Why Yorkshire must embrace digital revolution – David Richards

NOT so long ago, only the very richest companies could afford the most powerful computers. This privileged access bought them protection.

David Richards is leading efforts to supply laptops to children who don't have them for home learning.

It made them all but unassailable. Nobody could capture their castle. Today, times are changing – and fast. Companies of all sizes can tap into awesome computing power at a fraction of the cost.

Cloud computing, as this access is known, hands over the keys to the digital kingdom, offering faster innovation, flexible resources and economies of scale on a pay-as-you-go basis. Its increasing use explains why many parts of our economy have been able to continue functioning during the pandemic and why so many companies have been able to increase output with all hands working from home.

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Amazon is the biggest company in the world not because it is a retailer, but because it is the biggest provider of cloud computing services with an estimated 33 per cent market share in an industry worth $100bn this year. The company predicted last month that Covid-19 had accelerated cloud adoption by several years. Nowhere is this growth better reflected than in the fortune of founder and CEO Jeff Bezos which has rocketed by $70bn since March.

David Richards is founder and CEO of WANdisco plc.

At WANdisco plc, the data software company I launched and lead, we have seen – and in many cases enabled – the large-scale migration of companies to the cloud, ditching their own data centres with associated costs to move to services provided by Amazon, Microsoft, Google and the rest and reaping the benefits of performance and productivity. The shift is one of the silver linings of these grim times.

The cloud does not care where you live. If you can access the digital world from any location, geography is no longer important. Until very recently, you needed to be physically based in San Francisco or London to be able to do the best jobs in the world – and pay the biggest housing costs. Now you can do them in Yorkshire. The region’s house prices tell their own story: up nearly five per cent year on year in November in what estate agent Zoopla is calling the “once in a lifetime re-assessment of housing”.

The trend is playing out across the pond and where America goes, Britain usually follows. Elon Musk, the billionaire CEO of private rocket company SpaceX and electric carmaker Tesla, confirmed in December he is moving from California to Texas. The multinational Oracle, a Silicon Valley mainstay for more than 40 years, is also upping sticks to the Lone Star state to embrace the remote work model. Who wants to be locked down in a densely populated capital city when you can be miles away with strong WiFi?

Yorkshire is the Texas of England, bigger and better than any other county. The growth of cloud computing and remote working present an enormous opportunity for God’s Own County to redesign its economy. We have low labour and living costs, key facets for mobile companies looking to relocate operations. Emerging fields like automation and machine learning desperately need programmers to write code and analysts to make sense of data.

We are working on a plan to accelerate tech talent development in Yorkshire. As tech employers, we look for logical reasoning, problem-solving abilities, an eye for detail and organisational skills. People can learn the basics in a matter of months. Immersion is everything. If you really want to learn French or Japanese, you are better off going to Lyon or Osaka than a university.

An intensive approach to skills acquisition through focused practical experience could present a serious challenge to the three-year model of higher education. It would offer people the chance to quickly learn hands-on skills required by growth industries. They could be beginners, college leavers, graduates or anyone seeking a career change, by choice or necessity. It should be open to everyone in Yorkshire. It would certainly cost a lot less than a university degree.

We know the cloud provides unimaginable computing power for a fraction of the cost, offering companies faster innovation, flexible resources and economies of scale. It does not care where you live, a true levelling up opportunity worth more than a million empty political soundbites. The skills to use the cloud can be swiftly acquired, in months rather than years. Time are changing – and fast. It’s 2021, let’s get a move on, Yorkshire.

David Richards is founder and CEO of Sheffield-based tech giant WANdisco plc.

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