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Lawrence Garvin
Lawrence Garvin
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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, 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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User Rank: Author
5/6/2014 | 3:38:35 PM
Re: Many nails hit on the head here
Now this part I do agree with. It was supposed to be for the purposes of filling a short-term skills crunch, and for whatever reason, not just IT, our entire educational system has let down a lot of scientific and technical fields... presumably now being rectified by our renewed focus on STEM education. (Provided we educate, and not just job train.)

Here's a motto I just thought up... "Education builds a career; job training pays the rent."

You offer a great comparison to nursing and teaching shortages.... perhaps, in some part, because both of those professions require degrees and occupational licensing, the educational system was the only available system to fill that gap. Unlike those professions, though, similar gateways do not exist for IT jobs, so an employer can take any person off the street who claims to have the requisite skills (or certification, as is often the case).

So ... which is the cause and effect here, may be the relevant question. Are employers continuing to rally the cry for immigrant workers, claiming they can't find qualified domestic workers, because our educational systems are, in fact, failing to deliver. Or is this purely an economic model where employers are undervaluing the actual skill sets required to perform a job, and no longer willing to pay what a high-quality college graduate should earn?

Also worthy of note, the economic motivations are not just related to immigrant workers who may be willing to work for significantly less, but it also applies to the work being outsourced to offshore service providers.
User Rank: Ninja
5/6/2014 | 3:18:15 PM
Re: Many nails hit on the head here
Point taken but the increased use of H1-B for IT placements started in the early 90's to supposedly fill skill shortages.  The dynamics for the IT skill shortages are still at work after more than 20 years.  When we have shortages in other fields it doesn't take 20 years or more to fill them.  Teacher shortage? Nurse shortage? We don't use H1-B to fill them we use the educational system but not for IT.  There use to be an education department within most fortune 500 companies years ago.  It's been replaced by recruiters and H1-B applicants.
User Rank: Author
5/6/2014 | 2:26:12 PM
More on IT certification mistakes
More good food for thought here. For more on the use  -- and misuse -- of IT certifications, see this recent column on luring IT security pros.

User Rank: Author
5/6/2014 | 1:57:20 PM
Re: IT Education vs Training
Just because you own a car doesn't mean you take mechanics classes so that you can maintain it - you outsource the maintenance.

A common challenge in this conversation is confusing the user with the professional.

I absolutely agree that I, as an automobile owner, will find benefit in "outsourcing" my automotive maintenance needs. The alternative being [a] doing it myself, or [b] hiring a personal automotive mechanic -- neither of which are economically viable solutions.

However... I still expect the mechanics who work for my chosen outsourced provider to have the skills necessary to perform their jobs. As I've commented elsewhere, if I take my SuperDuty Diesel Truck into an automotive shop and the mechanic/technician on duty can't figure out why it doesn't have spark plugs, we're all in a big heap of trouble.

The same analogy applies to IT. A computer USER... a business productivity worker... an information worker.. whatever you want to call them, has absolutely no need to understand the workings of the computer network. They click on an icon and magically the document gets transported from the disk drive of the server to the application on their desktop and the world is a great place for them to be.

But, if that event does not happen as expected, the Help Desk Operator on the other end of the phone call (email, IM, whatever) had better have a solid grasp of how networking works, from the server, through the switch, cabling, software, protocols, etc., all the way to the desktop, if they're going to be of any use to that user whatsoever. If the only thing that HDO can do is follow a pre-written diagnostic checklist and the problem is not one of those "pre-defined" situations, the problem doesn't get solved.

Now.... as an employer, I have a need to provide certain technology support services to my employees so they can deal with technology issues that fall outside the scope of their job duties. 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. If the person tasked with solving that problem is incapable of solving the problem, I have a bigger problem than just the inability of my IT worker to perform the tasks of an IT worker: Now I also have an information worker who cannot perform their job either (through no fault of theirs).
User Rank: Author
5/6/2014 | 1:44:34 PM
Re: Many nails hit on the head here
I intentionally did not include the H1-B question. While it's certainly been mentioned, my personal opinion is that in most cases the mentions are a red-herring with respect to this conversation. The issue is not whether jobs are or are not available, or who's taking them; the issue is that the people that ARE being hired appear to be undertrained/undereducated, and the conversation is about how to solve that problem. From my perspective it's absolutely irrelevant what the immigration status of an employee is. Either they're qualified for the job, or not. Either the employer properly defined the job qualifications, or not. Ultimately it's about whether the employee can perform the tasks asked by the employer. If employees are leaving with corporate knowledge because they were short-term acquisitions in the first place, I submit it matters less what the immigration status was of the application, and more that the business simply failed to properly value the placement of that corporate knowledge. Shopping for talent just prior to an implementation is likely a fatal error of its own making. In fact, it doesn't take an H1-B visa for an employer to make that same mistake even with native-born employees.
User Rank: Strategist
5/6/2014 | 12:45:08 PM
IT Education vs Training
IMO, universities should stick to training. Why?  Anyone good enough to educate people about the strategic use of critical thinking in information systems is doing it in the private sector.  This critical thinking can't be taught in liberal arts classes either.  We have college grads that can't even complete a full sentence, let alone be expected to do any critical thinking.  Once someone has the basic training, they can observe critical thinking and learn it on the job.

Outsourcing is a decision by management to purposely avoid the overhead of an in-house department. IT and systems support is a commodity anymore.  Why should the company invest in something they can purchase more cheaply elsewhere?  Just because you own a car doesn't mean you take mechanics classes so that you can maintain it - you outsource the maintenance.

I also think that anyone selecting the IS/IT career path will find that it is indeed the path to a good living.
User Rank: Ninja
5/6/2014 | 12:37:13 PM
Many nails hit on the head here
This follow-up is excellent, hitting on all the bad practices of businesses but still missed one, H1-B visas.  It's the grasshoppers verses ants scenario.  Growing and developing internal IT staff (either through internal training or external education) is the "ant" thing to do allowing long term survival.  Shopping for talent a few weeks or months prior to implementation is the "grasshopper" approach then calling on H1-B visas to "survive" every time actually jeopardizes long term survival.  
User Rank: Apprentice
5/6/2014 | 11:51:35 AM
Getting closer
I think you are getting closer to the problem. The kind of skills needed for JOBS come from companies retaining and training employees, investing in them over time. This leads to company "knowledge". Cutting corners and employees ever economic downturn causes a loss of knowledge history and basically a way of doing things that can't be taught in schools without hands on experience . The kind of skills needed for leadership positions come from college education in critical thinking and problem solving.
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