There can be little doubt that technology is the single greatest factor affecting how, both as individuals and a society, we will shape the future. But the past is important as well. That’s why we think McGregor Boyall’s three decades of experience of information technology recruitment is vitally important. IT recruitment has been, and still is, at the heart of what we do. And what we do is introduce the very best information technologists to organisations who are looking for the very best information technologists. Our proven experience over thirty years has allowed us to build a wide-ranging client base that spans all sectors, not just the financial services sector for which we are perhaps best known.
So if you are a talented and skilled information technologist whose experience has been gained as a permanent employee or as a contractor, please contact us so that we can discuss career options with you. Whether your experience has been gained in analysis, development, support, infrastructure, project management or general management, we look forward to talking with you.
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According to the BCS, neurodiversity remains an overlooked issue in the tech industry — employment rates for neurodiverse people remains low and stigma remains. However, a growing number of companies are recognising that it’s not only right to offer opportunities to all, but people who think differently provide a competitive advantage and help to create an inclusive environment for everyone. For example, both Microsoft and Dell have an established autism hiring programme. So, what are the barriers to a neurodiverse tech industry and how can organisations help?
Neurodiversity refers to the differences in thinking patterns, interests and motivations that naturally occur throughout the population. A neurotypical brain functions in the way that the majority expects. However, an estimated 15% of the UK population are neurodivergent. This is an umbrella term that refers to people who have Autism, ADHD, Dyspraxia, Dyslexia and other neurodevelopmental conditions.
Employment rates vary across conditions. For example, according to research conducted by the National Autistic Society, just 16% of autistic people are in full-time paid work and many are working in a job below their skill level. Worryingly, a recent study found that half of leaders and managers would be uncomfortable hiring a neurodivergent person. The highest level of bias was against people with Tourettes, ADHD or Autism. In addition, the majority of neurodivergent people surveyed felt their workplace was not inclusive to their needs. Up to 40% of employees in the tech industry have not disclosed their neurodivergent traits, meaning that their needs are unlikely to be supported.
It’s important to firstly point out that stereotypes around neurodivergent behaviour are unhelpful and often cause unrealistic expectations. For example, the idea that autistic people are maths or computer savants. However, there are many benefits that go beyond superficial abilities including:
Software and data quality engineering start-up, Ultranauts, is a fantastic demonstration of a company leveraging the power of a neurodiversity. 75% of the workforce are on the Autism spectrum. The small company is now winning contracts from Fortune 100 companies over established global IT consultancies. The company’s founder credits their success to their neurodiverse workforce, saying that, ‘with different learning styles and information processing models, to collaborate and focus on attacking the same problem, we’re just going to be better at it.’ Crucially, Ultranauts also worked hard to create an inclusive culture that supports neurodivergent people.
Importantly, hiring neurodivergent people has a positive effect on the entire workforce by fostering a culture of inclusion. Accommodating individual needs is a wonderful thing that everyone can benefit from by encouraging both innovation and empathy within the organisation.
Many neurodivergent people will require accommodations in their workspace. For example, Autistic people who suffer with sensory processing disorder may benefit from adjustments in lighting and noise (however, it’s important to highlight that variation exists — one autistic person could be over-sensitive and another under sensitive). ADHD people who experience periods of hyper-fixation accompanied by distractibility may benefit from a flexible schedule. In addition, making interviews neurodiverse friendly will support fair assessment practices and encourage hiring of neurodiverse candidates.
Finally, many neurotypical people overestimate their knowledge of conditions such as Autism and ADHD. Awareness training can help build understanding and avoid further workplace barriers being created for their neurodivergent peers.
There is an increasing pressure for QA testers to automate their processes. This is due to the assumption that automation is an easy way to cut costs and speed up testing — which can often be true. However, depending on the application being tested, automation isn’t always the right call. In some cases, it might not be worth the initial time and financial investment. So, what are the pros and cons of automation, and how can you find the right balance?
When a QA engineer tests software manually, they’ll interact with it as if they were a real end user. They will log any bugs and implement a fix. Increasingly, QA engineers are utilising automation tools, which involve running numerous pre-scripted test suites. These tools include AI bots, which explore an application as a person would (in theory), testing functions and generating data about the process.
Speed: automated testing is often faster than manual testing because thousands of tests can be run simultaneously, and the data can be generated quickly. In large scale projects, it’s essential to automate at least part of your QA testing process due to the sheer number of manual testers you would need to meet turnaround times.
Reduce Human error: people make mistakes — especially on repetitive and monotonous tasks — so automating tests that fall into this category is good for everyone. According to research, organisations that utilise automation in their processes are more likely to be both highly productive and ‘human-friendly’ workplaces.
Efficiency: repetitive tasks such as smoke tests and regression tests are ideal for automation. There’s no real advantage to having a person do these manually, and in the long run this will free up the tester’s time to focus on complex tasks, data interpretation and software fixes.
Set-up costs: Automation can be expensive at the beginning. Specialist QA testers with a knowledge of automation command a higher salary, and you’ll also have to consider the cost of purchasing and maintaining automation tools. However, in the long-term automation should be cost-saving, as fewer engineers are needed to complete everyday testing tasks.
Adaptability: If your product frequently changes, that means the scripts will also need to be updated. Therefore, it may not be worth the hassle of creating automated scripts because you’ll miss out on the time and cost-saving benefits.
Context: Automation is simply inappropriate for many QA tests. For example, automated programs like Selenium can’t recognise video controls, so they’re not useful for testing video streaming. In addition, more subjective tasks like UX testing require a creative human input that can’t be automated.
Considering how the pros and cons of automation apply to your application will help establish the right balance of automation in your testing process. For example, if your product is relatively stable then the automated test script is likely to have a long shelf life, meaning that’s its going to be worth the initial investment.
Experienced software tester, Shilpa Chatterjee Roy, suggests that selecting appropriate test cases and calculating return on investment (ROI) are key to adopting automation in your testing process. How you do this will depend on your application, but she suggests considering attributes such as the purchasing and licensing cost of the tool, time to develop the scripts, time to maintain the scripts, time to analyse the results manually and automatically, time and cost to train the resources, and management overheads.
To summarise, automation provides a host of time and cost-saving benefits, but it’s not a sure fire way to improve software. Automation is not an all or nothing proposition, but a tool to maximise efficiency and allow QA testers to focus on the more complex tasks. Ultimately, you should evaluate your tests on a case by case basis and make the decision to automate on a micro level.
Several major employers, such as Twitter and Facebook, have announced that remote work will continue indefinitely. For those who enjoy the flexibility and lack of commute that working from home offers, this will be welcome news. For others who thrive in an office environment or who lack a suitable home-working space, a remote future could be a nightmare. There are also growing concerns about what remote work will mean for training, teamwork and sustaining company culture.
The hybrid office is being touted as a solution, where employees split their week between their home and the physical office space. However, this comes with its own set of problems. For example, there is concern over a two-tier system arising between office and home workers, and a possible breakdown in communication as a result. Luckily, there are a number of innovative new technologies being designed — could they help build a hybrid office that people want to be part of?
One of these new technologies is Yonderdesk, a custom digital workspace. One of the main issues with a hybrid office is that it lacks the ‘sense of togetherness’ created by physically being in the same space. This means employees miss out on socialising and are less likely to ask their colleagues quick queries. Yonderdesk is a digital floor plan that can mimic the organisation’s actual office space. Employees are given an avatar and a desk, so that it’s easy to see where your colleagues are at (e.g., in meetings, available or working on a task). Digital floor plans have been a key element of online games, such as Habbo, for years because they are fun, engaging and make people feel like they are having a shared experience, so it will be fascinating to see whether ideas like Yonderdesk prove popular.
On a more tech-heavy futuristic note, there is plenty of development in virtual and augmented reality technology. Digital start-up, Spatial, are working on augmented reality filters that create the illusion that your co-worker is right in front of you (similar to Pokemon Go). The avatar has facial expressions and can even sit down on a chair. It also works on existing virtual reality headsets, but Spatial are particularly excited by the idea of lightweight glasses, which are likely to be far more practical for everyday use. In addition, Spatial allows your avatar to interact with virtual tools. In their words, ‘Your room is your monitor, your hands are the mouse.’ There are plenty of other virtual reality meeting applications, such as the ones on this list, but Spatial is one of the most immersive.
A more controversial development is the increase of monitoring software, sometimes known as ‘Tattleware’. Some of these products can be used without employee knowledge to spy on emails, software use and more, which can have serious data privacy implications and undermine trust. Given that, on average, people have been working longer hours during the pandemic, it seems unwise to use monitoring software in this way. However, when used ethically and transparently, such tools can provide a rich understanding of employee behaviour that can improve productivity, engagement and prevent fatigue and/or burnout. For example, software like Time Doctor has time-tracking features that can help employees and managers gain a better understanding of how long tasks actually take, which can be fed into future estimates and used to reshuffle schedules.
Last but not least, collaboration tools. If you haven’t done this already, finding and implementing effective collaboration tools is vital to successful remote and hybrid working. You are probably most familiar with services like Slack — instant messaging chat rooms are a great way for employees to show their availability and engage in more casual conversations. Take this further with tools like Donut, a slack channel that makes introductions with a random employee every couple of weeks and encourages virtual or in-person meet-ups. This helps build a cohesive company culture by structuring those random encounters from the pre-pandemic days.
Clearly, it will take time to build a hybrid office that suits your organisation. Exploring new tools is a great way to avoid complacency and ensure the hybrid office experience is something your employees want to be part of.
Data Science has become an umbrella category for a number of roles. It is being increasingly recognised that the ‘unicorn’ data scientist who is a master of all the in-demand skills is largely a myth, and that data science roles need to be further specified to serve business needs.
Unfortunately, job titles are still sometimes used inconsistently, which can be confusing if you are looking to pursue a new direction or find a new job. Here is a quick and handy guide to the top job roles, and a breakdown of what each one involves.
This is probably the most common overarching job title. A data scientist’s core responsibility will be to provide actionable business insight from a dataset. Stitch Fix’s Director of data science, Michael Hochster, suggests that the roles tend to fall into two camps: analytical or building. The first focuses on the statistical interpretation of data, whereas the latter builds models based on data. The extent you’ll be expected to diversify your talents will depend on the structure and size of the data science team (i.e. your role is likely to become more focused on true data science in a larger team). Regardless, a data scientist will need to be comfortable with a range of machine learning and data mining techniques. Key skills include expertise in programming languages such as R, MatLab, SQL and Python and a strong background in computer science or related field.
These titles refer to a number of related roles which all focus on communicating data insights and putting them in context of the wider business goals. People in these roles will need a talent for creating a data story and presenting it to people without data expertise or even without much IT knowledge. The focus will be on understanding how data trends can be leveraged to drive the business forward, whereas a data scientist may want to know the root cause of such trends. Though a statistical and coding knowledge are important, it is communication, a business background and an in-depth industry knowledge that are the key skills to these roles.
Now, an analyst and a statistician may rely on similar methods to analyse datasets, but they are very different roles. Harvard Business Review describe the difference as a narrow and deep approach (statisticians) vs wide and shallow (analysts). Statisticians can estimate how data insights might hold up in a variety of circumstances by incorporating error into a model — so they are useful for in-depth insights and minimising the risk of reaching an incorrect conclusion. On the other hand, a data analyst can code at lightning speed and discover potential insights extremely quickly — they can then point statisticians in the right direction. Utilising both a statistician and an analyst can make for a highly efficient system.
Engineering roles often fall under data science (and these roles can often be combined), but when there is a specific engineering role, these people are likely to work with data at an early stage. As a data engineer, you will build and optimise data and data pipeline architecture. Think of engineering as creating the infrastructure necessary for further analysis. As a result, a technical computer science background and exemplary coding skills are essential to this role. It will also be an advantage to gain experience with big data tools, SQL and NoSQL databases, data pipeline tools and cloud services. Machine learning engineering is an additional specialism, which focuses on identifying and applying appropriate models to big datasets.
Big data just keeps growing, and in response many companies are hiring specialists to manage these large datasets. If you are working in one of these roles, you will be expected to create systems that enable integration, centralisation and protection of datasets. You ensure the data engineers and data scientists have an efficient dataset to work with, that it is safely backed up and can be easily recovered. Therefore, you will need to be comfortable in data modelling techniques, data warehousing and security procedures.
We surveyed more than 1,500 employers to gather data on current hiring trends, changes to learning and development programmes, the impacts of Brexit and the upcoming IR35 regulations, the pandemics influence on salaries and rates, and current skills in demand. We are pleased to be able to present the results for January below:
QA testing is an evolving world. Digital transformation means there’s more demand than ever for high-quality software to be delivered at record speed. In addition, QA professionals are being asked to adapt to Agile and/or DevOps approaches, take an interest in AI and automation, all while working from home. It’s a lot to keep up with, so here are the web’s favourite resources to help on your QA journey.
A testing checklist is an essential tool for any QA tester. Maintaining a checklist of the most useful, reusable test cases means that the most common bugs can be quickly and easily identified. Software Testing Help have provided a master list of 180 (and counting!) test cases applicable to a variety of web and desktop applications. Test scenarios include those for GUI and usability, filter criteria, result grid, a window, database testing, image upload functionality, sending emails, export functionality, performance, security and other more general functions. They recommended you continue to build a checklist tailored to your own needs, but this will save you lots of time getting started.
The Google Testing Blog is a QA gold mine of expertise. Each article deals with a topical issue or new challenge encountered by the Google testing team and provides a breakdown of how the problem was dealt with, clearly communicated with screengrabs, diagrams and infographics. Recent articles have covered Test Flakiness - One of the main challenges of automated testing and Fixing a Test Hourglass. Keeping up with this blog is a sure-fire way to expand your QA knowledge.
A recent TechBeacon article highlighted the need for more API-level tests — but many testers lack experience in this area, being more familiar with GUI-based automation. Bas Dijkstra offers an API workshop focusing on REST (which most modern APIs are developed by). This free workshop, hosted on Github, covers RESTful APIs, REST Assured and provides hands-on exercises to get you up to speed. It’s a great resource that has been well received by the testing community.
StickyMinds is an active community of software testers. Signing up gets you access to a large archive of the Better Software magazine, more than a decade of TechWell conference presentations and regular articles on what’s new in software testing. Best of all, there’s a lively Q&A forum where you can ask questions about best practices, industry hot topics and more. It’s free to join but, as with most online communities, you’ll get out what you put in.
If you’re looking to boost your testing skills, then Nikolay Advolodkin’s site, Ultimate QA, might be just what you’re looking for. It offers a combination of paid (but not expensive) and free courses covering all aspects of QA testing. Popular courses include Complete Selenium WebDriver with Java Bootcamp and Selenium WebDriver Masterclass with C#. Ultimate QA also provides a number of articles and resources — their collection of websites to practice automation is a particularly useful one you’ll want to bookmark straight away.
QA testing revolves around a cycle of finding, reporting and tracking bugs (anything that stops software operating correctly). Spreadsheets and emails quickly become inefficient to manage larger projects, so you will need to turn to a bug tracking software — a good one will save you countless hours and make communication across teams much easier. Software Testing Help provides a fantastic breakdown of the best bug tracking options. Their recommendations include Airbrake, which is the most popular bug tracking software with over 50,000 users, and Mantis, which is free and one of the most easy-to-use systems.
Diversity remains a key issue for the technology industry. According to a recent BCS report, 18% of IT professionals have BAME backgrounds. BAME people are also less likely to hold senior positions — only 9% are directors and 32% are supervisors (for comparison 43% of white employees have a supervisory role). The lack of diversity becomes even clearer when considering specific ethnic groups. For example, black women make up just 0.7% of the technology industry — a representation rate that is 2.5 times lower than in other industries. Clearly, the technology industry is still struggling to achieve true diversity, so what can companies do about it?
It’s easy to say the right thing, harder to put this into action. Setting targets, continually measuring diversity and reviewing progress helps organisations to commit to change. For example, some big companies like Facebook and Pinterest have tried to use the ‘Rooney rule’ where at least one woman and one person of colour are interviewed for director positions within the company. However, progress has been limited and concerns about it being a ‘diversity tickbox’ exercise have been raised. More recently, it’s been emphasised that targets need to be set at all levels of seniority, and that there needs to be external accountability for failure to meet targets.
On the other hand, sometimes companies fail to say enough. Statements of diversity support are important to attract new staff and ensure existing employees are reassured by an inclusive company culture — both those with BAME backgrounds and beyond. For example, Unilever recently pledged their support for a campaign working to end discrimination against hairstyles associated with racial, ethnic and cultural identities. Given that this kind of discrimination often happens in the workplace, a major employer taking a stance sends out a powerful message.
Many people from under-represented groups have concerns that a career in tech is ‘not for them’. This can be reinforced by a lack of people who look like them in senior positions. In addition, some BAME communities prioritise traditional jobs such as medicine, law and finance over technology careers. Companies can participate in outreach in schools and other settings to expand on what a technology career looks like and address concerns someone might have about entering the world of technology. Outreach can help to shed a light on available opportunities while also sending a clear message about the company’s commitment to a diverse workforce.
There’s been a recent discussion about diversity training — particularly the low reliability of the implicit association test and its lack of impact on reducing real-world biases — to the extent that the civil service has stopped all unconscious bias training. However, while certain tools have been criticised, research shows that ongoing diversity training is successful when it combines a range of techniques and is complemented by other diversity initiatives. It’s clear that diversity training needs to be ongoing and not seen as a substitute for wider policy change.
After the Black Lives Matter movement put the spotlight on diversity in 2020, many companies turned to their staff for advice. There have been several instances of people from BAME backgrounds being asked to speak about and advise on diversity practices amidst a climate of emotional trauma and, in some cases, fear of later reprisals from the organisation they were asked to defend. It’s important not to place the burden of improving diversity on individuals — especially if they are unsure how to refuse and are not being compensated for their extra work. Diversity — like any other organisational strategy — should be managed by qualified professionals and engaged with by interested employees.
The technology industry’s track record when it comes to diversity is far from perfect. However, changes are being made. It’s clear that actionable, long-term strategies are needed to truly support organisational diversity in tech.
We surveyed more than 1,500 employers to gather data on current hiring trends, changes to the size of the workforce in 2020, skills in demand, the impact on salaries and rates, the rollout of the vaccine and looking to the future and whether the scotch egg is a substantial meal, or simple snack. We are pleased to be able to present the results for December below:
We surveyed more than 1,500 employers to gather data on current hiring trends, the use of the job retention scheme (furlough), the return to home working, skills in demand and the impact the global pandemic is having on salaries and rates. We are pleased to be able to present the results for November below:
We surveyed 1,500 employers to gather data on current hiring trends, returning to the office, skills in demand and the impact the global pandemic is having on salaries and rates. We are pleased to be able to present the results below:
The Pandemic has accelerated digital transformation. A recent report suggested that the overwhelming majority of UK enterprise decision makers believe COVID-19 has increased their budget for and speed of digital transformation plans. From utilising artificial intelligence to increased reliance on blockchain, organisations are undergoing radical change to stay competitive in the post COVID-19 landscape.
Rapid change from external pressures can lead to incredible innovation, but it can also result in costly errors. In 2018, research by CISQ identified that software errors cost organisations in the US $2.8 trillion. Software issues can lead to security breaches, poor customer experience and wasted time trying to fix problems after deployment.
So, how can organisations avoid the riskier aspects of digital transformation? DevOps — an approach that integrates all stages of design, development and IT processes — is the ideal solution. DevOps and digital transformation go hand in hand. Many large-scale companies are now relying heavily on a DevOps approach, including Starbucks, BMW, Disney, Verizon and Adidas.
But why does DevOps provide such value to organisations? Let’s find out…
One of the most important things a DevOps approach achieves is breaking down the barriers between teams. Frequent feedback in developmental stages means that issues can be identified quickly and early. This means that small problems are usually resolved before they become big problems. It also results in far less time being wasted in developing technologies that are not fit for the purpose.
This increased efficiency is reflected by how much faster DevOps teams operate. A recent analysis by BCG shows that deployment time is reduced by up to 90%. In addition, the quality of the work increases (change failure rate is reduced by 50-70%) while overall IT costs are reduced (15-25%).
‘Don’t worry, operations will fix it.’ Not with DevOps. Developments tend to utilise a shared code base, frequent testing and automated deploys which enable the team to work together throughout the process. At no stage is the code ‘passed over’ to a separate team, meaning that everyone is responsible for the end product.
This shared responsibility results in both the obvious efficiency and quality benefits, but also a number of cultural benefits. DevOps supports a culture of collaboration, skill sharing and modernity. The shared responsibility also reduces fear of failure, which fosters creativity and innovation. Finally, DevOps teams are happier, more engaged and productive.
Automation and standardisation are integral to successful DevOps. It reduces human error, eliminates many monotonous tasks and increases the consistency of the output. Best practices and solutions can also be more easily shared across teams.
This translates to employees spending 50% less time remediating security issues and 22% less time on unplanned work and rework. Through automation, DevOps achieves stability in an organisation, allowing employees to spend more time creating new features or code.
To summarise, the benefits of DevOps in organisations are clear. Adopting this approach allows organisations to deploy new software more quickly while reducing the risk of costly errors. It’s also key to breaking down barriers between teams, establishing shared responsibility and allowing more time to be spent on creative work (e.g. new features) — all of which are essential to supporting digital transformation within an organisation.
COVID-19 is changing the way we work and live. With the increase of remote working and reliance on screen-time for entertainment and social interaction, the digital industry is said to be booming. The Financial Times reports, “Tech companies are still hiring feverishly as they move to take advantage of a world shifting increasingly to digital as a result of the coronavirus, despite mass lay-offs elsewhere and growing concerns over plummeting global markets.”
Companies with existing online infrastructure are seeing new subscribers, more time spent on digital platforms and increased reliance on e-commerce. According to The Economist, “Alphabet, Google’s parent, saw sales rise by 13% in the first quarter compared with the year before, and profits reached $7bn.”
But will this digital trend last?
Although we expect an eventual return to in-person activities, COVID-19 is expected to have a long term impact on digital engagement. For example, “tech phobia” is commonly cited as a reason why some, particularly those over 65, may avoid new technology. However, with no alternatives, this age group are embracing new technology. In addition, younger family members are taking the time to help them get set-up and familiar with these new apps and services. What this means, going forward, is that mobile and digital offerings will have a much wider audience, beyond tech-savvy customers and digital native millennials.
MckInsey recently highlighted the post-pandemic trends beginning to emerge in China. For example, there has been a 55% increase in customers planning a permanent shift to online grocery shopping and an increase of 3-6% percentage points in overall e-commerce. Once people overcome the initial barriers, this data indicates that customers may permanently switch or significantly increase their use of digital services.
These behavioural changes are being supported by rapid transformation of digital infrastructure. On an individual company level, businesses are investing in digital strategy – for example, Hotel Chocolat recently announced a multi-million pound investment plan. There is larger scale investment from business – Alibaba Cloud will be putting $28 billion into developing their infrastructure over the next three years. Further government support will be available for UK businesses driving innovation and development.
Finally, an internet connection is now essential for information regarding the pandemic and accessing vital goods and services for those self-isolating. The Human Rights Watch have emphasised the importance of achieving equal access to digital services (and particularly a good quality internet connection, which thousands are currently struggling with). It is clear that we can expect further investment in digital infrastructure in our future.
Who will thrive in the post COVID-19 world?
Evidently, those with a strong existing digital service will be well placed to retain their position once the pandemic has subsided. COVID-19 has created a form of ‘digital Darwinism’ according to Mary Meeker, author of the annual Internet Trends Report, whereby businesses with a clear digital strategy will leave behind those without. In a recent report, McKinsey outlined several actions that should be taken to meet customer needs and prepare for the future. These actions include:
Focus on care and concern: prioritise employee needs and the wider community by reaching out and staying true to company values.
Meet your customer needs: adapt or create digital services and models that meet remote and social distancing requirements.
Reimagine the post-COVID-19 world: plan for economic cuts, changes to brick and mortar stores and increased uptake of digital channels.
Build agile capabilities for fluid times: utilise resources such as social media and ‘ear to the ground’ insights to respond to fast-moving customer signals.
It is these companies, who support customers through the crisis by providing efficient digital services, that will retain customer loyalty in the post COVID-19 world. Those who look further ahead, to develop exceptional experiences and utilise developments in infrastructure, will thrive in our digital future.
Working from home has been vital to slow transmission of the coronavirus. However, a new threat has emerged: increased online activity, use of new applications and less secure home networks are opening up individuals and organisations to a host of cyberattacks.
According to a recent Forbes article, in an analysis of the first 100 days of the COVID-19 crisis security firm Mimecast reported a 33% increase in detected cyberattacks – including spam (+26%), malware (+35%), impersonation (+30%) and blocked URL links (+56%). Certain industries are being particularly targeted, such as healthcare (e.g. The World Health Organisation have reported a fivefold increase in cyberattacks and PPE themed scams have increased) and banking (increased use of online banking presents many opportunities for hackers – such as exploiting new users who may not be familiar with the service).
A recent report from McKinsey highlighted the multitude of potential cybersecurity risks exacerbated by remote working. For example, changes in app-access rights (such as enabling off-site access and lack of multifactor authentication) and use of personal devices or tools (such as a laptop without central control or an unsecured network) increase the opportunities for cyberattacks. While technology was vital to navigate our way through the COVID-19 crisis, rapid adoption of new digital offerings has increased risk. New tools such as video-conferencing have been particularly affected, where an unauthorised person joins a call to steal information or cause disruption. There are also fake tech support scams – increasingly sophisticated attempts to manipulate remote workers (especially those who may be working from home for the first time) with fabricated access and other tech support issues.
The weakest point in any technical system is the person sitting behind the screen. The majority (at least half, according to Trustwave’s 2020 Global Security Report) of cyberattacks occur via social engineering, a psychological manipulation process using tactics such as sending a scam from a trusted source. As always, cyber-criminals know how to target human vulnerabilities, and the number of phishing scams capitalising on our fear of COVID-19 has significantly increased. In addition, we are more likely to fall for a scam when tired or stressed – given the change to working from home, where many are juggling a variety of stressors – we might be even more vulnerable to these kinds of attacks right now.
What can you do?
Given that the person behind the screen represents a security weak-point, they also represent an area of improvement. We will need to learn how to practise good cyber-hygiene, similar to how we adopted thorough hand-washing and social distancing to reduce the risk of the coronavirus.
There are several excellent resources on improving cybersecurity. For example, Siemens have provided their eight top tips for cybersecurity in the home office, including only bringing home essential devices, not mixing personal and business use of devices and ensuring all software is always up to date. The Electronic Frontier Foundation provide more in depth advice on how to spot a phishing scam.
However, while this information is useful, it can be more difficult to establish reliable cyber-security habits. A reported three in four remote workers have yet to receive cybersecurity training, despite the clear increase in risk. More importantly, remote workers are falling for these cyber-attacks. This was recently highlighted by software development company, Gitlab, who found that 1 out of 5 of their own remote-working staff exposed user credentials by replying to a fake phishing message. Regular testing of existing cybersecurity plans in this manner can help to identify areas for improvement.
While cyber-attacks are growing ever more sophisticated, so is cybersecurity. Gamification is one fresh approach to cybersecurity training. Reading through countless tips and the odd video on cybersecurity is unlikely to translate to robust cyber-hygiene habits. However, gamified training results in increased engagement, knowledge and information retention.
Increased investment in cybersecurity may provide us with a host of interesting ideas. Cheltenham Borough Council recently announced plans for a £400 million campus development, situated next door to GCHQ, said to be the ‘Silicon Valley of the UK’. The complex will help to bridge the current skills gap and enhance the UK’s cybersecurity capacity.
Clearly, the coronavirus has highlighted a variety of cybersecurity threats. With remote working expected to continue for the foreseeable future and beyond, it is vital to address current shortcomings in security. Looking forward, the industry is an exciting one, poised for innovation and development.
Times of crisis have often sparked innovation. The Second World War, for example, brought us the forerunner of modern-day computer, advances in radar, the basis of microwaves and mass production of penicillin. COVID-19 is having a similar effect on digital development. Ideas that might have seemed far-fetched (such as the rapid scale-up of online grocery shopping and other e-commerce) are promoted by a crisis-inspired culture of experimentation. Here are five examples of how technology is developing in response to extraordinary demands.
1. Data Analysis Tools
Finding data is easy, understanding it is hard. To this end, the pandemic has inspired several AI tools to help us make sense of the large amount of available information. Data analytics company, Arria NLG, are involved in two projects helping to transform data into an easy-to-understand narrative – the COVID-19 Live Report and the COVID-19 U.S. Tracking Report. AI analysis is also being used by a group of Northwestern University researchers to identify which research will return reliable, usable results that will help aid the search for COVID-19 treatments and vaccines.
The power of blockchain was recently demonstrated in a $12 million cross-continent commodity trade transaction of wheat. Usually, a transaction of this kind can take up to a month. However, using dltledgers’s blockchain platform, this was reduced to just five days. More and more businesses are expanding their reliance on blockchain – such as Nestle, who recently extended their use of the IMB Food Trust blockchain platform to their Swedish coffee range. The implications for keeping supply chains running seamlessly – something the coronavirus has highlighted as a serious challenge – are remarkable.
3. Natural Language Processing
With varied applications, such as helping customers navigate online platforms or as efficient medical tools (such as those used by Providence St. Joseph to offer coronavirus-related information), chatbots are proving useful during the pandemic. Chatbots are most commonly used to increase efficiency by answering simple queries, while forwarding more complex requests to a human operator. However, natural language processing, which refers to the deep learning that allows the chatbot to extract meaning from human conversation, improves with increased data. With some custom-made chatbots already proving useful in advanced interactions (such as Replika’s virtual friends, helping some people cope with the effects of social isolation), the uptake in chatbot use may enable the AI underpinning them to become vastly more sophisticated in the years to come.
At their recent virtual event, IBM announced a new range of AI-powered services, designed to support businesses in automating their digital infrastructure. According to Verdict, the new offering will “use automation to detect, diagnose and respond to IT anomalies and will integrate with other products such as those from Slack and Box.” Developments such as these will allow businesses to successfully adapt to a more digital future.
Many companies have reported that they are looking to increase use of robotics for food service, warehouses and cleaning operations. Blue Ocean Robotics have responded to this increased demand by creating a cleaning robot, able to destroy viruses, bacteria and other harmful microorganisms with concentrated UV-C ultraviolet light. It can sanitise environments such as hospitals, offices, shops and schools without the need for chemicals, meaning that people can be present during the cleaning. Production was quickly accelerated due to coronavirus-related demand, and it now takes less than one day to create a robot. The general public have often been uncomfortable with the idea of robots (and the issue of replacing human jobs with robot labour remains). However, with social distancing likely to be in place throughout 2021, robot labour may become more acceptable, stimulating demand for and development of robotic technology.
This article has showcased a small handful of the exciting innovation occurring during the pandemic. Given that there is expected to be a permanent shift towards use of digital services and practices such as remote working, these developments could have far-reaching implications for the technology industry for years to come.
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