Houston we have a problem

When we moved to the States when I was around 8 years of age, I took a bit of a shine to a girl in my elementary school class called Shelley. She described herself as Polish-American and I remember thinking, wouldn’t it be cool if I became a Scottish-American one day. Even though my family got the green card that equated to permanent residency status (by way of my Dad’s sister who was a US citizen), we ended up moving back to the U.K. a few years’ later and I never got the chance to be that Scottish-American. Still, I feel like a little part of me is American all these years’ later.

My wife and I are good friends with a couple who moved back to Germany not long after the UK's 2016 EU referendum. They didn’t ever say, and we never put them on the spot by asking, but we always felt Brexit was at the root of their decision to leave. They loved living in Scotland, in lots of ways they were a lot more Scottish than my wife and I are. They had travelled the country coast to coast, holidayed in Scotland, got married here, had both their children here, as great cooks they loved the abundance of great seafood and they always did a mean Burns Supper. They had a very emotional connection with Scotland and they still do.

I was talking about this, and immigration in general, to a Swedish friend in Edinburgh’s famous Bow Bar a few weeks’ back. Johan, who works at the London office of a global digital agency, was saying around half of the Swedish people he knows in the UK’s capital have upped sticks since "the vote". With so many amazing cities to live in around Europe, why choose to be in a country where it could be perceived that half the people don’t necessarily want you to be there. He described it as an “emotional thing”. 

A national newspaper recently wrote a piece on London’s tech startup scene and how there is a sense of an international community that is suddenly adjusting to realities it never expected because of Brexit. A leading tech journalist was quoted as saying that people will “pack their bags and go wherever they’re most welcome” and that “the optics of Brexit are not about welcoming, they are about closing doors.”

Being quite ingrained in Edinburgh’s tech scene, I spoke to a few friends and contacts this week about their own views on the subject and what it means for Scotland’s technology ecosystem. 

According to John Peebles, born in the US, raised in China and the CEO of enterprise software scale-up Administrate: “It can be easy to forget that the most important asset a software company has is its team. Like most UK startups, our team is made up of people from many different nationalities and the uncertainty caused by Brexit is a risk that threatens the UK’s position. Like many others, I am an immigrant who came to the UK looking for opportunity with a desire to build something. It is critical that we don’t add barriers by making it more difficult for people from other countries to come here and contribute.” 

Lisa Thomson of Purpose, an HR specialist agency working with fast-growth companies in the tech and life sciences sectors, says: “This is hugely topical and we have been running internal workshops and awareness sessions with clients about Brexit. Sara on my team is a Portuguese national so we have drawn on some of her own experience. Attracting and retaining a diverse talent pipeline from EU and beyond is key and uncertainty is not helpful.” Thomson points out that one of Purpose’s client companies has 10 nationalities from a headcount of 25.

During my time advising Skyscanner around all things PR, when we were briefing journalists we would always talk about the number of nationalities working at the travel search site before we got to other metrics like app downloads and even revenue. That was something that came from the top, from the CEO and co-founder Gareth Williams. I think, as well as enabling the company’s internationalisation, it was also something of a badge of honour.  

IT recruitment dynamo Kelli Buchan, who has supported high intensity hiring phases at Administrate, FanDuel, pureLiFi and Care Sourcer, says the last two months of 2018 were the quietest she has experienced in the 15 years she has worked in the tech industry in Scotland: “People do not want to take risks at the moment until they know for certain how Brexit plays out.”

Andy Robinson, chief commercial officer at CodeBase-headquartered software development studio Cultivate, who count Europe’s fastest-growing technology company, Deliveroo, among its client base adds a note of caution: "We’ve seen first-hand the uncertainty Brexit has caused for European employees who chose the UK as their home and are now considering the prospect of leaving. Aside from the economic uncertainty, it’s a shame to see the country perceived as anything other than a welcoming place for the talented people we so desperately need to attract.”

Zoi Kantounatou, Greek national and co-founder of the entrepreneurial leadership group FutureX who run the annual Startup Summit, puts things in perspective: "European Union professionals don't see the UK as the place full of opportunities that it used to be. It's a big step to move somewhere new and you need to make sure it’s the best one for you, your future, your family. Let's not forget that the rest of the Europe is still open and it makes sense to choose a country that can provide stability and security. I have friends who are developers in Greece, fell in love with Edinburgh when they came to visit and were thinking of moving here but the uncertainty over whether they will be able to work in the UK has paused these conversations.”

Houston, it seems safe to say we have a problem.