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Cynamon’s challenge

TECHCITYINSIDER100: The tech skills shortage isn’t just hitting companies in the UK hard, but it’s a problem businesses the world over are having to face, according to Matt Cynamon, regional director of General Assembly. Nico Franks spoke to him.

“If you went around the community and asked ‘what’s the single biggest thing holding you back?’, in most cases they’ll say it’s access to talent,” says Matt Cynamon, who takes care of digital education specialist General Assembly’s European activities.

Matt CynamonDiscussing the UK, Cynamon adds: “The infrastructure for success is here, there’s good access to capital, plenty of office spaces, a strong community of mentors, a supportive government and plenty of examples of success stories to be found.”

An influx of talent, therefore, is just what’s needed to take UK businesses to the next level. “The good thing is, every city around the world that’s trying to be a tech hub has the exact same problem. So there’s an opportunity there to be a world leader,” says Cynamon.

GA’s cofounders Adam Pritzker, Matthew O’Brimer, Brad Hargreaves and current CEO Jake Schwartz set up shop in New York in 2011 to encourage entrepreneurialism. Campuses are now spread all over the US, in LA, Boston, Washington DC, while there are also outposts in Sydney and Hong Kong, as well as London.

“There’s been an enormous cultural shift both in the UK and around the world, with people getting very excited about learning how to code,” Cynamon reflects. “As a result, we’re seeing a much larger cohort of people coming to us. As a society, we’re still a long way away from meeting the 21st century skills gap. But the good part is that there’s now so much opportunity out there for individuals to take their future training and education into their own hands.”

Demographics vary from course to course, Cynamon adds, which range from 90-minute introductory level course into topics such as typography or business development, to 10-week courses covering front and back end web development or data science. “Within each of those you get a common student that comes through, but there are always crazy surprises. We’ve been seeing architects, people with psychology degrees, coming into our user experience design immersive, for example,” Cynamon says.

Meanwhile, the industries people are coming from are the ones that are being most transformed by digital, such as publishing and design, Cynamon adds. “These are all sectors of the economy that are rapidly changing. There are many people worrying, not necessarily about their job security today, but definitely their job security tomorrow.

“We provide a pathway for them to not only stay relevant but also to stay important for a long period time. A third of people in our evening courses aren’t looking to change careers but looking to level up in their current role, learn a new skill set and bring it back to their company.”

All this prompts the question: can anyone be an entrepreneur? Cynamon thinks so, but it won’t necessarily happen to everyone within the same time frame. Take Benji Lanyado, for example. After working as a travel writer for The Guardian and The New York Times for seven years, Lanyado decided to take GA’s front-end web development course. Ten weeks later, he designs and creates The Reddit Edit as a final course project, which attracts substantial interest on the web. Another course and a year and a half later, Lanyado began work on his first startup, writing the code independently from scratch, and since then, has launched Picfair, designed to make the way images are bought and sold online more fairly.

“You can learn to be an entrepreneur but the learning curve is different for everyone,” Cynamon says, pointing to Lanyado as an example of someone who has an “innate ability to get recognition and create excitement.” So what kind of businesses does Cynamon, who admits he’s not a “self-driving car kind of guy,” see excelling over the next few years? “I’m most interested in businesses that are using basic technologies to solve real problems. But I’ve adopted the mindset over the years that, at an early stage, ideas don’t really matter. All that really matters is one’s ability to execute and execute well.

“I don’t think necessarily there’s a sector or a specific type of tech that’s going to lose out, but it’s going to be the companies that execute incredibly well that have great design and experiences that can iterate quickly that are solving real problems that will succeed.”

Meanwhile, the main priority at GA is to ensure that its alumni base – which by 2015 Cynamon says will have reached 50,000 people (more than Harvard Business School) – stays connected. “We understand that the long-term value of education at GA is determined by the success of our alumni. We’re focusing a lot of our energy on connecting our global alumni base in a meaningful way, so that they continue to support each other long into their careers,” he says.

Matt Cynamon – CV

Since 2012 London programming producer, then regional director, UK & Germany, General Assembly.

Education

2005-09 Bachelor of science, social policy, Northwestern University.