Large

Britain's Definitely Got Talent

Opinion

Cloud Development, Data and Sensor Fusion, Geospatial Data, Mobile Development, Pervasive Location™, Project Management, Solution Design

Date: 28/09/2016

We can cut through complexity.

Finding the right software development staff for your business is not an easy task — do you need experience of a particular technology or someone who is going to learn fast and be independent? Maybe instead you use contractors based in Europe or Asia? Our own experience of using UK talent has demonstrated that Britain has definitely got what it takes to fill our skill gaps.

Time warping, but not as we know it

Over the last few months we have been busy helping to build an app and web service for the television production company Furnace Limited. The app is being used in a forthcoming BBC Four programme where Professor Al-Khalili from the University of Surrey will look at the how gravity affects our lives. We are subject to the effects of general and special relativity in our everyday lives — slowing down our own personal clocks through 'time dilation'. The Android and iOS app record this time dilation to find out how much time you have warped just by living on Earth. In the programme, the app will be used to explain why different parts of the UK experience more or less time dilation.

Apart from the unusual subject matter for the app, all-in-all this is a fairly typical software development which brings together mobile and web technologies, plus our own mobile SDK for location-based services. However, the unusual aspect was that students from the University of Surrey, Department of Computer Science were doing the development work.

The undiscovered country

The University was approached by the production team to see if they were interested in helping develop the software, since this seemed an interesting approach for an educational programme. Nearly everything seemed to fit in with what was required, namely a group of students who had been taught the required skills at different times in their undergraduate education, availability over the summer, and an enthusiasm to try something new, while getting something interesting on their CV.

Of course, there were risks, as with any software development. First, was a potential lack of experience, both in mature software development and in deploying an operational system. This is where we were brought in to oversee the development, review code, and deploy the system. Second, was the lack of equipment. Here then, Apple really do shoot themselves in the foot. I wonder how many students in the UK can afford to own a Mac? Come to that, how many universities equip their labs with Macs? The answer for us was not enough.

At Surrey, first year students get a comprehensive grounding in Java and then Android development. This puts them in an ideal position to develop an Android app. In the second year, they get web application development using Ruby on Rails. Again, prime territory for an agile web development. However, to develop an iOS app, you need a Mac plus an annual license. Even cross-platform development tools such as Xamarin need a Mac in order to compile for iOS. Unsurprisingly, universities do not routinely buy lots of expensive Macs for students to learn mobile development, when Android is far easier and cheaper. Surrey therefore had to rely on our expertise, plus a student who happened to own a Mac, to do iOS development.

Generations

With the app now released for beta testing (with more students from the University of Surrey), I am pleased to say that the experience has been one we would be happy to repeat. Where student developers may lack experience, they certainly make up for with enthusiasm and an interest to learn. Juggling both development work and other summer jobs, they also have an excellent work ethic which sometimes found them working through the night (not something we would recommend) on something interesting. The delivered code was comprehensive, professionally put together and, above all else, worked well. Yes, it needed a good review and some adjustment for performance and best practice, but what development doesn't?

The message is simple then. Britain has definitely got talented software developers learning their trade at university. May they live long and prosper.

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