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4/18/2014
09:16 AM
Lawrence Garvin
Lawrence Garvin
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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.

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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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gnbrooks..1
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gnbrooks..1,
User Rank: Apprentice
4/21/2014 | 2:24:59 PM
One of the old timers
I am one of your old timers that learned mostly on the job. I did go to school and got some instruction there but most of that education was aimed at programming. I do very little programming (if I can help it) beyond writig some scripts.

Education is important but it must be timely. Universitied have been notoriusly slow to respond (I worked for one, I know) and tech schools nortoriously incomplete. 

I have come to relaize over the years that the first key is knowing who has the appititude for this business. I have hired people with great paper credentials show could not get a thing done and some with no paper credentials who were great. So education is not the only consideration.

I agree that critical thinking is sorely lacking in education today. I would like to see more of it in education. I woudl also like for education to be a good balance between practical and theoretical. It seems that it is useually an either, or, proposition. You need exposure to both.

For the practiciing professional, training runs is a boone and bain. You need it to keep current, but with the constant change in technologies, it is hard to justify the ROI. Even certification tracks are so temporary, it is very hard to find an adaquate ROI on investing in certifcations.

Companies have very little interest in developing people for their organization, so training is a rare benefit of emplyment these days. Outsourcing helps them avoid the training issue.

I agree that IT education needs an overhaul.

 
moarsauce123
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moarsauce123,
User Rank: Ninja
4/21/2014 | 1:38:51 PM
Re: Clean up curricula
I cannot speak for all universities since I attended only two for a longer period of time, but the critical thinking skills that the arts, history, science courses are supposed to deliver were blatantly absent from the courses I know of. It was the same stuff that was covered in high school ad nauseam and yielded zero new skills. It mainly was busy work.

I learned problem solving skills especially in the course "Human Behavior in Complex Organizations". While it was mainly cover personnell matters we had to decide based on little information on how to proceed in a given case. We were allowed to propose anything except for firing people. All cases discussed did indeed happen as such and all cases were resolved without layoffs through creative means of problem solving. Am I honestly to be believe that I could get the same insight by answering the same questions as years earlier about "The Great Gatsby"? Or fill in any other work of literature.

I also did not see any point in attending art history 101 and instead opted for the more expensive sculpturing class. Unfortunately, that was a disappointment as there was no effort made to discuss the necessary material science. Contrary, the course about theatre lighting was way more informative because we went deep into the science of color and the effects on humans. But that class was not an a US university. I did undergraduate studies abroad at a run of the mill European university which was academically way more challenging than the US schools.

Don't get me wrong, I am not against these general knowledge producing courses. My point is that they have no place in a STEM curriculum at a university. For stuff like that we have high school, which unfortunately is often enough the beginning of the sorry state of IT education.
DDURBIN1
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DDURBIN1,
User Rank: Ninja
4/21/2014 | 9:41:46 AM
Short Term Career
Somehow I've made it over 40 years in IT.  I'm a rarity.  When asked if I think its a good field to get into I tell them only if you want a 20 year career because at or before that milestone you'll be kicked to the curb by corporate America.  Plus you'll have to compete against H1-B visa people that will work practically for nothing to get into this country while continually educating yourself without reimbursement from your employer to stay hirable.  Gone are the days when corporations actually invested in IT people.  Instead when a corporation makes a technology change it also changes the IT people right alone with it.  I've seen it over and over again and again.
proberts551
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proberts551,
User Rank: Strategist
4/21/2014 | 9:14:14 AM
Education or Skills
What you learn about information technology is not really based on what school you went to, or how long you have been at the job.  Schooling is great if you are motivated, and not just going through the motions to get a peice of paper or a paycheck. 

I have worked with people that have I.T. degrees that know their stuff, and people with I.T. degrees that seem to know nothing.  Weather it is school learning, or on the job learning, you get out of it, what you put into it. 

In the past, I worked for a manager at a corporation that has only a Gormet degree.  She was having to learn the management job, but knew what it took to do the I.T. job she came from.  I was rather supprised!  Schools, if you can afford them are great, but not the litmus test for being competent. 
twilliamson423
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twilliamson423,
User Rank: Strategist
4/21/2014 | 8:59:46 AM
Re: Is this an issue?
I agree that there are people in every industry that are not good problem solvers but, as an IT professional, you or I, or anyone else, should be able to follow logical patterns to find solutions to problems.

I used to work in manufacturing and problem solving almost got in the way. You were paid to assemble a part in a way specified by an engineer. Any deviation, no matter how it may solve a problem you were having in the production process, might create an end-product that was defective because it didn't fit the overall design.

In IT, we can expect every network to be a little different, every computer to have slightly different components, it is just the nature of being in a field where everything changes rapidly and constantly. If we can't use problem solving to find out why that computer can't find a server or why that computer doesn't have video, then we can't do our jobs. (I didn't mention writing code because I am truly a novice there but I understand the process.) These skills maybe aren't as critical in many fields, like sales or marketing, but I would argue those fields are arts, not sciences.

I think that is the point of the article, we need to think of IT as a science and not merely an production line creating computers for users to bang on.
PaulS681
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PaulS681,
User Rank: Ninja
4/20/2014 | 8:21:38 PM
Is this an issue?
I'm not even sure this is an issue? Where is the data to back this up? There are people in every industry who are not good problem solvers, that's not an IT thing. There are always people who learn everything and have a paper education but can't put it to use for the life of them.

Troubleshooting skills are universal. Thinking through a problem is a skill in itself.
PaulS681
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PaulS681,
User Rank: Ninja
4/20/2014 | 8:15:01 PM
Re: Clean up curricula
You are spot on jagibbons! I couldn't have said that better.

I would say that the point moarsauce123 is making would not help at all and would be a huge disservice to students. I'm not sure there is even a problem here.
jagibbons
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jagibbons,
User Rank: Ninja
4/19/2014 | 12:14:27 PM
Re: Clean up curricula
I would argue that most business courses don't teach critical thinking skills. They teach technical skills in a different concept. The stuff that moarsauce123 is suggesting be removed from curricula (arts, history, science, etc.) are the courses that teach one how to learn. Reading, understanding and debating master works of literature is the kind of activity that teaches the brain how to take information, assimilate its meaning, understand the logic and apply that to a situation in a completely different culture and time in history is exactly how you learn the critical thinking skills that the article and many of the comments are lamenting the absence of in most IT professionals. In the IT world, learning specific actions to troubleshoot an issue is easy. That's just memorization. Learning how to go about troubleshooting by identifying and classifying symptoms, then eliminating variables to narrow down a true root cause is a completely different kind of skill that I would argue are learned best through the humanities.
moarsauce123
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moarsauce123,
User Rank: Ninja
4/19/2014 | 8:34:20 AM
Clean up curricula
I agree, the problem is also that the university curricula are littered with stuff that is not related to the major. When I look at engineering curricula these days for a BS there are mandatory courses like biology, arts, history, physical education, English (as if we really need to read the Great Gatsby for the fifth time) and so on. I'm not saying that these are not interesting courses, but they contribute absolutely nothing to being a professional in a field.

A compromise may be having a computer or engineering history course, as English a technical writing course, but everything else not major specific needs to go. What I am missing in the curricula are courses such as "Ethics for Engineers" or as mentioned in the article "Problem solving"or at least a course that covers business finances.

I found those courses in MS curricula in some cases and at the university I went to for my MS had courses like "Human behavior in complex organizations", "Business Finance", "Production Management", and "Project Management". Those courses taught me knowledge that I can still apply on a regular basis. I also tried myself with programming, but programming hates me and I hate programming although I found a home with PHP and can make a few neat things as a hobbyist. But even that little expertise allowed me to understand how applications are put together. Working as a QA Analyst now all this helped me in my professional carreer. Unfortunately, I have yet to come across a BS or MS curriculum in engineering or computer science that puts sufficient focus on quality. Graduates all know how to write the most complicated code without any commentary or documentation (and no, writing well structured code is NOT sufficient documentation!), if it compiles they tell the product owner the task is done, and we QA folks have to come up with n arguments why bug fixing needs to happen now before cramming in more buggy features.

That said, learning on the job is still the best, which means that a reasonably long internship with a deliverable ought to be part of curricula as well. Maybe universities deliver better graduates when they focus on academics rather than on athletics, that would also lower tuition.
petey
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petey,
User Rank: Strategist
4/19/2014 | 7:26:18 AM
training vs. education
Training is not the same as education. Universities today seem to be more into the development of training programs than education of general principles. Why? Because education is a business and you have to follow the money. One can become a technician or a designer. They require different skill sets. At the moment, businesses seem to be requiring more technicians than designers. IT presents unique challenges because it touches all facets of business. Unlike sales or engineering, both difficult and complex areas, IT has to meet the needs of the entire corporation, which can be even more challenging. Until business decides what is most important: education or training, and what they are willing to pay for, the future remains cloudy. The engineering discipline has faced some of these issues, requiring more general business classes in their curriculums. But if businesses are unwilling to pay for this extra cost, there will be no demand and the education community will not change. These are tough choices and require investment, well thought out strategies and execution--most of which are in short supply in today's business world of cost cutting to meet the quarterly numbers. 
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