Scotland's "IT sector" -- by which I do mean "the people who use their brains to design or implement hardware or software" and don't mean "the people who just do what they are told" -- is weak. It is small. The organisations involved are often just branch offices of large overseas outfits. The brain work (design, etc.) is often done elsewhere.
Is there anything Scotland's IT-related academics can do to help? Now, they work independently and produce a mix of students with good degrees -- if not particularly distinguished compared to anywhere else -- who then mostly move away to get a job.
Would it be possible for there to be a special "something" about Scottish graduates such that companies would come to them? Or, even better, such that graduates would see a good future in starting companies of their own?
There is certainly no easy answer. (If there were and I had it, I would be fabulously rich.) But there is one thing that might help, has no downside, and is comparatively cheap (if not quick) to do.
"Everyone doing their own thing" cannot possibly be the answer. Telling all the academics to work on a single Next Big Thing is equally preposterous. But what if all the academics could nudge forward a common theme whilst pursuing their research and teaching interests?
I propose the common theme: Things that help in producing high-quality hardware or software artifacts.
I don't mean "make Scotland a country obsessed with the tedious business of 'testing' which is reluctantly performed by junior engineers in the dying days of failing projects" :-)
The Test-Driven Development people (and others) have shown that quality-obsessed approaches can be pervasive in design and implementation, economically wise, and pretty good fun, too.
I would suggest the insights of the "agile methodologies" as the basis for introducing "quality thinking across the curriculum" (just as some universities have "writing across the curriculum", for example).
I am thinking of a timescale of a decade or two. Even if this theme were rapturously received, there would still be the normal process of waiting 'til the proponents of older ideas had retired.
Consider the headline aspirations of the Agile Manifesto:
Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
Working software over comprehensive documentation
Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
Responding to change over following a plan
It is not coincidental that the items on the right are the ones at which outsourcing suppliers will excel. Scotland cannot win on those axes.
Modest-sized teams who are really good at the items on the left can be competitive in the IT world of the future. At the heart of all forms of "agile thinking" is an obsession with quality.
A quality-assurance "theme" would be a broad church -- the crazed formal methodists with loopy type systems can claim that they're good for "better checking" (and surely leading to "higher quality"); ditto language people; ditto user interfaces; in fact, most sub-disciplines of computing could play.
Similarly, any solutions/frameworks/programs may apply widely: code, whether for a microwave oven or a weaving loom, needs similar treatment. Graduates could apply what they've learned in virtually any Scottish industry.
Testing/verification/quality things aren't going to go out of fashion, and the problem(s) in it aren't going to be "solved". Scotland wouldn't be "scooped".
As Scotland is going to have to compete on the "high value-add", "high-quality" end of things, having multiple generations of students who have been steeped in bleeding-edge "quality assurance" stuff cannot be a bad thing.
Having a computing education imbued with questions of "How can we bust this thing?", "How do we know that it works?", etc., will not do anyone any harm -- even if they never test anything for the rest of their careers.
There is still research gold in the quality-assurance hills; i.e. the subject itself needs to be taken forward (not just applied). In particular, if you consider the appalling record of large IT projects over the last thirty years, it is easy to argue that "software engineering" needs a complete clear-out-and-start-again.
I lean to the view that getting major Scottish universities to sing from the quality-assurance hymn sheet (no mean feat) may be necessary, but it won't be sufficient. There needs to be something to balance the centrifugal forces that will tend to dissipate even the best-intentioned common efforts.
Quality-steeped students (and their teachers) from different institutions need to get together and work together. (A few years later, after they've graduated and are working in London, is too late.)
Somewhere in the mix, there is a place for workshops, conferences, etc. Just as big companies (e.g. Sun) bring all their field engineers (or developers, or..) together once a year for information exchange, skills upgrading, a pep talk, and a bit of a party, the same could be done for all of the (promising) IT students in Scotland.
Myself, I think you need even more: the students (and their teachers) need to work together on something. This is doubly true because of the not-from-a-book experiential nature of agile approaches to quality (if adopted).
The "something" they work on should be concrete (well, insofar as code is concrete...), that can be demonstrated, that you can kick the tyres of.
In the original version of these notes, I suggested that student projects (clustered around the "quality assurance" theme) be the "something" that brought together (clever) IT students from around Scotland.
I further suggested that a common open-source-style repository (as in SourceForge) be set up to support all of these projects and that someone (an "architect" or "librarian") work to nudge the chaotic (and mostly rubbish) tide of student work towards a valuable end. Such a person could also pump-prime future work by producing good project proposals (which seem to always be in short supply).
Besides furthering the "secret sauce for Scotland" agenda, this kind of project working reflects modern practice, and would have pedagogical benefits of its own.
[It should be noted that my initial "common student projects" idea got less than no traction among the academics who saw it.]
Still, if Scotland's IT students and their teachers were working together, were slowly building code things that others could see and admire, and were just plain better at asking and answering the questions, "How could this be better?" "How can we know that it is better?", then Scotland might indeed have a Secret Sauce.