Thinking ‘big’ about digital

April 5, 2016

Herb Kim is arguably the most recognisable face in the North East technology sector, primarily for his work in creating an internationally renowned tech event in the region. Ahead of the ninth Thinking Digital Conference at Sage Gateshead, May 10-11, Herb talks to Alison Cowie about expanding the Thinking Digital brand, his role with Government initiative Tech North, and why the Northern tech sector is in danger of overheating

It was a chance conversation and a convenient location of an interview that prompted the Brooklyn-born tech specialist, Herb Kim, to move to Tyneside, almost 14 years ago.

He explains: “I was working in London for O2 and had just been offered a job at Orange when my best friend asked me if I knew anyone who might be interested in an opportunity to help set up a company to promote digital industries in the North East.

“I thought it sounded interesting for myself and when I heard that interviews were talking place about 100 yards from where I lived at the time, I decided to arrange a meeting on my way home from work.”

Both parties hit it off immediately and within months, Herb was driving past the Angel of the North in a rental van filled with his possessions, to begin his new life in the North East.

Herb helped form Sunderland-based digital business group Codeworks in 2002, which enabled him to immerse himself in the North East’s burgeoning tech sector.

In 2006, he visited Monterey in California to attend the digital-focused TED Conference. It was an experience that was to have a profound impact on him.

“The brilliant thing about TED was that is was all about thinking big,” explains Herb. “A lot of talk in technology at the time, especially in the UK, was focused on working smarter and winning contacts. TED wasn’t like that. It was inspiring people to chase the big ideas.”

Herb returned to the UK galvanised to recreate the TED concept in the North East of England.

Herb and Codeworks put on the first Thinking Digital Conference in May 2008 at Sage Gateshead. The event, which offered a programme of workshops and expert speakers, attracted 250 delegates.

By his own admission, the first Thinking Digital Conference nearly killed him, but Herb remained committed to hosting an annual international digital conference in the North East, even when Thinking Digital’s public funding ended in 2011.

The loss of the funding prompted Herb to sell his house and commit to Thinking Digital full time.

“It didn’t feel like a major decision because I almost didn’t have a choice. The conference was making money but it wasn’t as though we could go to investors and promise that we could make them millions of pounds in a couple of years. But I knew we had created something too big in the North East digital sphere to just let it die.”

This May will see the ninth Thinking Digital Conference take place at Sage Gateshead, with 700 delegates expected to attend from around the globe and a further 500-plus to log into the live web stream.

Speakers already confirmed include Sugata Mitra, the Newcastle University Professor best known for his Hole in the Wall experiment that brought a virtual classroom to the slums of New Deli, and Tomorrow World’s Maggie Philbin, who co-founded industry-led initiative TeenTech, which encourages students in the STEM subjects through a series of events and an awards scheme.

This year, the Thinking Digital Conference at Sage Gateshead will offer a schedule of workshops and speeches over two days instead of the usual three.

“Ironically, as the sector becomes more successful, people are now busier, so we’re offering our programme over two days, with one-day tickets also available this year, to allow for more flexibility for people who are time-strapped,” explains Herb.

Herb and the team have also recently expanded the Thinking Digital brand by hosting similar conferences in Manchester and London, as well as curating smaller TEDx events across the North of England.

Over the years, Herb has seen the growing strength of the tech industry in the North East, and wider Northern region, and last year he was appointed chairman to the advisory board of Tech North, the Government funding initiative to encourage and support technology entrepreneurship in the Northern region.

Despite the loss of its chief executive, Claire Braithwaite, in January, Herb maintains that Tech North’s first six months have still been a success.

“The tech industry, traditionally, can be sceptical about Government initiatives, but companies have really engaged with Tech North and the organisation has done some great things, starting with the Northern Star programme.”

He explains further: “We identified the ten most promising tech start-ups based in the North last autumn and are now taking them to events where they have been able to pitch to international investors.

“The Northern Stars were invited to Bloomberg to pitch to a London-based tech audience and they were genuinely accepted and applauded; hopefully good things will happen for them.”

The appointment of Jennifer Hartley from NewcastleGateshead Initiative as deputy head of trade and investment director of Tech North, Herb insists, will bring more stability to the organisation and allow it to focus on priorities for 2016, which, he predicts, will be on building skills and retaining talent.

“We need to build awareness about the sheer scale of opportunity available here,” Herb reflects. “The Yorkshire Post reported in January that there are currently 50,000 software jobs available in the North. And these aren’t low-paid positions but ones with an average salary of £45K.

There is a lot of talk about strengthening the region with the Northern Powerhouse agenda but in tech, I believe, the opportunities are already being realised and the sector is in danger of overheating. We need to attract talent not only within the North but nationally and internationally, too. We need to build relationships with European cities that have a strong tech education legacy – such as Amsterdam and Brussels – and communicate why the North of England is the ideal place to build a career in tech.

Herb’s role at Tech North is set to keep him busy, as will the ongoing strategy to expand the Thinking Digital brand, with conversations having already taken place about holding conferences in Sweden, Norway, Malaysia and Singapore.

Herb, however, is keen to stress that the concept will remain rooted in the North East of England: “Yes, we’re looking to grow the Thinking Digital Conference brand as this will help build our profile and enable us to secure the very best speakers in the world. But, rest assured, there will always be a Thinking Digital Conference in the North East, as long as the demand is there.”

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