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5/6/2014
09:40 AM
Lawrence Garvin
Lawrence Garvin
Commentary
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Sorry State of IT Education: Readers Propose Fixes

How should IT education be salvaged? In part 2 of this series, we share readers' ideas about what colleges, employers, and employees themselves must do.

My recent commentary on the sorry state of IT education generated many quality responses in numerous venues. In addition to the reader comments here on InformationWeek.com, an extended conversation developed at Slashdot. I was impressed with the insight and thoughtfulness of most of the comments -- enough that I thought I'd share some of them, as well as my take on them.

Education vs. training
One of the things I noted in my original article was the failure of four-year colleges and universities to shift their curricula from a development focus in the 1970s and 1980s into a more operational focus, as has been needed over the past 25 years. Readers commented on how business leaders, as well as the "get a job" mentality, are interfering with this process.

One thing readers almost universally acknowledged was that critical thinking skills don't come from core technology curricula, but from liberal arts and humanities courses that traditionally have been required in four-year college programs but aren't a part of most two-year programs and not even mentioned in trade schools. Several people wrote that even four-year technology programs now focus more on job training than education. But it's the educational aspects of a college four-year program that are key to taking skills ostensibly learned in the humanities coursework and applying them to the knowledge obtained in the technology coursework.

Unfortunately, it seems that our tech coursework has become procedure oriented, rather than knowledge oriented. A reader offered a great example of the distinction, which I've adapted to a standard IT scenario.

Scenario A: Given three server roles, A, B, and C, and a virtual host V with specified resources, implement the three server roles such that all three work. You have four hours to complete the project.

Scenario B: Given three server roles, A, B, and C, and a virtual host V with specified resources, implement these three server resources using the following procedure. You have four hours to complete the project.

The fundamental difference here is that, in Scenario A, the student is required to design and implement the solution. In Scenario B, the student is simply implementing the solution. It's also true that Scenario B has only one correct response, whereas Scenario A might have several correct solutions. Scenario B is fine for a two-year or trade school program, from which we expect graduates to be at that skill level and capable of following instructions as given. But a four-year program shouldn't be turning out operators; it should be turning out architects and problem solvers.

I submit that two changes must happen.

Businesses must hire people from the appropriate educational sources. If you need entry-level operators/administrators, get them from trade schools or even from high schools. If you need architects and designers, get them from universities, first ensuring that those universities deliver that caliber of candidate.

However, universities, must get back to their core business -- which is education, not job training -- and leave the job training to the institutions created for that purpose.

Employers: Is outsourcing to blame?
A second area that generated a lot of reader comments was employers. By far the biggest criticism is that businesses are loath to invest in people. I don't find that very difficult to believe. When I look at thousands of businesses still running Windows XP on hardware that's well past its expected lifecycle, it's not hard to imagine that such businesses have been derelict in investing in their employees, as well.

Readers tagged IT outsourcing as a contributing factor, bringing up two specific points. The first is that, when companies outsource entry-level positions, they provide no pathway to hire new people. That got me to thinking a step further: Are we then hiring undertrained workers into mid-level systems administration and network administration jobs, which used to be the domain of staffers with five to 10 years of experience, because those are now the lowest-rung positions available?

The second relevant point about outsourcing applies to project implementation. When companies use contract providers, consultants, etc., to implement projects, what happens to the "corporate knowledge" acquired and developed during that implementation process? If in-house staffers have no knowledge or involvement in the development and use of that corporate knowledge, how can they possibly be successful at taking over an implemented, operational project at any level beyond "follow these procedures we've provided"? Are we then throwing away golden opportunities to develop skills in-house?

Another point of contention among readers is their belief that employers place too much of a premium on vendor certifications when identifying qualified candidates. Hiring managers need to take a deeper look at what it really takes to prepare for and pass most cert tests. There's also a disconnect between what the vendors want those certs to mean and how they're actually being (mis)used by employers and candidates. Employers have the power to stop that roller coaster.

Society: What we expect from college
To a lesser extent, some commenters indicted society as a whole for inadequate IT education and skills. A question arises as to whether rampant youth unemployment is a contributing factor. If a person's first real IT work experience is after college graduation, rather than years before, she is coming to the workforce green.

Another issue that runs across parenting, public education, and society as a whole is the ambition that everybody should go to college. Assuming that more people now go to college than are college "material," does that equate to a dumbing down of coursework, as institutions look to attract students who have the financial resources to pay the tuition, rather than those who can withstand the rigors of a proper college education? Has society impeded the ability of universities to perform their main function because it has overloaded them with the responsibility for qualifying everybody for employment?

IT professionals: Be realistic
I don't want to end this article without putting some of the responsibility on those of us in the IT profession. In the original article, I laid most of the problem at the feet of educators, but ultimately the acquisition of knowledge is a personal responsibility. A motivated learner will find the knowledge wherever it makes itself available.

It has been suggested that many students have chosen IT as a career path in recent years, not because of any specific aptitude, but because they believe it will lead to easy riches or at least to a good living. As if to support that notion, a recent survey of a thousand software developers found that more than half believe they will become millionaires in that field.

Perhaps the best perspective I've seen on the issue of IT education came from two New York Times articles based on interviews with Google senior vice president Laszlo Bock. I'd like to leave you with a few quotes from those articles. In one article, Bock is quoted as saying:

Humans are by nature creative beings, but not by nature logical, structured-thinking beings. Those are skills you have to learn… Analytical training gives you a skill set that differentiates you from most people in the labor market.

Prospective bosses today care less about what you know or where you learned it… than what value you can create with what you know.

In another article, Bock states:

For every job… the No. 1 thing we look for is general cognitive ability… It's learning ability. It's the ability to process on the fly. It's the ability to pull together disparate bits of information.

So, for those of you who dream of becoming a millionaire in the IT field, take to heart what Bock notes are the skills that will get you there, and invest in yourself.

Can the trendy tech strategy of DevOps really bring peace between developers and IT operations -- and deliver faster, more reliable app creation and delivery? Also in the DevOps Challenge issue of InformationWeek: Execs charting digital business strategies can't afford to take Internet connectivity for granted.

Lawrence Garvin, head geek and technical product marketing manager at SolarWinds, wrote his first computer program, in RPG-II, in 1974, to calculate quadratic equations. He tested it on some spare weekend cycles on an IBM System 3 that he "borrowed" from his father's ... View Full Bio

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batye
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batye,
User Rank: Ninja
5/10/2014 | 1:38:18 AM
Re: what we expect from college
interesting point... but in some cases it like catch 22... you have good degree but no exp... or you have good exp... but no college degree...
SachinEE
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SachinEE,
User Rank: Ninja
5/8/2014 | 4:34:18 AM
Re: what we expect from college
I think it is very true that many institutions are nowadays looking for money rather than educating students; many institutions doesn't care if a student is able or unable to undertake any course relabeled to IT. If a student is capable of paying the tuition fee, they will automatically get admitted. Most institutions also are just training students on how to make there ways and get employment instead of giving students the real knowledge that will help them in future either as an employee or an employer.
LawrenceGarvin
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LawrenceGarvin,
User Rank: Author
5/7/2014 | 4:59:10 PM
Re: Why shift from development to operational?
I think there's two aspects to the "first job" question: There's the question of "no IT experience", which is enough of a challenge in itself, and possibly also the question of "no employment experience".

Having "no IT experience" but some work history is a much better position than having "no employment experience" at all, which is a question I raised in the article. Although I'd also think that even somebody looking for their first paid IT job, probably has "IT experience" that can be documented. Who hasn't been roped into fixing mom's computer at least once?

This is also a question of how one presents themself for that "first IT job" position. It may be that those resumes are better written from a skills assessment position than a work history position. (But then, isn't that how everybody is supposed to write their resume?)

Personally, I think internships ought to be part of the academic requirements in a four-year IT program, and some places it is.

Work-Study Programs could also be a great opportunity, and at only nominally more cost to an organization than an unpaid internship, but that's likely going to take some outreach effort on the part of universities and the computer industry to find organizations willing to create such positions.

 
Laurianne
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Laurianne,
User Rank: Author
5/7/2014 | 4:32:49 PM
Re: Why shift from development to operational?
How does anyone get a first job without internships to demonstrate competence? We're not just talking about IT. If you don't seek out internships, I can't imagine getting through the initial screening hurdles. The non-profit volunteer suggestion is a good one, as well.
petey
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petey,
User Rank: Strategist
5/7/2014 | 3:08:12 PM
Re: IT Education vs Training
I respectfully disagree with your premise about critical thinking skills. First, these represent to me, what I would call 'analysis'. Second, I would suggest liberal arts classes and especially literature would be the exact place to learn them. Multi-layered plots and twists, incorrect deductions and assumptions, and incorrect decisions have been around since Shakespeare introduced them 450 years ago. Computerization and the internet have speeded up the need to recognize them. 
TerryB
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TerryB,
User Rank: Ninja
5/7/2014 | 2:29:12 PM
Re: Why shift from development to operational?
Yeah, this company I work for now used to use interns helping the Win admin guy who was here. Because of constant dictated turnover and, by nature, they needed a lot of direction, it is counter productive for the business. In some cases though, they were better than IT guy we had. ;-)

As a 55 year old (sole) developer here who is 10 years from retirement, I've given some thought to how the passing of torch should take place. Intern won't work because they can't stay. Hire too soon, they get bored and move on, creating churn. But wait until 1-2 years before, then you better be right about who you bring in, no time to do it again.
LawrenceGarvin
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LawrenceGarvin,
User Rank: Author
5/7/2014 | 2:18:17 PM
Re: Why shift from development to operational?
Well, it's certainly an accurate statement that there has been a shift in the disciplines where the majority of IT professionals work. This effectively occurred with the shift from centralized (mainframe) computing to distributed (client-server) computing, which required significantly more operational/administrative workers than previously. The other shift that occurred as a result of that paradigm change is that organizations became more dependent upon commercially developed software, rather than building software in-house, so yes, to a lesser extent we also saw a shift of programmers from working directly for a "customer" to working for software development companies. I doubt there are less programming jobs today than there were then, they're just not on the payroll of the end-user.

Regardless of where the shifts in employment have occurred, both developers and administrators need to be educated. But this is where the breakdown has occurred. Universities, which have had programming curricula for dozens of years (and some of those curricula have even been updated to reflect contemporary development environments, but I do know of at least one university still teaching COBOL), have been less responsive in implementing curricula targeted at server operations and administration. That gap was filled by community colleges and trade schools and the resulting focus of those programs was on "job training", not on technology education.

As for the "first job" question, I don't really know the answer to that. For many years I've been asked that question: How do I get an entry-level job in IT when all of the job descriptions require experience? My best answer has been to volunteer. Experience does not need to be paid to count, and there are gazillions of non-profits who would be very grateful for the help. Shucks, there's probably quite a few SMBs who would be happy as well.

Which begs the question.... perhaps we should be promoting the idea of unpaid or min-wage internships as entry-level opportunities. Of course, that also requires a committment on the part of the employer to mentor that intern.
TerryB
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TerryB,
User Rank: Ninja
5/7/2014 | 2:00:48 PM
Why shift from development to operational?
Is your point that there are simply more jobs in operational things like network support versus old days I came from where companies were looking for developers to write their systems and support ERP?

Now, with the "in the cloud" and "off the shelf" mentality, are you just suggesting that most development jobs are only at software companies, and not that many to go around? If so, I get your point. But somebody still has to educate the developers who do work at software companies.

You point about lack of entry level is right on. I've often wondered how anyone gets their first job in IT these days, whether development or operational.

Good followup to your original article, nice work.
LawrenceGarvin
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LawrenceGarvin,
User Rank: Author
5/6/2014 | 9:31:01 PM
Re: IT Education vs Training
I disagree. I also submit that your conclusions are based on premises not readily discernable.

The employer may or may not have invested any time or money in the employee; that is, of course, one of the primary tenets of these articles.

As for switching providers... that's likely subject to contractual obligations with the service provider, and even then, in most cases the damage will have already been done.
Zman7
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Zman7,
User Rank: Strategist
5/6/2014 | 8:10:01 PM
Re: IT Education vs Training
"It's irrelevant whether I hire a full-time employee and put them at a desk in the workplace, or I higher a service-provider to take those calls. I still have the need, as a business owner, for exactly the same level of competence and service in meeting the needs of my staff."

Ahhh...but there's a big difference between the two. In one instance, the company has invested time and money in the employee without getting a good return; while in the case of the service-provider, the company can simply switch to another provider that will give the desired service.
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