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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.

[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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User Rank: Apprentice
5/16/2014 | 12:41:28 PM
State of Education
I find it interesting people continually blame the Educational System for the performance issues of the students. Education is NOT a manufacturing process with a product that can be quality controlled with the expectation that all students will "come out equal'. Education is expected to produce a uniform product but is given non-uniform materials (people) to produce from. We try and try to teach thinking skills and problem solving but everyone is expected to graduate with honors so we really cannot filter out those that do not develop those skills "on schedule" or perhaps will not ever. Thinking and problem solving are skills developed over time and with experience and guidance and occasionally require some degree of mental anquish and frustration but always requires persistance and perspiration. Sad but true not all people will develop the skills after x years of eduaction, get a grip on that, learn to recognize and reward those that can and have developed thinking skills and have a job for those that have not yet or cannot develop those skills. The old experiment of the chimpanzee in the room with a table and stick and bananas tied to ceiling, some figured it out and some didn't, applies to people faced with problems to solve, some will eat bananas and some will have to be fed. Don't blame the schools for things the students can't learn--how good are YOU at Differential Equation solutions?, if not very good-is that your schools fault or yours? rmj
User Rank: Apprentice
5/5/2014 | 2:36:25 PM
Re: Continuing education
Great article, that means different things to different people. With respect to computer technicians, not programmers, it's only partially relevant.

If you look for a computer tech job on craigslist, you'll see a number of employers who are offering $10-$12/hour for a temp hire tech support job. Why would the best and the brightest want to work in a field that pays that kind of money?

My first computer job was in 1983, and in all of the computer tech jobs I've had since then, not one single employer ever offered to send me to any kind of tech school. There were a couple of opportunities for minimal education reimbursement, if you took the courses outside of work, on your own time.

Compare that with a non-IT tech support job I once had, where the employer paid my salary, for six weeks of full time out-of-state training, on the products that they sold and supported. The IT industry reaps what it sows.

I don't agree with the assumption that troubleshooting skills can be taught in college. I've had literally tens of thousands of tech support interactions; most people simply aren't wired for troubleshooting. Surely you've heard of right-brain left-brain? If I wanted to hire a programmer, I'd be looking at their math skills first, not for a degree in philosophy. It's rather absurd to think that pontification from a podium is going to teach you how to troubleshoot. You either have the innate ability and interest, or you don't. Creative types usually do not.

Lastly, the IT industry isn't entirely ignoring ongoing education. CompTIA gave me an A+ for life, but then turned around and created another level of A+, that involves ongoing education. Government contractors won't take my A+ any longer, I have to re-take the entire A+ test again. CompTIA no longer offers any lifetime certs.

Tech support certs don't teach you troubleshooting per se, but since you must know the basics before you can even attempt to troubleshoot, they serve a valuable purpose.
User Rank: Strategist
4/30/2014 | 6:05:45 AM
Re: Education and Professionalism?
At 67 you are what 'Gabby' Hayes called a 'young whippersnapper'. I must be the only living exponent of IBM's card BPS, a card-based OS and compiler. Those were the days!

Terry Tortoise.
User Rank: Black Belt
4/29/2014 | 7:53:30 PM
Re: Sorry State of IT
As you correctly said it is important to enhance your knowledge in other areas too. Mainly when it comes to higher IT professions.  This will help them to easily move around with people. 
User Rank: Black Belt
4/29/2014 | 7:53:01 PM
Re: Sorry State of IT
"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" this is very true.  I believe people easily move into the IT filed than any other field.
User Rank: Apprentice
4/26/2014 | 9:11:12 AM
Re: Problem solving, Data Literacy and Systems Thinking - the future of IT
Some comments:

First, I believe there is some "science" in "computer science" - there are careful, well-defined fundamental principles with theory and proofs etc. Obviously, an enormous challenge in education is how much to teach of a LOT of loosely related areas including theory, programming, data analysis, problem solving, software engineering methodology(including project management) and then choosing from a plethora of technologies, from those of historical interest to dominant ones to current fads. I think it is actually pretty hard for any of us who have been around a long time and in many different contexts to understand what the world looks like to a 19 year old.

There are so many chicken and egg problems, it can boggle the mind. There are things that sound fundamental and important, and yet, without some context of what might seem like unimportant skills in some technology, don't have any meaning to the student.

Second, I agree that understanding data is one of very important areas. When I taught university, as one coming from industry, I probably did more with this than the average program does. People who understand data and can maniputlate it etc. get paid very well for that skill.

There are two "soft skills" that have received a lot of attention for a long time - yet we don't really know "how" to teach them:
 1) Problem solving and worse 2) Design. I think the best writing on design is Fred Brooks' book "The Design of Design" and he seems to have succeeded in teaching design to some extent. These two areas are ones where to me, there is a legitimate, active question of how much the ultimate skill depends more on the the person (i.e. just how capable are they) than the teaching.
User Rank: Strategist
4/25/2014 | 5:14:44 PM
Re: My Experience with the "who" of IT training.  This is the UK Proposed ICT curriculum for schools I mentioned before. Other documentation lists 'contributors', none of whom are from industry or even the major mature suppliers i.e. not Microsoft and Google who are in here pitching their wares. One supporter said 'we might even get the next Facebook from it all. WE need another (or even the current) Facebook like a hole in the head.

I've argued this with a very senior academic involved in this and we agreed to differ on the point I made 'that he who pays the piper, calls the tune',meaning industry, not academics, teachers and various geeks. Scan the URL above and see what I mean.

Terry Tortoise

User Rank: Apprentice
4/25/2014 | 4:20:43 PM
My Experience with the "who" of IT training.
I taught a lot of IT in several contexts:
1. As a developer/instructor working for IBM and teaching IBM Systems
Engineers technical courses.
2. As an instructor with IBM teaching IBM customers technical courses.
(Note: I did many other technical jobs for IBM besides education)
3. As a university faculty member in a small liberal arts college
teaching effectively 1/2 of the curriculum (and developing
changes/new courses etc.

My comments on what you wrote:

1. The "who" is very important - many of the people who learned on the
job were highly motivated and learned it because they
really wanted to. I was in the category (I graduated as a chemical
engineer and began programming to model oil refining).
Some university students are like this - they just like computer science
and learn far more than what they have to do for
courses. Others do the minimum.

The people I taught as an IBM instructor (IBMers and customers) were
generally very highly motivated - it was a privilege to go take a week
or two
away from the job and concentrate on learning. Some of our classes for
just IBMers were 7AM-5PM with extensive homework prep for
the next day's labs and people loved it.

2. Universities can be very slow to adapt. This is for good reasons (too
rapid change makes for chaos in graduation requirements
and course sequencing) and bad reasons (universities have a lot of
people who are coasting and are hopelessly out of touch). Furthermore, 
universities are in general resistant to innovation - goodness, they still
have tenure!
Ultimately, in my opinion, the biggest issue in universities is the students - far more kids go to college than are college material so you have students who are not interested enough to live and breathe computer science. This is a huge factor. I had students who were not natural aces at programming, but learned it, yet they loved the field and used online resources to stay current on what is happening and to research interesting questions that arose during their courses. These students graduated as very competent IT workers. Others just treated most of their coursework as something to "finish" - never realizing that this approach would not get them much of a job. And among the mass of colleges (community and 4 year) who essentially take anyone who will pay, there is a tendency to dumb down to the students they are given. Obviously, the selective admissions schools are different. Well, my thoughts. Earl Rodd Retired from IBM and Malone University
User Rank: Apprentice
4/25/2014 | 4:04:48 PM
Problem solving, Data Literacy and Systems Thinking - the future of IT
To put in bluntly the entire discipline of software development harks back to the days when steam engines were hacked together and blew up. The accepted practice of "debugging" should be considered archaic. Imagine building other entities such as putting up wall board by banging in nails until you find a stud!  

The term "computer science" is a misnomer. There is no more science in programming than a psychic uses to predict your future. It's all smoke and mirrors. When the software works it consider a miracle since more that 50% of software projects still fail.

As the author points, educational institutions teach programming rather than problem solving.   Some in education have tried to address this very problem. A number of years ago I worked with Fadi Deek, the Provost and Senior Executive Vice President at the New Jersey Institute of technology. His PhD this was on this very subject. Here is an example of his work: An Integrated Environment for Problem Solving and Program Development

However problem solving is not the only challenge we face. Few people in IT have data skills. They focus on the coding without a great deal of attention to the data. They lack "Data Literacy". This includes CIO's and managers as well as programmers and business people.

In business and in programming, data is the "product", raw material and output yet few who claim to be practitioners know much about data semantics, syntax, quality or applying techniques such as taxonomy or ontology to data. With the advent of "big "data" we have a constituency of both producers and consumers who remain data illiterate.

The IT industry and educational institutions must begin thinking outside the traditions of the past and embrace problem solving, designing rather than debugging and hacking, systems thinking and data literacy as the cornerstones of computer science. Forget about waterfall or agile mythologies. Forget about object oriented and Hadoop, these are just passing fads. Focus on the fundamentals of software and IT; problem solving and data literacy.
User Rank: Apprentice
4/25/2014 | 3:14:29 PM
Re: Sorry State of IT
You are absolutely correct. There is no time for mentoring and training. thanks for you comments.
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