The Sorry State Of IT Education - InformationWeek
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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.

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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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User Rank: Apprentice
4/25/2014 | 2:24:22 PM
Education and Professionalism?
I'm old enough (67) to have lived and experienced most of what is being discussed here.  Over the years, I've watched the "professional educators" test their "theories" on education of children such that now we are seeing high school graduates that can't make change correctly even with a calculator.  Just because someone has gone to "University" and obtained a teaching "degree" does not mean that they can "teach"!

In the 70's I was a "professional" accountant, had my own public accounting practice, and luckily for me hired another "professional" accountant on staff (wanted to bring him in as a partner)(he graduated same time as me).  I say luckily, because as soon as I discovered: a. I had to help him to do his own personal tax return and b. He could not do bank reconciliation(s) yet he was supposedly doing this for my clients, I quickly let him go.

Currently, I'm amazed at the number of times (dealing with "professional" accountants) I have to carefully explain simple "logic".  The attitude always is: I have a degree, you don't: you don't know anything.  Unfortunately, the same attitude applies to "teachers".  Years ago I heard the expression: "Those who can, do; those who can't, teach."  This would seem to be becoming truer.

I've "done" basic punch cards on an IBM mainframe.  I've owned 2 Phillips P320 4K mag card "computers". 
I've owned a Texas Instruments 990 Mini computer ( upgraded memory from 128K to 1M myself early 80's).  Designed and wrote own accounting system with COBOL and had clients doing remote access with acoustic modems (1200 baud).

In 94? I applied at a local college to teach accounting, bookkeeping, computers, etc. at their nightschool.  Eventually was told thanks for applying but I was "over qualified".  (And needed teaching "degree").
User Rank: Author
4/25/2014 | 12:46:34 PM
Re: Will Companies Spend on IT Employee Training?

No, the employer did not pay for any specific professional development formal instruction, but then that was not actually the purpose of the exercise. Reimbursement was available for certification fees and, in some cases, certification courses, although I'm not aware of any instance where a staff member claimed that. The purpose of the directive (and why it was only 4 hours/week), was to explicitly instill the discipline of self-directed development. How the staff member faciliated that, whether reading books, trade journals, attending in-person events, etc., was at the discretion of that staff member.

Regarding the universities which had curricula in the 1950s and 1960s, an important distinction needs to be made between those which were engineering-based for the design of computing hardware, and those which were more geared toward the use of computing devices, in the realm of operations and programming.  There's no doubt there were EE programs available, lest the machines would have never been built in the first place. Nonetheless, I believe you'll find that most of the *programmers* of those mainframes in the 1960s were not college trained. In fact, it was a particularly rare employee who had even attended college in that time frame.

User Rank: Author
4/25/2014 | 12:25:03 PM
Re: 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

Thank you for reading the bio, Terry, and I checked. You're absolutely right, and I've mistaken the system that was in place back when I was a teenager. Based on the chronology, that would have actually been an IBM System/3. The bio will be corrected.
Number 6
Number 6,
User Rank: Moderator
4/25/2014 | 12:16:35 PM
Will Companies Spend on IT Employee Training?
Good article although Lawrence makes some minor factual mistakes- more on that later.

The big question is whether companies will invest in training their IT employees. Lawrence says that he instructed his staff to spend 10% of their time on professional development but did his firm actually pay for any of the development? CEOs would rather cry that they can't find people with the skills they need here, although somehow they think they can in low-wage countries, rather than developing those skills among their existing employees. The research shows that companies have dropped training programs that used to exist. See Dr. Peter Cappelli's excellent book "Why Good People Can't Get Jobs" that explodes the skills myth.

Factual errors:

Computer science curricula were in place in several universities by the 1960s. Cambridge had the first in 1953. Purdue was first in the US in 1962. Penn's EE department offered computer courses going back to the ENIAC days of the 1940s and had a separate CSE major by the mid-1960s.

The System/38 was "introduced" by IBM in October 1978.

Professional Engineering certification in Computer Engineering has been available for several years. Whether this is applicable or desirable for IT positions is questionable. Professional certification in general is usually mandated by governments to protect public safety. That's why not all degreed engineers get a PE. Usually those working for corporations do not. Those doing consulting work or working for the government often do.
User Rank: Apprentice
4/25/2014 | 11:47:19 AM
Re: Sorry State of IT
You have this backwords.  It is the companies that have caused this. School is only the first part of the education process.   In the "old" days, Senior IT folks took time to mentor the new folks.   Today it is all about doing things faster with less resources.  And the first that went was developing new talent.  The problem is, it takes time and patience develop talent.   And most companies aren't willing to make that investment.   So don't use Then add in the impacts of outsourcing.   The outsource vendor does all the learning during the design and implemention of a system and then walks out the door with all of the "corporate knowledge".   And then management can't undestand why the staff strugles to support the system.   
User Rank: Apprentice
4/25/2014 | 11:43:22 AM
Well, YES: If we look at the mos recent K-12 academic standards being peddled around these days, there is NOT EVEN MENTION to the simplest numeric system that rules the IT industry and controls most of our activities.  Although the binary system and its aritmetic operations are simpler and can be introduced enjoyably into the curriculum at the earliest grades, there seems to be no awareness of this by the current educational establishment.  It seems also that most IT professionals (IEEE?) are not aware either, and often times are not willing, or can not afford to become active participants in reshaping elementary and secondary education to help build the attitude and skills that support our IT industries.

User Rank: Ninja
4/25/2014 | 10:58:32 AM
Re: Technology - Job loss - Education
No doubt the IT profession is experience some of the displacement that occured in the business departments when automation was applied.  We no longer have "invoicing" departments filled with A/R clerks banging out invoices on type writters.  However I've seen and experienced first had the commodity treatment of IT personnel.  I started out in costume developement for mainframes (COBOL, IMS/DL-1, CICS).  I was lucky enough to get some UNIX experience.  I then was hired to implement UNIX systems (HP, SAP, Oracle) in a mainframe shop.  None of the company's mainframe personnel where offered training in the Unix systems.  They all were replaced.  I then was lucky enought to get some experience in Windows Server.  I then was hired to implement Windows systems in a UNIX shop.  Guess what, none of the Unix personnel where offered training and were replaced.  These companies still needed System Administirators, Database Admin, Application Analysts, and the likes but chose to replace rather than invest.  Each lost a LOT of business knowledge in their IT staff and both suffered in the short term.  Now I'm trying to get some cloud and SAAS experience but not having much luck.  I think my time may have come to an end in IT.
User Rank: Apprentice
4/25/2014 | 10:45:40 AM
Totally disagree
I totally disagree with this article. The sorry state of IT education part is true, but the way IT is taught needs to have multiple levels of instruction. Most IT degrees are VERY theoretical and they are long programs . The industry is moving too fast. There are smart people with degrees in other fields out there very capable of programming but cannot afford to go back to school for 4 years to get a degree. Where are the programming certificates? Where is the A+ Certificate of Programming. Not every programmer needs to be a theoretical genius. They just need skills that can get them started. Speaking of getting started....don't get me started on the sorry state of on the job training. IT companies offer little of no on the job training, they expect you to hit the job running....there are NO entry level positions...every position is a "senior" or "lead" programmer. Programming can be a craft... Programmers need to learn the craft. That is what school is for. Every class I have taken doesn't teach craft. It jumps right I with theoretical mumbo jumbo where teachers try to prove how much a genius they are by giving you complex problems right off the bat, instead of teaching a simple craft they want you to get discouraged and quit. Most IT teachers are not teachers at all, they are IT people that know their craft but don't know how to teach it. That's the sorry part.
User Rank: Strategist
4/25/2014 | 10:15:01 AM
Technology - Job loss - Education
 Quoted from you   "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"    I do agree with about all you said.

In some instances like in the medical field, many,many transcription departments disappeared and many women who were employed lost thier jobs because HMO's reworked their business model. Instead of whole large rooms filled with transcriptionists, listening to doctor reports and typing them out on word processors or computers, you now have the doctor typing his report on a computer located in a hallway between each patient.  Boom! Jobs gone.

  The same is happening with data centers across the united states as India takes big data for cheper rates than what companies supposedly spend in the United States.  This is a very a Volatile career in information technology. Data center jobs gone, Boom!

Not only is it constanly changing, but so are the available jobs.  Much of I.T. is not hired positions any longer, but contacted out to contract agencies.  Only a few hired people that know the business direct the temp workers to projects.  It is difficult for schools to keep up with this, and to keep people in a hired role, teaching skills so they can be on a hire list.  It is key that schools forecast the direction of future jobs, not what is out there at this moment.  No one really wants to be living the "Contract life"  No vacations, No benefits, and Extreme high healthcare costs...
User Rank: Strategist
4/25/2014 | 10:07:00 AM

I am glad your comment was the first one I read.

From 1977 to 1980 I was the department head of Computer Science at a two-year technical college.  We were having a hard time attracting full-time professors to our school because of the low pay.

I had a chance to hire a PhD in Philosophy who had a minor in natural language theory, and knew several computer languages.  She enjoyed teaching and wanted to do that rather than go out into "industry".  At that time I knew I was going to leave the school, and recommended that she be hired as my replacement.  The Dean of Instruction could not be convinced that this woman would be capable of being the department head and teaching courses like compiler design.

Eventually I left, and was "replaced" by the registrar of the college, whose sole computer science experience was that he knew the language BASIC.  What happened to the program after that still brings tears to my eyes.


Jon "maddog" Hall
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