By Ian Buddery

Chair, Maestrano, Critical Arc and 6clicks; advisory board member Groguru

This article is an excerpt from the Tech23 2021 booklet Towards a Better Tomorrow.

The landscape has transformed in the 40 years that I’ve been in the software industry. We’ve gone from being an outpost of mainly American technology companies to having a very vibrant startup scene, access to venture capital, and global recognition for the quality of the technology that we build. That’s been a remarkable achievement, and we should be very grateful for all the hard work that’s been done by thousands of people over 20 years to get here.

I have a different perspective on what we can do better, because I think there’s a looming problem for Australian technology, which is the shortage of talent. My first job was as a cadet with BHP. In one generation we’ve gone from a country which put a lot of effort into nurturing homegrown talent, and did it very well, to being a country which takes the shortcut of importing people from elsewhere. We’ve been taking the best and brightest people from emerging countries around the world in order to meet our needs, with minimal investment into producing more of the people we need ourselves.

Post-COVID, the situation is going to be significantly worse because now we have the normalisation of remote working. You can stay in your family home in New Delhi and work for a company in New York. You no longer have to abandon your entire culture and extended family to move somewhere else in order to have a well-paid job and a comfortable life.

The technology companies that I’m involved with in the UK and the United States are quite happily employing people all over the world. The Australian model of either importing already qualified immigrants or bringing in students and then encouraging them to stay on with a residency visa won’t meet the demands of our growing technology industry for the next 20 years. We’ve got to make some fundamental changes in the approaches to improving the training of high school students in technology areas, and encouraging them to choose a STEM career as compared to options such as law, commerce or medicine.

This particularly applies to young women in technology. There’s a lot of criticism leveled against the tech industry for its terrible gender imbalance, but the reality is that there just aren’t women to hire. We all go to a lot of trouble to attract and recruit female engineers. We all want to have balance in our workplace, but we just don’t get the applicants. 61% of law graduates are female, compared to 17% of computer science students.

We have this terrific situation now where women outnumber men entering universities, but in the STEM disciplines, women are dramatically underrepresented. Anecdotally, we all know that if you sit at a barbecue with parents of Year 12 students, it’s always announced with some pride that their son or daughter got into law or medicine. It’s never announced with pride that my son or daughter got into engineering. We are not going to build a strong export economy on the back of having lots of lawyers.

Returning to remote working, there’s no doubt that software engineering is the new gold rush. If you are an expert in blockchain or machine learning, you can command a global price. For the individual, the ability to work from anywhere in the world means that we are probably going to have multi-millionaire software engineers, not through starting their own company but simply by contracting themselves out to the highest bidder over the course of a lifetime. 

It’s good for the individual and it’s very good for developing countries because rather than having to sell their skills at a massive discount in order to compete with the UK, America or Australia, they can charge out – and they already do, by the way – their people at the same rates as someone in America will charge. That’s going to be good for those economies. You can make as much money today as a software engineer in Shenzhen as you do in Sydney, in fact, you probably make more.

On the topic of international students, I’m not sure we’re going to get them in the same numbers in future. There’s this smug arrogance about Australia, that we are the best place in the world and everyone wants to come to live and work here. It’s fading, I’m afraid.

Our construction-focused economy has created this real estate bubble, which makes Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane among the most expensive cities in the world to live. If you’re a smart, university-educated person, these days you can work just about anywhere, particularly if you’ve got STEM skills. You can take your pick of lots of cities in the world that are nice places to live, where the cost of living is a fraction of Melbourne and Sydney. We’re like frogs boiling in the pot, for people of the generation who already have a house, we don’t notice it so much, but for the next generations, the possibility of owning your own home in Melbourne or Sydney is increasingly remote.

The things that used to attract high-value, highly educated and qualified immigrants to come here are gone and we’re in for a rude surprise. For an entire generation, we’ve not been bothering to train apprentices and cadets, we’ve just imported more immigrants. I’m not sure that will continue to work in the future.

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This article is an excerpt from the Tech23 2021 booklet Towards a Better tomorrow.

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