‘Automation will change the face of the employment landscape,’ says CEO of WANdisco

Sheffield-born tech entrepreneur David Richards is a man on a mission. He wants to see real change in the education system to make it fit for purpose in the increasingly digital and tech world we live in.

And he’s prepared to invest in the future with his own cash. The chief executive of WANdisco has already donated more than £1m towards improving the way computer skills are taught in schools.

The David and Jane Richards Family Foundation has been created out of frustration at what he sees as misguided action by the government and education chiefs in the UK.

Why, he asks, is so much focus placed on computer coding, when in future machines using AI will create their own programmes.

Richards said: “Look at the internet of things, devices and sensors, machine-to-machine learning. All these technologies are going to change forever many of the jobs in the economy.

“It’s both an opportunity and a threat and we need to look at the way education works. Unfortunately that is not happening and that’s what the foundation is going to do. We are going to need different skills.

“And that’s where the flaw in the system lies. Automation will change the face of the employment landscape. So I’ve decided to do something about it.

“Children coming out of the system have skills which are not as relevant as they might be. My aim is to make them employable.”

Richards, 47, now lives in Silicon Valley with his family, though he is a regular visitor to South Yorkshire and WANdisco’s thriving UK headquarters in Sheffield.

He has two teenage children going through the US college system and points out how it differs from this side of the pond with its focus on general education.

The foundation is initially focused on schools in Sheffield, but he has plans to expand it nationally.

Richards is also passionate about bees, with another ambition to make sure every school in the country has its own hive. The aim is to teach children about the importance of bees to the future of the planet, and also to use their activities as a learning tool.

Richards and his business are certainly as busy as bees. The Sheffield base of WANdisco (the name stands for Wide Area Network distributed computing), in the Electric Works at Sheffield digital campus, is a hive of activity with around 50 people working there.

WANdisco is a ‘big data’ specialist working with some of the world’s biggest businesses to transfer live data from servers into the cloud.

It is growing fast. At the beginning of this year it announced a record contract worth £3.18m in royalties with an unnamed client.

The deal was to deploy the company’s patented live data platform, WANdisco Fusion, which has been rebranded as IBM Big Replicate.

The agreement – the second multi-million-dollar contract in the financial services sector secured by WANdisco during 2017 – will be delivered through the company’s IBM OEM partnership, a key part of the business development.

Fusion technology is being used to “move critical live data between primary and disaster recovery sites and the Cloud whilst ensuring the data is always available.”

The growth has continued this year. In March the AIM-listed business announced a tie-up with e-commerce, retail, internet, AI and technology giant Alibaba, giving it access to China’s booming online market.

The same month it unveiled a deal with another giant of the tech world, Microsoft, with the potential to open up big opportunities. As a result, WANdisco can take Fusion to market as a packaged offering with Microsoft’s cloud computing service.

Big data will continue to be a massive growth area, says Richards. Experts believe the amount of data in the world is set to quadruple between now and 2020.

And Richards believes his business is well-paced to take advantage of this growing tech revolution.

Though a US citizen, Richards, who is a graduate of Huddersfield University, remains a champion for Yorkshire and its digital and tech sector.

He said: “There’s a strong network of universities, which plays a key role in this region’s strength. Virtually all our employees have been to either Hallam or the University of Sheffield, both are very strong.

“And we also have strong businesses in the area and a history of tech businesses in Yorkshire. That combination of good graduates combined with a heritage of companies is a strong mix.”

Yorkshire has another advantage in the fact that it isn’t Silicon Valley, he adds. There the likes of Facebook and Google are “hiring like mad” and the competition for talent is fierce.

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