Strategic CIO // Executive Insights & Innovation
Commentary
4/18/2014
09:16 AM
Lawrence Garvin
Lawrence Garvin
Commentary
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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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DDURBIN1
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DDURBIN1,
User Rank: Ninja
4/22/2014 | 11:52:28 AM
Re: Short Term Career

@proberts551, Age discrimination is not just in the IT profession although IT was the first to be attacked beginning in the early nineties when the wealthy convinced government to issue H1-B visas, used for the most part to displace aging IT workers under the disguise of filling the technology skill shortages gap.  Now after 20 years the process of displacing older workers with H1-B workers continues under the same disguise of filling skill shortages.  You would think that after 20 years corporations would have placed skills education for existing IT personnel high on their investment list by now but it's still much easier to just buy what you need when you need it and that includes buying younger people over older ones.

DDURBIN1
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DDURBIN1,
User Rank: Ninja
4/22/2014 | 11:21:18 AM
Re: Forcing education
@tomskaczmarek, Your attitude toward business technology is typical, basically about as important to the business as a stapler.  However companies that implement a Cisco infrastucture are not doing it for the IT.  Companies that implement an ERP system are not doing it for the IT.  Companies that implement a VOIP system aren't doing it for the IT.  Companies that implement BI or Big Data are not doing it for the IT.  Companies creating a mobile App aren't doing it for the IT. Companies that implement EDI are not doing it for the IT.  Companies that implement ANY business techology are NOT DOING IT FOR THE IT.  They are doing IT for the business.
tomskaczmarek
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tomskaczmarek,
User Rank: Apprentice
4/22/2014 | 10:59:34 AM
Re: Forcing education
DDURBIN1, we live in a world of specialization. Companies are forced through competition to concentrate and invest in the core business. For most of the Fortune 2000 companies, the core business is not information technology. While many companies realize that the application of IT can be a business benefit, the focus is on the strategic application of IT in the core business functions, not the technology. This devaluates the knowledge of technology and raises the value on the knowledge of how the business can use the technology in core business functions.

In the example, the Cisco infrastructure is not core business to most companies. It is the core business to Cisco and companies that provide the specialized service of implementing such technology. Employees interested in a deeper knowledge of technology may have to react to the business climate and seek employment at companies that have technology as their core business.
DDURBIN1
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DDURBIN1,
User Rank: Ninja
4/22/2014 | 10:21:51 AM
Re: Forcing education
Show me a business doing real long term planning with real execution according to the plan and you might find one understanding your point.  Unfortunately the over whelming major of fortune 2000 companies do limited long term planning (generally for financial purposes only) followed by a steam of primarily tactical execution that may or may not follow the plan.  Everything is done with short term thinking and short term results.  They only know what they want just a few moments before they need it.  This allows no time for present IT personnel to keep up even on their own.  For example, if a company decides to implement a Cisco communication infrastructure it is easier, cheaper, and faster to "buy" certified Cisco personnel than create them in the time frame between decision and execution.  Sadly, this typical business technology acquisition process devalues existing IT personnel so companies are very much less likely to invest in them or care about them for that matter.  None of the other areas of the business are treated in this manner, not Purchasing, not Sales, not Accounting, not Engineering, none.  Ever see an H1-B visa for a Buyer or CPA?  Maybe if we eliminated the H1-B visa for IT jobs, applied to IT for over 20 years now, corporations will do better long term planning and get back to investing in people again instead of buying what they need when they need it.
KoletteS710
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KoletteS710,
User Rank: Apprentice
4/22/2014 | 8:37:10 AM
Re: This seems the complete opposite of reality
KEvin-

 

Link, please? I watch a lot of "Eli the Computer Guy" at work, but im always up for more things to watch. 

 

I did find a series of videos by NetWorkKing, but im not sure if they are the same as the ones that you described. 
proberts551
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proberts551,
User Rank: Strategist
4/22/2014 | 8:32:42 AM
Re: Short Term Career
I agree with every word 100%  Age discrimination is rampant.  People are not Human beings, but merely workers.  I was taught quality over quantity.  The reason is because if you put quality in to a product, or even to the staff you hire,  you will get a better overall experience, and result.  Nowdays you are a comodity to be used, a human resource, not personell.  I grew up in a world when people actually cared about more than just money, and how cheap and how fast to get a job done. 
KevinC353
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KevinC353,
User Rank: Apprentice
4/22/2014 | 3:42:39 AM
This seems the complete opposite of reality
"Almost every profession requires its members to engage in continuing education. Not IT."

I barely ever see those in business management roles engaging in continuing education. However, a vast majority of my colleagues in the IT industry are ALWAYS studying and learning new technologies or gathering new skill sets. It's impossible to continue in the field if you aren't always learning and willing to adapt. The nature of the field is that a few years down the road everything will change. If your IT pros aren't willing to take advantage of employer provided assistance(which should be available for any company that wants a real IT pro), they're going to be passed by in a short span of time.

Also the idea that individuals in IT tend to garner most of their knowledge by word of mouth from other IT colleagues is accurate for the industry a decade ago, but not as relevent in this day and age. We are in an age where vast amounts of information are at your fingertips. If I needed assistance on new products or troubleshooting, I could find thousands of blogs, forum posts and reference manuals with a simple Google search. Why would you limit your available pool of resources to one individual?

A few years ago it was difficult to consider funding many of the very expensive training classes geared towards working IT professionals. Yet very recently I have noticed a big jump in free and reduced cost training options. VMware started offering their required class at various local community colleges around the US(Savings of nearly $4k), I myself am currently brushing up on my networking skills in an 84-part Youtube CCNA class(free) and am registered for a free Linux course by Edx later this year.

I agree that one of the most important skills for any employee is the ability to adapt, but I see that as a much smaller problem in the IT sector versus general business operations roles. Can you imagine a world where we threw out Excel in two years? Could the average worker adapt fast enough?

Edit: I wanted to add my sincere belief that the hiring process for IT will start to revert back to the Jack-of-all-trades mentality from decades ago. As we start to break down the Silo mentality and implement more and more GUI administration and orchestration, one quality individual will start to take over tasks that have recently been divided into specific expert roles. Lose the Silo>Lose the Specialists. 
LawrenceGarvin
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LawrenceGarvin,
User Rank: Author
4/21/2014 | 5:52:46 PM
Re: Forcing education
All of those other professions also have accreditation boards, professional associations, state licensing, etc., who actually administer those continuing education programs, and association membership, board certification, and state licensing is a requirement to maintain employment in those professions.

Do we need to be forced to get continuing education. I certainly hope it never comes to that point; but there's no doubt that we need continuing education. We also need the awareness of our employers that continuing education is a necessary part of the job. It's no problem telling the Managing Partner of a law firm, or the Chief Administrator of a hospital that their staff lawyers and doctors need time to engage in education -- that's a de facto nature of employment in those fields. Unfortunately it's a very big problem to convince employers of IT pros that this is necessary. As pointed out elsewhere, not only is this a problem in itself, but business owners have become loathe to invest in IT pros in any form or fashion, the conventional wisdom being that they can just "buy it" when needed. That may be true today, while demand is fairly low; but when the price of those resources quadruple because there's a shortage of qualified people in the industry, it will be those very same business owners who come out on the short end of the stick. (Well, and those undertrained IT pros who can no longer find relevant employment in the industry.)

If you don't have continuing education, you won't stay relevant.

That's actually relevant itself. If the employer an IT pro works for is oblivious to the currency of the skill set of that IT pro staff member, it's not just the IT pro that's falling behind, it's also the employer. If the employer cannot be assured of implementing technology in a manner and form needed, because the staff members entrusted to do that are clueless about said technologies, then the employer is also at risk. To my point above, when buying the skills on the demand-market exceed the financial resources of that business, the business also becomes irrelevant.

The purpose of this article isn't to remind IT pros about what they should already know -- that failing to keep current can be a career-ending move -- but to remind employers that failing to create and maintain a work environment that facilitates and encourages the ability of that IT pro to stay current can also be a business-ending move.

 
PaulS681
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PaulS681,
User Rank: Ninja
4/21/2014 | 5:38:41 PM
Forcing education
"Almost every profession requires its members to engage in continuing education. Not IT."

Regarding the snippet above from the article, I don't see that as an issue at all. Do we need to be forced to get continuing education? If you don't you will not stay relevant, isn't that enough?
PaulS681
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PaulS681,
User Rank: Ninja
4/21/2014 | 5:33:42 PM
Re: Education or Skills
Excellent point proberts551...  You will get out what you put in to it, no matter how you get the training. IT is a demanding field that requires constant education.
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