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Slush day two: Finland opens its doors to the future

Ice-cream in December – another great cultural experience at Slush.James O'Sullivan

Diversity of tech industry ideas and those working with them is widely seen as a strength at Slush.

The average Finn enjoys 14 litres of ice-cream per year, the fourth-highest amount in the world. This figure is all the more impressive considering the mean winter temperature in Finland hovers somewhere below 0°C – no danger of melted ice-cream running down your wrist for five to six months of the year.

At 10:15 am, the queue for free ice-cream was already five metres long at Slush. If there’s something that Finns like to do more than eat ice-cream, it’s supporting home-grown companies. Fittingly, staff are busily scooping balls of JYMY onto cones for eager attendees.

Nonetheless, for all of the support given to local talent, Finland is facing a global problem: insufficient supply of fresh tech expertise. An ageing society, coupled with one of the lowest birth rates in decades, is at odds with the needs of a rapidly digitalising world.

Slush this year focused on creating diversity in tech. Image: Slush/Petri Anttila

Coding is in particular need of a talent injection, as the industry finally shakes off tired stereotypes of the mum’s basement-dwelling variety.

“Coding is about creativity, problem solving and teamwork,” stated Supercell CEO Ilkka Paananen. “It’s not just nerds and geeks – we need people from all walks of life to get into coding.”

One solution is a coding school, Hive Helsinki, which is opening next year. Situated in the hip Helsinki neighbourhood of Kallio, the school has no classes, no teachers, no textbooks and no tuition fee. Students will instead work in teams, learning by doing to solve real-world problems.

With Supercell heavily involved in the initiative, Paananen insists that the school isn’t a direct route to beef up coder numbers for the Clash of Clans behemoth. “It belongs to everybody,” he emphasised.

“What is most important is to create an environment to learn, support and coach each other,” said Linda Liukas. Image: Susanna Lehto

This sentiment was echoed by Rails Girls founder, Hello Ruby author and school chairperson, Linda Liukas. “What is most important is to create an environment to learn, support and coach each other,” she said. “The school is for everyone, all outliers and misfits, […] people with the curiosity and creativity to change the world.”

Funding for change

The need for diversity in tech is not just being experienced in this relatively homogeneous corner of Europe. It extends across the whole continent and beyond. Investment in European tech reached 23 billion US dollars last year, European founders created 17 billion-dollar companies and Europe produced three of the 10 biggest venture-backed listings. Yet, this major driver of the economy is suffering a significant diversity and inclusion challenge.

Case in point: around 93 per cent of all VC funds last year went to all-male founding teams. This funding stage represents a significant opportunity for change. As tech companies often grow very fast, diversity problems compound when not addressed early on. When a company is tens of thousands of people strong, the problem is difficult to fix.

“VCs have two major roles to play,” outlined Diversity VC co-founder and CEO Francesca Warner. “One is making it a priority when talking to companies they are backing and seeing all the time that this is something that they should fix. The second thing is to use their resources and networks to source talent across the whole portfolio.”

Slush is the place to meet interesting and diverse ideas. Image: James O'Sullivan

The initiative has reached the top of the food chain. Niklas Zennström is taking an active role in increasing diversity as CEO and founding partner at international technology investment firm Atomico.

“We have conversations today with founders before we make an investment,” the co-founder of Skype and Kazam explained. “We talk about how they think about diversity, how they think about values. That gives a really good clue whether a company is going to be successful or not.”

Zennström looks for founders who are leaning forward and being inclusive, thinking about diversity and building a strong value set early on.

“Those are the companies that have a better chance of building a sustainable, profitable, long-term company. If founders don’t care about this, it is a really big red flag for us.”

Looking to Africa

Actively addressing the issue of diversity and staff shortage is Andela, a US company specialised in training software developers.

“In the US, there are five open jobs for every one software developer,” said co-founder and president Christina Sass. “We find that the continent of Africa is the largest pool of untapped talent in the world.”

The process is straightforward: Andela locates and screens tech talent, spending about seven months with them. The majority have a four-year degree in computer science or engineering before they come to Andela.

Finnish company Naava brought some fresh air to proceedings. Image: James O'Sullivan

The company works with them on critical tech stacks and soft skills that its partners tell that they want and then it matches them with suitable companies.

“Africa is the youngest continent on Earth, representing the greatest opportunity for young talent,” Sass said.

People-orientated approach

Lack of diversity and dearth of talent aren’t the only challenges that the tech industry is currently facing. If these words have been on many lips here for the past two days, then it is ‘misinformation’ that has captured the global imagination for the whole of 2018. Dictionary.com’s word of the year encapsulates the post-truth era, with increased resistance to traditional sales and marketing endeavours a direct result of this.

Then there is the matter of the sheer volume of competition.

“It has never been easier to start your own business,” stated HubSpot CEO Brian Halligan, “but it has never been harder to scale. There were 14 marketing software companies worldwide when I founded Hubspot. Now there are 8 000.”

The path to success, Halligan pointed out, is not about having the best product. It’s about having a people-orientated approach.

“Your customer experience needs to be 10 times better than the competition.”

Once again, it is all about finding the right people.

“The startup vibe is happening everywhere, whether in you are in Mumbai or in Memphis,” observed HubSpot CEO Brian Halligan. Image: Susanna Lehto
By: James O’Sullivan