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Digital thinking and ecosystem

Human talents at the heart of the digital ecosystems

Regardless of the geography, talents will energise the most active and fruitful ecosystems so it is all about grooming and attracting those talents. Talent war has  been spoken of for many years and it is now happening.  The question is who is leading and is the battle already lost for some ? Will some digital ecosystems become mere satellites feeding main hubs ?

There is no doubt for me that the world axis has shifted. Before living in the centre of the world I was like most Westerners, Asia was this massive part of humanity which was both intimidating and fascinating. I entertained my fair dose of clichés without fully realising that there is not one Asia but different regions that have a geography in common and similarly to Europe, a history rich in conflicts. I tend now to think that Asia is a Western concept that keeps us in our lazy lack of curiosity. The digital ecosystems in this part of the world moves at lightening speed growing power houses with China leading the way. According to the Chinese the axis is only re-adjusting back to where it was once and the recent parenthesis has only  been a historical bleep . In my mentoring activities I enjoy meeting hundreds of start-up founders and I hope they learn as much as I do in the process. However I fail to understand their fascination with the Silicon Valley that they perceive as the graal of the worldwide digital ecosystem. It is today, what about tomorrow ? Running your start-up in California, pitching, hunting investments gives you a unique learning experience. Joining an incubator in China is opening a window on our future.

Growing and retaining talents will make this prominent digital ecosystem sustainable. In the chapter on the digital tribes I have described the importance of the tribe of the core builders consisting of all the start-up founders that fuel value into the ecosystem. The developers, coders shape a great part of this value. The skills range from the junior coders to the expert developers able to work in teams and design complex software. Both are in high demand. Simple coding may be soon performed by intelligent bots, developers have already created their own tools to automate and optimise their work. However the growing  need of AI, VR increases the need for developers and data scientists. Countries in South East Asia that combine a large population with scientific education develop a unique advantage.

To deep dive in these buoyant ecosystems, in the Spring of 2017, I elected Singapore as my base . Over the four years (2010 till 2014) I had worked there I had built a strong community I had kept in touch with. Singapore is a city of immigrants, expats and transient. A Singaporean ex-colleage kindly offered me a room in a beautiful Tampines apartment where my best Australo/Chinese friend was also staying. In exchange for my stay I took them through some of my crazy practices like laughing yoga, debated on all matters East and West. The kitchen was always well supplied with wine from all horizons stocked in a dedicated cooler.  Our host and friend is also a Japanese whisky amateur. I can barely spell whisky. I was in awe to read the price tag of an Hibiki bottle I had volunteered to bring back from Tokyo airport. I was equally surprised when during one of these discussions, my best friend Judy, was talking about her start-up using development services out of Indonesia. In 2013, I launched new product and services for Cisco partners in Jakarta. I remember the room full of young journalists and bloggers. This 250 million inhabitant country was vibrant and despite the well known infra-structure issues the urban dwellers were already active mobile internet users. Yet I was taken by surprise when startup founders headquartered in Singapore regularly mentioned contracting  development services out of Indonesia. Indonesia has increased its coding capabilities.  Rising stars such as KEMANA provide development of e-commerce platforms. The start-up scene is flourishing. The World Bank report dated March 2018 (1) describes the education programs implemented to accelerate education in all levels of computer science. At the current rate, national resources will however not meet the short term business needs. Vietnam also benefiting from a young educated population surfs on a similar wave. 

With its 2.75 M developers and coders India still leads the pack but a simple search in Google shows an impressive list of development services where major players such as Accenture are present but also independent  smaller companies applying agile methodologies and focusing on the hottest programming languages. IDC study (2) highlights that APAC is leading the coding world with 37% of SW developers living and working in the region. Yet it is never as simple as it sounds. Let me share another personal experience and story.

(1) Preparing ICT Skills for Digital Economy: Indonesia within the ASEAN context 

(2)2014 Worldwide Software Developer and ICT-Skilled Worker Estimates”

Diya’s story

I am ashamed that it took me so long to understand how tough life in India can be even for a middle class family considered well off by the local standards. My first management struggles taught me that building relationships to a point of being considered an “auntie” was by far outweighing the power of KPIs. I was wondering why Indians rarely contradict their managers. This was driving me crazy, I had been successful by relying on the knowledge of my team, accepting their input, changing gear if needed. However in India contradicting the boss, expressing different and better ideas was in India against nature, an act of lese-majesty. I came to the conclusion that this stemmed out of respect for the family figure more  than pure obedience to hierarchy and authority. In a culture where family links enable you to survive in every step of your life from studying, raising children, then peacefully aging any figure head that has a senior status  is respected and not contested. I have seen people kissing the feet of their elders in India where an individual does not exist without his/her cast, group and family. By getting close to my team and especially to my local manager Anil who demonstrated an enduring patience in educating me I ended up behaving in a  “manager cum auntie” way and created a very different team environment from the one I was familiar with. Over time I created a blend of Californian-Indian management style  that seemed  to work.  I will never forget the first evening when I was invited to dinner at Anil’s place, the endless navigation in  dark Bangalore to find the gated community  where he lived with his spouse and two daughters. I enjoyed the best South Indian dinner cooked by Suja who refused to sit at the table with me as I was guest of honour. I so much insisted that she joined us for future meals. I remember admiring the collection of wonderful saris, a garment that I never managed to wear elegantly despite the teaching efforts of my Indian friends. That night I felt I had reached a special spot and achieved an emotional understanding , bounding with a wonderful and puzzling culture.

Anil’s whole family (extended one) focus on the education of the children, the only hope to elevate themselves in the multitude. Anil’s daughter was a brilliant student, the whole family supported her, first to study biology in Bangalore and then in UCLA. She now holds a STEM job in Boston biotech. Does she want to come back ? Certainly not, she keeps insisting that her parents move to the USA, the Indian dream would be then fulfilled. Meanwhile Anil kept trying moving to Singapore desperately wanting to escape the pollution, the constant mess, corruption, the list could go on and on. Unfortunately during my tenure the move did not happen. It eventually did and when back in Singapore I was happy to meet Anil and family in his beautiful Singaporean condo.

This story is one of many examples of what happens to talent in India and to some extent in South East Asia as we are going to read in the following paragraphs.

The urgency of educating talents and bringing skilled coders and developers on the job market also creates a rat race in South East Asia similarly to the Indian use case. The large Tech companies and consulting services behemoth are very well organised to tap into smart and cheaper talents in off-shore innovation centres or outside services factories. This job market is considered both an economic and social improvement. The internet industry and IT BPM in India is likely to double to reach US$ 250 billion by 2020, growing to 7.5 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP) (3) .It may also stifle the local innovation, the best brains are hired to produce code used in finished high value software labeled “made in a Western country”. India has been a worldwide SW development power house for decades and yet it has taken Indian leaders returning home during the 2008 down turn, as well as young inspired engineers to launch India on the enterprise streak still not matching the objective human capabilities. 

In this talent shortage the question for the digital ecosystems in South East Asia and India is manifold : 

  • how to educate enough SW developers, IT experts ready for the future, 

  • how to avoid the brain drain 

  • how to encourage the educated to create their own start-ups. 

(3)IT & ITeS Industry in India - IBEF

You cannot blame people to aspire to a better life. As Dyia’s story illustrates, the usual dream of a successful student in an Indian middle class family is to obtain a bachelor degree from a good Indian university, then a grant to study in the US, acquire a Masters, and eventually a STEM job. The plan is not to return home but if possible move your aging parents over at least during long stays. The next best thing is probably getting an IT job in Singapore. Satya Nadella and Pichai Sundar have become the modern Indian gods, remarkable role models who  re-inforce young Indians and their parents in their belief that success only happens outside of the national borders.

How can India and any emerging country on a similar path  nurture and keep the best of the best ? The current economy is to weak plagued with corruption to give a large number a chance to create a legitimate and respected elite.

Born in a country where your nationality is considered to be a privilege and an incredible gift I could not believe my eyes when queuing at the San Francisco Indian consulate I saw signs followed by quite a herd of volunteers for citizenship renouncement. India does not afford multiple citizenships. With the usual Indian dry sense of humour one of my Indian colleagues declared : there are too many of us, I guess our country is happy to get rid of a few. 

In the digital ecosystems the talent war is global, those that will have most access to talents will be the winners.

This is partly why Silicon Valley and the US brightly shine in the digital ecosystems as they have built a sustainable acquisition of  talents. The prestigious universities attract the best of the best. Excellence drives further excellence and funding. Unlike many countries the US under subsidise their own local education and the highly educated trained students will join at the end of the spectrum for post-graduate degrees.

By the number - who is winning the talent war ? 

It is extremely difficult to compare apples with apples with the data available. The definition of an engineer will vary on a country by country basis. Some of the European data will speak of developers who have an engineer degree. On the other hand the numbers published by China are sometime hard to verify and can be inflated as all engineers are not meant to be employed in a digital ecosystem. Likewise higher education institutions in the US englobe students for BA and under graduates. Therefore the numbers used here will serve as trend indicators, a support to understand big volumes without aiming at accuracy. I believe it serves our purpose to highlight the stakes.

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China with its large population and heavy investment in education certified 8M engineers in 2017 twice as many as the US

Where does Europe stand in the talent war ?


Europe cannot compete on volume with the large ecosystems such as China yet it can have a competitive edge with the US regarding talent. Stack Overflow organization states that the number of professional developers in Europe exceeds the available pool in the US with Germany, UK and France leading the way with a total of 5.5 M professional developers against a 4.4 M in the USA.

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The volume of professionals is combined with high quality as Europe is home to half of the top 10 computer science institutions in the world

In addition entrepreneurship capabilities are high. An increasing number of MBA graduates from the best European business schools opt for entrepreneurship.

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% of MBA graduates entering tech industry from selected business schools

European digital ecosystem is hungry for more as the trend shows

The number of persons employed as ICT specialists in the EU-28 grew by 39.5 % during the period from 2006 to 2016, which was more than 10 times as high as the corresponding increase (3.6 %) for total employment. 

Among the EU Member States, Finland had the highest share (6.6 %) of its total workforce employed as ICT specialists in 2016; in the same year, at least 1 in every 20 persons employed in Sweden, Estonia, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands was an ICT specialist. 

In 2016, almost one fifth (19.6 %) of EU-28 ICT specialists worked in the United Kingdom (1.6 million persons). 

Across the EU-28, the vast majority of jobs for ICT specialists in 2016 were held by men; the share of ICT specialists that were women was 16.7 %, some 5.8 percentage points less than a decade before. 

In 2016, more than three fifths (61.8 %) of ICT specialists in the EU-28 had a tertiary level of educational attainment. 

Almost two thirds (63.7 %) of all ICT specialists employed in the EU-28 in 2016 were aged 35 years and over; the proportion of ICT specialists aged 35 and over increased by 6.7 percentage points during the period 2006-2016. 

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Persons employed as ICT specialists and total employment, EU-28, 2006-2016

Is there a half full and a half empty glass perspective of the issue. In theory it should give opportunities to groups who are not fully included in the digital ecosystems as the need for skills and competencies accelerate. Girls are encouraged and taught to code, women trained to become BA, administrators, dedicated programs focus on women entrepreneurs. As we have seen emerging countries respond to the pressure of preparing the young generations to the digital economy. Technical skills form the corner stone once they are acquired what will be the competitive differentiator ?

Veronique BoudaudComment