Strategic CIO // Executive Insights & Innovation
Commentary
4/18/2014
09:16 AM
Lawrence Garvin
Lawrence Garvin
Commentary
Connect Directly
RSS
E-Mail
50%
50%

The Sorry State Of IT Education

Our profession is rife with people capable of performing procedures they've been taught, but incapable of thinking through a problem. Here's what we need to do.

As our traditional corporate silos continue to collapse, IT professionals will need to take on more cross-discipline responsibilities to advance their careers. Unfortunately, our education systems are failing to prepare IT pros for those responsibilities, and it will fall on employers to pick up the slack.

First, a little history to understand how we ended up where we are today.

In the mainframe era, there were no formal IT education programs. Computer professionals in the 1950s and 60s, including my father, learned all of their skills at work. That training often came directly from the mainframe hardware vendors, the likes of IBM, Honeywell, and Digital Equipment. The skills were limited to those required to perform the necessary business functions with that computer equipment, but the employees being trained had a fundamental understanding of the business of their employer.

By the time the PC era hit in the 1980s, universities had developed four-year computer science and MIS programs. But the PC and the advent of Unix, NetWare, and Windows systems moved too rapidly for those university programs, and although they continued to crank out well-trained software programmers (some of them even using contemporary languages), there was still a dearth of training for those working with non-mainframe computers.

[Customer satisfaction sinking? Read Why Does Customer Service Suck?]

Out of that challenge evolved two new training tracks, both of which have contributed to the sorry state we're in today. The first track consisted of self-motivated high school and college students who taught themselves the necessary PC skills to get a job, sometimes before graduation. The second was the trade school, which produced droves of "certified" 20-somethings ripe for the picking in the rapidly growing IT field. Both tracks have the same fundamental failings: They're not designed to teach business fundamentals or critical thinking.

Image: Sakeeb Sabakka (Fotopedia)
Image: Sakeeb Sabakka (Fotopedia)

As a result, the industry is now flooded with hundreds of thousands of IT professionals fully capable of performing procedures they've been taught, but incapable of thinking through a problem. These IT pros can't identify symptoms, analyze possible causes, evaluate potential solutions, or implement the correct one. The "scientific method" many of us grew up with is virtually unknown to younger IT pros today, despite the fact that our public schools insist on trying to teach chemistry and physics to 7th and 8th grade students.

We live in a time when the entire knowledge of humanity is available at the click of a mouse, when almost every published book of knowledge still worth reading is available for free online or dirt cheap as an e-book. And yet the process most of today's IT pros use to learn a skill amounts to asking somebody else how to do something.

Hopefully, the answer they get is the right one, because there's also very little judicious selection of mentors. I've seen many cases where one undertrained IT pro gets bad information from another undertrained IT pro, and it doesn't take very much of that before an entire community of people is operating inefficiently, ineffectively, and to the detriment of the employer.

The necessary future of IT education
OK, so that’s the fundamental problem, and it exists in every IT shop in every business in every country. Now what do we, as CIOs, CTOs, IT directors/managers, and business owners, do to stop this slide into mediocrity?

First, we must put the expectation of "professional" back into the job descriptions of those people we call IT pros. "Professional" should mean the same thing for IT as it means for any other credentialed profession, whether medicine, law, education, architecture, or finance. Professionals are held to a certain standard of skill and behavior. Would you tolerate your family physician misdiagnosing a common illness? How would you feel if your lawyer didn't understand the legal terminology in the contract you're about to sign? What if your auto mechanic were unable to determine why your car won't start or, worse, started changing the tires to see if that would help?

So why do we tolerate IT pros who don't understand the basics of how a computer or network works?

Almost every profession requires its members to engage in continuing education. Not IT. Furthermore, it's one of the few professions that isn't licensed by the government. Now, I'm no fan of government regulation, but its licensing of other professionals allows us to implicitly take them at their word. Personally, I'd like to keep the IT profession unlicensed, but in order to do that, we're going to have to police ourselves.

Second, we must give IT pros the opportunity to develop their own skills and careers. When I was a supervisor in the trenches, I instructed my staff to spend 10% of their work time on professional development outside of the skills necessary to do their jobs. And by 10% I didn't mean spend one month out of the year cramming for a certification exam; I meant invest four hours every week in learning something new related to their careers.

Third and most important, we must develop our people's critical thinking skills -- again, so that they can recognize a problem, identify and analyze the symptoms, and develop and implement the appropriate solution.

Computing systems will get ever more complex, requiring IT pros to have advanced technical, business, and analytical skills. It's our responsibility as technology leaders to provide them with the opportunity and resources to develop those skills. Our business survival depends upon it.

Our InformationWeek Elite 100 issue -- our 26th ranking of technology innovators -- shines a spotlight on businesses that are succeeding because of their digital strategies. We take a close at look at the top five companies in this year's ranking and the eight winners of our Business Innovation awards, and offer 20 great ideas that you can use in your company. We also provide a ranked list of our Elite 100 innovators. Read our InformationWeek Elite 100 issue today.

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

Comment  | 
Print  | 
More Insights
Comments
Newest First  |  Oldest First  |  Threaded View
<<   <   Page 6 / 6
LawrenceGarvin
50%
50%
LawrenceGarvin,
User Rank: Author
4/18/2014 | 10:57:57 PM
Re: Engineers
Gary, I totally understand the mentality that results in the scenario you describe.

And, aside from noting how inefficient it is in the "replace part; try again" scenario (although, to be real, in some cases, "replace part; try again" is absolutely the correct approach), I think it's important for us to understand that this approach will not work in the future when everybody is working in a multi-discipline environment.

The "replace part; try again" scenario has always been an option of last resort. If we think back to the type of hardware diagnostics we did in the 1980s, a lot of that was the only approach that worked. Pull all of the expansion cards. Reboot. Plug 'em back in one at a time, and see what happens. Same approach applies to software/services. Disable all the services. Turn 'em back on one at a time, figure out which service is causing the problem. These are all DIAGNOSTIC tools!

But even those tools seem to have been lost, from a logical perspective, in what I'm seeing today.

You are absolutely correct in that "critical thinking skills" are NOT developed on-the-job. Those are skills that are developed from classroom education and exercises designed to develop those skills.

Where I'll disagree, though, is that it does NOT take a "genius" to possess and use critical thinking skills. I truly believe that 90% of the people competent enough to work in IT in the first place, have all of the mental capabilties necessary to develop critical thinking skills; they just need a motivated mentor to help them do that.
Gary_EL
100%
0%
Gary_EL,
User Rank: Ninja
4/18/2014 | 10:06:37 PM
Re: Engineers
Ever go into a computer repair shop and watch the guys work? What they do is just replace parts, until the machine starts to work again. If they can't, they just tell the owner that the device can't be fixed, and offer to buy it to use as parts in their next repairs. That's how it works, because it's all they know.

You don't develop critical thinking on a shop floor. I know you can do it through studying math, physics, chemistry and electrical engineering, and I'm told you can do though studying law. But that takes time, and that takes money, and generally, industry won't pay for it.

There's always room for a few near geniuses at the very top, but what they want the most of is guys clever enough to know which part to replace, and that's what they'll pay for. And, you get what you pay for.
Brian.Dean
50%
50%
Brian.Dean,
User Rank: Ninja
4/18/2014 | 10:01:48 PM
Re: Continuing education
Great article, the challenges that an IT professional faces (or any professional) can become overwhelming overtime if left unchecked, on the other hand it's enjoyable (rewarding in the long-run) if updating skills/knowledge/information is viewed as a necessary core responsibility of the job itself. The latter is the logical option and it is not easy for example, an individual might begin a job or entrepreneurship and then deduce that they need to complete a Master's degree to deliver better service, and after completing the degree will deduce that more information is needed and so on. 

And thank you for the quotation, I have heard about Manager A many times and every time the reasoning would always divert towards the measures that could be taken to limit the capital or time loss that the business will face if the trained staff do leave. But now the more I think about it, Manager B's point is more important not only during regular business operations but also during a stage when the business is expanding.
Laurianne
50%
50%
Laurianne,
User Rank: Author
4/18/2014 | 2:32:02 PM
Re: Engineers
Thanks for sharing those resources, Lawrence. Based on your wargaming suggestion, sounds like hackathons could help teach some critical thinking, too. I am going to ask my Twitter contacts about similar resources on IT administration. Maybe we can come up with a good set. I'll report back.
Somedude8
100%
0%
Somedude8,
User Rank: Ninja
4/18/2014 | 2:07:46 PM
Re: Engineers
Great find on those Youtube videos!
LawrenceGarvin
100%
0%
LawrenceGarvin,
User Rank: Author
4/18/2014 | 1:59:37 PM
Re: Engineers
Absolutely agree. Recently I've taken to describing this as the "throw mud against the wall" approach. The inherent problem with this approach though is I've seen a lot of people throw so much mud at the wall that they can no longer find the exit door. If it goes too far, that mud starts sliding off the walls and pooling on the floor making an even bigger mess.

The concept of "how to write a program" is one of the skills that the legacy four-year programs did bring to the table (even if they were still doing it with FORTRAN and COBOL well into the 1990s; a few introduced C in the 1980s). In fact, I daresay my undergraduate courses focused a lot more on logic and process development than it did syntax specifics. (Of course, pushing a card deck through a card reader for time-sharing on a System/360 definitely encourages you to minimize syntax issue on the front side. Exceptionally frustrating to get a source printout the next morning during the last week of class only to find out you missed a trailing semi-colon on a Pascal statement.)

To that point, and Laurianne's about MOOCs, Stanford University published course material on their three most popular Software Engineering courses, which I was able to obtain through Microsoft's now-gone Zune podcast library, but they're also available on YouTube:

CS106A - Programming Methodology [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KkMDCCdjyW8]

CS106B - Programming Abstractions [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kMzH3tfP6f8]

CS107 - Programming Paradigms [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ps8jOj7diA0]

I just wish similar types of courses existed for those in IT operations and administration. (Maybe they do and I've just not found them yet.)
Somedude8
100%
0%
Somedude8,
User Rank: Ninja
4/18/2014 | 1:36:06 PM
Engineers
I belive that what is missing is the Engineering mindset. What we have today is more of what Pete Goodliffe describes as a Tinker-Crash, Tinker-Crash mindset. Keep trying stuff until the code compiles, then call it done. I see far too little effort to understand the cause of the code not compiling.

This leads us to the current state where so many programmers work based on what amounts to little more than superstition, having little true understanding.

One day, a couple of programmers were having a mostly civil disagreement about code editors. One was a huge fan of Sublime Text (which is pretty dang cool actually), and how he could do X and Y so much faster, and do Z with a single keystroke. The two guys went back and forth for a bit talking about how this or that feature made them even faster. Thing is, both of them wrote horrendous code. I finally couldn't take it anymore and butted in with something to the effect that faster was the last thing either of them needed, that what they needed was to slow down and THINK for a second before the started to write any code. I was not as polite as I could have been, it was not my finest hour. But I had been spending the last several days fixing their code, fixing simple mistakes that should have never been made.

I was very fortunate to come in to programming as a career change from an engineering discipline. My two cents: In a 4 year program, spend the first two learning an engineering discipline completely unrelated to IT. Learn to think a certain way, then the right answers come naturally.
LawrenceGarvin
50%
50%
LawrenceGarvin,
User Rank: Author
4/18/2014 | 12:28:13 PM
Re: Continuing education
I think that MOOCs can make it easier for IT pros, but that still requires the IT pro to have the initiative and self-discipline to complete the course. The other thing I've long recommended for IT pros is an online library subscription. There are many other resources also available.

Stretch projects are definitely a great way to develop critical thinking skills, but also just wargaming a problem around a conference table that directly relates to the workplace and job can help. "If this <server> you're responsible for administering demonstrates <these symptoms>... what's your approach." Of necessity, however, this process requires three things: [1] a facilitator, [2] a mentor, and [3] a committment from the employer to invest the worktime on the task.

This could also be done on an individual basis. Offer a staff member a "homework assignment" that involves developing and exercising critical thinking skills. For some staff members, it may require some preliminary classroom education on the type of physical and mental tools that can be used in the process. I'm continually amazed at the number of IT pros who can find a public forum to ask a Level 100 question, but apparently were not aware or (worse, I fear sometimes) simply not willing to start with the basic resources: Like product documentation or a search engine.

But even more so than just continuing education to keep up with new skills, a notable number of first-year IT pros barely have the skills necessary to perform their assigned job duties. If it's the intent of the employer to hire a green candidate, that's great! Everybody needs someplace to start, and I applaud those employers willing to take the risk. But taking the risk also means committing to the investment in developing that staff member.

I'm reminded of a recent quote, which unfortunately I've lost the source for so cannot attribute as I'd like: Manager A: "What happens if we train 'em and they leave?" Manager B: "Worse, what happens if we don't and they stay?"
Laurianne
100%
0%
Laurianne,
User Rank: Author
4/18/2014 | 11:28:01 AM
Continuing education
Lawrence, don't MOOCs make it easier than ever for IT pros to learn a new skill or brush up on an existing one? Seems to me online learning suits this need well. Less expensive than the training classes of old, too. On another topic, what strategies do you recommend for developing critical thinking skills in staff members? Stretch projects and what else? Thanks.
<<   <   Page 6 / 6
The Business of Going Digital
The Business of Going Digital
Digital business isn't about changing code; it's about changing what legacy sales, distribution, customer service, and product groups do in the new digital age. It's about bringing big data analytics, mobile, social, marketing automation, cloud computing, and the app economy together to launch new products and services. We're seeing new titles in this digital revolution, new responsibilities, new business models, and major shifts in technology spending.
Register for InformationWeek Newsletters
White Papers
Current Issue
InformationWeek Tech Digest September 18, 2014
Enterprise social network success starts and ends with integration. Here's how to finally make collaboration click.
Flash Poll
Video
Slideshows
Twitter Feed
InformationWeek Radio
Sponsored Live Streaming Video
Everything You've Been Told About Mobility Is Wrong
Attend this video symposium with Sean Wisdom, Global Director of Mobility Solutions, and learn about how you can harness powerful new products to mobilize your business potential.