, it was accepted, pretty much across the board, that graduates, regardless of their discipline need what the Germans would probably call an Einarbeitungsphase; a period of time to get someone up to speed. This is reality for everyone, not just graduates. No one is immediately useful in the grand scheme of things.

The technology industry (in particular) seems to have a problem with this and they tend not to look for people who are broadly educated, but people who have a highly narrow skillset. If you look at any of the software engineering ads that float around, there tends to be  a focus on particular programming languages when in all honesty, what the average tech company should be looking for is someone who thinks programmatically and solves problems. At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter what languages they program in because just about every programming shop has or should have some sort of local style guide that – oh wait – you need a bit of time to get up to. Programming languages are, for any competent programmer, easy to learn.

If you are hiring someone and focusing not on their broader outlook in terms of their industry, you aren’t really hiring for the future. If you’re not looking at the value you can add to a candidate, but only what they offer in the short term, this suggests your long term future is a problem.

What I’ve seen of the Udacity Nanodegrees (and I really do hate that term) is that they are skills based and a bit narrow in focus. The fact that a few of Udacity’s customers offer them to their staff is a good thing. The idea that they replace a broadbased university qualification is not.

Sebastian mentioned in his email that the skills gap is broadening faster leaving people on the sidelines. I don’t think that this is untrue per se, but I do also think that part of the problem is that employers are not addressing the problem effectively. To some extent, ongoing professional development is a desirable thing; with that, you need to recognise that staff need to be supported in doing it (and Udacity is good in this respect) but that this also means that there are very few ready made hit the ground running candidates anywhere.

In IT support, it’s absolutely critical and here’s why. A lot of the skills in support are vendor specific. Tasks in IT can be quite general – keep a network running, keep security in place – but the skill set required can be vendor specific and not immediately transferable from the systems run by one vendor to the systems run by another vendor, for example.

There was a time when having a degree in computer science covered a multitude of possible jobs because it covered a multitude of related subjects. Those days are gone, and they are gone because technology employers no longer filter on the basis of knowledge, but on the basis of limited skills. Alternative qualifications may deal with the skills issue, but not necessarily the broader picture issue. I’ve seen it with people who learn to program in – for want of an example – Java – but not in the context of what computers actually do.

Learning to program in a specific language is an easily acquired skill for someone who actually understands the broader picture. Industry needs to focus on identifying these people and recognise that they provide a lot more value than someone whose only skillset is they learned to program in one specific programming language. It means recognising that the learning phase does not end at the date of graduation. In many respects, it starts.



I really have a lot of things to catch up on but a couple of weeks ago, a piece on the Business Insider site caught my eyes. In it, it suggested that if you wanted to work for Google, you needed to know Matlab. They attributed the comment to a guy called Jonathon Rosenberg.

This caused some discussion on twitter in the days afterwards. Mostly, people found it difficult to believe, particularly when Google uses a bunch of other tools, including my personal choice for a lot of data analysis, R.

I am not sure that Matlab is a mandatory requirement to work in Google; it doesn’t necessarily turn up on any of their job ads that I might be interesting, but in some respects, I can understand why A N Company might do something like this. It’s a little sorting mechanism. The point which I found most interesting about the piece above was less that Google were looking for Matlab, but that the writers of the piece had never heard of Matlab.

I was once interviewed about modern web technology and how it might benefit the company concerned way back in the early days of the web becoming a consumer sales channel. My view of the discussion ultimately wasn’t that they wanted me to work on their web interfaces (not at that stage anyway), but they wanted to see what my ability to learn about new stuff was. It may well be that if you go to work for Google in some sort of research job, you’ll use Matlab. Or, more probably, you’ll learn a bunch of other things in the area that you are working.

Either way, comments like Rosenberg’s may, or may not be official hiring policy but it’s often worth considering that they are asking a broader question rather than “Can you use Matlab” and more “Can you prove to use that you can develop in whatever direction we throw you”.

And if you haven’t heard of Matlab, the chances are, you may not.

Dave Winer and lock-in

It really is worth having a look at Dave Winer’s comments on lockin in the tech sector at the moment. You can read his piece here.

Way back in the mists of time, when I was studying terminology at college – this was on a language related course – one of the points that came up for discussion was standardisation of terminology, particularly relevant in new fields of technology where translation of terminology was concerned.

We need standards in general terms. Our networks would not hang together if there were not communications and networks standards. If you’ve spent any time on messaging software at all, you know that to get disparate providers to communicate, you need standards of some kind. A lot of work has gone into technical standards over the years; my idea of fun would not involve writing standards for TCP/IP but someone had to do it. Hopefully it was their idea of fun.

Lockin is one of those things you do when you want to be massively controlling about your product. Apple has done it with chargers, for example, which enables them to do a certain amount of planned obsolescence and also, to control their market. It may not, however, be a long term option.

We’ll see what happens. The long term is a bitch, and it has a tendency to plow under get-rich-quick schemes and I know you think it’s idealistic but evolution only builds on open formats and protocols. That’s how technology layers. It’s true some patents hold, and some lock-in gets built on. Look at PDF for example. But there’s a reason HTML took us places PDF never could. The ability of anyone to do anything they wanted to, without having their API key revoked. That’s a big enabler of creativity, to use terminology VCs understand.

The thing is, the tech industry has gone a long way in directions which didn’t exist even 15 years ago. There are very few days on which I don’t read some account of a software patent case, for example. There’s an element of controllery going on in some sectors which focuses more, I think, on financial outcome in the short term rather than the long term and rather on technology impact.

What fascinates me is that for all that, there continues to be pushback against complete control. If you want to learn to program these days, you have several options which don’t rely on you getting an expensive compiler, for example. If you really want to fiddle around with technology, Arduino and Raspberry Pi provide a few open doors. There are services which act as enablers – let’s face it, when I was 25 years old, AWS just didn’t exist. Access to Linux has probably opened up development opportunity to a lot of people as well.

I think ultimately, a lot comes down to a balance of identifying our end objective. Dave is absolutely right to point out that in principle, we move further on open protocols and formats than on closed formats. One of the things which really, really frustrates me these days is that we have so many messaging applications all of which depend on not being interoperable.

Some comments on Apple’s latest PR

I don’t make a habit of blogging about gadgetry per se but there are a couple of comments I want to make about Apple’s latest lot of shenanigans.

Apple has cancelled the iPod Classic.

In all the screaming and howling about the watch and the iPhone 6 and its variants, and the payments ideas and all that, this is not getting anywhere near enough traction and discussion. I do not expect them to reverse this decisions because notoriously, electronics companies do not actually listen to me.

My first Apple product was an iPod nano which proved to be inadequate on the storage front so was replaced with a Classic forthwith. It probably will not make Apple happy to know that I have had that same device for the last six years, particularly as I am on my third iPhone in the same period.

I like the Classic. It has enough storage. It does exactly what I need it to which is play music. And it does not need to be connected to the internet. The alternatives, the iPod Touch and the iPhone, top out at 64gig. Sure, you can access stuff through the cloud and that’s fine if you’re at home with Wifi, pay next to nothing for data and are not roaming. Maybe in the US this is actually a sane way of doing things and of course, the EU is working on getting rid of data roaming charges anyway but…frankly, there’s a stretch of the rail line between Dublin and Cork, around Tipperary, where the mobile signal is fairly limited. I listen to a lot of music and storage matters to me. But I also want to be able to carry that music around with me in my handbag and that means the 128gig iPad isn’t really a replacement option either.

So I am deeply, deeply unhappy with Apple over this move, and unhappy enough with Apple to look at my contact points with Apple (currently an iPhone, an iPad, the aforementioned iPod Classic and iTunes via a Windows machine) and see about replacing them with non-Apple equivalents. It will take a while, but there are likely to be some benefits, key amongst them, Apple will not be able to deliver music to me which I do not want.

I am not really a fan of free stuff that I don’t want and the latest U2 album is on the list of free stuff which I don’t want and which should not have appeared in my library without me asking for it.

The biggest selling U2 album is the Joshua Tree and it, apparently, has sold twenty five million copies. In no version of this universe is it likely that half a billion iTunes users wanted their new one and yet Apple gave it to us and yes, it’s sitting in my library.

You can look at all the technology stuff that Apple does, and then look at this promotional gimmick and wonder why they did it. Why did Apple feel the need to do this?

I really have no idea. You would have to assume that companies do stuff like this to support the bottom line but ultimately, U2’s last album, released in 2009, sold five million copies. Compared to the Joshua Tree, that is not stellar. Compared to half a billion people who suddenly find themselves with the new album…which they probably did not want…it’s pretty pathetic. On U2’s part, it screams of a need to be loved.

On Apple’s part, it screams of a company which finds itself having to do the sort of PR it has not traditionally needed because the cachet of its own brand was enough and which is demonstrating that it just does not know how to do it. U2 are not cutting edge. They’ve been around for 30 years. Classic rockers. Seriously, if Apple wanted someone which was on what I assume was their brand message, I’d have chosen Daft Punk. Of course, if Apple think that U2 is on their brand message, then I’m inclined to wonder what their future holds.

Facebook and that study

Just briefly, given the general response to the Facebook empathy contagion article on PNAS a while back (an hour is a long time on the internet, let’s face it), the question I would have to ask is this: is everyone in Facebook so attached to what they can do with their dataset that they no longer remember to ask whether they should be doing that stuff with their dataset?

A while back, I met a guy doing a PhD in data visualisation or something related and he spoke at length about how amazing it was, what could be done with health data and how the data had to be freed up because it would benefit society so much. I’ve never really bought that idea because the first thing you have to ask is this: do individuals get messed up if we release a whole pile of health data, and if so, to what extent are you willing to have people messed up?

What I’m leading to here is the question of group think and yesmenery. Ultimately, there comes a point where people are so convinced that they should do what they want, that they are unwilling to listen to dissent. The outcry over Facebook’s study has been rather loud and yet, it doesn’t appear to have occurred to anyone who had anything to do with the study that people might find it a bit creepy, to say the least. It’s not even a question of “oh, you know, our terms and conditions” or “oh, you know, we checked with Cornell’s review board”, it’s just straight up “is it creepy that we’re trying to manipulate people’s feelings here? Without telling them?”

I mean, I can’t ever imagine a case in which the answer to that question is anything other than Yes, yes it is creepy and eugh. And yet, it doesn’t seem to have occurred to anyone connected with it that it was kind of creepy and gross.

Once we get past that, what’s being focussed on is the datascience aspect and I have a hard time swallowing that too. This was a psychological experiment, not a datascience on. I mean, if you did a similar study with 40 people, you wouldn’t call it a statistical experiment, would you? In many respects, the datascience aspect is pretty irrelevant; it’s a tool to analyse the data and not the core of the experiment in and of itself. A datascience experiment might involve identifying the differences in outcome between using a dataset with 10,000 records and a dataset with 10 million records for example. Or identifying the the scale of difference in processor speeds between running a data analysis on one machine versus another.

Anyway, the two main issues I want to take away from this is that a) it wasn’t really a datascience experiment and b) sometimes you need to find people who are willing to tell you that what you are doing is ick, and you need to listen to them.

Thing is – and this is where we run into fun – what have they done that they haven’t told us about?


University isn’t a finishing school, you know

There has been some discussion lately about Jackie Lavin’s contribution to Prime Time on Tuesday 3 June when the subject under discussion was third level education. Amongst her assertions were that some graduates didn’t have a clue and you could cut a year at least off most university degrees.

I have trouble with those two assertions for various reasons. But I have a much bigger problem with all this and that is, other than seeing her complaints about how her banks have treated her, I really have no idea why Jackie Lavin has the media profile she has in terms of business. I mean, I’m aware there was a hotel in Kerry that may not have been completely successful as it were, but otherwise, apart from being Bill Cullen’s partner, I’m not actually sure what her achievements are, and certainly, cannot see what qualifies her to come on national television and claim that some of the graduates she worked with on The Apprentice didn’t have a clue.

Of course they don’t. Common sense is something you get from experience, from trying and failing. Lavin’s comments on this subject are not common sense, in that respect. They are detached from reality. Not only that, the cohort of graduates which might apply to go on The Apprentice cannot be held to be representative of graduates as a whole. It is a self selecting cohort, and if I had a business idea, I cannot say that I’d necessarily consider The Apprentice the best place to be pitching it. In fact, bearing in mind that television is in the business of entertainment and not in the business of business support (except if you are paying for advertising) arguably, there’s a good reason for staying away from the whole exercise altogether. It probably is even, dare I say it, common sense to focus on the needs of your business which may not, almost certainly won’t, align with the needs of an entertainment medium.

With respect to the idea of chopping the length of undergraduate degrees, again, I’m not sure that you can a) generalise and b) comment if you’re not sure what the purpose of an undergraduate degree is. Brian Lucey has provided some commentary here and it is more detailed than I can provide at this point in time. I recommend reading it. That being said, the breadth of options on the undergraduate degree supply side is such that it would be highly unwise to suggest a generalised change to all of them.

There are other issues of course – Paddy Cosgrave already made rather unpopular comments about the standards of degrees between different awarding institutions, and then there is the ongoing suggestion that universities should act as supplier belts to the employers. In truth, it’s not that simple and never has been. It seems to me that what employers value has changed over time; 20-25 years ago there was less of a specialised focus on particular skillsets such as programming a specific language, and more of a focus on understanding how things worked in general.

There are massive, massive cost issues on the academic and government side to tailoring university courses exactly to what any particular employer wants. A key example of this has floated straight to the top in programming languages; Apple have announced a new one, Swift, which, over time, is near guaranteed to replace Objective-C. So the question is, do you want someone who is an Objective-C expert, or someone who can take the handbook for Swift and hit the ground running? The truth is, you’re more likely to get the latter if you haven’t rammed all your efforts into training Objective-C programmers because that’s what the iOS application market was demanding.

Good employers understand this. Good employers understand that there are generalised skill sets they need, and specialised skill sets they may have to arrange for new hires to get themselves. This is true of most employers and this is why continuing professional development matters. It is a recognition that learning is an ongoing activity and you don’t pop out of university aged 22, finished. University is less a finishing school for employment and more a starting school.

There is a wider debate to be had on identifying what we need to focus our educational efforts on but, as anyone who has ever actually discussed this with me in the real world will know, this is not something that we can discuss in terms of any part of the education system in isolation. When we have issues with language learning and mathematics at leaving certificate level, the problems did not start when those students reached the age of 16, but probably when they were 7 or 8.

So I am in favour of a general reframing of our discussion of education in a coherent manner covering the whole, rather than some little details. When you have someone who is famous for – I’m not exactly sure what – in the business world popping up suggesting that we should shorten undergraduate degrees, I don’t think we get that discussion.

When RTE run these discussions, I would like them to consider their speakers a little more carefully. I am not sure what sector Jackie Lavin was supposed to be representing but if she was representing the employers side, then I don’t think she was the best choice. I would like it if, for example, RTE took a serious look at our middle industry and got senior people in from the likes of Kerry Foods, any of our home grown agri-industrials, any of our home grown pharmaceuticals. They tend to need a broader skillset, in certain cases they tend to need to get people to come to less popular locations with the indirect costs that can bring, but above all, they are dealing with different challenges, different realities.

And they are the sector we need to hear much much more from. I would love to see what, for example, Colm Lyons of Realex or Eoghan McCabe of Intercom, or Edmond Harty of DairyMaster or someone from Perrigo might have had to say about the constraints they work under given the current focuses in the third level education sector. I think it might be a lot more nuanced.

Storytelling at the cost of accuracy

It is entirely possible that this story has passed you by, but the French train operating company SNCF has ordered a number of new trains. Reports will tell you that they’ve ordered 2000 new trains but that is not, strictly speaking correct; they have ordered a little over 400. The order is in the news not because every person in Europe is a trainspotter and madly excited by NEW TRAINS ZOMG, but because the trains are marginally too wide for a number of regional train stations in France, the sort of stations, in fact, that they will be serving.

So far, so funny, at least it’s not us, cue discussions online about dataquality. However, most of the people I see discussing this only speak English, none of them seem to have read any source material in French. So here’s the issue. While it is true, in fact, that some of the new trains are marginally too wide for some of the stations, the SNCF and their colleagues in the RFF who specified the requirements for the new trains, actually have known about this for a few years. The trains were specified to be used in stations which are in compliance with new-ish (in this internet world, anything older than 5 seconds probably isn’t very new any more) international standards. So in tandem with ordering trains, there is also a program of work, currently budgeted at 50 million and in planning since 2011 (that’s 3 years ago) to bring the stations up to international standards, a program of work which has to be done anyway.

If you were to read the stories as they appeared initially, they would seem to imply that the trains are arriving and now the French are discovering that they are too wide. Some of the French reports suggest that the trains are 20cm wider than their predecessors (the BBC helpfully reports them as too fat), but the truth is, it’s not that actually true that this has been sprung on the SNCF as a total complete shock, oh dear moment.

According to Les Echos, which is a French business paper, 1300 of the 8700 railway stations in France have platforms which do not accommodate the new trains (this is also mentioned in the RFF press release linked below). 300 of those 1300 stations have already been fixed and six hundred more will be done by the end of the year. The trains in question are gradually coming into service by the end of 2016 by the way. The work is currently being paid for by money from the RFF’s 4 billion euro infrastructure budget.

So the question is, why is this news now? And why is it staying news? The answer, as can often be the case, is politics. The RFF is reportedly – and they have not confirmed this – considering looking for funding support from the regions for the purposes of bringing the train stations up to international standards.

« Nous refusons de verser un seul centime sur cette réparation. On ne va pas, quand même, être à la fois pigeon et financeurs. Les régions ne sont pas des pigeons », a déclaré hier dans la cour de l’Elysée, Alain Rousset président de la région Aquitaine et de l’ARF avant un rendez-vous avec François Hollande.

So the regions don’t want to pay for the platform works.

The trains, however, are paid for by the regions and they’d like not to have to have the SNCF and the RFF involved either – they’d like full control over the TERs thank you very much.

However, the other issue which is keeping this in the news is the separation of the RFF and the SNCF 17 years ago.

The question of rail industry reform is on the table in France at the moment, so it is, if you want to change your relationship with the rail operating and the rail infrastructure companies, not a bad time to be discussing what can go wrong and looking for greater autonomy.

Le responsable  est à chercher du côté de « celles et ceux qui ont fait la commande, » a ajouté Alain Rousset. Ce navrant épisode procure enfin aux régions, qui financent les TER et voudraient acheter leur matériel roulant sans passer par la SNCF , une nouvelle occasion de revendiquer davantage d’indépendance vis-à-vis du tandem en charge des opérations ferroviaires. « C’est pour ça que nous on veut reprendre en main ces commandes. On paie 100% des TER, c’est à nous d’en assurer la commande, la propriété . Il faut que les régions s oient vraiment des autorités organisatrices, qu’elles aient la capacité de déterminer le tarif, les services, la maintenance», a poursuivi Alain Rousset.

(Both of Alain Rousset’s quotes are from the Les Echos piece linked above)

Basically, the regions, who finance the regional trains, want the SNCF out of the picture, they want independence in terms of the rail operations, they should be the organising authorities, should be able to set the fares, the service levels and the maintenance.

So what is the real story here? The French rail company ordered trains  which conformed to international platform standards, when 1300 of their railway stations did not actually conform to those standards. By the end of 2014, 900 of those stations will have been upgraded to cater for those trains. Those trains will progressively go into service by end of 2016 by which time you’d expect they could manage to have the remaining 400 stations sorted out.

The issues appear to be:

  • whether the budget set aside for this work is adequate and if not, should the regions perhaps contribute some money towards bringing the railway stations in their area up to international standard
  • whether communications between the SNCF and the RFF and the ARF (the umbrella group for the regions) are all that they could be
  • whether rail reform done 17 years ago was helpful or not
  • whether further rail reform is required.

The RFF suggests that they only started looking at this problem in 2011 although the trains were ordered in 2009 and that this maybe was a little late. I’m not sure, however, that that this is the biggest issue here – time wise, they are well on their way to having the stations sorted out; the French have done this kind of thing in the past to cater for the TGVs when they were brought in and, you would have thought, upgrading railway stations to modern standards, is the kind of thing that should be happening anyway.

I don’t see this as a data quality issue au fond. Ultimately the platforms have to be updated anyway. French bloggers writing on the subject see it as issues relating to communication issues between the ARF, the RFF and the SNCF which is probably part of it with added soupcon of rail industry reform past and present. More than anything, right now, we are talking about a story which isn’t quite true in all its ZOMG They Ordered Trains That Were TOO BIG glory, which is now being used as a political football.

It seems to be to somewhat unfair to approach things using what Terry Pratchett calls narritivium rather than actual reality.

For further information read:



Le Monde

RFF Press release

All those links are in French by the way


One of the joys of being back at university is the unexpected bits of inspiration that pop up. Today was one of those days when…well…

NaoThis is Nao.

Nao came in to visit today, with one of the PhD students who is doing some research on robot-human interaction. I’ve never seen anything quite like him/her (decision to be made really).

I mean, how can you not love something like this:

IMG_1589_cropNao can dance, can walk, can talk and can interact with you. He/she plays this sports game where he/she mimes the sport and you guess.

Nao gets to know you. “Look at my eyes until they turn green”. And they do.

It is fair to say that every single student who met Nao was utterly entranced by him. I would love a Nao of my every own. Nao has five thousand brothers and sisters dotted around the world. Surely there could be one for me?

Here is Nao dancing:

And Gangam style thanks to the University of Canterbury

This is the promo video from Nao’s parents, Aldebaran Robotics.

Here’s what I would do if I wanted to get more people into information technology, computer science and related cutting edge technology. I would acquire a couple of these robots, and I would hand them over to school outreach programs. And I would send them into primary schools and junior cycle secondary and I would say “Look at what you can do if you study work on maths and related.”

This is the stuff of dreams and inspiration. We’re behind the game, I think, if we’re putting iPads into school. If we put Nao into schools, we are putting the future into schools.

Very few schools have the funds to fund a robot like this. It is something that needs to be done at a national level, or possibly by the universities.

Putting a value on desired skills

I have an eye on the jobs market on an ongoing basis and this morning, a temporary vacancy dropped into my inbox for a data analyst role, requiring fluent French.

I tick these boxes. I speak fluent French; lived in France for one year, Belgium for 2. Added to that I have very good German as well. I’ve never felt, however, that language skills have been particularly valued. They are nice to haves but the jobs they are considered for are often low paid jobs. In 1999 – which is a long time ago – I laughed at a recruitment agent who told me that I was on to a good thing with two fluent languages and recent experience living in countries with both language, that oooh, I could be earning up to £14000 pounds as I would get two language premia.

That was ten thousand pounds a year less than I had been earning as a secretary in Belgium before I came back to Ireland. It was also less than I was learning as a contract secretary in jobs where all they cared about was my ability to answer the phone and type at more than 65wpm.

So, I rocked up in a job in IT that didn’t involve much of a need to speak languages. I’m now interested in data analytics anyway – more possibly interested in numeracy as well – and am following a university course which features analytics as a core skill.

This ad had an hourly rate attached. It also talked about a possibility of earning up to a particular level for very hard work.

The level was not very high. Being frank, there are a lot of secretarial roles out there which have higher salaries.

This suggests to me that language skills are not particularly valued in Ireland, and nor are data analytical roles; or at least a lot of people looking for data analysts don’t value skills enough.

I don’t have a lot of free time at the moment, but I’m inclined to see if I can possibly figure out a way of identifying the economic premium paid for perceived desirable skills. I’m inclined to wonder if we hear skills are desired simply because people don’t want to pay for them sometimes.

Dublin is changing…start up comments

Eoghan McCabe and a bunch of his colleagues came to UCD Computer Science the other day to have a chat with some of the 4th years and postgrads about how opportunities were changing in Dublin compared, in particular, to how things were when he graduated.

I’m older than Eoghan, and I’m a bit unorthodox in that my background is not really computer science but I did take an unusual journey through life and spent more than a quarter of my life (but not quite a third) working on IBM big iron. But he had a message which resonated quite a bit in that the opportunities available to graduates today have broadened quite a bit compared to what was available less than 10 years ago, and even more say, compared to what was available 20 years ago. 

This is true in a monumental way; but the way it gets discussed rarely focuses on those changes. The concept of starting your own business, and the question of innovations is pushed a lot more than it ever has been before – it seems like every third level college has some sort of incubator program in place now. The whole market of available jobs has changed – there are a lot more interesting small software firms springing up of which Intercom is obviously one, and there are a few more getting ready to push from America to Ireland like New Relic. The big institutional employers are basically not the only show in town and this is fundamentally important because people are not uniform and they tend to thrive in different environments. We have this tendency in humanity to go with the one size fits all approach in the face of overwhelming evidence that in fact, one size has never fitted all.

I’m not a fourth year – I have 20 years work experience under my belt and not all of it has been in the technology arena. But I do believe that when you have a widening of employment and employer culture, it fundamentally benefits society and supports general growth.

One thing which we did discuss however is the tendency of people to think that Silicon Valley can be recreated here, and the tendency of politicians in particular to think about recreating Silicon Valley in Ireland. I think this is unrealistic because mostly it rests on an incomplete understanding of what drives the Valley at the moment – and also, the fact that what drives the Valley has evolved over time. Possibly the weather helps a lot but a key feature which supports the structure in California is probably the finance.

So I do wish, sometimes, we could recognise that this, along with a friendlier approach to failure, are key components of how you drive a start up culture. The last time I heard a politician in Ireland discuss this, he just wanted to import more people to work here.

More than anything, however, I wish that we got shot of this idea of wanting to Be Like Something Else. I’m pretty sure the valley infrastructure won’t last forever; it’s not even that unique as there are similar things happening in the northeast United States, in Berlin, and to a lesser extent in London, in terms of funding interesting ideas. Something or someone will come along and seriously disrupt it; that’s what happens. Or, more possibly, a tech bubble will blow up.

In the meantime, the funding available to start ups in Ireland is on a small scale. When you consider the amount of investment money that went into property in 2006 – some 40% of lending for new developments were for buy to let investments – you have to wonder whether the issue isn’t so much that we don’t have the money to generate a start up scene of some description here, probably with a more limited utility focus, or idea factories but that we misapply it.

So companies like Intercom wind up going to San Francisco to get funding. I do honestly believe that understanding this is important for generating a local start up culture,

On a related note, Eoghan made two remarks which I thought were worth remembering.

  • the vast majority of successful start ups are not run by drop outs but by people who completed their studies (and then some in a few cases)
  • the average age of a start up founder is 40.

This, I think is good to know, even if you’re 25 years old.

On a completely unrelated note, there was something I really liked about Intercom before Eoghan and his colleagues came in to talk and that is that Code Kata ran there on a Wednesday morning. I made it in there one morning but I liked the idea of doing something like that not just from a networking point of view but from a diversity point of view – yes, there were mainly men there (I think I was the only woman the day I did go) – but because people from different companies tend to have different cultures. In many ways, it was illuminating.