Kicking off the string of profiles for Holyrood’s top women in tech 2023 is Karen Meechan, who has served Scotland’s tech trade body ScotlandIS for almost 20 years.
Few know Scotland’s tech sector better than Meechan, having worked as head of operations, chief executive officer, and now as chief executive during her tenure at ScotlandIS. She is inspired daily by innovative solutions that are created by the sector and says one of the greatest parts of her job is watching these companies take something from little more than an idea on paper to a hugely successful business.
Meechan spoke to Holyrood about her journey within the sector, the challenges she has faced, and where she wants the industry to be in five years’ time.
What is your first tech-related memory?
I didn’t have a typical journey to my role here at ScotlandIS as chief executive. I left school at 17 after I persuaded my mum to let me do a youth training scheme.
I went to work with a company in Edinburgh which trained unemployed people to be self-employed. So, my first memory of technology was when they gave me a WordStar desktop. This was back in the days when electronic typewriters were as far as technology went, so I had to teach myself how to use this computer.
Since then, I have always engaged with or been in the technology field.
Once I left the training company, I went to work for NEC (National Entitlement Card). So, I worked in semiconductor sectors with engineers – different kinds of engineers, like mechanical and electrical engineers but still within that kind of tech space.
Then I went to work for a nanotech company which worked with universities in Scotland to commercialise their near-to-market nanotechnologies.
Finally, I moved to ScotlandIS almost 20 years ago. I initially joined to look after the membership, our events, and a more admin-type role and that has just grown to now being chief executive, which was never the plan.
Did you feel a lack of encouragement as a female within the sector compared to your male colleagues?
Definitely not, but I don’t know if it was different for me because I came into a more admin support role. So, for me, it was easy as I didn’t come in as a software engineer.
And then I spent years building up support from the sector so by the time I was progressing in my career, I had support from the industry. So, I haven’t experienced any negative feedback from the tech sector.
But again, I didn’t come in from that technical standpoint, so I have no experience of how challenging that was for some women, and I know it has been for some of them.
However, the sector now does value women in technology. Organisations see the difference that a diverse workforce brings to their business. And maybe in the 80s or the early 90s, before I was in this sector, that was potentially a huge challenge.
So, do you believe both girls and boys get the same encouragement to take on opportunities?
They certainly have the same opportunities at school. We just need to keep them engaged, and that’s a challenge for both genders. The problem we have isn’t that the opportunity isn’t there, it is that we’re losing the interest of some of our young people.
And it starts by filling the gap in computing science teachers. Some schools have them, some schools don’t have enough, and some schools don’t have any at all, so they have the business teacher teaching ICT which is not great.
So again, we struggle. We’re creating 15,000 jobs a year within the Scottish tech sector, so we need those people in there, but we need teachers to excite our young people so that they continue to come through that future talent pipeline.
Who was your biggest influence to get into the sector?
The previous chief executive for ScotladIS, Polly Purvis. I worked with her for 17 years.
For a long time we were a very small team and I just saw how passionate Polly was, and that was something that just got disseminated across the whole of the ScotlandIS team.
Now we still are a very small but perfectly formed team. We work hard to support the tech sector – a drive and passion transmitted by Polly. It was always an all-hands-on-deck.
But many people in the industry have supported me throughout my 20 years with ScotlandIS. Peter Proud, the chief executive of Forrit, has been a big influence on me. I could list for days.
What are some of the challenges you have faced to get where you are now?
Well, we are a very small organisation looking after a very large sector across the whole of the country. There’s so much to do and that takes a toll on the team. There are only 10 of us, but we look after 1200 companies just within the membership in our cluster.
We also sit on between 35 and 40 different advisory boards globally to promote our members and our capabilities. So, the challenge we have is having a huge remit with a very small, dedicated team.
But, we get through the work, and I feel like we have and will continue to make a difference. We’ve made changes in policy, we’ve lobbied the government, we’ve got CodeClan created.
We’re part of a UK Tech cluster group and we look at other cyber clusters across the wider UK. They’re not doing half the things that we’re doing here in Scotland. So, we are ahead of the curve in some areas but there’s just so much more that we can and should be doing.
What were the challenges you faced in setting up CodeClan in the first place?
There were several challenges as the first and only Scottish coding academy.
First, we had to speak with several of our industry members because we had to figure out what they needed us to teach – ‘what was the skillset the industry needed to be able to take a CodeClan graduate after 16 weeks into their business?’ – and that took some time.
Then we had to pull together the curriculum and recruit the right staff, which was difficult.
However, getting buy-in from the industry was relatively easy because they needed the staff, so they needed a way to get them into the business quickly.
And then we had to create something agile enough that it could change the curriculum depending on the needs of the industry.
How did you take it when CodeClan had to close?
Absolutely devastated. Although we didn’t run CodeClan, we created it. We still saw it as an extension of ScotlandIS. And we knew the industry still needed it.
But there’s an opportunity now to agree on what the next steps should be going forward, as the requirement is still there – we still need to upskill people. We hope to sit down with the government and the relevant agencies at an appropriate time to go, ‘right. What do the next steps look like?’
Do you believe the gender gap in the industry has widened, stayed the same or shrunk over the last couple of years?
Our last stats say that in Scotland’s tech community, only 23 per cent are women.
I think this is twofold. I think the industry sees the benefit of that diverse workforce, but we need to start encouraging our young women, showing them that this is a career path they can pursue because the industry is ready to take them on.
So, I think we’ve still a way to go. However, progress has been made with the promotion of SWIT (Scottish Women in Technology), and the networking and support groups available now.
I would like to see a day when we don’t need to have women in tech initiatives. And I think we’re getting there; minds have been changed. It won’t be fixed overnight, but if we continue to head in the right direction we will get there.
But what do you think are the biggest challenges the sector is facing?
Skill shortage, absolutely. It is huge and has been for a long time and I don’t know if we will ever close it because digital underpins everything.
Ten to 15 years ago we were looking for software engineers and developers for tech companies, whereas now we are looking for them across every sector.
Honestly, I don’t know if we will ever have too many software engineers or techies for the job roles available.
Where do you see yourself in five years, and what do you like to see happening/in the sector?
In five years, I will probably still be sitting here, hopefully continuing to do what we’re doing.
Where do I see the sector in five years? I have no idea if anyone can answer that.
I would like to see the Scottish Government support SMEs with their spending. When we look at procurement, I would like to see a position where we can use Scottish Government spending to support Scottish SMEs, which will then support the economy.
I am hoping the diversity gap will have closed a bit further. I think the sector will continue to grow and be a staple in Scotland’s economy. I think the sector will thrive, but I just hope that some of the initiatives that we’re doing now will help balance out that gender challenge that we have.