Why London's Tech Community Is Thriving, Despite Brexit
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If you only gauged Britain’s current tech and business climates via media coverage, it would be easy to assume that normal life is on hold there, with startups and corporates waiting nervously to assess the effects of Brexit. However, while EU negotiations may be advancing and retreating like the tide, the general outlook in the tech and development communities is far brighter than typical British springtime weather.
Spending just a few days in London recently, I had the opportunity to get an inside glimpse into the local tech and developer ecosystem. Because I live in Seattle, I'm no stranger to buzzing developer scenes -- however I found the community in London to be particularly diverse and engaged, with an estimated 251,144 coders calling the city home.
If my recent trip showed me anything, it's that "The Silicon Roundabout" and other emerging tech zones around the city never stop moving. And regardless of the political uncertainty to come, instead of going round in circles local players have their gaze set firmly ahead, past the roadblocks and onto future opportunities.
A vibrant and engaged developer scene
The City of London's PR agency, London & Partners, calculates that there are more software developers in "The Big Smoke" than in any other European city, and to my surprise the capital is even estimated to be home to more coders than both San Francisco and New York combined.
The city features all of the key ingredients for an active developer community. To provide a steady flow of fresh talent there are a number of coding bootcamps dotting the city: We Got Coders, Makers Academy, General Assembly, Le Wagon and Founders and Coders, which offers free courses for those wanting to break into the industry.
While a recent Guardian article argues that budgeting for Brexit caused the developer community to become less active over the last year, a quick look at Eventbrite reveals regular coding events, as well as hackathons for up and coming and experienced coders.
Tech For Good, which partnered with social impact VC firm Bethnal Green Ventures, holds regular events around the city designed to bring local developers together to solve real social problems. The London Web is a 5,000-large local Meetup group connecting fresh talent with more experienced peers, and more niche groups such as PHP London, London Java Community, and London Software Craftsmanship Community hold regular meetups for thousands of engaged members.
The London city council has meanwhile put its support behind programs for tomorrow's future coders.
In November 2017, the mayor joined forces with the Lego Group and the Institute of Imagination to launch RE:CODE London. The new program teaches local students about coding and robotics, challenging them to think critically to solve real social problems such as traffic congestion, pollution and protecting local wildlife.
The program Code Club, launched in 2012 in partnership with registered charity Raspberry Pi Foundation, has rolled out a nationwide network of volunteers and educators who run free coding clubs for young people aged 9-13. There are currently as many as 6,543 Code Clubs around the United Kingdom teaching more than 91,000 kids Scratch, HTML and CSS, and Python.
There is also a real push within the U.K. to make development education as accessible as possible. Organizations like Codebar.io are trying to improve diversity within the dev community, running regular free workshops that offer a "safe space" for people from under-represented backgrounds.
World class educational support for startups and developers
According to the European Tech Landscape Report, the U.K. is already home to the largest number of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) graduates in Europe. However, in recent years there has been renewed push from the U.K. government to inspire more youngsters from diverse and low income backgrounds to begin careers in science and technology industries.
As part of our own YouthSpark program, Microsoft partnered with local British youth and education organizations The Royal Society, U.K. Youth and BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT. Our aim has been to offer better resources to teachers in public high schools and teach youngsters about computing and IT.
Back in 2016, the U.K. government also awarded £1.7 million to projects aiming to increase access to engineering and computer science conversion courses, allowing 1,500 students a year to undertake short, intensive conversion courses in subjects like computer science, data science and mathematics. And just last year, the mayor's office invested a further £7 million into the Skills for Londoners program, which will provide free digital skills training for more than 1,000 young people in the capital.
For those students who decide to go down the route of a traditional four-year college degree, London is home to a number of esteemed centers of excellence in the fields of computer science and IT, such as Imperial College London, UCL (University College London), King's College London and Royal Holloway, University of London.
Imperial College of London is featured in the top 10 universities in the world and runs summer coding camps for kids. Programs like HackCampus, backed by Index Ventures, aim to bridge the gap between local startups and universities and are attended by thousands of local students.
London, I hadn't realized prior to the trip, is one of the most populated zones in the world for early stage startup accelerators. The growth of accelerators has increased rapidly since Seedcamp launched in London in 2007, with approximately 45 new accelerators created in 2016, many of them in the capital.
A supportive local ecosystem, and plenty of demand for developer talent
To hang on to local talent, the U.K. has needed to offer coders an abundance of interesting, engaging projects, as well as the right resources to grow their ideas.
The average wage for a developer in the U.K. is the fourth highest in Europe. However, there are also other advantages to working in London, such as the chance to get involved in more challenging projects and gain better networking opportunities.
And while there has been a lot of scaremongering about post-Brexit tech company and talent exoduses, the reality on the ground seems quite different. It is important to realize that London built its local tech ecosystem out of the ashes of the devastating economic recession of 2008-2009 and is no stranger to adversity.
With the aim of growing an environment conducive to innovation, David Cameron's government invested around $69 million in 2010 into developing Silicon Roundabout. They rebranded the area as "Tech City," gaining backing from larger tech giants interested in investing and introducing the Exceptional Talent Visa to loosen restrictions for foreign entrepreneurs looking to set up shop in the capital.
This same government launched the Enterprise Investment Scheme (EIS) and the Seed Enterprise Investment Scheme (SEIS), facilitating tax cuts for local angel investors and VCs, and laying the roots for what is today one of the most active investment communities in the world -- in fact, VC investments reached a record $4.14 billion in 2017.
The local and national governments have also offered a comparatively supportive regulatory environment. The FCA's regulatory framework for peer-to-peer finance for example was created as a "Regulatory Sandbox," designed to provide a "safe space" for tech companies to experiment and innovate.
In just one year the startup population ballooned from 85 in 2010 to 200 in 2011. The area was soon home to leading startup organizations such as Startupbootcamp, TechStars and Wayra.
And, since 2011, larger tech companies from the United States and Europe have moved their headquarters to the capital, bringing investment and increased visibility to the area.
When asked about the risk of Brexit chasing tech companies away, London Mayor Sadiq Khan pointed out that in 2017 alone Microsoft opened a new office in Paddington, Google detailed plans to develop a new London HQ for 7,000 employees, and Facebook aimed to create 800 jobs at a new London office.
Indeed, even with Brexit on the horizon, it seems like larger tech players are here to stay. And some even argue that the U.K. seperating from the EU will actually create a more attractive landscape for startups, citing among other things the increased number of new businesses registered by foreigners immediately following the Brexit referendum.
Matthew Lynn from the Telegraph is one of the optimistic many. He argues that to stay competitive post-Brexit the U.K. government is likely to loosen regulation on startups, boost the number of special visas available to non-EU tech workers, make it easier for foreign companies to launch businesses and reduce corporate taxes. Even if it loses access to the single market, he and others argue, the U.K. will remain an attractive location due to its talent pool and abundant VC funding.
So, while there are question marks hanging over the future of the U.K.'s tech industry, there is little doubt that London will remain a tech powerhouse. And even as local and foreign players are preparing for any eventuality, the general atmosphere remains positive. With one of the largest and most qualified IT talent pools, a supportive government and active local investment ecosystem, London will continue to be a hotspot for developers, startups and global tech giants for many years to come.