20 years is a long time when it comes to digital technology. Hardware, programming languages, business models and whole markets have grown, flourished, withered and died in that time. Yet ScotSoft, Scotland’s longest-running digital conference celebrated it’s 20th anniversary in 2017.
The conference has a big job in terms of representing a sector which is not only increasingly broad and diverse, but constantly evolving and changing.
Keeping the event relevant and focused enough to be useful, as well as general enough to attract a decent crowd must be rather challenging. The bigger companies, vendors and infrastructure providers will want value from their presence, while the smaller companies will hoping to benefit from the knowledge and experience on offer (and maybe do a few deals while they’re there…)
Keeping both ends of the digital spectrum happy and creating an event with some buzz and excitement around it was never going to be easy. Happily ScotSoft 2017 managed to bring together a programme which had a little of something for everyone.
Organised by ScotlandIS, the industry body which represents all of the country’s digital related companies and organisations, ScotSoft combined a developer conference and a leadership forum. In addition there was exhibition space and a glittering awards ceremony for the Young Software Developer of the Year awards.
Taking place at Edinburgh’s flagship EICC, the conference drew in a number of expert and high profile speakers from Scotland and the wider world.
Commenting upon the audience, David Stubley, the CEO of 7 Elements, told DIGIT: “It’s great to see the amount of developers that have arrived for ScotSoft 2017. There’s a real buzz and it’s fantastic to actually get a chance to talk about security to a wider set of people.”
ScotSoft 2017 Leadership Forum
The leadership forum took place across the entire afternoon and maintained the event’s key theme, Sometimes You Just Need An Idea, within the context of leadership.
Greg Mesch – City Fibre
Kicking off proceedings was City Fibre CEO Greg Mesch, who emphasised the need for focus. “Create your idea,” he told the audience, “then build a story around it.” According Mesch CEO’s and leaders need to tell this story three different ways: to themselves, to their team and to the surrounding investment community. He also told the founders and entrepreneurs in the audience to be prepared for ongoing rejection. Out of 50 meetings with investors, a company may be rejected 50 times, he said. Founders need to be able to go home and do it all again the following week.
Mesch is clearly taking his own advice. Throughout his presentation he emphasised City Fibre’s vision. “We don’t talk digging up roads to lay cable,” he said. “We talk increasing a city’s GDP and GVA by 1% every year for the next decade.” While perception of opportunities in the fibre infrastructure sector may appear limited to some, Mesch told the ScotSoft audience that a market with “a fat incumbent and no competition” was a huge opportunity.
“Make no mistake about it,” Mesch told DIGIT, ” We think that fibre fuels innovation, fuels job growth, fuels jobs starts, fuels employees.
“A city like Aberdeen can increase roughly, £400 million worth of GVA add, 8,000 jobs and have 500 businesses started. The reason being wherever you see a real intense fibre infrastructure across the city, meaning everything’s connected, everything runs faster. Jobs don’t leave. Your businesses don’t leave because they don’t get good connectivity… Your home owners who have fast internet can work at home as well as back in the office The whole eco system of an environment is increased.”
John Bernard – Dexcom
John Bernard from Dexcom, the HealthTech giant which provides glucose monitoring devices for people suffering from diabetes spoke next. An experienced marketer, Bernard discussed growing a global business from Scotland, using his own experiences with Sony Ericsson and the Mozilla Foundation, as well as Dexcom as examples.
With 420 million people in the world living with diabetes, Bernard outlined how Dexcom had grown into one of the world’s most valuable companies. Bernard spoke passionately about the value of intelligent marketing to help companies grow and flourish. He pointed out that decent media coverage can mean the difference between 1-2 leads per day and 100+ leads following exposure on a channel such as the BBC.
Bernard also highlighted the help and support available from both Scottish Enterprise and the Scottish Government to companies in Scotland, mentioning that they often get taken for granted, or ignored.
Ed Molyneux – FreeAgent
FreeAgent founder and CEO Ed Molyneux talked funding and finance. Molyneux busted several myths about financing for tech companies, pointing out that the goal should not necessarily be to become the next ‘tech unicorn’ and that the goals of the VC company may not match the goals of the company they’ve invested in.
Be cautious, was a key theme in Molyneux’s talk and focus on generating revenue. Finding a working sales model and scaling it is at the heart of a successful business. “Are you default alive, or are you default dead?” Molyneux asked. If your business cannot proceed without external funding, then you’re default dead. If you can survive without funding, but things just happen less quickly, you’re default alive. Founders need to think carefully about if, when and how they need finance if they’re genuinely going to survive until a successful exit.
Scottish Equity Partners
The same message was echoed by Scottish Equity Partners in the next presentation. “Capital isn’t scarce, vision is,” stated an early slide. Investment is out there, said SEP, pointing out that Venture Capitalists have invested over £27 billion in UK companies over the last five years. The company also urged founders and entrepreneurs to be prudent. Huge global plans are fantastic, but too many companies are planning large long-term losses before they start to generate significant revenue. It makes VCs nervous. Think about what you can do for less.
SEP also echoed Mesch, telling the audience that funding takes time. The company’s advice to start-ups: persevere. Look for the right partners, be resilient, recognise the relationship will be for the long term – and think about your exit early. Great advice from one of the country’s most experienced investors, with many of the audience taking notes throughout.
Douglas Cook – Skyscanner
Growth Hacking was the topic of Skyscanner’s Douglas Cook. He made a strong case for a lean, agile approach to marketing, in which team(s) are given high level goals and a a great deal of autonomy, allowing them to approach different markets, segments and channels more effectively. Cook used Skyscanner’s experience of growing international marketing teams to highlight how a ‘one size fits all’ approach rarely works and can reduce the effectiveness of the marketing teams worldwide.
Cook closed with the famous Peter Drucker quote, ‘Culture eats Strategy for Breakfast’ to make the point that an effective team has to believe in the high level vision for the company have a supportive culture in which their autonomy can be used most effectively.
John Brown – Arnold Clark
John Brown, the CIO of Arnold Clark was the next speaker. Brown gave an engaging presentation about building great teams and the attributes of great leaders. Be authentic, he told the audience, be postive – relentlessly if needs be, communicate clearly. Brown also made it clear that great leaders don’t operate in a vacuum. Seek out a great mentor, he said. Trust and delegate your team. Great leadership doesn’t just happen, he concluded. You have to work hard at it.
Frances Sneddon – Simul8
Frances Sneddon, the CTO of Simul8, reiterated several of the afternoon’s key themes, calling for purpose, vision and a culture in which autonomy can thrive. A clear, shared purpose and effective communication enable autonomy. Autonomy enables passion, drive and focus, said Sneddon. A leader should never have to tell their team ‘how’ to do something. Get out of their way and let them use their skills and experience as effectively as possible. Sneddon also focused on ensuring a cultural fit for all team members. Technical skills are crucial, said said. However, having someone who fits into the company culture is equally important. A wrong decision can delay or even destroy projects, if not the team itself.
The summit concluded with the final three speakers participating in a Q&A session, allowing the audience to drill down into the topics covered.
Overall, the leadership summit proved to be a fascinating and useful part of the overall event. It was fantastic to hear from so many people working in Scotland’s tech sector and bringing their experience and expertise to bear on the issue of leadership.
Since so many digital companies tend to be founded by technologists, the business aspects of creating and building a company are sometimes overlooked. The inclusion of the summit alongside the developer conference added a valuable element to the ScotSoft programme.
Scotland’s Digital Future
DIGIT asked several of the companies who exhibited, spoke and ran workshops at ScotSoft for their thoughts on Scotland’s rapidly evolving digital technology sector.
David Stubley, the CEO of 7 Elements, said: Scotland’s tech sector is definitely growing. There’s a lot of energy within the Scottish region. I think we are that unique size and dynamic that allows us to grow rapidly and cohesively. If you look at the rest of the UK it’s a bit more disparate and very London-centric. But here as a country we’ve got a really good opportunity to keep taking things forward.
We asked City Fibre CEO Greg Mesch why the company had sponsored, exhibited and spoken at ScotSoft. He told us: “It’s our eco system We’re not a retailer. We want to meet all our customers, the IFB’s of the world. All of these ecosystems. These are the guys that use the infrastructure and the people that end up using them are the companies underneath, so it’s all these companies and your company. Wherever you sit you’re going to want to have fibre connected up to that office.
“It’s also about showing real support for Scotland’s tech industry as well. ScotlandIS we’re a key member and we really appreciate everything they do. So this is very much about getting involved and being a part of the wonderful tech industry we in Scotland.”
Scott Hanselman – Microsoft
Scott Hanselman, Microsoft’s Principal Program Manager for Open Source .NET/ASP.NET, Microsoft Azure, and Web Tools, who was the keynote at the developer conference, said: “I’m alway thrilled to come to Scotland and it was even better this time to come to ScotSoft.
“There’s a lot of stuff going on and hopefully Microsoft will help out the Scottish economy and some of the great innovation which is happening over here.”
We asked what’s exciting him most about the technology sector right now. He said: “I think the tech scene is discovering you can be open source and still make money. It used to be either/or. We’re either closed source – we make money, or we’re open source and we sleep on our friend’s couch.
“I think you can have great open source software, you can charge for support, you can charge for premium things, you can run things in the cloud and I think Microsoft is learning how to have a strong open source community and a great commercial cloud and combine the two so everybody wins.”
Scotland has a lot of history and a lot of legacy when it comes to digital technology. It’s a far more diverse sector than it has ever been, with companies at every level, from start-up to global tech unicorn’s.
ScotSoft 2017 showcased this diversity and created a platform to give the sector more visibility, as well as enabling participants to learn from each other.
As the digital sector continues to grow and evolve, ScotSoft showed that Scotland is still pioneering and producing world class companies and technologies.
We’re already looking forward to ScotSoft 2018.