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Northern Ireland is the future of British cyber security

How a perfect marriage of government and academia backing has led to a hotbed of tech talent and surge in foreign investment

This article originally appeared in issue 29 of IT Pro 20/20, available here. To sign up to receive each new issue in your inbox, click here

Going by the UK government’s own messaging, alongside a wealth of studies and surveys, there seems to be a shortage of talented cyber security professionals in the UK. This has been depicted as a “crisis” in various reports. The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) found in 2020 that half of businesses don’t have basic cyber security skills. Fortinet, meanwhile, found in April that 80% of data breaches were caused by a lack of cyber security skills, highlighting the potential consequences of not addressing the skills gap. But could it simply be the case that we’ve not been looking in the right places? 

Within the context of the wider UK tech ecosystem, Northern Ireland’s digital sector might not look so impressive on paper. In cyber security specifically, though, the country can boast a workforce of more than 2,000 people working across 100 different kinds of active cyber security businesses.

The region is also attracting a lot of global interest from some of the biggest names in technology, such as Microsoft, Deloitte and Nvidia. Part of the attraction, too, appears to be the number of talented people who either work in Northern Ireland’s cyber security sector or study such subjects at one of its several tech-savvy universities. In the context of the UK’s dicey cyber security skills shortage, Northern Ireland is emerging as a powerhouse.

A private and public success 

Regional technology hubs are usually made up of innovative new businesses and startups, and there isn’t really a ‘defined’ process for their creation. Having an education system that specialises in certain subjects, though, can often influence the makeup of local businesses, particularly when it’s matched with support and guidance from the government. 

“I think the real kind of building blocks and strength of what's happened with Northern Ireland in cyber specifically, is the way that they've got all different parts of the sector singing off the same hymn sheet,” Dan Patefield, the head of cyber and national security at techUK, tells IT Pro

“At techUK, you will have heard us talking about the kind of public-private partnerships between industry and government. I think what they've done in Northern Ireland has really done the academia piece of that as well. So, marrying what the government does, what industry does, and then what academia does, between them creates an ecosystem in which real innovation has been able to flourish.” 

Exterior photo of the Queen's University Belfast in daylight

Getty Images

Queen's University Belfast is among the institutions partnering up with the industry

What’s unusual here is how cyber security fits into the wider economic outlook of Northern Ireland, which has lower levels of employment compared to other parts of the UK. Historically, it’s also received less capital funding from the government with just £1,325 per person compared to £1,407 per person for the rest of the UK, according to the government’s own figures. This would suggest Northern Ireland is desperately in need of the Conservatives’ ‘levelling up’ agenda. Despite the needs of the broader economy, and relative shortfall in funding, cyber security is bucking the trend and defying expectations. This may suggest that government and academic initiatives are working. 

As Patefield explains, Queen’s University Belfast has helped by working with the private sector, supporting spin-off companies, attracting foreign investment, and also luring larger international players. The university was selected in 2008 as one of the homes for the government’s innovation and knowledge centres. Its Institute of Electronics, Communications and Information Technology (ECIT) was established as an important part of the UK’s approach to commercialising emerging technologies, with Northern Ireland’s cyber security sector set to reap the benefits. The institute is also on the cusp of expansion, with the £58 million Global Innovation Institute (GII) – expected to bring the total expert count to  more than 550 – scheduled to open in 2025.  

“I think it's self-fulfilling in that the more kinds of organisations it can grow organically over time, the more the talent pool will expand,” Patefield adds. “So I think the building blocks are there for that to go from strength to strength.”

Cultivating a hotbed of talent

This great surge of momentum behind cyber security in Northern Ireland is helping to attract significant investment, particularly from the US. Security giant Rapid7 has a number of global offices and one of its most recently opened hubs is in Belfast where the company hopes to employ some 400 people over the next few years, EMEA CTO Jason Hart tells IT Pro.

“I think like other regions in the United Kingdom, there is a hotbed of really, really great talent in Northern Ireland,” Hart explains. “And I think from a cyber security perspective, it's one of those topics where you can actually identify individuals much earlier on. 

People working in Rapid7's Northern Ireland offices

Rapid7

Rapid7 hopes to employ 400 people in Northern Ireland over the next few years

STEM subjects are in schools now, cyber security is actually a topic. So, ultimately, the beauty of cyber security is you can attract talent, and identify talent at a very young age. And it's one of those things where as long as the individuals have a computer, they can self-learn and self-teach at a very young age.”

There are roughly 120 different kinds of careers you could go into with cyber security, Hart points out, with multiple types of domains and industries keen to tighten their security amid a growing threat landscape.

“You find a lot of areas where traditionally you have more of an industrial background; there is a lot of talent there, a huge talent pool. So, if you can nurture that talent pool with a really, really great culture, that obviously has an advantage for us as a business,” Hart says. “But, more importantly, it helps our economy to attract talent – great talent – as well. That's amazing.”

Seemingly the only thing missing within Northern Ireland is a cyber security giant of its own. Two of its most prominent firms, however, recently came together to create a so-called “superpower”. IT security startup Outsource’s merger with Belfast-based consultancy Ansec aims to grow their combined workforce to more than 100 people by the end of the year. While that isn’t anywhere near the level of a Microsoft or a Rapid7, it certainly is a sign of things to come.

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