Sunday, 21 June 2015

Interview with Harry McCann on the Digital Youth Council (Part 1)

On the Friday morning of InspireFest, I interviewed Harry McCann, the founder of the Digital Youth Council. I was struck by what a good interviewee and leader he is, so I hope you enjoy reading this interview - I did. I got lots of material, so I'm splitting this post into two parts. The first part will appear today, and the second either tomorrow or Thursday. Once both are up, I'll probably combine them into a Medium post for you to read at your leisure. Without further ado ...

So I hear that the Digital Youth Council has been going to primary schools and talking to students. What have you learned from the  students about what kind of technology they want in their schools?

Yeah, so we visit a lot of primary schools, we visit a lot of events with primary schools kids and with secondary school kids and with young people in general [...] Some of the younger kids tend to be a bit optimistic about a lot of things, their ideas seem to be a bit further out there than the older students would be and they’re a little less realistic ... We do encourage that but obviously [we look for what’s] possible. Primary school kids in particular are very keen about getting rid of the books out of their bags. There’s [sic] often problems with how their back is being affected by carrying so many books. 

Primary school kids don’t have that many in comparison to secondary school.

No, they probably don’t ... probably the one downside to a primary school kid is that they don’t have the lockers, obviously they have the desk and things like that. So they’re very keen on the eBook idea of things, which is very doable and it’s something that has we’d encourage, bringing in digital books, there’s so much available, you don’t even need an eBook anymore you could just have a device and you can get the books on them. That’s particularly from the primary school kids. Then the secondary school kids, it’s more opportunities in STEM as well, so trying to get involved in STEM with a first-hand experience of it. It’s very good and all attending events and all that, but actually going to a startup or going into a tech company, it can be huge, or a STEM company and all. So that’s kind of what we got from both sides of things, so we do work on both of them. 

That’s cool. So, I heard you started the Digital Youth Council at EXCITED a year ago.


So how did you approach the members? Like, what did you say to them to get them to join?

Right, so yeah it was founded in May of last year, back in 2014, I think it was the 22nd was the day the idea kind of came about from what I gather, from what I remember ... I approached the former Minister for Skills in Ireland, who was Ciaran Cannon, who’s a TD now for Galway [...] I told him about the idea I had and that I felt that the feedback sessions on the Friday of EXCITED, anyone who was there would know that there was a lot of really good feedback given, and that I felt that really young people need to be constantly given the opportunity to give their feedback on something as important as STEM. 

So ... approaching members wasn’t hard, it was quite easy. A lot of people were very willing to get involved, it’s the first of its kind in the world. Y’know, the idea we pitched it towards was the idea of being role models for young people, who are some of the best young people in STEM in the world, not just in Ireland. 


Yes, flattery! But definitely appealing to the people who are the top-notch people and in fairness it’s not hard to find some great talent. I knew the three girls from the Google Science Fair from EXCITED, and I approached them at events in Cork and RTÉ Mojo [...] event, approached them on Mobile Monday, that’s what it was. Approached the three girls, they were willing to do it, and other people I’d met from my previous business ventures or kind of people on Twitter. You know yourself, all the networks.


I kind of just pitched it as this case, the opportunity to give the people like us a voice, and everyone was really keen on getting involved. So it wasn’t too hard, it was tough getting to know all these people--

Remembering the names -

Flattery. Yep, remembering the names, it’s always the biggest problem. It’s 23 names, it’s 23 different places and schools and...

Lists of achievements.

Yes. So many achievements.

Just carry a folder with their CVs!

I do! I used to carry a folder, I used to have - I do have a document, I even think - every year when I picked the members, it’s the second year now, so I’d write up a bio on each of them, a short bio, list of achievements, location, school, number, email, family background, everything. There’s loads of information, so ... We do always slag me about how I stalk, trying to find all their information. I’ve little bio pictures of them all. It’s necessary though, because when you go to these people like partners and the supporters, you need to be showing them something that will, you know, “here are the unique individuals that we have that are going to represent the people”. But it’s interesting.

Okay. So what makes a good Digital Youth Council member?

What makes a good Digital Youth Council member ... There’s [sic] no particular criteria that have to be fit, what I look for in a person personally I don’t make all the decisions, I don’t pick the people, it’s a group decision, but personally I think when people come and apply for the Digital Youth Council like this year, last year it was myself, Bernard, Ciaran [Cannon] and Frank - Bernard, Ciarán and Frank from EXCITED - who picked the people, and a few other recommendations from other people this year, there was [sic] recommendations from people like Ann O’ Dea in the Silicon Republic and a few other people. The idea [...] was people applied and there’s [sic] two very important things, one is a background in STEM and then your ability as well, and then there’s also your personality [...] It’s something that a lot of people often in STEM struggle with social skills but when you’re sitting there on a Council, you’re sitting with thirteen other people--

You need to be able to express yourself.

Yeah, you need to be able to express yourself and your views and opinions, and the reason why you’ve all these achievements and the reasons why you’d be a good Council member is because you need to be able to give a voice to the young people. Although twelve other people might be saying something, we want that one person or we want the two or three people who are gonna go “Look, I actually don’t agree with that.” You want the people who are going to kind of make a difference in the Council, who aren’t just going to sit there and make up numbers. And then it’s also being passionate and being a good role model as well, being a really good role model, it’s something I am very very particular about is I think, especially on the Digital Youth Council I always think-

Squeaky clean?

Yeah, not even that, I just think if you’re going to go and represent young people you need to do it properly, and that you need to be a good role model. I personally have younger cousins, siblings and things like that and I know that people look up to other people and the case is that STEM’s becoming popular. It’s not necessarily as big, as popular as football might be, but when you look at people who’ve football, you wanna look at somebody you can look up to, and I think in STEM it’s a really important thing to give good role models to people, and that’s what the Digital Youth Council aims to do. 

You can see the people who won - you know them personally, a lot of them, and a lot of them are fantastic role models, like I look up to half of them even though some of them are even younger than me. Because some of them are amazing [...] that’s the aim, is to be a good role model. 

How did you pitch it to the government? Was that with Ciaran Cannon, or...?

No, so at the start really, personally I wanted to kind of to try things by myself, go to other people, set up these things myself. I contacted government ministers, the great thing about government ministers is that ... I’m not going to say they’re civil servants, they’re not civil servants ...

They have to pay attention to you.

Yeah. They have to, they represent the people and a lot of them in fairness do take that very seriously and do a great job of that, and that was the easiest thing. I emailed people, one particularly I have to admit as being fantastic was Damien English, he’s the Minister [for Education and Skills] at the moment and he’s fantastic, he met with myself and one of the other guys in the DYC, Jack Cullen, we started telling him and we had a discussion with ihm and he was more than happy to listen to us, speak to us, and he still is very good in fairness to him to this day, works along with us and so does his Department. An Taoiseach was very good, his Department in particular, he personally wrote to us, yeah it was lovely, it was the Day after my Junior Cert I got a letter with the Junior Cert results [...] sent from the Taoiseach, it was lovely.

Yeah, I have a few from the Seanad.

No yeah, this was headed paper and everything, I think it’s the proudest thing my grandmother’s ever seen, if I never get my degree, at least she can put that up on the wall. So that’s how we did it, we kind of just emailed them all, we told them all what we were doing and they came back to us interested. The Taoiseach was in touch with Alex White, the Minister for Communications, he put us in touch with Lord David Putnam who’s obviously an Oscar-winning director who’s majorly ... coolest person I’ve ever met. 

Saying a lot!

But he’s also a digital champion for Ireland, but yeah people like that. It’s just easy, these people are contactable, you just have to go out and keep doing it. Once you tell them what you’re doing, if it’s a benefit, it’s something that you think, feel is positive they’re more than happy to help you in any way they can. So it wasn’t too hard, thankfully. 

Struck by how often Harry shows his appreciation for the people around him, it’s a great quality for a leader to have. I've edited the transcribed interview slightly for clarity. 

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