Angela McGowan: Now is the time to build on our growing reputation as cyber leaders and innovators

Northern Ireland's cyber security cluster now extends to more than 100 companies, employing in excess of 2,000 people.
Northern Ireland's cyber security cluster now extends to more than 100 companies, employing in excess of 2,000 people. Northern Ireland's cyber security cluster now extends to more than 100 companies, employing in excess of 2,000 people.

DESPITE trying external pressures, Northern Ireland continues to show its economic mettle.

Latest ONS data shows that GDP is continuing to exceed pre-pandemic levels – with some sectors particularly thriving and firmly placing Northern Ireland on the world map.

Top of that list is our flourishing cyber security sector. The cyber security threat has been growing in recent years, whether criminal organisations or aggressive state actors.

We’ve seen highly publicised attacks on public institutions, individuals and of course, businesses.

I’m proud to say that NI firms are leading the way on cyber resilience. Boasting over 100 cyber security businesses, who employ over 2,000 people, Northern Ireland is renowned for its cutting-edge excellence and expertise.

Companies such as Vertical Structure, Nimbus and Proofpoint are just a few of many great examples.

Which is why it was good to see Economy Minister Gordon Lyons announce that Queen’s University Belfast and software company NVIDIA will invest £5.4 million in a research and development project to, in part, accelerate cyber security research in Northern Ireland. Just one of many actions to back the sector locally.

I’m also delighted that this recognition isn’t just confined within the region too. Belfast has now been ranked as the top international investment location for US cyber security firms.

We at the CBI will continue to help our cyber members propel that competitive advantage forward – both at home and abroad.

Companies outside of the industry also realise that taking cyber-security seriously is crucial to keep their business on the front foot, as well as the wider economy. Now more than ever, firms must work to bolster their defence against potential cyber risks.

While organisations have already taken steps to become more cyber secure, many are wondering what they can do to dial up their defences.

The CBI launched its cyber campaign at a recent webinar 'Assessing Risk and Building Resilience’.

As part of this initiative, we also convene businesses to share their cyber experiences and steps any NI business can take to improve the cyber security of their own operations right now.

The bedrock of Northern Ireland’s economy is built on the strength of its many SMEs. Yet SMEs can often be perceived as a greater risk to larger competitors and partners in the supply chains when it comes to cyber resilience.

Sadly, cyber attackers have been targeting smaller suppliers across a range of sectors to access larger institutions.

Many are now, rightly or wrongly, concerned that SMEs are more vulnerable to cyber-attacks.

To shift such attitudes, CBI are taking action to provide insights on cyber security to SMEs who need a bit more help to strengthen their resilience.

Equally, businesses of all sectors and sizes can protect themselves by making sure that their entire supply chain’s cyber security is robust.

All organisations are greater than the sum of their parts. Sharing information on cyber security and best practice can improve cyber security, and firms should work together to build shared solutions.

More can also be done to raise awareness amongst leadership figures, who must be equipped with the knowledge to be accountable on cyber risks.

Senior figures should be able to ask the right questions of their technical experts to help them make the right decisions at the right time. This is critical to any firm effectively managing their cyber risks.

Improving gaps in digital skills across organisations is another crucial piece of the puzzle. Not everyone will have extensive knowledge of cyber security, but all staff members must be able to spot the signs of an attack.

It’s very important that we also take a step back to look at the bigger picture. To upskill the whole population on cyber security, we need to make digital and software skills an integral part of the curriculum and promote greater uptake of STEM subjects.

I’m proud to say that CBI NI has done a lot of work in this area. Working with the Department for the Economy, Department of Education and higher and further education colleges – we have managed to get much more funding for re-skilling in this area in the last few years.

But there is plenty more to be done if we are to be earnest about supporting the software and digital talent that our economy and our NI cyber security cluster needs. We have two main problems in this respect.

Firstly, there is low availability of computer science and software systems development A-levels and secondly, undergraduate applications to Computer Science are in decline.

There is clearly an important information piece that needs to be carried out with schools, young people, parents, career teachers and the general public - making them aware of the variety and range of exciting job roles that are available in the NI software sector.

We also need to change perceptions that young people need to go to university to work in the software or digital sector – alternative pathways such as the apprenticeship route are equally as relevant, deliver successful outcomes and are a lot less expensive.

Let’s hope that in August when the A-level and GCSE results come out that young people have already explored all the business relevant software and digital courses that are available to them across the full spectrum of HE and FE colleges.

If they are considering any of these courses, they should be very confident that they will be offered employment afterwards.

But firms also need to step up to ensure that industry has the skills needed to grow our successful sectors.

Small and medium firms are encouraged to make use of resources provided by Department for the Economy’s Assured Skills Team to beef up their skills in the digital and software area.

Taken together these steps will protect our economy and contribute to the success of our well- established cyber sector.

By working together, sharing information and arming ourselves with the right skills we will enhance our robust barriers against harmful security breaches.

Now is the time to seize the moment and build on NI’s reputation as cyber leaders and innovators.

Angela McGowan is CBI Northern Ireland Director