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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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tcritchley07
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tcritchley07,
User Rank: Strategist
4/25/2014 | 9:33:22 AM
Re: GREAT ARTICLE - YOU HIT THE NAIL ON THE HEAD
That's what I meant in my comment below this one about 'prescriptive' teaching/learning.

Terry Critchley
Keith Fowlkes
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Keith Fowlkes,
User Rank: Apprentice
4/25/2014 | 9:14:01 AM
GREAT ARTICLE - YOU HIT THE NAIL ON THE HEAD
Larry, 

Thanks for your post and I believe you are RIGHT ON THE MONEY with this one.

My experience as a CIO and as a college faculty member has shown you to be so correct.  In the classroom, my students have had a very difficult time with being given abstract assignments (assignments that aren't laid out step by step for them) and pulling the pieces together to find a good solution or meeting a goal.  Occasionally, I've heard "why don't you just tell me the steps and I'll do them" in class and that is just not how real life works.

As a CIO, I've hired many, many people in my career and hired many excellent IT professionals.  Possibly one of the best that i've known was a woman with a philosophy degree.  She was comfortable with the abstract, creative and tenacious in finding solutions from the chaos.

I see so many students, politicians and parents say "just get my son or daughter a job after college" but it is so much more than that.  It is about crucial foundational skills for thinking critically and abstractly and coupling these skills with business and technical knowledge that moves the person from being a "techie" to being a contributing and fully functional team member with more skills than just programming a router or installing a motherboard.  Those fundamental skills of writing, math, philosophy, biology and more prepare students for a much larger "life of the mind" and open opportunities to them that go far beyond the technical.

Thanks for your post!  GREAT article.

Keith Fowlkes
CIO - Centre College
tcritchley07
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tcritchley07,
User Rank: Strategist
4/25/2014 | 8:58:09 AM
Sorry State of IT - Lawrence Garvin
Just to start, I don't think the S/38 existed when Lawrence Garvin tested his RPG program in 1974. That's by the by. Not sure what country we are talking about here but the UK new school syllabus is totally prescriptive and, in my view, unsuitable for moving into 'coal face' IT. Look for it on Google.

Terry Critchley
KevinC353
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KevinC353,
User Rank: Apprentice
4/23/2014 | 1:16:09 PM
Re: It's all in the liberal arts!
There are many degree programs that teach the scientific method. Which goes a long way towards the common sense training, if you actually believe one can 'learn' common sense. I don't have an issue with Liberal Arts degrees. I think they have a purpose. I do however believe that most should not be 4 year programs. In reality, most degree programs outside of highly technical or role specific ones(e.g. medical, engineering, law), should be 2 years of study. Gather the knowledge you need, then transition into the working world. The majority of people don't actually get jobs in the field that they studied. For the majority of roles, it would be far better to experience life on the job and continue to take the occasional class online to supplement your knowledge.
joshuapk
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joshuapk,
User Rank: Apprentice
4/22/2014 | 9:16:26 PM
It's all in the liberal arts!
What's funny about this is the fact that degree progams that would instill critical thinking skills are shunned, with quips like "Would you like fries with that?"  I'm talking about liberal arts degrees.

I went to a liberal arts school after I had started my IT career as a software developer.  Because I already had the needed skills, I decided to get a degree I wanted.  This turned out to be a BA in Philosophy.  I had a number of excellent professors who stretched my mind and taught me how to think through problems, see abstractions, and otherwise examine subjects critically.  Most of these skills were directly applicable to my professional work.  But they were also applicable to a wide variety of life circumstances - my degree has helped me a great deal.

My wife went to Johns Hopkins University as well as Ohio State.  She talks about their differences.  Take Chemistry, for example.  At Johns Hopkins, you might get a lab assignment:  "Given chemical compounds X, Y, and Z, make the new compound A.  You have three hours.  Go!"  You had to be able to know how to synthesize that compound A, or know how to find out.  At OSU, however, the assignments were more like, "Given chemical compounds X, Y, and Z, follow the formula I am giving you to make the new compound A.  You have three hours.  Go!"  No thinking involved in this assignment - just do the steps the professor has outlined for you.

This is why the RHCSA and RHCE certifications are so valuable.  Microsoft (and other certs) say, "Answer these hundred questions correctly and you get a cert!"  RedHat says, "Here is a real broken system with a real OS installation.  Fix it any way you know how, and then install these X number of services.  You have X hours.  Go!"  If your system doesn't come out as they specify, you don't get the cert.  You cannot obtain a RHCE without being able to think through problems.
johnathanbick
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johnathanbick,
User Rank: Apprentice
4/22/2014 | 1:16:05 PM
Sorry State of IT
IT is in a sorry state today especially those involved in managememt. The management wants to increase the number of h1-bs to 300,000  a year. 5000 is the number of new houses built in the bay area each year. Around 200000 is how many bay area residents will be displaced as a result.

This example shows the short term thinking that prevades the IT industry Perhaps management should be made to take some basic math courses.
KevinC353
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KevinC353,
User Rank: Apprentice
4/22/2014 | 12:57:19 PM
Re: This seems the complete opposite of reality
@KoletteS710 The Youtube link is https://www.youtube.com/user/ShrikeCast. He also has a website associated with the series: https://gumroad.com/l/ccnatraining.

 

To follow up on some other great comments I read..

I think that IT is a great field for those that really enjoy learning. Unlike many careers where you may learn most of your skill sets early on, those in IT need to continue the learning process for the rest of their career. If you realize that at the start of the career choice, I think you will be fine.

Despite the current short term profit over long term goal mentality in business, we all must be aware of the cyclical nature of the business world and the IT sector. IT took a big hit due to the private sector not seeing employees as a part of the business and more of a capital expense. Yet that happened all across the economy. When we start to realize that those same "capital expenses" are our consumer base, things will start to flow in the opposite direction. It's a cycle much like the IT role in corporate America in general. We had the day of the IT Rockstar, which turned to IT Specialists, we will most likely return to the IT rockstar in a couple years until new ground breaking tech changes the game again. 

I also don't have a huge problem with the Visa IT wave. Some that I've met have been fantastic individuals that I respect greatly, but most aren't as flexible in other areas of business. Being able to see the endgame and anticipate how the end user's worklife will be affected by changes you make is an important part of being an IT professional. If you cannot empathize and put yourself in their shoes now and again, you are thinking short term. 

 
tomskaczmarek
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tomskaczmarek,
User Rank: Apprentice
4/22/2014 | 12:34:49 PM
Re: Forcing education

 

In our time of specialization, obtaining and maintaining an employable skill set is a challenge. Being shown the door can be devastating because HR departments are particularly clueless about the requirement for cross-functional knowledge, the kind that Garvin was suggesting is important in his commentary.  

 

DDURBIN1
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DDURBIN1,
User Rank: Ninja
4/22/2014 | 12:25:35 PM
Re: Forcing education
It is always a business decision.  Nothing is ever done for "IT".  As IT is a means to an end supporting business.  You can still use a type writer to create a letter but the business has determined its more efficient to use a word processor.  You can still use a word processor to create a letter but the business has determined its more efficient to use a desktop computer.  You can use a desktop computer to create a letter but the business has determined its more efficient to use a tablet with a cloud service.  As business technology advances so does the cycle of implementation and replacement.  When companies went from type writers to word processors they didn't get rid of all the secreataries that didn't know how to use a word processor and again when desktop computers replaced word processors.  But in IT, Mainframe people were replaced with UNIX people and then UNIX people replaced with Windows Server people.  Change the business techology the business users stay with re-education while the IT support people get replaced. It's to bad the IT people are not upgraded the same as the technology.  

 
tomskaczmarek
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tomskaczmarek,
User Rank: Apprentice
4/22/2014 | 12:21:08 PM
Re: Forcing education
@DDURBIN1 Precisely. IT is there to serve the business in cases where IT is not the business.

Your term "business technology" is interesting. Many technologies impact business, some more than others. Can a business invest in all of them?

The mobile app that you mention is also interesting. How deep into the technology of mobility ought the company that is deploying the app go? What aspects of the mobile app should the company care about? Who in the company needs to know what about the technology to make it profitable for the business?  What are the long term implications of limitations on knowledge about mobile apps and devices?
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