Pandemic has only strengthened a sector set to lead Gloucestershire’s economy
As other sectors rock and roll under the thunder clouds of the coronavirus pandemic one has been not just resolutely sure footed, but growing stronger.
Its significance much trumpeted, its network veiled by an air of mystery, but its strength is increasing by the day belied by only modest signs of that growth on the surface - unless you know where to look.
Even its name, a spin-off of an obscure term popularised by mathematician Norbert Wiener in the 1940s and dating back to ancient Greece, describes a sector hugely significant to the county’s economic future - but as elusive as ever.
Mr Wiener’s book, Cybernetics, (perhaps only for the most dedicated researcher), borrowed the Greek word cyber, and the mystery of that sector is probably of little surprise when you realise the catalyst in the county is GCHQ.
Through the pandemic so far GCHQ has been stable, its function and that of cyber only strengthened. At least, that is the word on the q.t..
“In terms of Cheltenham and Gloucestershire, what cyber and tech means is this – it’s a critical sector to enable the economic recovery of the county,” said Bruce Gregory (pictured above), who runs the cyber and tech office space that is Hub8 in the spa town’s Brewery Quarter, but was also talking to theraikesjournal.co.uk as a key member of CyNam.
Chris Dunning-Walton, one of the driving forces of the dynamic CyNam team, all of whom (bar one) are volunteers at what is a community interest company, agrees.
“Cyber as a sector is simply huge. It is massive. It is the best kept secret and capable of enormous growth,” said Mr Dunning-Walton, also managing director of InfoSec People, a leading cyber technology recruitment consultancy.
“For ‘cyber’ I think people should think technology, rather than security - that is just a small part of it.”
CyNam is essentially a forum and catalyst for all those players in the sector operating here already – big (and some of them are enormous), medium, small and emerging.
Its name standing simply for Cyber Cheltenham. It is foremost about generating and growing businesses – existing and new.
Formed in 2015 as a networking group it is now 900 strong and exists to connects “the best cyber technology minds and local SMEs and start-ups to support from people, expertise, guidance, funding, and new business”.
“We have GCHQ here, which is the county’s biggest employer, but it is not just that – it is the supply chain that comes from that. People perhaps don’t realise the capability of this,” said Mr Gregory.
And with that he reels off a long line of major firms of which we are not sure we can mention without a call from you know who, except perhaps Deloitte, IBM, Atkins Consulting, Capita, Microsoft, Lockheed Martin.
“They are all here because we have the doughnut here,” said Mr Gregory, referencing the name given to the nickname for the aforementioned Government listening post.
“One of the reasons people don’t know how big the sector already is, is because most of the people working in it can’t always talk about what they do.”
And joke about it we might, but we agreed to have this very article vetted before it went to ‘print’. A measure of how sensitive and valuable relationships and connections being made here in Gloucestershire are.
That the sector is starting to become increasingly visible is due in no small part to a particularly ambitious project which will rub shoulders with GCHQ.
Mr Gregory points to Cheltenham Borough Council’s promotional video attempting to lure investors for its planned £400 million campus development on a 200-hectare site next door to GCHQ as a sign of confidence in the sector’s potential.
“It (Cheltenham Borough Council) could have paused the search for a development partner due to the pandemic, but it did not.
This decision reflects the strong leadership of the council and its commitment to enabling the growth and development of our cyber sector” he said.
Those who have seen the short film might be forgiven for thinking Cheltenham sits alone in the county at the end of long leafy roads, but the video is about selling an idea to those outside Gloucestershire.
Mr Gregory and Mr Dunning-Walton both talk detail and context, swooping in and out of a 360 degree vision which sees the county as a hotbed of cyber talent in close proximity to like-minded types in Malvern, Worcester, Bristol and South Wales.
One of them compares it to San Fransisco’s bay area – synonymous with new business ideas pushing to break through – but points out “it’s just easier to get around here, with some beautiful countryside and an attractive lifestyle”.
“The important thing is, this is not about Cheltenham on its own. What we have to do is understand the power of cyber. This is not a regional or provincial play. This is a national play,” said Mr Rogers, before zooming out to underline the vision.
“This is not only unique to the country, this is unique globally. When you see it like that, its scale is easier to understand.”
It is a grand, exciting and seductive sell and one CyNam knows needs to also catch the eye of some of the very youngest among us. Recruitment, not just business ideas, will be essential.
CyNam, with successful schools initiatives spearheaded by director Madeline Howard, is already at work on this. As are some of the very biggest firms associated with its movement – think, for example, the US giant Raytheon.
One theme in particular being the need for more female talent into the industry.
“We have some excellent schools here in Gloucestershire. Which is not necessarily surprising when you consider a large part of the population has been vetted and cleared as ‘very clever and very nice people’ who will do the ‘right thing’ in a crisis. It is bound to have an impact,” he said, suggesting that for those looking to move here and companies with an eye on future talent have some of the battle won already.
Why the need for a cyber business village development and a vision? As mighty as the doughnut is – its magnetic pull has not been strong enough to hold every business fixed in Gloucestershire.
One or two growing firms, not many, have left for the bright lights of Bristol.
CyNam’s vision is shared by GFirst LEP. The local enterprise partnership thinks the county needs to position itself within the context of the Western Powerhouse, and stress its close proximity to Bristol, of Malvern and Worcester as assets.
Aside from the confident play by the borough council, laying down its ‘open for business’ card in the form of its investor video, the pandemic has had another almighty impact.
As the economy tipped a majority of businesses suddenly found themselves working from home, dependent on IT, rushing to digital en mass and digesting all the benefits, threats and wondering at its potential.
“Some businesses, like Carbon Black and Dark Trace (both experts in cyber security), have possibly done their yearly targets in a month,” said Mr Dunning-Walton, underlining how such a shift has shown the potential also to those service providers and the investors now looking for new, safer sectors in which to work.
For CyNam its membership has only grown.
Hub8 might have closed its doors immediately due to the pandemic and refunded members no longer able to use its office space, but it too has seen a growth in membership.
Its flexible approach to rents, office, and eye on the future in sharp contrast to some more traditional landlords, reflecting the different mindset within the sector’s ranks.
Not everything is rosy though. And here we go back to the issue of recruitment.
“There is concern about a shortage of talent. We need to engage the next generation of cyber and tech professionals. Leaving it to age 15 to 16 is too late. It needs to be earlier than that. For many of the big tech companies the challenge is finding the talent,” said Mr Gregory.
But both are confident.
Mr Dunning Walton said: “We have the capability here in spades. The knowledge around cyber is the strongest in the UK. We have the big players here already, and if we develop the right culture it can only grow.”
So, will cyber dominate Gloucestershire’s future economy?
Mr Gregory, surprisingly, does not think so.
A major player, ‘yes’, but the county – he points out – is no one-trick pony.
“We have agritech, engineering and a diversity which all helps make Gloucestershire such a great place to live and work.”